October 22, 2015
Adam Grant —
Successful Givers, Toxic Takers, and the Life We Spend at Work

The organizational psychologist Adam Grant, who many know from his New York Times columns, describes three orientations of which we are all capable: the givers, the takers, and the matchers. These influence whether organizations are joyful or toxic for human beings. His studies are dispelling a conventional wisdom that selfish takers are the most likely to succeed professionally. And he is wise about practicing generosity in organizational life — what he calls making “microloans of our knowledge, our skills, our connections to other people” — in a way that is transformative for others, ourselves, and our places of work.

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is a professor of psychology at the Wharton School of Business at the University of Pennsylvania, where he is the youngest tenured and highest rated professor. He has consulted for numerous organizations, including Google, the United Nations, and the U.S. Army. He became known to many through his popular book, Give and Take: A Revolutionary Approach to Success. His forthcoming book, Originals, will be published in February 2016.

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Would be great to be able to share this amazing interview on FB. You guys are really smart. Thank you.

Or FT?

I found FB link. Thanks!

Annie Parsons's picture

Thanks for sharing, Toby!

I get the analogy about the mask but prefer this quote: "Bernanke continues: 'My mentor, Dale Jorgenson [of Harvard], used to say — and Larry Summers used to say this, too — that, 'If you never miss a plane, you’re spending too much time in airports.' If you absolutely rule out any possibility of any kind of financial crisis, then probably you’re reducing risk too much, in terms of the growth and innovation in the economy.”

" I slept and dreamed that life is all joy. I woke and I saw that life is all service. I served and I saw that service is joy."
Kahlil Gibran (1883-1931)

Not this.
Not that.

I used to know two dogs in Berkeley named Not This and Not That. Gave me something to think about!

I'm listening to this interview now and while I find it interesting, I find it telling that Grant speaks from privilege and never acknowledges it. He does not address that "giving" and "generosity" (esp in the workplace) are more demanded of women, often at personal and professional cost. In personal life too. I would like to know more about how those dynamics play out

Thank you for another interesting program.
On one hand, I felt uneasy about Adam Grant’s exploration of generosity as a kind of ingredient of an overarching and sacrosanct value called productivity. It conjures up images of a 1984+ corporation adding to mandatory meditation or tai-chi time an extra fifteen minutes of generosity time, because it has proven beneficial to the bottom line. When a random act of kindness becomes like a prescribed dose of vitamin or omega 3, I am afraid one can no longer call it a random act of kindness or assign the benefits of true generosity to it. Praising generosity as conducive to « success » sounds a bit like a Wall Street investment recipe. Yes, generosity may be an important determinant of success and health, if only because generosity runs against greed, the mother of all evils, but when generosity becomes motivated by an expected « return on investment » in the form of corporate or personal health, is it so different from the « apparent » generosity of the people-pleasers seeking to assuage needs of approval and recognition? The former is consciously seeking a return, the latter unconsciously. Is it generosity?
On the other hand, “fake it before you make it” is a powerful injunction that underlines the whole practice of random acts of kindness as a discipline of personal recovery from all greed-related diseases (a.k.a. addictions, including addiction to property, prestige and money). And one could argue that a return on investment is sought here too!
I will therefore call it a draw and simply conclude that it is better to be generous and healthy than greedy and sick.

Just a thought, credit to a thought-provoking program. Thank you!

The context and nuance of your reply to the speaker suggest a more realistic road for listeners or readers. I too believe that women are often the givers and clarity about the persons road in life is important for context in giving and taking. I have seen many givers drained of life, so context and boundaries in fulfilling life is necessary. Randomness is overrated. Purpose and service of somekind is good.

The image of giving and taking translates into the powerful image of the "Bucket Filler" written by Carol McLoud. In this children's book she asks of all children each and every day to go out into the world with their buckets. What can you do each and every day to fill someone else's bucket? What can you do to avoid those depleting your bucket? We can teach children that generosity of spirit is not a check-the-box chore but a mindset of being. Being a Giver does take practice and time; it is a behavior we can nurture in ourselves and encourage in others.

