Book Summary: Give and Take by Adam Grant

  • Reciprocity Styles: People can be classified based on reciprocity styles as givers (do more for others), matchers (operate on quid-pro-quo basis) and takers (look for personal gain at the expense of others).
  • Success and Reciprocity Styles: There is a high correlation between patterns of success/productivity and reciprocity styles. On the success ladder, the people at the bottom are givers. Surprisingly, the people at the top are also givers. The takers and matchers occupy the middle. The book is about how giving enriches you in various ways, and what differentiates givers at the bottom and the top.

  • Successful givers are every bit as ambitious as takers and matchers. They simply have a different way of framing and pursuing their goals.
  • “Its easier to win if everybody wants you to win. If you don’t make enemies out there, it is easier to succeed.”
  • Successful givers are good at checking their ego at the door: Abraham Lincoln brought into his cabinet folks who had been his rivals in the election. Some of them despised him, others viewed him as incompetent but he managed to win them all over. Teams of Rivals is a great book that explains Lincoln’s ways of working.
  • Giving behavior rarely works in zero sum situations and win-lose situations. Luckily, a lot of life can be construed as win-win, rather than win-lose situations.
  • “The true measure of a man is how he treats someone who can do him absolutely no good.”
  • Sign of a taker –  “kissing up and kicking down“. There are numerous examples of how takers can be tremendously successful over a period of 1-2 decades, but not in the long run.
  • Takers and matchers make hard and fast assumptions about just who will be able to provide the most benefit in exchange.
  • Pronoia – the delusional belief that other people are plotting your well-being and saying nice things about you behind your back. Givers tend to have this.
  • The presence of a single consistent giver in a group or social setting is enough to establish a norm of giving.
  • Research conducted in groups of sales folks, medical students and engineers confirmed the same findings. The most productive engineers were the ones who gave often and gave more than they received.
  • Star analysts didn’t perform very well when they jumped from one firm to another. It turns out that their ‘star power’ was not entirely individual merit. They were relying a lot on their knowledgeable colleagues and new ideas.
  • Givers prioritize the interests of the team over exerting their own power or advancing their own agenda. A great example of this is George Meyer, writer for Saturday Night Live and The Simpsons. Givers earn the respect of their collaborators because they put the interests of the group ahead of their own. Meyer could have reserved his strongest sketches for the famous characters such as Madonna, but he didn’t do that. Instead, he worked on improving other people’s drafts and ideas, and worked to strengthen sketches for relatively less popular celebrities. As a result, fellow writers jump at the chance to sing Meyer’s praise even today.
  • Responsibility Bias – Humans have a tendency to claim/perceive that they are responsible for a lot more than what they have actually done. When people in relationships were asked about their individual contributions to making the relationship great, they cited high numbers each, making the couples’ share more than 100%. People were able to come up with more than 11 of their contributions and less than 8 for their spouses.
  • Research shows that people help and learn more when the environment created is psychologically safe, like the one George Meyers had for his team.
  • Perspective Gap – When we are not experiencing a psychologically or physically intense state, we dramatically underestimate how much it will affect us.
    • Three groups of people were asked to estimate on a scale of 1-10 how bad surviving in -10 C would be. (a) people who had their hands dipped in icy cold water (b) people who had hands dipped in warm water. (c) people who had hands dipped in icy cold water 10 minutes ago.
    • As expected, people in group (b) under-estimated the pain compared to group (a). What was surprising was that people in group (c) gave estimates closer to group (b), rather than (a), even though they had experienced the icy cold water only 10 minutes ago.
  • When we treat a man as he is, we make him worse than he is; when we treat him as if he already were what he potentially could be, we make him what he should be.” -von Goethe. The biases of teachers, positive or negative, and their assumptions about a child or trainee’s potential can become self-fulfilling prophecies.
  • When their trainees made mistakes, instead of assuming they lacked ability, giving teachers saw opportunities for teaching and learning. Givers don’t wait for signs of potential.
  • A research study on star pianists showed that early on, they didn’t show much potential beyond being better than the neighbourhood kid. They did not win any awards at the school, state or national. Surprisingly these world-class pianists didn’t begin training with experts. They trained with teachers who were OK themselves, but were very kind and caring. They looked forward to piano lessons because their first teachers had made music very interesting and fun.
  • Counter-intuitively, givers are the least vulnerable to the mistake of overinvesting in people. This is because they are less concerned about saving face and more concerned about protecting other people and the organization.
  • “When you help someone get promoted out of your team, it is a short-term loss but its a clear long-term gain. It gets easier to attract people, because word gets around that your philosophy is to help people.”
  • The power of powerless communication
    • The author gave a lecture as a young professional to two groups of senior military men. The only difference in the two talks was that in the first, he started by touting his credentials. In the second, he acknowledged that he was much younger than them, and made fun of his alleged naivete. The second group regarded his lecture much more favorably than the first one.
    • A lawyer fighting an unfavorable case, but dexterously, managed to win over the jury because he was stammering. Counter-intuitively, his stammering worked in his favor because it made him human and relatable.
    • Expressing vulnerability is only effective if the audience receives other signals establishing the speaker’s competence. This is known as the Pratfall Effect.
    • When competent people make a blunder, audiences with average self-esteem respond more favorably than audiences with high and low self-esteem.
  • “By talking like a taker and dominating the conversation, you believe you’ve actually come to know the people around you.”
  • Givers make for great sales people – because they spend a lot of time understanding the person on the other side and their needs, and because they are prone to prioritizing the other person’s well-being.
