Who performs better in the workplace: givers or takers?

Last year, I read the book The Go-Giver: A Little Story About a Powerful Business Idea, after it came highly recommended.

It’s a tale about an ambitious young man named Joe, who learns to change his focus at work from ‘taking’ to ‘giving’. By continually adding value to others lives, without expecting anything in return, Joe experiences unexpectedly positive returns.

I then started reading Organizational Psychologist Adam Grant’s articles (I suggest following him on LinkedIn) introducing the concept of his New York Times and Wall Street Journal bestselling book, Give and Take. I like to think that this was fate, because it built on everything I read in The Go-Giver. The best way to describe the premise of Grant’s book is with the following example.

After 9/11, a team of Harvard psychologists researched hundreds of analysts across 64 different US intelligence system groups. The Harvard researchers ranked the groups’ performance from best to worst. The factor affecting the best-performing groups was completely unexpected. It wasn’t having a clear, challenging, or meaningful vision, or well-defined roles and responsibilities, or even having stable team leadership. It was the amount of help that analysts gave to each other.

The analysts that helped each other – or focused on ‘giving’ rather than ‘taking’ – focused their time and energy into sharing their knowledge, offering to help, making valuable introductions, or picking their colleagues’ brains. This helped them fill gaps in their knowledge, discover new perspectives, question their assumptions, and connect the dots (the list goes on).

Importantly, this ‘giving’ does not mean the self-sacrificial type of giving that we first heard about as children, in Shel Silverstein’s classic book The Giving Tree. Giving and giving until you have nothing left to offer isn’t healthy or sustainable. Being a high-performing giver involves differentiating generosity from three other traits – timidity, availability, and empathy.

Overcome timidity:

Timidity often plagues givers, because they’re most comfortable acting in others’ interests, and find it difficult to assert their own. This Harvard Business Review article gives brilliant real-life examples on how givers learnt techniques to assert themselves in a way that felt compatible with their generous nature. One real-life example was about a management consultant named Erica – the model of a giver – who felt uncomfortable to assert her need for a transfer from her company’s Southeast Asia branch to the New York branch.

“After living abroad for several years, Erica was ready to return to the United States. Her ideal location was New York City, because she had family nearby. But she knew that the firm had a shortage of consultants in Asia and was overstaffed in New York. Like many givers, Erica was unwilling to impose on her employer and felt uncomfortable putting her own interests first.

At the time, Erica was enrolled in a negotiation course that I taught. To strengthen her resolve, I suggested that instead of advocating only for herself, she should consider how the request would benefit others. She thought about how much it would mean to her family to have her close to home. Suddenly Erica became more assertive: she initiated a conversation with a manager about her interests and successfully negotiated a transfer to New York.”

Set limits on availability:

Many givers, in response to countless work requests, try to accommodate them all. This either sets them up for burnout or leaves them vulnerable to ‘takers’ (people who guard their own expertise or time, while striving to get as much as possible from others).

Instead of accommodating every request, givers need to set boundaries:

  • Set boundaries on when you help. For example, you can section off a few hours of each day for ‘quiet time’, where colleagues know not to interrupt each other. This leaves the rest of your time for collaborative work.
  • Set boundaries on how you help. Pinpoint the types of giving that are best aligned with your values, skills and interests, so that you’re known for offering a specific kind of help. When your colleagues know this, they’re more likely to ask you for help based on your expertise, which makes your giving more sustainable.
  • Set boundaries on who you help. Make sure you give your time and energy to other givers, where the return on investment is worthy. As this Harvard Business Review article states: “When dealing with takers, givers can be matchers. Instead of helping with no strings attached, matchers hold takers accountable for their behavior, helping them only if they will reciprocate by helping the matcher—or others—in return.”

Complement your empathy with perspective-taking:

Although empathy is useful in many situations, it can make work-life hard for givers.

Empathic concern means feeling someone’s pain, while perspective-taking means seeing someone’s side. You can learn how to use your empathy (being able to understand or share others’ feelings) in a different way, to instead be a perspective taker (being able to understand or share others’ thoughts and interests).

Empathy often leads to putting others’ needs ahead of your own, and therefore results in a win/ lose scenario. Perspective-taking, on the other hand, means you take on another’s point of view through the lens of our own personal thoughts and interests, and results in a win/ win gain.

At the 2008 World Economic Forum, Bill Gates said: “There are two great forces of human nature—self-interest, and caring for others”. Armed with enough self-knowledge, each of us has the ability to guide our care for others in the direction of greatest impact.

Curious to delve into this topic a little further, or find out how Yellow Door incorporates this approach as a team, and what impact it has on our relationships with clients? Please get in touch, we’d love to chat.

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