It is probably somewhere in his book but when you are a giving person by helping other at work it helps to eliminate the mentality of everyone being out for themselves. This attitude also provides a positive feedback loop, which even if it does not give positive energy it certainly does not take away from it. Service to others is difficult at first but has numerous rewards hard to qualify but is especially useful when it's not done for the sake of doing it; it should be part of your persona and not done to garner "me" points.

Rather than "microloan," perhaps "microinvestment." It's partly a matter of semantics, but also means you've sown where both you and others might reap benefits. Yes, mixed metaphors. Nope, not sorry!

The most generous of all is God, and it seems to me it's easy to be generous if one lives with God. The talk of the importance of giving alms throughout the Bible is all about generosity.

Wonderful to hear. Mother Teresa recalled watching her mother regularly invite the poor people of the neighborhood into their home for a meal (perhaps daily).
'The only love we keep is the love we give away.' Mother Teresa.

At long last, what is there left from life?
What’s left to me?
Strange as it seems, only that, which I gave to others…
—Vahan Tekeyan Translated by Tatul Sonentz

I see that this scheme of things Adam speaks of is reflected in society as a whole, an "entrepreneur" sets up his company in a way that enables him/her to take a disproportionate share of the profits of the efforts of all the workers, under the guise of "owning" the company, even going so far as to: lobby government to make laws furthering his position of taking: use the media to brainwash the masses to convince workers that they are the takers and that the company owner is the giver; and hire lawyers, accountants, and consultants with tax deductible company profits to enhance their ability to take more and more profits at the expense of the workers who actually do the work .

I have been a listener to this show since it was "Speaking of Faith", but this interview is probably the one that will induce my abandonment of the show for good. When Krista has moved from exploring faith through exploring ways of being and ends up at promoting the business consulting career of a precocious academic, she has left me behind somewhere.

Dr. Grant's take on generosity is extremely well thought out and applied, and sounds not a bit genuine - which, I would think, negates the intention. Expressing generosity in order to reap a reward is fraudulent and disingenuous. Selfish takers are not more likely to succeed; takers who appear unselfish are. Grant seems a perfect example of his definition of 'taker in giver's clothes.'

Simply referring to generosity in the corporate / organizational values statement destroys its human value in practice. Grant's book is a business book: nothing more than a cynical twist on the Servant Leadership of a few decades ago, or a rehash - with academic studies attached - of Dale Carnegie's work (first published in 1936) as well as that of Steven Covey, and on ad nauseum. Tagging the approach as 'generosity' seems to be the only truly new feature.

At an individual level, I would take issue with Dr. Grant's anecdote, told during the interview, about taking his son with him to a pre-exam prep and review session led by Grant for students in his class. Grant wants us to believe with him that this experience would be a lesson that demonstrated to his son how to be generous at work. I would assert that Grant simply dragged his son along to work for a while, then told himself (and his public) a story that cast him as an attentive and creative dad. Also that, for a teacher, holding a pre-exam review session for students isn't an act of generosity worthy of such glowing self approval; it's simply doing your job.

Good luck to all those who hitch their careers to Grant's wagon; I am off to continue the quest for something really genuine.

I agree with the thrust of this email.

There are those of us who work in large and small corporations and find out what the values are there and how to survive; and then there are those of us who do research and make a lot of money advising corporations on how to 'do things better'.

This gentleman is in the second category. He has not much idea what actually goes on in corporations.

In 1776 Adam Smith wrote about the "invisible hand", i.e., the unintended social benefits which result from individuals pursuing their own self-interest. That is, more good comes to the collection of individuals called ‘society’ by those individuals pursuing their own self-interest by doing work at which they excel. Capitalism is the theory behind this principle with the Industrial Revolution the original, large scale reduction to practice. This has resulted in the greatest improvement in human well-being ever in history.

When considered at the extremely local level, viz., the interaction of two individuals, this can be summarized as “you scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours". It is the same principle demonstrated more personally.

In the marketplace an entrepreneur invests his own money, or money voluntarily entrusted to him, in an attempt to satisfy some consumer desire. If the desire is met, i.e., if the entrepreneur scratches the “itch” of another individual, he is rewarded with profits. If the entrepreneur fails, only he is punished with losses, the consumer bears none of the failing “punishment”. While the entrepreneur wants to make a profit, his purposeful concentration is on serving the consumer, trying to be a successful giver.

