Business Culture · Learning · Psychology · Relationships

Givers, Takers and Matchers

Adam Grant is an organisational psychologist who has published a book on this concept of the way individuals operate and how they then function in organisations. Organisational citizenship behaviour is the field of organisational psychology focused on behaviours that are not relevant to the task at hand but critical to the success of the effectiveness of the business: speaking up with ideas, effective team work, going the extra mile, sportsmanship, showing loyalty, helping out day to day.

Adam hypothesises a mental model of three basic types of people driven by different values

Givers ask “what can I do for you?”. Givers have a “trust first, ask questions later” bias or heuristic (at least to begin with in an organisation). They have a core value and belief that starts with an assumption that others will be generous. They are afraid of becoming a doormat, being taken advantage of. They are driven by values of generosity and helpfulness.

Takers ask “what can you do for me”. They believe other people are selfish, are mistrustful and prefer to take first to ensure that they get what they want. Takers tend to believe that “other people are always out to take advantage of a situation” and even if people are well behaved suspect “opportunism laced with guile”

Matchers tend to think “I don’t want to be too selfish, if you do something for me, I will do something for you”. They are driven by values of fairness and justice. Matchers start off more conciously thinking “I will be fair to you, and I will make sure I dont get more than I deserve but I dont get less than I deserve.”

Most people have a default mode of operating. Lots of people do adopt a matching strategy to play it safe in an organisation, but most have a tendency towards being either more like givers or more like takers. Some matchers do take the strategy to an extreme and optimise to constantly be in a balance of fair trades which feels very transactional, does not build trust and does not optimise for the long term

Adam wanted to understand how organisations develop their cultures and the types of people who are attracted to them and who succeeds and who fails in those organisations.

He did studies classifying people into the three groups and then measuring outcomes. In aggregate more people are matchers than either givers or takers. So his basic questions were:

What sort of structures are optimal for team and individual performance? Who succeeds and why?

Organisational norms and culture can influence the types of team work that develops. Some organisations are highly competitive and will attract takers, others highly collaborative and attract more givers.

What happens when an organisation tries to change its culture. Highly competitive teams with lots of Takers that try to be more collaborative often end up with a “cut throat collaboration”: This operates as “I will pretend to help you but I am really just waiting for an opportunity to stab you in the back when I can get ahead”.

If you start off collaborative and then move more competitive you often get friendly competition, “I am going to try to be more competitive with you but I am really hoping you push me to raise my game and afterwards we go out for drinks and the loser buys the winner drinks”

Culture comes from what you incentivise and reward. A strong individual compensation focus tends to drives takers, versus collective compensation that tends to drive givers. An organisation full of takers is not going to attract givers.

You don’t want to influence takers to become better fakers by just telling them what you measure: they will then just focus on achieving that. So be careful of being too explicit in your objective setting. If the culture is not strong and carefully managed, you can end up in a culture where the most visibile takers/fakers are the only ones who are successful. Ie you reward those able to manipulate the system.

Instead focusing on the incentives, focus on taking away the disincentives to be Givers in an organisation. Demonstrate that you value their behaviour. For example “to make partner here you have to be more selfish” is not sending the right signal.

In many team work and service orientated jobs no one wants a taker on the team and organisations often find ways of weeding them out so the organisations tend to be heavier in Givers and Matchers.

Darwin proposed a theory of Group Selection: “If you had a tribe where they were always ready to aid one another and sacrifice themselves for the common good, they would be victorious over most other tribes” and that would lead to the possibility of group selection in evolution. The theory was and is controversial but later evidence does seem to prove that under certain conditions there does seem to be evidence for this. A group of all takers is likely to often end up with suboptimal outcomes as individuals aim to maximise their own outcomes and not the groups.

In an analysis of performance evaluation and promotion decisions across 51,000 appraisals across multiple organisations, they found that the amount of time you spend helping others is as critical to assessments of performance, as to how well you do your own actual tasks.

Curiously Givers end up more often at the tails of the distribution either succeeding big or failing big in the business. Even after controlling for other factors this continues to be the case in his data. So for Givers what determines their success or failure?

Their strategy determines this: if you are a Giver, then who you help, when you help and how you help determines your success.

Over time people get feedback and reinforcement on the job. Some Givers get positive reinforcement and go on to succeed. others get negative feedback and reinforcement, feel they are taken advantage of and decide they need to change. The question is whether they change their style (i.e. become a Matcher) or change their strategy (who, how, and why they help).

The danger for Givers is deciding to just to be reactive and help with whatever requests come their way instead of deciding carefully what sort of giving behaviour does the organisation actually need? Is their behaviour aligning with the organisation’s mission and teams objectives.

Time management skills are critical for performance and productivity. Givers who are not thoughtful about how they spend their time can have terrible productivity. Being thoughtful on time management can also be clearly more helpful to others.

An ideal team in Adams view, has a mixture of Givers and Matchers. Matchers tend to be generous because they are matching givers. But you need the Matchers to weed out Takers because givers can be to trusting and too generous to takers whereas matchers will be much harder on them. Matchers believe more in fairness and justice compared to compassion and generosity.

TED talk with Adam Grant

And this Knowledge Cast episode with Shane Parish

Farnam Street interview with Adam Grant

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