Adam Grant on Are You a Giver Or a Taker? at TED Talk Conference (Transcript)

Here is the full transcript of New York Times bestselling author Adam Grant’s TED Talk presentation: Are You a Giver Or a Taker? To learn more about the speaker, read the speaker details here.

Books by the speaker:

Originals: How Non-Conformists Move the World

Give and Take: Why Helping Others Drives Our Success


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Adam Grant – New York Times bestselling author

I want you to look around the room for a minute and try to find the most paranoid person here. And then I want you to point at that person for me. OK, don’t actually do it.

But, as an organizational psychologist, I spend a lot of time in workplaces, and I find paranoia everywhere. Paranoia is caused by people that I call “takers.” Takers are self-serving in their interactions. It’s all about: “What can you do for me?”

The opposite is a giver. It’s somebody who approaches most interactions by asking: “What can I do for you?”

And I wanted to give you a chance to think about your own style. We all have moments of giving and taking. Your style is just how you treat most of the people most of the time, your default. So I have a short test that you can take to figure out if you’re more of a giver or a taker, and you can take it right now.

[The Narcissist Test: Step 1: Take a moment to think about yourself. Step 2: If you made it to Step 2, you are not a narcissist.]

This is the only thing I will say today that has no data behind it, but I am convinced the longer it takes for you to laugh at this cartoon, the more worried we should be that you’re a taker.

Of course, not all takers are narcissists. Some are just givers who got burned one too many times. And then there’s another kind of taker that we won’t be addressing today, and that’s called a psychopath.

I was curious, though, about how common these extremes are, and so I surveyed over 30,000 people across industries around the world’s cultures. And I found that most people are right in the middle, between giving and taking. They choose this third style called “matching.” If you’re a matcher, you try to keep an even balance of give and take: quid pro quo — I’ll do something for you if you do something for me. And that seems like a safe way to live your life.

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But is it the most effective and productive way to live your life? The answer to that question is a very definitive: maybe.

Now, I studied dozens of organizations, thousands of people. I had engineers measuring their productivity. I looked at medical students’ grades — even salespeople’s revenue. And, unexpectedly, the worst performers in each of these jobs were the givers. The engineers who got the least work done were the ones who did more favors than they got back. They were so busy doing other people’s jobs, they literally ran out of time and energy to get their own work completed.

In medical school, the lowest grades belong to the students who agree most strongly with statements like, “I love helping others,” which suggests the doctor you ought to trust is the one who came to med school with no desire to help anybody.

And then in sales, too, the lowest revenue accrued in the most generous salespeople. And I actually reached out to one of those salespeople who had a very high giver score. And I asked him, “Why do you suck at your job –” I didn’t ask it that way, but — “What’s the cost of generosity in sales?”

And he said, “Well, I just care so deeply about my customers that I would never sell them one of our crappy products.”

So just out of curiosity, how many of you self-identify more as givers than takers or matchers? Raise your hands. OK, it would have been more before we talked about these data.

But actually, it turns out there’s a twist here, because givers are often sacrificing themselves, but they make their organizations better. We have a huge body of evidence — many, many studies looking at the frequency of giving behavior that exists in a team or an organization — and the more often people are helping and sharing their knowledge and providing mentoring, the better organizations do on every metric we can measure: higher profits, customer satisfaction, employee retention, even lower operating expenses.

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So givers spend a lot of time trying to help other people and improve the team, and then, unfortunately, they suffer along the way. And I want to talk about what it takes to build cultures where givers actually get to succeed.

So I wondered, then, if givers are the worst performers, who are the best performers? And let me start with the good news: it’s not the takers. Takers tend to rise quickly but also fall quickly in most jobs. And they fall at the hands of matchers. If you’re a matcher, you believe in “An eye for an eye” — a just world. And so when you meet a taker, you feel like it’s your mission in life to just punish the hell out of that person. And that way justice gets served.

Well, most people are matchers. And that means if you’re a taker, it tends to catch up with you eventually: what goes around will come around. And so the logical conclusion is: it must be the matchers who are the best performers. But they’re not. In every job, in every organization I’ve ever studied, the best results belong to the givers again.

So take a look at some data that I gathered from hundreds of salespeople, tracking their revenue. What you can see is that the givers go to both extremes. They make up the majority of people who bring in the lowest revenue, but also the highest revenue. And the same patterns were true for engineers’ productivity and medical students’ grades. Givers are overrepresented at the bottom and at the top of every success metric that I can track.

Which raises the question: How do we create a world where more of these givers get to excel? I want to talk about how to do that, not just in businesses, but also in nonprofits, schools, even governments. Are you ready?

I was going to do it anyway, but I appreciate the enthusiasm.