Book Report: “Give & Take” by Adam Grant

I thoroughly enjoyed Adam Grant’s “Give and Take: Why Helping Others Drives Our Success” and think everyone should read it – particularly those of us who feel awkward about networking or doing something that would benefit from promotion but feel skeeved by that idea.

High level summary:

A book based on tons of behavioral science research (including some original work by the author) which examines “reciprocity styles.” While the popular understanding is that you have to be a taker to succeed in the world, that’s because the takers are more visible – they are generally more assertive and promote themselves better. Further research shows that givers can also be successful – and they can also be total doormats and failures.

The key differentiators between champs and chumps are: Successful givers include themselves when considering what to take on and know how to avoid burnout; successful givers build a culture of givers often inspiring others to give who might not have done so otherwise; successful givers know that they’re playing a long game, one in which trust and reputation are key.

Finally, Grant’s motivation for writing this appears to be to decrease the stigma of being a giver in business settings, and to challenge the belief that success=taking.

Key terms:

  • Takers: like to get more than they give
  • Givers: prefer to give more than they get
  • Matchers: strive to preserve an equal balance of getting and giving (the majority of people are matchers)
  • Otherish: having others’ interest in mind. (Not the same as being selfless)

Key takeaways:

  • Unsurprisingly, the bottom of the success ladder is overpopulated by givers. Surprisingly, so is the very top of the ladder – even higher than takers. Matchers are in between.
  • “Successful givers, it turns out, are just as ambitious as takers and matchers.”
    • Reid Hoffman: “It seems counterintuitive, but the more altruistic your attitude, the more benefits you will gain from the relationship. If you set out to help others, you will rapidly reinforce your own reputation and expand your universe of possibilities.”
  • The giver advantage grows over time.
    • “Being a giver is not good for a 100-yard dash, but it’s valuable in a marathon.”
  • [at least in the U.S.] an increasing number of jobs are team- and service-oriented. In these, givers naturally have an advantage.
    • “Teams depend on givers to share information, volunteer for unpopular tasks, and provide help.”
    • “As the service sector continues to expand, more and more people are placing a premium on providers who have established relationships and reputations as givers… You hope your doctor, lawyer, teacher, dentist, plumber, and real estate agent will focus on contributing value to you, not on claiming value from you.”
  • “The fear of being judged as weak or naïve prevents many people from operating like givers at work.”
  • How to Spot a Taker who’s a good Faker:
    • “Although takers tend to be dominant and controlling with subordinates, they’re surprisingly submissive and deferential towards superiors.” “When kissing up, takers are often good fakers.”
    • In person (as well as in all public forums), takers are more likely to use first-person singular to describe anything they’ve accomplished. Givers are more often using first-person plural.
    • “As takers gain power, they pay less attention to how they’re perceived by those below and next to them.”
    • “The true measure of a man is how he treats someone who can do him absolutely no good.” — Samuel Johnson
  • “Givers are able to develop and leverage extraordinarily rich networks. By virtue of the way they interact with other people in their networks, givers create norms that favor adding rather than claiming or trading value, expanding the pie for all involved.”
    • “The presence of a single giver was enough to establish a norm of giving.”
    • “When takers build a network, they try to claim as much value as possible for themselves from a fixed pie. When givers like [Adam] Rifkin build networks, they expand the pie so that everyone can get a larger slice.”
      • Note: Adam Rifkin is the source of the “five minute favor” concept. He asked everyone he helped to help someone else, even just by making an introduction or answering an informational question.
  • Caveat: Givers have the best reputations, but they risk paying a productivity price. To be successful, they must leverage their networks.
  • There are two fundamental paths to influence: dominance and prestige. Dominance is a zero-sum game, prestige is not.
    • Expressing vulnerability can build prestige.
    • “takers specialize in powerful communication: they speak forcefully, raise their voices to assert their authority, express certainty to project confidence, promote their accomplishments, and sell with conviction and pride.”
