Give and Take: A Revolutionary Approach to Success

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Release Date: 
April 9, 2013
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“An important book, destined to be a classic.”

Pay it forward—the idea to give and create value before you expect to be compensated for your work—is a central premise of modern marketing. A parallel old school classic success principle is to do more than you’re paid for—in the vocabulary of commerce, to give more than you get—and in time you’ll be paid for more than you do. Another human relations 101 idea is to invest in the trust bank: Do good now, continue to do good over time, and eventually your virtue will be rewarded.

Samuel Johnson proclaimed: “The true measure of a man is how he treats someone who can do him absolutely no good.” Adam Grant’s Give and Take may be considered an exposition, amplification, and interpretation of Dr. Johnson’s wisdom.

Adam Grant writes: “Takers have a distinctive signature, they like to get more than they give. They tilt reciprocity in their own favor, putting their own interests ahead of others' needs. Takers believe that the world is a competitive, dog-eat-dog place. By contrast, givers . . . tilt reciprocity in their direction, preferring to give more than they get. Whereas takers tend to be self-focused . . . givers are others focused.”

The author sharply differentiates the two styles, writing, “Givers and takers differ in their attitudes and actions towards other people. If you’re a taker, you help others strategically, when the benefits to you outweigh the personal costs. If you are a giver, you might use a different cost-benefit analysis: you help whenever the benefits to others exceed the personal costs.”

In between are matchers, who seek balance in their interactions through returning the favors done to them and expecting others to reciprocate in kind.

Give and Take combines the author’s own path-breaking studies; summarizations of the collective research in the field, very much in the spirit of Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast and Slow; and case studies of those who have been extraordinarily successful in ways that may seem counterintuitive, including venture capitalists, Abraham Lincoln, entrepreneurs, lawyers, and sports executives.

Just as Susan Cain makes the case in Quiet that there are far more introverts than is generally recognized, so, too, does Adam Grant proclaim that givers are far more prevalent than commonly understood.

Adam Grant advances the provocative proposition that givers enjoy a powerful comparative advantage over takers. His message is that the succeed-at-any-expense takers’ tactic is a dangerous, ultimately ill-fated success strategy. In particular, Give and Take is a searing indictment of the takers’ tactics of grasping, maneuvering, and manipulating corporate executives who literally take from their colleagues and customers; and who by their pursuit of egregious unethical misconduct literally take from their company’s customers, colleagues, and shareholders. The putative poster boy of this unsustainable style is Ken Lay, former Enron CEO, who exemplified that “takers may rise by kissing up, but they often fall by kicking down.”

Importantly Adam Grant outs the ill-conceived and ultimately destructive policies of such heavy-handed, hard-hearted executives as Jack Welch, who insisted that employees rated in the bottom 10 percent regularly be terminated. Such fear-inducing policies both suppress giving, and also blatantly disregard the proven managerial workplace psychology principle that workers’ performance is strongly influenced by their superiors.

The wrong-headed cultural consequences of those who subscribe to the misinformed Jack Welch managerial philosophy is succinctly summarized by Adam Grant’s observing that there is “evidence that just putting on a business suit and analyzing a Harvard Business School case is enough to significantly reduce the attention that people pay to relationships and to the interests of others.”

He writes, “If I asked you to guess who is the most likely to end up at the bottom of the success ladder what would you say? Takers, givers or matchers?” The provocative answer: “The worst performers and the best performers are givers; takers and matchers are more likely to land in the middle.”

For all the brilliant gifts that Adam Grant provides us in Give and Take, certain of his stories and mini-case studies might be more carefully crafted and more nuanced in their interpretation. While citing Michael Jordan as exemplifying a “self-absorbed and egotistical” taker, he omits the critical story of how Phil Jackson, when assuming the role as coach of the Chicago Bulls, persuaded the legendary basketball great to realign his game, so as to be more giver than taker.

In particular, Coach Jackson instructed his star that if he would focus on improving the performance of and making his team members more successful, he would expand his impact and ultimate success, and thereby become the best individual basketball player and also the leader of the best basketball team. Notably, Michael Jordan reconfigured his game, in the process becoming even more dominant and prominent. As he did less alone, when game circumstances dictated the appropriateness of more selfish play, he was even more effective.

The author—one of Wharton’s top rated professors, an in-demand speaker and advisor, and who is noted for selflessly helping others both documents the giver style and also models his message, through acknowledging nearly 300 named people for their “feedback, wisdom, knowledge and experience . . . wealth of innovative ideas . . . help . . . encouragement.”

At a time when marketing is moving from manipulation to meaning, when consumers seek the authentic over the plastic, when people more and more seek work that embodies their values and purposes, the implications of the message of Give and Take are profound, for “There’s something distinctive that happens when givers succeed: it spreads and cascades . . . creates a ripple effect, enhancing the success of people around them.”

An important book, destined to be a classic.