Are You Wired to Succeed?

One of the biggest secrets to maximizing your success comes down to whether you have a “giving” versus “taking” style to your business, says best-selling author Adam Grant.

December 23, 2013

Nice guys don’t always finish last. In fact, if you want to climb your way to the top in the business world, the more you give, the more you stand to get, says Adam Grant, best-selling author of Give and Take: A Revolutionary Approach to Success (Penguin Group, 2013).

Grant’s book debunks a common myth in business that in order to get ahead, you have to put your own ambitions first. Instead, Grant’s book reviews countless studies that show the opposite: Those who put others first and adopt a giving mindset of helping others most often reap the biggest results in revenue and productivity.

Indeed, Grant’s book points to research that shows the average salesperson with a “giving” style brought in 68 percent more revenue than salespeople with a “taking” approach, those who put their own ambitions first.

However, givers can sometimes give too much time and energy without payoff.

“Givers can start out at a disadvantage in selling situations,” says Grant, a professor of management at The Wharton School at University of Pennsylvania whose research has included looking at the real estate industry, among others. “They tend to be uncomfortable in pushy pitch or aggressive sales situations.”

But givers can be more effective, says Grant, especially since they tend to ask more questions and learn more about their clients’ interests.

“They end up delivering something better suited to what their clients are looking for,” he says. “By putting their clients’ interests first, they build more trust and are taken more seriously when they do make a recommendation. They see more of an increase in referrals and repeat business too.”

What Style Are You?

How do you approach customers, colleagues, and others during the majority of your workplace situations? Are you a “giver,” a “taker,” or a “matcher”? Self-assess your style to determine what social orientation you gravitate toward and to be able to identify others’ styles. Then, as Grant notes, if a new person approaches you at a networking event enthusiastically wanting to connect, you’ll be able to distinguish those who are genuine from those who are desiring something in return.

Grant illustrates the three following social styles:

Takers: They tend to prioritize their own interests over others’. They routinely ask others for favors, but rarely reciprocate. While there can be short-term advantages to putting your self-interests first, takers eventually experience relationship costs and tend to burn bridges with others who feel taken advantage of.

Takers can be good fakers, disguising their interests and often taking advantage of those who are givers. But you can often spot a taker by the words they use. For example, they tend to use singular pronouns like “I, me, myself, or mine” versus first-person plural pronouns like “we, us, ours.” On social networks, they tend to be more self-promoting in their posts and tend to boast of a large social network of friends, so they have a large crowd to advertise their accomplishments to.

Givers: They tend to be “other” focused, paying careful attention to what others need from them and act generous in their time, energy, and skills to help others. They will unselfishly offer mentoring, share credit for achievements, or make connections for others. They don’t worry about what’s in it for them in exchange. They tend to earn more respect, trust, and prestige from others due to their generosity, but they can often be viewed as “doormats,” be exploited, and may suffer from burnout or lack of productivity by giving too much.

Matchers: They strive to preserve an equal balance of giving and getting. They operate on the idea of fairness or “tit for tat.” When they help others, they seek reciprocity. Likewise, when they ask for a favor, they feel like they’ll owe one back.

All three styles can achieve success, Grant notes, but givers have been found to be more successful. One reason is that they accumulate crowds of supporters who are rooting for them to get to the top and will even help them get there.

4 Ways to be More of a Giver

You don’t have to be a Gandhi or Mother Teresa in the workplace to be an effective giver, Grant says. There are many ways to adopt a giving approach, big and small. Here are a few successful “giver” traits:

1. Offer up the 5-minute favor

Look for ways to do quick favors for others, setting out to “add value,” not just “trade value,” Grant notes. Look for favors you can do for others that will take you five minutes or less, without expecting anything in return. The “five-minute favor” is a strategy coined by Adam Forrest Rifkin, known as the “giant panda of programming” who attributes a giving approach to helping him achieve success in business.

One of the easiest five-minute favors is to connect others, such as by reviewing your LinkedIn and Facebook networks and looking for pairs of people from your network to introduce one another to, Grant suggests. Or, offer up a recommendation to recognize someone’s accomplishments, such as through a LinkedIn recommendation. You might even ask others — such as “What are you stuck on?” or “What challenges are you facing?” — to identify areas where you can help.

2. Adopt powerless communication

Surprisingly, “powerless communication,” or tentative speech, can be more influential and powerful, Grant says. Tentative speech may project that the speaker lacks confidence or authority.

Powerless communication may include hesitations, such as “well,” “you know,” or “um,” or disclaimers like “this may be a bad idea, but ...” Powerless communication may use tag questions, such as “that’s interesting, isn’t it?”

This form of communication can look like a form of collaborating and less like you’re telling others what to do. Therefore, it can earn you more respect and influence, Grant says.

Asking questions is another form of powerless communication. Questions can be even more effective when the person to whom you’re talking is skeptical of you, when you lack credibility, or during highly competitive negotiation situations, Grant says. Such questions as a person’s intentions and plans can help others reach their own conclusions and help you gain more knowledge about your customer’s needs. 

Grant says powerless communication is actually what drew him to picking out his real estate agent recently. His agent, he says, was very clear about his expertise and also about what he didn’t know. If he wasn’t an expert on something, he made it clear he would refer Grant to someone who would know the answer. “He didn’t create a facade that he had all the answers,” Grant says. “He made himself more trustworthy.”

3. Don’t be selfless, but “otherish”

Givers can land at the bottom of the workplace when they adopt a “selfless” style, instead of an “otherish” style, Grant says. With an “otherish” approach, givers don’t just give at their own expense, but they achieve their goals and their clients’ goals at the same time, creating a win-win situation.

When their giving is not aligned with their professional or organization goals, givers risk being less productive, a common problem for them, Grant says.

“You can’t say yes to every request,” Grant says. The most successful givers are specialists, not generalists. Instead of helping in a lot of ways, they choose one or two forms of giving that they are uniquely qualified for. Then their giving becomes efficient and energizing rather than distracting.

4. Ask for help more often

Givers can’t be afraid to ask others for help. In fact, you’ll be creating an opportunity for others to feel valued.

However, many givers are uncomfortable asking for help. They don’t want others to feel burdened or they don’t want to be viewed as incompetent, needy, or looking like a “taker.”

But most giving in the workplace comes from direct requests for help, Grant says. So if you want others to be givers, one of the easiest ways is just by asking, Grant says. Ask for a five-minute favor. Many givers also ask for help by asking assistance for helping someone else.

Some businesses have formalized this by creating a “reciprocity ring,” such as creating groups of people who swap requests for help. For example, Grant notes that BNI is a business networking organization with this idea in mind; Humax also offers a suite of social networking tools for individuals and organizations to create a reciprocity ring.

One of the biggest pitfalls between failed and successful givers are that successful givers tend to be the ones who are able to ask for help.

“If you never ask for help, you are depriving other givers in life of being a giver,” Grant says. “You can’t be the only one who gets to give. There can be two sides of giving and receiving.”