  • Expert negotiators spent much more time understanding the other side’s questions – question 21% of the experts comments, but less than 10% of the average negotiator’s comments.
  • “The art of advocacy is to lead you to my conclusion on your terms. I want you to form your own conclusions – you’ll hold on to them more strongly. I try to walk jurors up to that line, drop them off and let them make their own minds.” – Words from a top lawyer.
  • Intention questions elicit commitment. If it is for something favorable (“are you planning to exercise this week?”), it enhances the chances of doing it. These questions don’t help if the subject of the question is unfavorable.
  • Symptoms of ‘powerless’ speech:
    • Hesitations – well, um, uh, you know
    • Hedges – kinda, probably, maybe, I think
    • Disclaimers – may be a bad idea, but
    • Tag questions – that’s interesting, isn’t it?
    • Intensifiers – really, very, quite
  • Some tentative disclaimers will actually backfire – for example, “I don’t mean to be selfish but..” – now your audience is more alert and looking for signs of selfishness in the rest of the sentence.
  • Impact of powerless communication
    • Powerless speakers earned prestige – they showed openness to proactive ideas that would  benefit the group.
    • They were viewed as more receptive to suggestions.
    • Case of the mid-career woman who reached out to HR and asked “If you were in my shoes, what would you do?”and got herself a seat on the corporate jet to pursue studies while working remotely.
  • “Seeking advice is the most effective way to influence peers, superiors and subordinates.”
  • Advice seeking has 4 benefits:
    • Learning
    • Perspective Taking
    • Commitment
    • Flattery
  • “When we ask for advice, in order to give us a recommendation, advisors have to look at the problem or dilemma from our point of view.”
  • The Benjamin Franklin effect – when we give our time, energy, knowledge and resources to help others, we strive to maintain a belief that they are worthy and deserving of our help.
  • Motivation Maintenance –  How some givers can keep giving and not burn out.
    • Successful givers are ‘otherish’ – they care about others but they also have ambitious goals for advancing their own interests.
    • To combat giver burnout, outsource the task of providing inspiration to the end users and clients, who are impacted by your work, and can attest to the difference you make.
    • Perception of impact serves as a buffer against stress.
    • This serves companies well – a well-known medical devices company brings in six patients at each all-hands to talk about how the products have changed their lives.
    • Change of context also brings renewed energy.
  • Chunking v/s Sprinkling – Pack your acts of giving into sizeable chunks, as opposed to scattering them throughout your workday or week. Groups who ‘chunked’ their giving felt more happy and satisfied, groups who ‘sprinkled’ it did not.
  • Selfless givers exhaust themselves. This is true in both work and personal life.
  • A thumb-rule for volunteering – 100 hours of volunteering annually hits the sweet spot, where giving is maximally energizing and minimally draining. 2 hours a week in a fresh domain each time is ideal.
  • There is an alternative to the ‘fight or flight’ stress response – termed ‘tend and befriend.’ The brain’s natural response during stress is to produce chemicals that foster bonding. It appears that only otherish givers take advantage of this.
  • Whether people have an agreeable or disagreeable personality seems to be atleast partially hardwired. Agreeable people have a larger posterior cortex.
  • DO NOT confuse agreeableness and giving nature. There are several examples of people who are off the charts in both giving and disagreeableness. “One minute he was giving me a tough time because his expectations weren’t being met. The next day, he was helping me figure out what I wanted to do in my career.” – said about the late Mike Homer who ran marketing at Netscape.
  • Modify ‘tit for tat’ strategy (matchers) to that of ‘generous tit for that’ – it says, “never forget a good turn, but occasionally forgive a bad one”. Abraham Lincoln is a case study in this style.
  • Women don’t negotiate pay for themselves. The advice for women or folks in this category, who find it hard to stand up for themselves, is to imagine they are mentoring someone who is in the same position as themselves, and do what they would advise their mentee to do.
  • Relational account – an explanation for a request that highlights concern for the interests of others, not only oneself. An example – negotiating for higher pay with the interests of one’s family in mind.
  • “Whereas advocacy and relational accounts enabled me to become more assertive in win-lose negotiations, it was perspective taking that helped me expand the pie and succeed in win-win negotiations”. 
  • The most effective negotiators were otherish – they reported high concern for their own interests and high concerns for their counterparts’ interests. They were able to give more and take more by expanding the pie.
  • Successful givers are different from the givers who burn out and stay at the bottom of the ladder in the following ways:
    • They recognize that their everyday choices shape the results they achieve in competitive, confrontational situations.
    • The dangers are not in the giving itself, but in adopting a single reciprocity style across all interactions and relationships.
    • They draw reserves of assertiveness from their commitments to the people who matter to them.
    • They learn to do ‘sincerity screenings’ for individuals.
    • They are good at identify opportunities where they can maximize benefits to others at low costs to themselves.
  • Common ground is a major influencer in giving behaviors. The rarer the common ground (e.g. you two share a gene found in only 2% of the population, or two people with the same name), the more likely people are to like each other and be compelled to give.
  • Often times we fail to identify with people because we’re thinking about ourselves and them in terms that are too specific and narrow. This is detrimental – because people are just a bit more enthusiastic, friendly and open-minded when they meet someone who reminds them of themselves.
  • Conflicting needs: On one hand, we strive to distinguish ourselves, we search for uniqueness. But the more we work to distinguish ourselves, the greater our risk of losing our sense of belonging. The more strongly we affiliate with a group, the greater our risk of losing our edge/unique advantage.
  • Reciprocity Rings – a powerful tool to encourage giving behaviors. They facilitate otherish-ness, even among takers. Takers are more likely to contribute when the acknowledgement is public.

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