    • The opposite of powerful communication is powerless communication. Powerless communicators speak less assertively, expressing plenty of doubt and relying heavily on advice from others.
    • Team members saw the [leaders who were ] powerful speakers as threatened by ideas, viewing the powerless speakers as more receptive to suggestions. Talking tentatively didn’t establish dominance, but it earned plenty of prestige. Team members worked more productively when the tentative talkers showed that they were open to advice.
    • Expressing vulnerability can make an expert appear human and approachable (and therefore more likable), as opposed to superior and distant.
      • Caveat: “Expressing vulnerability is only effective if the audience receives other signals establishing the speaker’s competence.”
  • The second key axis to pay attention to is level of self-interest vs. level of other-interest. Self-interest and other-interest are completely independent motivations; you can have both of them at the same time.
    • Selfless givers are people with high other-interest and low self interest… Selfless giving is a form of pathological altruism.”
    • “Successful givers are otherish: they care about benefiting others, but they also have ambitious goals for advancing their own interests.”
  • Giver burnout has less to do with the amount of giving and more with the amount of feedback about the impact of that giving.
    • It’s possible to reduce burnout by having a giver give more – in a way that lets them see their impact.
    • “Givers…burn out when they’re working with people in need but are unable to help effectively.”
    • The perception of impact serves as a buffer against stress. [for all reciprocity types]
    • “a firsthand connection to impact can tilt people of all reciprocity styles in the giver direction.”
  • Caveat: “Giving has an energizing effect only if it’s an enjoyable, meaningful choice rather than undertaken out of duty and obligation.”
  • “Otherish givers may appear less altruistic than selfless givers, but their resilience against burnout enables them to contribute more.”
    • Selfless givers are uncomfortable receiving support and receive far less support than otherish givers.
    • “people who regularly seek advice and help from knowledgeable colleagues are actually rated more highly by supervisors than those who never seek advice or help.”
  • Being agreeable or disagreeable is separate from being a giver or a taker.
    • “We tend to stereotype agreeable people as givers, and disagreeable people as takers.”
    • “Giving and taking are based on our motives and values, and they’re choices that we make regardless of whether our personalities trend agreeable or disagreeable.”
    • Agreeable takers are the most dangerous.
    • Disagreeable givers are the most surprising.
  • Givers avoid getting burned by becoming matchers when they’re dealing with takers.
    • “Being otherish means that givers keep their own interests in the rearview mirror, taking care to trust but verify.”
  • Givers characterize success as “individual achievements that have a positive impact on others. They see success in terms of making significant, lasting contributions to a broad range of people.”
  • “This is what I find most magnetic about successful givers: they get to the top without cutting others down, finding ways of expanding the pie that benefit themselves and the people around them. Whereas success is a zero-sum in a group of takers, in groups of givers, it may be true that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. As Simon Sinek writes, ‘Givers advance the whole world. Takers advance themselves and hold the world back.’


In a company’s annual report, the larger and more prominent the CEO’s photo, the more likely they’re a taker. Watch out if they’re agreeable! (example: Ken Lay, Enron)

“Matchers tend to build smaller networks than either givers, who seek actively to help a wider range of people, or takers, who often find themselves expanding their networks to compensate for bridges burned in previous transactions.”

“Givers are the top sellers, and a key reason is powerless communication. Asking questions is a form of powerless communication thatt givers adopt naturally.” “It’s the givers, by virtue of their interest in getting to know us, who ask us the questions that enable us to experience the joy of learning from ourselves. And by giving us the floor, givers are actually learning about us and from us, which helps them figure out how to sell us things we already value.”

“in direct persuasion, the audience is constantly aware of the fact that they have been persuaded by another. Where self-persuasion occurs, people are convinced that the motivation for change has come from within.”

“Takers have a knack for generating creative ideas and championing them in the face of opposition. Because they have supreme confidence in their opinions, they feel free of the shackles of social approval that constrict the imaginations of many people.”

