The most important factor in the success of your business is people. And that makes the most important decisions you make about people – whom you hire, whom you fire, and what you ask them to do.
Some people will make your business better – even much better. And some will weaken it – even destroy it, if you let them.
In a previous essay, I wrote about two kinds of employees: growers and tenders.
Growers, I said, are people that are naturally interested in finding ways to grow the business. As managers, they want to ramp up sales, acquire more customers, increase profits, and expand the product line. They often like to increase the number of employees. Growers worship at the altar of more and bigger.
Tenders have a distinctly different personality. They are natural problem solvers. As managers, they enjoy overcoming obstacles, resolving disputes, and making the machinery of the business run smoothly. Tenders worship at the altar of order and efficiency.
In any normally distributed population of employees, growers are much less common than tenders. And that’s a good thing, because growers – so necessary to growth – tend to stir up turmoil as they create change. It is then up to the tenders to smooth it all out.
To develop a large and healthy business, you absolutely need both growers and tenders. But you must employ them in different ways.
Today, I want to talk about another set of business personalities: givers, takers, and matchers. I took this idea from a TED Talk by Adam Grant, an organizational planner.
Givers, Takers, and Matchers: How They Can Help or Hurt Your Business
A taker, Grant says, looks at his job, his employer, and his fellow employees from the perspective of “What can you do for me?” For a giver, it’s all about “What can I do for you?”
He cites a survey of more than 30,000 business people. Twenty-five percent considered themselves to be givers. Nineteen percent admitted to being takers. (In terms of my own experience, those percentages seem roughly true. When you ask people to assess themselves, they usually rate themselves better than others would rate them. What surprised me about this survey was that so many – nearly a fifth – saw themselves as takers.)
But most participants in the survey, 56%, saw themselves as neither givers nor takers. They described their approach to work as: “I will do something for you if you do something for me.” Grant calls these people “matchers.”
Grant was interested in finding out which approach worked better in business. What he found was that takers rise the fastest, but they also fall the fastest. Matchers rise almost as fast, but also fall almost as fast. And the trajectory for givers is varied. Some are slow to rise, and some rise quickly. But virtually all givers rise eventually. And when they rise, they stay at the top.
More importantly, when givers are put in charge of groups, those groups tend to do better than groups run by takers or matchers. Grant reviewed 38 studies of 3,611 leaders. And in all of them, the groups with the best results were led by givers.
* They produced higher profits.
* Their employee retention was greater.
* They had lower operating expenses.
None of this should be a surprise to anyone who thinks about these sorts of things. Takers and even matchers are ultimately bad for business because they don’t feel comfortable giving. And, ultimately, running a good business is about giving – giving quality products and service to the customer. Givers create value. Matchers do not. And takers reduce it.
He’s Grumpy. He’s Grouchy. But He’s Right.
One part of Grant’s presentation that was new to me was about another aspect of personality. He talks about agreeableness. Some people are naturally agreeable. Some are not.
You might think that all agreeable people are givers and all disagreeable people are takers. “Not true,” Grant says. “In fact, there there’s no correlation between those traits.”
There are agreeable takers. These are people that are nice to your face, but will stab you in the back. With their superiors, they specialize in kissing ass. But since their focus is always on taking – i.e., on themselves – they prove to be terrible leaders.
There are disagreeable givers. “These people are tough on the exterior,” Grant says. “But they have other people’s best interests at heart.” Disagreeable givers are often undervalued, he points out, but they are much needed. Disagreeable givers are willing to give critical feedback that no one wants to hear… because it’s disagreeable.
I’m naturally skeptical of research studies, because I know how easily they can be skewed. I’m especially skeptical when they are based on participants answering questions, for obvious reasons. And I’m triply suspicious of studies that measure things like the effect of human behaviors, because of the likelihood of morality bias. (I just made that up… but you know what I mean.)
Notwithstanding my reservations, I believe Grant’s findings because they correlate to my experience. I’ve worked with lots of takers and givers, and many matchers too. The takers were, as he suggests, fast at the gate and able to stay ahead when they could shoulder their competition behind them. But once they suffered setbacks, they floundered and then foundered. And for good reason: In taking the lead without giving, they created a host of people taken. Those people were not there to help them get back on their feet. Most of them silently rejoiced. Some even kicked them when they were down.
From Bad to Worst
Bernie Madoff was a taker – an extreme example. He took as much as he could from everyone that he could, and he climbed fast and high. Until his victims had their day. In losing, he not only lost all his money and his reputation, he lost his family. So what good was his life? He will leave the world with nothing.
There are thousands – no, millions – of takers in the business world. (And in every other world.) Most don’t rise as high as Madoff did, and they meet their demise earlier. Still, they manage to damage the sphere they inhabit.
Takers are bad for business, although they come calling offering gifts (as Madoff did). Cooperating with them is not a smart business strategy, because their goals are antithetical to yours. And even if you can protect yourself from their taking, abetting their goals is morally indefensible. Erasmus said, “He who allows oppression shares in the crime.” Taking is a form of oppression.
Takers are evil. Matchers are not. Matchers are insecure and fearful. They are insecure about their ability to succeed on their own, and recognize that they need to cooperate with others. But they are afraid of being taken – even by the givers. So they will give, but only if they are going to get back something equal in return.
I’ve found that if you are willing to give without expectation of receiving, some matchers will eventually loosen up and stop counting points. Not entirely, but enough to make things work for a while. The cost of dealing with a matcher is that you have to negotiate from their perspective. Which means you will have to compensate them if an arrangement you made works out poorly for them. This is a price I’m sometimes willing to pay.
Givers are easy to identify because they are always giving. Their primary mode is looking out for other people. Their partners, their colleagues, their employees… and even their competition. A giver does not hoard information. If you want to know how his business works, ask him. He’ll be happy to explain. A giver does not ask his employees to sign non-competes. It’s against his nature. He wants the best for his employees and believes that what’s best for them is, in the long run, best for his business.
Grant distinguishes takers from givers this way: Takers are fundamentally paranoid. They think everyone is plotting against them. Givers are pro-noid. They think everyone is plotting to help them succeed.
5 Strategies for Working With Givers and Takers and Matchers
So what are the rules?
- Don’t hire takers. They will begin to stink things up the moment they walk in the door. When doing a background check, ask specifically about behavior in this regard. When interviewing, ask them to tell you a story about how someone or some organization has treated them unfairly.
- If you have takers in your workforce, don’t try to improve them. Taking is an incurable moral sickness. And it’s contagious. Get rid of them. And don’t do business with taker colleagues, vendors, or competitors. In fact, don’t even do business with taker customers.
- You don’t need to fire or disassociate with matchers immediately. It would be near impossible anyway, since they will constitute about half of the people you work with. Try to educate them on the benefits of giving. Lead by example. Give without expecting something in return.
- Hire and promote givers. They are the people that are going to make your business succeed.
- Remember that many givers are “disagreeable” givers. (In my experience, most of the most successful givers are disagreeable.) Don’t let them go. Do everything you can to encourage them to lighten up.
Oh, here’s one more thing: Take an honest look at yourself. Are you a matcher? If so, reread this essay. Understand that you will go much further and you will enjoy the journey much more as a giver. Are you a taker? If so… well, there’s nothing I can tell you. You’ve already dismissed this essay as nonsense. I’ll see you on the other side.