I had the absolute pleasure of listening to Adam Grant to speak at a recent WPO conference. His take on productivity and motivation are refreshing and eye-opening and a change of pace from what we typically hear on the subject. Adam was tenured at the prestigious Wharton School while still in his twenties and is a phenomenal teacher. He is an organizational psychologist and a leading expert on how we can find motivation and meaning which he has shared in his best-selling books and TED talks.
One of the key concepts Adam discusses is the notion that there are three types of people in business: givers, takers, and matchers. As one might expect, a giver is an individual who gives to others without expecting reciprocity in return. Matchers are those who give, but only do so knowing that the other individual will, at some point, return the favour. Lastly are the takers, these are the employees who take advantage of others to get everything they can from then without any plans to pay it forward.
As you can imagine, too many takers can be very dangerous and detrimental to an organization. These people tend to be ruthless in their venture to climb the corporate ladder and they focus on short term gain rather than building long term relationships. They are a ‘me first’ at all costs type of person and can ruin your company culture while simultaneously burning out all of your givers.
While it may seem like givers would get stuck at the bottom of the ladder, being trampled by takers, Adam has actually found that there are more givers at the top. The key to being a successful giver who doesn’t get worn out by takers is to give in ways that are a high benefit to others but can be done at a low personal cost. These favours don’t diminish the givers’ ability to get their own work done while they simultaneously help others. Givers also encourage others to pay it forward which builds a strong network of people who look out for one another.
While you may think you can easily spot the difference between a giver and a taker based simply on their demeanour, don’t be too quick to judge. Thinking that polite, agreeable people are all givers and loud, vociferous people are takers is a mistake. It’s not about politeness or manners, it’s about intention.
According to Adam, the most valuable people you can have in your organization are disagreeable givers. These are not ‘yes men’. These are the people who will challenge your company and the way you do things, not to be difficult, but because they truly believe in the company’s mission and think you can do better. What may come off as abrupt and abrasive is actually caring and concern. They confront the status quo and look for areas of improvement that benefit the organization as a whole, not the individual. It’s imperative that these people feel safe to share their ideas and opinions without being typecast as difficult.
As Adam writes in his book, Give and Take, psychological safety is “…the belief you can take a risk without being penalized or punished” and this begins at the top of every organization. A way to make people feel safe while also promoting forward-thinking and creativity is to have a problem box, rather than a suggestion box. A problem box is a way for people to voice concerns or criticisms without offering a solution to the problem. Rather than only allowing people to voice opinions when they have a method of fixing an issue, a problem box confronts the issue and allows for creative critical thinking to come into play. This type of thinking allows a company to stay ahead of concerns and encourages employees to challenge those in higher-level positions.
Adam notes that you don’t want people who simply fit into the company culture but rather you want those that contribute to the culture. The type of people who are willing to mentor and guide others and offer solutions to their problems without doing it for their own needs. Those who question the way things are done with the goal to make the company better – even if it comes across as harsh. These are the types of employees that need to be valued and understood. Once you start encouraging this type of forward-thinking it’s amazing the creativity and collaboration that can come from it as a result. A workplace where people are encouraged to speak up and challenge the status quo is a workplace dedicated to doing what’s best, not what’s easiest. These are the companies that thrive.
Michele Bailey is president and CEO of Blazing Agency and My Big Idea®. These two lines of business work congruently to support her clients’ success.