As the fifth of our six children moves into her first apartment this weekend, I cannot help but pause for a moment to celebrate the giving person she has become. This daughter spends hours dreaming up wonderfully imaginative birthday celebrations for others because she knows how much it will make them smile. When she heard that a person she knew couldn’t afford a Christmas tree one holiday season, she left a tree anonymously outside her friend’s door. This young woman is filled with a generous spirit, and as it is with all her brothers and sisters, her mother and I are both so pleased about the adult she has become.
Fostering a generous spirit in children is something many of us do simply because generosity is a fundamental human value. Interestingly, research has shown that a giving attitude also has a very practical value because it helps to further a person’s career. There is abundant evidence that being a giver is a key component of many people’s professional success.
Adam Grant, a professor of management and psychology at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania, studied how people relate to each other and summarized his findings in his book Give and Take: Why Helping Others Drives Our Success. According to Grant, our interactions with other people divide us into three categories: takers, givers and matchers.
Takers are easy to understand. They want to get more than they give.
“Takers believe the world is a competitive, dog-eat-dog place,” writes Grant, so “they tilt reciprocity in their own favor, putting their own interests ahead of others’ needs.”
Givers do just the opposite: They tilt reciprocity in the other direction.
“Whereas takers tend to be self-focused, evaluating what other people can offer them, givers are other-focused, paying more attention to what other people need from them.”
Yet most of us are neither. Most people approach others as a matcher. When we act as matchers, we’re “striving to preserve an equal balance of giving and getting.”
Grant writes, “If you’re a matcher, you believe in tit for tat, and your relationships are governed by an even exchange of favors.”
Although no one is entirely one type, Grant notes that there is ample evidence to demonstrate that most people develop a “primary reciprocity style, which captures how they approach most of the people most of the time. And this primary style can play as much of a role in our success as hard work, talent and luck.”
It’s easy to stereotype givers as “chumps and doormats.” Indeed, Grant finds that givers occasionally drop to the bottom of the ladder of professional success, and they can be at a disadvantage if they “make others better off but sacrifice their own success in the process.” Yet when you seek out those who have reached the highest rungs of the success ladder, you are most likely to encounter givers.
“When takers win, there’s usually someone else who loses,” Grant writes. “Givers succeed in a way that creates a ripple effect, enhancing the success of people around them.” He says that “there’s something distinctive that happens when givers succeed: It spreads and cascades.”
The key to a givers’ success is grounded in what Grant (and other researchers) commonly refer to as the “strength of weak ties.” Strong ties are the people we trust most, such as our family members, close friends and colleagues. Weak ties are those people we only know casually.
Unlike matchers, who give only when they get – and far different than takers, who insist on taking what they want – givers share of themselves generously without any expectation of compensation. As a result, over the course of a lifetime, they develop extraordinarily rich networks of acquaintances whose lives are better because of their interaction with the giver. It’s the strength of these weak ties that is the secret to the giver’s success.
When a giver encounters an obstacle, a distant acquaintance often arrives to offer a helping hand. When a giver needs counsel, a casual friend often has knowledge to share.
“It takes time for givers to build goodwill and trust, but eventually,” writes Grant, “they establish relationships that enhance their success.”
This column by Bret Bicoy originally appeared in the Peninsula Pulse on April 9, 2021