Expedition Behavior involves putting the group’s goals and mission first, and showing the same amount of concern for others as you do for yourself. [key trait for highly talented givers working with teams]

“Highly talented people tend to make others jealous, placing themselves at risk of being disliked, resented, ostracized, and undermined. But if these talented people are also givers, they no longer have a target on their backs.. Instead, givers are appreciated for their contributions to the group.” For example, by taking on tasks that others didn’t want, a giver builds trust so that when they show their skills they still don’t elicit envy.

“When people act generously in groups, they earn idiosyncrasy credits — motive impressions that accumulate in the minds of group members.” Group members with idiosyncrasy credits gain license to deviate from a group’s norms or expectations. “Givers get extra credit when they challenge the status quo.”

Responsibility Bias: exaggerating your own contributions relative to others’ inputs. “It’s a mistake to which takers are especially vulnerable, and it’s partially driven by the desire to see and present ourselves positively.” “Responsibility bias is a major source of failed collaborations.”

Reciprocity styles in mentoring/coaching:

  • “takers harbor doubts about others’ intentions, so they monitor vigilantly for information that others might harm them, treating others with suspicion and distrust.”
  • “the matcher’s mistake lies in waiting for signs of high potential. Since matchers tend to play it safe, they often wait to offer support until they’ve seen evidence of promise.”
  • “in their roles as leaders, managers, and mentors, givers are inclined to see the potential in everyone. By default, givers start by viewing people as bloomers.”
  • “Givers are the least vulnerable to the mistake of over investing in people” because of the sunk cost fallacy. In sunk cost fallacy, “the single most powerful factor is ego threat… Due to their susceptibility to ego threat, takers are more vulnerable to escalation of commitment than givers.”
  • “Givers don’t excel only at recognizing and developing talent, they’re also surprisingly good at moving on when their bets don’t work out.”

“because of their dedication to others, givers are willing to work harder and longer than takers and matchers.”

“Whereas powerful communication might be effective in a one-shot job interview, in a team or a service relationship, it loses the respect and admiration of others” Although takers are perceived and highly effective leaders, “takers actually undermine group performance.”

“People bond to givers, like electromagnetism.”

“Advice seeking has four benefits: learning, perspective taking, commitment, and flattery.”

“When we give our time, energy, knowledge, or resources to help others, we strive to maintain a belief that they’re worthy and deserving of our help. Seeking advice is a subtle way to invite someone to make a commitment to us.”

“Regardless of their reciprocity style, people love to be asked for advice. Giving advice makes takers feel important, and it makes givers feel helpful. Matchers often enjoy giving advice of different reason: it’s a low-cost way of racking up credits that they can cash in later. As a result, when we ask people for advice, they tent to respond positively to us.” Caveat: Advice seeking only works if it’s genuine.

“Trust is one reason that givers are so susceptible to the doormat effect. They tend to see the best in everyone, so they operate on the mistaken assumption that everyone is trustworthy.” “Successful givers need to know who’s likely to manipulate them so they can protect themselves.”

“The ability to recognize agreeable takers is what protects givers against being exploited.” “The inclination to give first and ask questions later often comes at the expense of sincerity screening.”

“Empathy is a pervasive force behind giving behaviors, but it’s also a major source of vulnerability.”

“when we empathize at the bargaining table, focusing on our counterparts’ emotions and feelings puts us at risk of giving away too much. But when we engage in perspective taking, considering our counterparts’ thoughts and interest, we’re more likely to find ways to make deals that satisfy our counterparts without sacrificing our own interests.”

Adopt an outlook described as generous tit for tat: Never forget a good turn, but occasionally forgive a bad one.


There’s so much more in the book. Go buy “Give and Take” on Amazon now.


NY Times article: Is Giving the Secret to Getting Ahead?

HBR article: In the Company of Givers and Takers