Published: September 27, 2022 | Updated: September 26, 2022

Be a better giver

Maureen Dolan

Maureen Dolan

Are you a giver or a taker?

When we talk about business and work, does it matter?

Of course it does.

“When employees act like givers, they facilitate efficient problem solving and coordination and build cohesive, supportive cultures that appeal to customers, suppliers, and top talent alike,” wrote Adam Grant in a popular 2013 article in the Harvard Business Journal.

That’s what most organizations want, and they should. But it’s not as simple as you might think.

Grant, an organizational psychologist, author and top-rated professor at the Wharton business school at the University of Pennsylvania, points to research by Nathan Podsakoff at the University of Arizona as proof.

“His team examined 38 studies of organizational behavior, representing more than 3,500 business units and many different industries, and found that the link between employee giving and desirable business outcomes was surprisingly robust,” Grant wrote. “Higher rates of giving were predictive of higher unit profitability, productivity, efficiency, and customer satisfaction, along with lower costs and turnover rates.”

But there’s a flip side to this. Managers often encourage their employees to be givers who are generous in helping their coworkers, but in many business settings, employees are also receiving a mixed message that tells them it may be better to be a taker, one who acts in their own self-interest, guarding their time and expertise.

That message is borne of the competition bred by traditional, organizational reward systems in which one person gets promoted, one person receives the highest ranking and one person earns the biggest bonus.

Another problem is that some givers just plain give too much and often end up being less productive than others around them.

So, how do managers create a giving culture without having it affect productivity, and without having generous employees become doormats?

Grant said the solution must include creating opportunities for takers to contribute, with incentives for doing so and repercussions for refusing reasonable requests.

“But even more important, my research suggests, is helping the givers act on their generous impulses more productively,” Grant wrote. “The key is for employees to gain a more nuanced understanding of what generosity is and is not."

Grant recommends helping givers understand that timidity, availability and empathy are not the same as generosity.

“Timidity is the opposite of assertiveness, which is easy to associate with takers: They know what they want, and they’re not shy about demanding it. For a giver, however, the goal of acting in others’ interests can make it difficult to assert one’s own,” Grant wrote. “Managers can help the givers in their organizations tease the two concepts apart and learn techniques for appropriate self-advocacy that feel compatible with generosity.”

One strategy Grant suggests for givers who need to self-advocate is to cast themselves as agents for themselves and anyone else who will be helped by the advocacy effort.

When it comes to availability, managers can take steps to help givers set boundaries. For example, don’t send non-urgent emails over the weekend. Doing so compels employees to respond during their time off.

Since empathy puts people at risk of self-sacrificing what’s in their own best interest by putting others first, it also places them at risk of being taken advantage of by takers in an organization.

Grant suggests managers can help empathizers avoid this trap by training them to be “perspective takers” who think about what others’ interests and motivations are rather than about how they feel.

“There are three payoffs associated with teaching employees about the power of agency, boundaries on availability, and perspective taking. The first is saving your best employees — those who exemplify collegial generosity — from being taken advantage of and helping them to gain stature as successful givers instead,” Grant wrote. “The second is enabling employees who fear the risks of giving to contribute more to others and to the success of the enterprise. The third is creating a culture of and reputation for generosity that attracts more givers to your organization and appeals less to takers.”


— Maureen Dolan, BJNI editor