How to Be a Giver and Still Be a Top Performer


“The true measure of a man is how he treats someone who can do him absolutely no good.”

―Samuel Johnson


A Tale of Two Executives

Let’s compare two executives. One executive, Takeshima-san, is always involved in several projects across the company. She goes out of her way to help junior staff in different departments and takes time to grow relationships that have no immediate benefit to her. She often gets distracted.


The other executive, John, focuses solely on completing his work and managing his team. He is not visible in the organization beyond his department and has little cross-company influence. When he does a favor for someone, he always expects something in return.


Who do you think is more successful?


It’s a trick question. Of course it would be easy to categorize these two executives as being complete opposites and having two conflicting and very different operating styles and philosophies, but it’s likely that they’re both missing the point. One executive is being too nice by spreading herself thin, and the other is not putting any effort into relationship-building. The most effective approach is likely somewhere in the middle.

We often find ourselves battling between these two styles. Do we unconditionally help those around us, or keep our heads down and focus on what’s in front of us? There are pros and cons to both. But what if it was possible to give more of your time to help other people and still maintain exceptional sales results? What if we could focus on our own work, build relationships, and also have time for ourselves and the things that are important to us?


Givers, Takers and Matchers


Wharton professor and author Adam Grant wrote an entire book on this very topic. He talks about three types of reciprocity styles that we encounter: Givers, matchers and takers.

  • Givers give unconditionally without expecting anything in return.

  • Takers are continually asking and expecting but not giving in return.

  • Matchers only do something if it’s fair and if they think they’ll get something of equal or greater value in return.

Adam found that people that were most successful tended to be givers— like great CEO’s, parents and leaders of all sorts. Not surprising, as you’d expect people who are generous to eventually come out at the top. A giver can build a strong network because they are proactively helping, which makes people like them, and want to engage with them.


But here’s the thing: givers were also at the bottom of the success bucket! Paradoxically, givers were both the most successful, and the least successful at the same time.


Why? Because it’s easy to take advantage of givers. Takers steal both the time and success of givers (think of that person in your company who is always wasting time), by pushing them to the sidelines.


“Givers, takers, and matchers all can— and do— achieve success. But there’s something distinctive that happens when givers succeed: it spreads and cascades. When takers win, there’s usually someone else who loses. Research shows that people tend to envy successful takers and look for ways to knock them down a notch. In contrast, when [givers] win, people are rooting for them and supporting them, rather than gunning for them. Givers succeed in a way that creates a ripple effect, enhancing the success of people around them. You’ll see that the difference lies in how giver success creates value, instead of just claiming it.” - Adam Grant


John, the executive in our example, was a taker, he focused only on his tasks and saw all of his interactions as an opportunity to advance his own interests. Givers feel like they have to give all the time, like our ever-distracted Takeshima-san.


There are also two types of givers; selfless givers, and self-protective givers. Takeshima-san was the former — giving without priority — and her challenge is moving to the latter, giving without totally sacrificing your time.



The most effective leaders are self-protective givers. They do not necessarily say yes to every request that comes across their desk, but they keep a very open mind and spend time assessing the best way to add value without wasting precious time. They are being efficient with their time and having a high impact.


How to Avoid Getting Stepped On


Adam Grant explains seven ways to avoid being taken advantage of by takers and matchers, and how to be a more productive giver. Try them out:

  1. Prioritize the help requests that come your way — say yes when it matters most and no when you need to.

  2. Give in ways that play to your interests and strengths to preserve your energy and provide greater value.

  3. Distribute the giving load more evenly — refer requests to others when you don’t have the time or skills, and be careful not to reinforce gender biases about who helps and how.

  4. Secure your oxygen mask first — you’ll help others more effectively if you don’t neglect your own needs.

  5. Amplify your impact by looking for ways to help multiple people with a single act of generosity.

  6. Chunk your giving into dedicated days or blocks of time rather than sprinkling it throughout the week. You’ll be more effective — and more focused.

  7. Learn to spot takers, and steer clear of them. They’re a drain on your energy, not to mention a performance hazard.

When you start to become more of a giver, your team will root for you. They want to share in your success because they believe in what you are doing, simply because you’ve been helping them along the way. Sharing the knowledge you have accumulated over the years, giving of your help and expertise, and not expecting anything in return. By helping others you’re being a good person, and the impact you have on others is greater than you’ll directly ever know. You don’t want to lose that and the next challenge is to figure out how to prioritize all of that giving.


How to Be a Better Giver


Regardless of where you are on the giver/taker spectrum, if you want to be a better giver you can start with small actions. These will snowball over time, and you can continue to find new ways to contribute to those around you.

Here are a few ideas to start you off:

  • 1 Hour a Day of Favors. Block out one hour from your schedule every day (or week) to help those around you. You can start with short, 5 minute tasks for each person, that way you can help several people. The karmic cycle will pay you back in due time.

  • Choose the Most Effective Giving Strategy. Rather than stressing out about what to give, you can use your strengths and skills to give a favor. For example, if your colleague is trying to push through a proposal and you have a strong relationship that could influence the decision, a quick email/phone call to help push through the proposal could mean a lot.

  • Ask for Help. When you ask a colleague for help, this may feel like you are “taking.” But actually, this gives both of you an opportunity to start a conversation. By listening to them, you are giving your time and also showing vulnerability and humility as a leader. It shows that you don’t have all the answers, and allowing them to help you can be a great gift.

To learn more about giver and takers check out Adam Grants TED Talk here.






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