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June 12, 2015 Articles

A Review of Adam Grant's Give and Take

By Lindsay D. Breedlove

When grouped by reciprocity style, people fall into three general categories. Takers like to get more than they receive and are typically willing to help others only when they expect the benefit they receive will outweigh the personal costs of helping. Matchers, by contrast, keep track of who gives and receives, and prefer an equal balance of giving and getting. They help others when they owe a favor or when they may want to call in a favor in the future. Givers prefer focusing on others. They are content to give more than they receive and help whenever the benefits to others outweigh the personal costs of helping.

Psychologist Shalom Schwartz surveyed thousands of adults across 12 diverse countries about their guiding life principles, and in every one, participants reported caring more about giving than about traditional markers of success like power, achievement, excitement, freedom, and security. But as Adam Grant explains in Give and Take, despite this widespread acceptance that giving is an admirable quality, we draw on different values in the workplace. While Shel Silverstein’s The Giving Tree may make appearances when we have kids on our laps, books about gaining influence and control top professional self-help bestseller lists. Givers are “a relatively rare breed” in the workplace, according to Grant, likely because people perceive giving to be a high-risk/low-reward professional strategy.

Give and Take challenges that perception. When evaluated for professional success, “you might predict that givers achieve the worst results,” Grant quips—“and you’d be right.” But, he explains, that is only half the story, and a misleading half at that. Because while some givers find themselves at the bottom, givers also top the charts, enjoying more success than takers and matchers, who are more likely to land in the middle.

With colorful anecdotes and accessible explanations derived from social science research, Grant powerfully makes the case that we should not check our giving tendencies at the professional door. Indeed, he extolls the relative benefits givers can experience in networking, collaborating, and developing talent by embracing their giver tendencies. Recognizing the success givers achieve and striving to emulate giving behaviors for the purpose of achieving that success, however, “probably won’t work.” After all, giving with the expectation of receiving more is classic taker behavior, while giving and expecting just as much in return is what matchers do best. Only true givers top the pack.

In this respect at least, women appear to have an advantage. Research shows that even women in the upper echelons of professional leadership are more likely to be givers than their male counterparts. In other publications, Grant has analyzed the work of Harvard professor Hannah Riley Bowles and her colleagues, who have evaluated some gender differences relevant to Grant’s work. For example, when they asked nearly 200 senior executives to role-play a salary negotiation between “boss” and “employee,” the researchers found that female “employees” negotiated salaries that were 3 percent lower than the salaries negotiated by men assigned the same negotiating task. In those results, Grant sees successful professional women being more inclined toward giving than successful professional men.

But as Bowles’s study demonstrates—and as Grant notes repeatedly in Give and Take—giver tendencies can hamper professional success just as much as they can advance it. Nearly half of Grant’s book focuses on how to avoid the bottom half of the success ladder by, among other strategies, combating the effects of giver burnout and preventing others from taking advantage of giver generosity. Just as Grant’s insights regarding givers’ success rest on social science research, so too do his suggestions to use giver impulses to climb to and stay at the top. For example, Bowles’s research team discovered that when female subjects were instructed to act not as the “employee” but as the “employee’s mentor,” they negotiated salaries that exceeded those obtained by their male negotiating counterparts by 14 percent. When women viewed their roles as representing the interests of others, being hard-nosed negotiators was consistent with their self-images as givers. Moreover, expressly invoking concern for others as a justification for a higher salary increased women’s chances of getting that salary without requiring them to sacrifice their reputations for generosity.

Give and Take provides food for thought and tools that seem worth a try—especially for the natural givers among us. Although some of Grant’s other work explores the gender dynamics relevant to reciprocity styles and related success in the workplace, Give and Take falters for not tackling that elephant in the room. Since publishing Give and Take, Grant and Lean In’s Sheryl Sandberg paired to write a four-part New York Times series called Women at Work, which revisits some of Grant’s earlier themes with an explicit gender focus. Grant and Sandberg explore the “sad reality” that “in workplaces around the world . . . [w]omen help more but benefit less from it.” They recount a study by New York University psychologist Madeline Heilman finding that men were rated 14 percent more favorably for staying late to help prepare colleagues for an important meeting than their female counterparts who did the same. When both men and women declined to offer the help, women received performance reviews 12 percent lower than men. “Over and over, after giving identical help,” Heilman found that “a man was significantly more likely to be recommended for promotions, important projects, raises and bonuses,” while “[a] woman had to help just to get the same rating as a man who didn’t.” Adam Grant & Sheryl Sandberg, “Madam C.E.O., Get Me a Coffee,” N.Y. Times, Feb. 6, 2015; see also Adam Grant & Sheryl Sandberg, “When Talking about Bias Backfires,” N.Y. Times, Dec. 6, 2014; Sheryl Sandberg & Adam Grant, “Speaking While Female,” N.Y. Times, Jan. 12, 2015; Sheryl Sandberg & Adam Grant, “How Men Can Succeed in the Boardroom and the Bedroom,” N.Y. Times, Mar. 5, 2015.

Grant and Sandberg’s Women at Work series certainly helped push the conversation in the right direction. But the cursory examination of gender-related issues ultimately leaves Give and Take short of “must have” status as a woman’s professional development resource. That said, Give and Take’s gender-specific shortcomings by no means strip the book of value for women interested in evaluating success and avenues to it from a new perspective. On the whole, researchers have concluded that women’s performance reviews increased when they acted more like givers. The complication is that not all giver behaviors are created equal. Read Give and Take to learn which are most likely to lead to success.

Keywords: litigation, woman advocate, book review, Adam Grant, Sheryl Sandberg, giving, helping, professional development, gender, community service

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