Last year Adam Grant released a book that changed the way we think about success.
In the best-selling “Give and Take: A Revolutionary Approach to Success,” which is now in paperback, the Wharton professor uses decades of psychological studies to make a provocative yet promising argument: that givers are the most likely to succeed.
Why? Because success doesn’t depend on talent or hard work alone. It also depends on how we interact with people.
To Grant, people tend to have one of three “styles” of interaction. There are takers, who are always trying to serve themselves; matchers, who are always trying to get equal benefit for themselves and others; and givers, who are always trying to help people.
It’s in the helping that givers succeed, he says. People with an optimistic (but not naive) perspective have a way of making their own luck — and being awesome leaders. Below is a transcript of our conversation, condensed and edited for clarity.
Business Insider: Why are givers and takers so different in the way they interact with people?
Adam Grant: You see fundamental differences in their worldview. Takers basically tend to assume that everybody is all about me — that life is nasty, brutish, and short.
That’s how most takers justify being a taker. They don’t mean to screw you over necessarily. But they think that because everybody else at their core is a taker, then they’re going to end up getting stepped on if they’re not a taker, too. Oftentimes, they can point out personal experiences that solidify that worldview.
Givers, on the other hand, are more socially optimistic. Not necessarily optimistic in general, but an optimist when it comes to what people are capable of. They say, “Look, there is some good in everyone. People are capable of altruism even though it’s extremely rare, but they will often act for the benefit of others without thinking in the moment about what’s going to come out of it for me.”
Most of us are somewhere in between. Extremes are dangerous — givers who believe that everyone is a giver end up being the easiest to take advantage of.
At the beginning of the book, you say we’re overlooking a key part of success. How so?
Look at those three usual predictors of success — hard work, talent, and luck. In most Western cultures, we tend to be more individualistic, and we think that basically the person is responsible for his or her achievements. If you move to a more traditional Eastern perspective, you would start to capture much more of that context and say, “No, these relationships that we have with other people and the broader networks in social structures we’re in embedded in are huge drivers of our success.”
In “Outliers,” Malcolm Gladwell takes a big step in that direction by looking at how the people that you happen to come in contact with create this opportunity, like who the Beatles get to open for or who Bill Gates runs into.
One of the takeaways for me of Malcolm’s view was that a lot of this stuff is left to chance. Like if you are born in the right place at the right time. Or if you didn’t happen across that person, then this luck would have never happened. I think there’s a ton of truth to that, though there is another lens on how these social structures shape opportunities — something that people can control and influence much more.
That’s where, for me, the idea of adapting a style that includes more giving than taking or matching becomes really powerful. If you’re a giver, then you build quality relationships, and with those relationships you’re exposed to opportunity over the long term. You actually increase your own luck so far as you contribute things to other people.
Let’s carry that over to leadership. Why are managers who have a “giver” style so good at leading a team?
Actually, that’s probably the simplest part of the book. You know why? Givers bring out the best in others. One big part of that is seeing more potential in people than they see in themselves. Givers are often looking at the people around them as diamonds in the rough, investing in such a way that they’re able to allow these people to achieve greater potential than they thought possible.
Another thing is most people are matchers. When you go into a relationship with your boss and you’re a matcher and you believe in this sort of quid pro quo idea, then you give to people who give to you. If your manager is really generous, then you develop a tremendous sense of loyalty and you want to reciprocate. The way you reciprocate is by working hard, working smarter, and put in the goals in the team above your own immediate sort of narrow self-interest.
A third piece of this that didn’t show up as much in the book is that when leaders are givers, they become role models and change the norms of behaviour for the group. Then everybody else is more likely to help each other and that leads to more knowledge sharing, which is good for creativity and innovation.
Could you provide an example?
Here’s one that I love that I did not find a good spot for in the book. Mark Fallon spent a quarter century as an NCIS agent. He was one of these agents who’d be in a foreign country and his job is basically to identify and manage different kinds of either drug-related or terrorist threats.
He completely changed the culture of the team that he worked on. One way is he was always on the front lines. So even though he’s in charge of a team, he is actually out there risking his life, and people see him do that and they want to follow his lead. They said, “Look, this guy is willing to put the good of either the team or the country ahead of his own concern for his own life. That’s a model we’ve got to follow.” So he had a whole team that was willing to put their necks on the line.
In doing that, he’s creating a culture of high performance, as well as shifting norms of behaviour.
That’s right. He’s raising the bar for how hard people want to work and how high they set their goals. Then he’s also getting people to think about, “Look, it’s not just about my career and my performance. My main objective here is to try to figure out how I can make the team better.”