Are you a giver, a taker or something in between — a matcher? The stereotypical image of professional growth and success is a vertical climb to outstrip and overtake colleagues and reach the next rung — and ultimately the top — of the corporate ladder. However, recent studies indicate that this mentality might not be the best approach to leadership.
In his book Give and Take, Wharton management professor Adam Grant argues that in today’s professional world, there is a demand for workers and leaders who are primarily givers — those who contribute to others without seeking anything in return — as opposed to takers, or those who try to get other people to achieve their goals without investing much of their own effort or time.
We’ll explain more about each leadership style and how to achieve a balance between the two.
What’s the difference between givers and takers in leadership?
To understand which category best describes your leadership style, consider these characteristics of givers and takers in leadership:
- Givers want people to succeed.
- Givers are generous with their time.
- Givers are not competitive with their peers, and they share credit for achievements. Conversely, they share the blame for mistakes and work collaboratively to institute fixes.
- Givers are flexible in applying rules.
- Givers genuinely care about the needs of team members and work to help them achieve their goals.
- Takers take all the credit (even when they’ve done the least to earn it).
- Takers blame others for mistakes.
- Takers compete with others instead of working with others.
- Takers are rigid in applying rules (except possibly when applying the rules to themselves).
- Takers do not commit their time to helping others or participate in activities that do not directly benefit themselves.
- Takers do not share or play well with others.
Most people don’t align with just one leadership style. Depending on the interaction, people may shift from one leadership style to another.
How can you balance being a giver and a taker as a leader?
Follow these tips for balancing the giver and taker leadership styles:
Find a “matching” balance.
Except for extreme cases, no one is (or should be) exclusively a giver or a taker. Instead, most people are matchers, striving to balance the two effectively to become a “smart giver.” Finding your right balance requires constant assessment and evaluation of daily decisions and situations that arise, so you can do the following:
- Change your mindset. Zoom out from your perspective to consider how your thinking, decision-making and leadership style affect those around you. How do your decisions align with the overall goals of your department and the broader organization? While a willingness to help others underpins collaboration and teamwork, organizational structures tend to promote takers.
- Choose the best course of leadership action. Decide, moment to moment, whether to be a giver or a taker to address a particular situation. Studies show a correlation between giving behavior and higher profitability, productivity, efficiency and customer satisfaction rates, as well as lower turnover rates and costs of doing business. However, there can be a downside.
Givers who exclusively put the needs of others before their own tend to become overwhelmed, causing them to neglect their own responsibilities and setting themselves up for burnout. Instead of accommodating every single need of others, givers need to set boundaries. For example, they can select certain people to help or set fixed mentoring times for new employees.
Be strategic about who you choose to help, advised Akira Hirai, founder and CEO of Cayenne Consulting. Be there for those who genuinely need your help while advancing the goals of the team and the company. Consider wisely before electing to help people who are primarily takers; their main goal is to advance their own interests, which ultimately won’t benefit the growth of the team or the company.
Follow the five-minute rule.
In Knowledge at Wharton, Grant explained that givers are usually at the top and the bottom of the corporate ladder, with matchers and takers in the middle. However, the difference between the bottom and the top has nothing to do with competency or hard work.
Purely zero-sum situations rarely pay off for the giver, he said, but most scenarios are more nuanced. The payoff for the giver often happens over time and may not be immediately clear. The five-minute rule lets you immediately assess the payoff for assisting someone while protecting your time and energy. The rule states that you should always be willing to provide assistance if it will take five minutes or less, regardless of who is asking for help. Embracing this mindset encourages others to become givers as well. It also makes others more likely to lend a hand when you need help.
Leaders who are givers recognize motivation, and they will devote themselves to aiding the development of employees who want to improve. Takers are always distrustful of others and are less likely to offer assistance because they see their colleagues’ growth and improvement as a threat. [Learn more about how to identify emerging leaders in your organization.]
Don’t be afraid to ask for help.
Even if you’re in a leadership role, you shouldn’t hesitate to ask for help, even from your direct reports. Although it may seem counterintuitive, doing so can have surprising benefits, as Mary Parker Follett’s management theory shows. Don’t confine yourself to asking for help from your peers or leadership team. When creating a giving culture, everyone needs to know how they contribute to the company’s success.
According to Grant, one of the best ways to develop strong relationships is by seeking advice, because it gives people a chance to contribute in meaningful and fulfilling ways. For example, if one of your team members is very detail-oriented, ask them to review your work for typos and other errors. Your team member gets to shine by contributing to your work, and you benefit from seeking their expertise.
Stick to your area of expertise.
Embracing the spirit of giving is excellent; stretching yourself too thin by trying to help everyone with anything they need is taxing and counterproductive in the long run. Instead, choose one or two areas where you can impart your expertise. This will not only earn you a reputation as a generous expert who’s willing to help but also streamline the requests you receive. If you’ve earned a reputation for being an expert accountant, it’s unlikely someone will ask you to revise their marketing copy, because that’s not what you’ve helped others with in the past.
When you’re setting your boundaries for the types of tasks you’re willing to assist with, consider setting expectations around when people can come to you for help. If you find yourself overwhelmed with requests for your expertise throughout the workweek, carve out a dedicated time block for tackling all the requests you receive. Allocating specific chunks of time during your week to help others protects your own time and evokes greater feelings of appreciation and fulfillment.
When you’re looking to identify givers in your organization, consider your employees’ leadership skills, including their confidence and trustworthiness, as well as their communication, problem-solving, relationship-building and time management skills.
Learn how to deal with takers.
Any organization will have its fair share of givers, matchers and takers. However, give judiciously; otherwise, you’ll find yourself at the bottom of the corporate ladder while everyone you helped rises above you. When dealing with takers, givers need to become matchers. This will keep them from overgiving and help them focus their efforts on other givers and matchers, instead of on takers.
Don’t become a people pleaser.
Givers naturally enjoy giving to others, but this tendency can lead to people pleasing. Giving doesn’t mean you always say yes or go out of your way to make everyone like you. Leaders must make tough decisions, and you can’t always please everyone.
Instead, aim to become respected as a giver because, even during the toughest times, you do what’s best for the company rather than please certain individuals or groups of people. For example, if layoffs are in the company’s best interest, a giver will make that choice even though it will not be popular among the individuals laid off. [Learn tips for managing your remote team.]
Promoting giving behavior at your business serves two purposes:
- It facilitates employee teamwork and loyalty. Promoting giving behavior allows you to adopt giving leadership behaviors to encourage teamwork, ensure goals are achieved, and foster employee loyalty and dedication.
- It helps the business. Encouraging giving behavior helps you identify givers in your organization so you can focus your attention on key personnel who will work to benefit themselves and the good of the company. Creating a giving culture reinforces positive behaviors that improve growth and business success.
The old adage that giving is better than receiving doesn’t necessarily apply to leadership qualities. If you give sensibly, you and your workforce will reap the monetary and emotional rewards of succeeding together.