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

The first thing that’s really critical is to recognize that givers are your most valuable people, but if they’re not careful, they burn out. So you have to protect the givers in your midst. And I learned a great lesson about this from Fortune’s best networker. It’s the guy, not the cat. His name is Adam Rifkin. He’s a very successful serial entrepreneur who spends a huge amount of his time helping other people. And his secret weapon is the five-minute favor.

Adam said, “Look, you don’t have to be Mother Teresa or Gandhi to be a giver. You just have to find small ways to add large value to other people’s lives.” And that could be as simple as making an introduction between two people who could benefit from knowing each other. It could be sharing your knowledge or giving a little bit of feedback. Or it might be even something as basic as saying, “You know, I’m going to try to figure out if I can recognize somebody whose work has gone unnoticed.” And those five-minute favors are really critical to helping givers set boundaries and protect themselves.

And the second thing that matters if you want to build a culture where givers succeed, is you actually need a culture where help-seeking is the norm; where people ask a lot. This may hit a little too close to home for some of you.

[So in all your relationships, you always have to be the giver?]

What you see with successful givers is they recognize that it’s OK to be a receiver, too. And if you run an organization, we can actually make this easier. We can make it easier for people to ask for help. A couple colleagues and I studied hospitals. And we found that on certain floors, nurses did a lot of help-seeking, and on other floors, they did very little of it. And the factor that stood out on the floors where help-seeking was common, where it was the norm, was there was just one nurse whose sole job it was to help other nurses on the unit. And when that role was available, nurses said, “Oh, it’s not embarrassing, it’s not vulnerable to ask for help; it’s actually encouraged.”

Help-seeking isn’t important just for protecting the success and the well-being of givers. It’s also critical to getting more people to act like givers, because the data say that somewhere between 75% and 90% of all giving in organizations starts with a request. But a lot of people don’t ask. They don’t want to look incompetent, they don’t know where to turn, they don’t want to burden others. And yet if nobody ever asks for help, you have a lot of frustrated givers in your organization who would love to step up and contribute, if they only knew who could benefit and how.

But I think the most important thing, if you want to build a culture of successful givers, is to be thoughtful about who you let onto your team. I figured, you want a culture of productive generosity, you should hire a bunch of givers. But I was surprised to discover, actually, that that was not right — that the negative impact of a taker on a culture is usually double to triple the positive impact of a giver.

Think about it this way: one bad apple can spoil a barrel, but one good egg just does not make a dozen. I don’t know what that means. But I hope you do. No, let even one taker into a team, and you will see that the givers will stop helping. They’ll say, “I’m surrounded by a bunch of snakes and sharks. Why should I contribute?” Whereas if you let one giver into a team, you don’t get an explosion of generosity. More often, people are like, “Great! That person can do all our work.”

So, effective hiring and screening and team building is not about bringing in the givers; it’s about weeding out the takers. And if you can do that well, you’ll be left with givers and matchers. The givers will be generous because they don’t have to worry about the consequences. And the beauty of the matchers is that they follow the norm.

So how do you catch a taker before it’s too late? We’re actually pretty bad at figuring out who’s a taker, especially on first impressions. And there’s a personality trait that throws us off. It’s called agreeableness, one the major dimensions of personality across cultures. Agreeable people are warm and friendly, they’re nice, they’re polite. You find a lot of them in Canada — where there was actually a national contest to come up with a new Canadian slogan and fill in the blank, “As Canadian as …” I thought the winning entry was going to be, “As Canadian as maple syrup,” or, “ice hockey.” But no, Canadians voted for their new national slogan to be — I kid you not — “As Canadian as possible under the circumstances.”

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Now for those of you who are highly agreeable, or maybe slightly Canadian, you get this right away. How could I ever say I’m any one thing when I’m constantly adapting to try to please other people? Disagreeable people do less of it. They’re more critical, skeptical, challenging, and far more likely than their peers to go to law school. That’s not a joke, that’s actually an empirical fact.

So I always assumed that agreeable people were givers and disagreeable people were takers. But then I gathered the data, and I was stunned to find no correlation between those traits, because it turns out that agreeableness-disagreeableness is your outer veneer: How pleasant is it to interact with you?

Whereas giving and taking are more of your inner motives: What are your values? What are your intentions toward others?

If you really want to judge people accurately, you have to get to the moment that every consultant in the room is waiting for, and draw a two-by-two.

The agreeable givers are easy to spot: they say yes to everything. The disagreeable takers are also recognized quickly, although you might call them by a slightly different name. We forget about the other two combinations. There are disagreeable givers in our organizations. There are people who are gruff and tough on the surface but underneath have others’ best interests at heart.

Or as an engineer put it, “Oh, disagreeable givers — like somebody with a bad user interface but a great operating system.” If that helps you.

Disagreeable givers are the most undervalued people in our organizations, because they’re the ones who give the critical feedback that no one wants to hear but everyone needs to hear. We need to do a much better job valuing these people as opposed to writing them off early, and saying, “Eh, kind of prickly, must be a selfish taker.”

The other combination we forget about is the deadly one — the agreeable taker, also known as the faker. This is the person who’s nice to your face, and then will stab you right in the back. And my favorite way to catch these people in the interview process is to ask the question, “Can you give me the names of four people whose careers you have fundamentally improved?” And the takers will give you four names, and they will all be more influential than them, because takers are great at kissing up and then kicking down.

Givers are more likely to name people who are below them in a hierarchy, who don’t have as much power, who can do them no good. And let’s face it, you all know you can learn a lot about character by watching how someone treats their restaurant server or their Uber driver.

So if we do all this well, if we can weed takers out of organizations, if we can make it safe to ask for help, if we can protect givers from burnout and make it OK for them to be ambitious in pursuing their own goals as well as trying to help other people, we can actually change the way that people define success. Instead of saying it’s all about winning a competition, people will realize success is really more about contribution.

I believe that the most meaningful way to succeed is to help other people succeed. And if we can spread that belief, we can actually turn paranoia upside down. There’s a name for that. It’s called “pronoia.” Pronoia is the delusional belief that other people are plotting your well-being. That they’re going around behind your back and saying exceptionally glowing things about you. And the great thing about a culture of givers is that’s not a delusion — it’s reality.

Look, I want to live in a world where givers succeed, and I hope you will help me create that world.

Thank you.