But, in The Theory of Moral Sentiments, Smith clearly values generosity and makes a lot of the human desire to be both praised and deserving of that praise. The Wealth of Nations only covers one half of Smith's insights into humanity.

I recently gave up my Yoga class for various reasons. I find I continue to "give it away" on a daily basis to women who ask for my help with various pains that can be helped with yoga poses. It's from the heart and not my "ego head". I find this makes all the difference.

Many thanks for a great show. I am a dancer & choreographer, and very interested in finding intersections for art-making and societal advancement. I have been invited to join a research project on ways to get people to wash their hands to prevent the spread of communicable diseases. I loved hearing about the hand-washing study, that bit of insight on “the illusion of invulnerability” is a gift at this early phase of my research. How delightful that an appeal to civic responsibility had such a positive result in people's behavior.

I found this podcast intriguing, but am left with a question. I wanted to do more research about the looking at your passions at age 10 will give a glimpse of what you were like before you were told what what you should be. Can anyone point me into the direction of this research please?

I teach a course on leadership where I put for the model of servant leadership as the preferred way to approach leadership. Adam Grant's work on giving and living the generous life seems to validate the value of the servant leadership approach, which measure success in the growth and development of those that one leads. At the same time I appreciate his words on setting limits

Thanks so much for this broadcast, and I absolutely echo D. Boyd's belief in Servant Leadership. Having retired from a 44-year career in Emergency Medical Services I used Servant Leadership for the past 15 years, and I'm convinced it works especially in organizations whose role is service. Experienced much improvement in morale among paramedics, who don't get treated very well by people who are having the worst days of their lives. Also decreased frequency of injuries, sick time, collisions, complaints, equipment losses & mechanical failures. When crews are expected to serve sick people well, they need to know what good service feels like. (If your job isn't taking care of sick people, then it's serving people who do.) The Cleveland and Mayo Clinics published scholarly pieces in 2009 and 2014, respectively, which advocate SL as the best leadership strategy for caregivers. (Ordered the book yesterday, and looking forward to reading it.)

I loved this program! I flipped on the radio as I was doing chores around the house, but I couldn't move as I listened to the conversation. I've already ordered two copies of Give and Take--one for me and one for my new boss. I'm ready to make a pilgrimage to Philadelphia to hear Adam speak. Thank God there are still people like him in academics. May he have a long, productive career, influencing the minds of young and old. --Sarah

I would love more information about the research Krista mentions about our passions at the age of 10. Does anyone have some additional info? Thank you!

I listened to this program while gardening and found it rather reassuring.

Then over the next few days my mind kept returning to Dr. Grant's statement: "So it’s family first, students second, colleagues third, everybody else fourth." Also the comment about people "who will help anyone" being failures. This theory and the hierarchy of caring he has chosen for himself sound good, even helpful to those of us who regularly spread our energies too thin, but the rub lies within those categories.

In family, it would be interesting to know how much time he actually "spends" at home or directly caring for his children, hanging out with his partner. He seems awfully busy with writing, research, speaking, doing interviews, consulting, teaching, grading papers, etc. The example he gives is taking his child to work. A better example would be to tell us that it's his job to bathe the children every night, or that the morning routine is his responsibility so his partner can leave for work early and get home before school is out. I guess the emphasis on individual actions and choices in his thesis makes light of the actual experience of working parents. I am focusing on the Family and not Students, Colleagues, and Others because success in one's home life, in family life, is measured in ways mostly unseen, undocumented, private compared to working toward tenure, forming meaningful relationships with students in academia, or holding a successful corporate workshop.

Of course we should put our family and our health first, but it would be interesting to see if or how the companies he has worked with have instituted policies that make this commitment possible, or if having him come talk about the idea just allows the CEO and HR people to claim "we tried" or claim his philosophy or friendship for themselves, while their actual company policies (on predictable work scheduling. parental leave, providing a place for pumping breast milk, etc.) keep making parenting an exhausting obstacle course for their employees.

