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

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.

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.

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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.

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.”

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