Give and Take by Adam Grant: Book Overview

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What is Adam Grant’s book Give and Take about? What are the main takeaways?

In his book Give and Take, Adam Grant discusses three reciprocity styles: giving, matching, and taking. He highlights the pros and cons of each style and explains why, contrary to the popular belief, givers tend to become the most successful.

Here is a brief overview of Give and Take by Adam Grant

Give and Take: A Revolutionary Approach to Success

In his book Give and Take, Adam Grant describes three reciprocity styles (takers, givers, and matchers). Takers like to receive more than they give. Matchers balance and give on a quid pro quo basis. Givers like to give more than they get.

Professionally, most people tend to be matchers, partly because they believe the workplace is zero sum, partly because they’re skeptical of takers and don’t want to make themselves vulnerable. This can create a pernicious vicious cycle leading to bad work culture.

The Benefits of Giving

Givers end up more successful by building better reputations and more useful networks. Increasingly true as economies shift to collaborative knowledge work.

Giving gives you an advantage because you can’t predict who’s going to be helpful to you in the future. This means some people are undervalued by takers/matchers at present. If you help these people, they will be grateful. Givers tend to see potential in all people as diamonds in the rough. (In contrast, takers 

Givers focus on the success of the group rather than the self. This inspires trust in their motives and creates a safe space where ideas are shared without fear of exploitation (where a taker would claim credit) or retaliation (where a taker may reflexively shoot it down). Takers create the opposite reaction

The givers also earn “idiosyncracy credits” where their controversial ideas may be given more hearing time, since listeners know the givers have the group’s interests at heart. The givers have previously demonstrated that they’re putting the group before themselves. As a result, the group is more receptive to odd ideas instead of skeptically dismissing them as ways to merely get ahead.

Giving is contagious. Giving seems to create a safe space in a group, where people are comfortable adopting giving behaviors knowing that takers won’t exploit them. Since most people are matchers, they reciprocate to the network.

  • In contrast, a bad taker apple can spoil the batch. Takers can spur zero-sum behaviors that drag the whole group down, and people become wary of sharing ideas out of fear of exploitation.

Why Taking is Bad

Takers are punished societally through spreading of a bad reputation or active punishment (withholding of information, exclusion). Nowadays, the Internet makes taker reputations even harder to reverse.

Takers tend to take credit because they suffer responsibility bias and cannot cross the perspective gap to their teammates. They see only their pain and contributions, and not those of others.

Takers assume that most people are takers and thus place little trust in other people. They’re afraid of being taken advantage of, so they close themselves off to full-hearted collaboration. Furthermore, takers suspect that others would take advantage of them if they had the opportunity, so they justify their own taking behavior.

How can you spot a taker? They might kiss up their superiors but they treat their subordinates poorly in private. They use egotistical speech that places themselves above their organization, using “I” instead of “we.”

Demeanor and agreeableness is not a reliable signal of giving behavior. There are disagreeable givers and agreeable takers.

How to Act as a Giver

Generous tit for tat” is an effective stance to adopt as a giver. Start out trusting someone and leaning to the generous side. If she responds by taking and competing against you, then switch into a matching relationship. But once in a while, forgive the person and give again, to allow her to redeem herself. This forgiveness avoids a vicious cycle of taking and competition after a single mishap.

Givers practice powerless communication by asking questions, signaling vulnerability, and seeking advice. Powerless communication is effective because people are naturally skeptical of intentions, bristle at being ordered around, and have their own egos to protect. When givers ask questions and indicate vulnerability, they become approachable, show reception to new ideas, and learn new information that helps them persuade. This makes for more effective sales and negotiations.

  • In contrast, Takers practice powerful communication to dominate the scenario, which makes them seem more authoritative but closes counterparties off from fear of retribution.
  • However, powerful communication works when listeners are dutiful followers (picture Steve Jobs speaking powerfully to Apple fans)

How to Avoid Getting Pushed Over

The biggest risk of being a giver is giving too much of yourself, at your own expense. You give too much of your time and energy and have too little left for yourself; you let others seize opportunities that should be yours.

The mindset to guard against this: self-interest and other-interest do not lie on the same spectrum. You can be motivated by both self-interest and other-interest at the same time, practicing “otherish giving.” This allows givers to avoid being doormats and giving too much of themselves when giving.

Being a giver leads to potential pitfalls, each with individual remedies:

  • Givers are prone to burnout if they practice selfless giving. To reduce this, make the impact of the giving clear, and chunk your giving into fewer time slots so you preserve more of your personal time.
  • Givers tend not to advocate for themselves for fear of offending the other party. They are more effective when advocating for other people (like family or a cause) since this aligns with their giving standpoint. For instance, in a negotiation about getting a raise, pitch it not as getting what’s fair for you as a person, but rather as helping out your family to move into a more appropriately sized house.
  • When negotiating, givers often feel empathy for the counterparty, which makes them afraid of being too offputting and then dials down their self-interest. To avoid this, take the other person’s objective perspective and interests. Understand what they really want and find ways to grow the pie.
  • Givers may be prone to sunk cost fallacy, where they throw good money after bad. But in reality this isn’t as big a problem as you might think – givers tend to accept disconfirming evidence more than takers, who want to be right all the time and see mistakes as ego threats.

How to Set up a Giving Culture

Groups benefit if everyone becomes a giver. Better ideas are exchanged, work becomes more efficient, and conflict is reduced.

In your group or organization, promote a giving culture by:

  • Publicly rewarding giving behaviors. 
  • Creating a reciprocity ring. 
    • A group of people gather and each person makes a request to the group, ranging from career tips to travel ideas. The rest of the group offers how they can help. 
    • While people ordinarily don’t want to admit they need help, in this group every person is required to make a request, so there’s little to be embarrassed about. This makes giving the standard, public behavior.
  • Setting low bars for giving.
    • In seeking donations fo rcharity, the phrasing “even a penny will help” lowers the bar and people donate more.
    • Practice the 5-minute rule – if you can help someone in five minutes, you have no reason not to help.
  • Making giving behavior public and expected. Even if takers don’t want to contribute, they have to cooperate or appear unhelpful.
Give and Take by Adam Grant: Book Overview

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Like what you just read? Read the rest of the world's best book summary and analysis of Adam Grant's "Give and Take" at Shortform.

Here's what you'll find in our full Give and Take summary:

  • The three reciprocity styles—givers, takers, and matchers
  • Why givers are the most successful in life
  • How to set up a giving culture

Hannah Aster

Hannah graduated summa cum laude with a degree in English and double minors in Professional Writing and Creative Writing. She grew up reading books like Harry Potter and His Dark Materials and has always carried a passion for fiction. However, Hannah transitioned to non-fiction writing when she started her travel website in 2018 and now enjoys sharing travel guides and trying to inspire others to see the world.

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