Maybe his book has less platitude and more of the mundane reality of life in it. I will check it out.

I am reading this book, again and again

Enjoyed the program; read the book. Good stuff, but thought much of it could have been condensed into an article with links and footnotes. It sort of looks like some of the comments here assume that he's talking about generosity as an instrumental rather than an intrinsic virtue and/or habit. I think Grant goes out of his way to make the point that it should be an intrinsic virtue--if you're only in it for the success, it probably won't work. Maybe it's just me, but I detected a bit of Confucianism in here, you know, 'try not to try,' 'reciprocity,' that type of thing. But that raises a bit of a paradox, because if you try not to try, aren't you still trying, and if you're doing it with a profit motive, well .... My own shorter version would run something like this: what you get out of any interaction and endeavor is generally a function of what you put into it, but no need to go overboard or fail to set priorities. That's it.

I think what's confusing some commenters is the equivocal term "generosity." What does it mean? Is it instrumental or intrinsic? Can it be both? It's an especially equivocal term because, as one may expect, giving in the context of a B-school curriculum is different than it is in divinity school (I'm guessing). No need to abandon this fine program. To the contrary, if we agreed with what every interviewee said, there'd be no reason to tune in, unless hearing an echo of one's own pre-existing viewpoints is what you're after! Just my two centavos.

Lately, I seem to be consumed more than usual with my own “first world” problems….plumbing problems at our mountain house, trying to fulfill obligations at work while working part time, and fitting in time for family. I have let all this “busyness” cloud my thinking so much that in the past week I have lost my cell phone TWICE, I left my wallet at our mountain house yesterday, and today I found myself blissfully blowing the fall leaves unaware that flames were coming out the back of the electric blower! While none of the incidents have been life threatening…well maybe the latter? I have taken them as a reminder to be present, slow down, and perhaps offer myself a bit of kindness.
While driving home yesterday sans wallet, I listened to this interview with Adam Grant. I understand that Grant espouses practicing generosity by consciously giving “microloans of our knowledge, our skills, [&] our connections to other people.” However what struck me when I arrived home yesterday in tears & berating myself for my forgetfulness, was that perhaps I was the one who needed a microloan of generosity. As I listened to my husband, John, calmly tell me that we would simply drive back up on Sunday, retrieve the wallet, and make a nice day of it, I wondered why I could not offer myself the same forgiveness and understanding. It occurred to me that when I do not offer myself kindness and understanding, I am caught in my own ego-driven world, inattentive, and often blind to the needs of others. And on this Halloween night…that is more frightening than any ghoul or goblin I can conjure up.

As a clinical social worker I found this episode particularly relevant as it speaks to what I've decided to commit my life to. I did however, find myself thinking several times throughout the discussion that if you take generosity a step further could we say that the intrinsic motivation is to feel needed in the world? To feel that our presence has a meaningful impact on others? It's nota bad thing, but it does shift the focus back to the self, as opposed to selflessness.

This episode churned up my creative energy big time. Reading Give or Take was a paradigm shifter for me two years ago, so hearing this interview was like a booster shot of inspiration. I'm grateful to Krista for asking Adam all the questions I would ask if I could . . . and many wonderful questions I never would have considered!

Is a transcript of the episode available for those of us with slow connections?

Hello. This is a very hard topic and I've thought about it a lot recently, having just had the huge fortune to be invited back to my previous company (a specialist technology shipbuilding yard) as now a regular happy team engineer. In between, I spent two nightmarish years as a project manager in a multinational (and multi-trade, probably the worst thing in it...) engineering corporate. It's not as easy as one could think to admit that there's a set-to-fail mismatch in values. The tough part was the red tape that had nothing to with "seeing the new ship's departing wake" plus being thrown under the bus by the company due to product quality issues caused by unhappy corporate procurement strategies! In happy hindsight, I can warmly recommend everyone to be honest to oneself when feeling unfitting at the job. It's no good trying to sit it out with large corporates, they ultimately only read the colour of the numbers under the line. Well, I need to excuse and go, my shipyard buddies are asking everyone in to the coffee break... followed by a field start-up onboard together.