In the workplace there are raptors (the takers who do whatever they can to succeed) and the pigeons (the givers who spend much of their time helping others). Robert Mueller, M.Div. Ed.M. Ed.D, organizational effectiveness consultant and University of the Sciences MBA program director, examines which mentality is better for your career and for the organization.
We all know them—the givers and the takers at work (Grant, Give and Take, 2013). There are those who see every workplace interchange as an opportunity to gain a competitive advantage, and those who want nothing more than to find ways to lighten others’ loads. There are the people who want to help you with your work, and those who want to take credit for what someone else has done. These archetypes raise important work questions, including who does better in their career and who is better for the company?
The general wisdom has been that “nice guys finish last,” and that to be a winner at work you have to view everyone as a competitor. Following this logic, you cannot spend your talents helping others—you have to view work as a zero sum game, and get what you can. Thus the raptors eat what they kill and the pigeons sit on their sill waiting to be taloned. One of the many problems with this kind of thinking is that it is only partly true. This zero sum ethos prevents organizations from collaborating—exactly the culture that gives organizations a competitive advantage. And there is data to support the fact that “giving cultures” are more productive and profitable (Podsakoff, 2009).
The reality is that most of us can identify ourselves somewhere on this continuum. Now the question is, which is it better to be, and are these the only real options? This is where the marvelous new work of Adam Grant comes in (Grant, 2013). Grant, a professor at the Wharton School, has said that the working world is inhabited by givers, takers and matchers. We have already described givers and takers, but many of us are matchers, those who just try to keep the “favor” ledger even, without being viewed as either.
However, Grant also discovered that there is a bimodal distribution of “giver” success. He found that the givers were split between the least successful people in the organization, and those at the very top. How can this be? Grant’s answer was that the less successful generous ones also seemed timid, available and empathic. The rest of Grant’s article and book (which I strongly recommend reading) outlines tactics and strategies for overcoming these giver vulnerabilities.
So as not to merely restate what Grant has written, I want to add a few thoughts of my own. To overcome timidity, I offer the following simple exercise to prompt your thinking. In the following table, please write the words that come to mind when you think of a person who is a timid giver and one who is an aggressive taker (I have seeded the list, but please add your own).
Please add or delete any words you wish, and then circle the traits you view as positive. I believe you will come up with a list that includes kind, goal oriented, intrepid, thoughtful, collaborative and liked. My point is that the givers at the top have figured out a way to be generous without giving up their goals, drive and focus. In short, they have not become doormats. This is akin to what Chris Argyris and Donald Schön alluded to when they talked about inquiry and advocacy—the need to ask questions and make yourself vulnerable to questions while simultaneously describing and advocating your own position (Argyris, 1996). You need both because inquiry without advocacy is weak, but advocacy without inquiry is like “pushing a rope.” Together they build trust and collaboration.
Grant also has tactics to address availability and empathy. While I am not entirely convinced that empathy is necessarily so problematic (after all we have spent the past 20 years getting used to Daniel Goleman’s EQ), availability is clearly a problem. The availability problem for givers is that they are too available and too willing to take on other peoples’ problems.
Almost 40 years ago, Oncken and Wass humorously described this problem as “taking on other people’s monkeys” (Oncken, 1974). In their description, a manager is walking down the hall and a subordinate says, “We have a problem,” and the manager says, “Let me think about it.” At that moment the monkey has jumped on the manager’s back and he/she is now working for the subordinate. So the answer to the availability problem is to be vigilantly aware of not only time availability (a la Grant) but also to not adopt too many monkeys.
The solution to the giver/taker conundrum may thus be to take a little of what is good from each type, and be very careful of people carrying monkeys. Anecdotally, several years ago I gave the Oncken article to my boss and it turned out to be the dumbest thing I could do—she will now accept none of my monkeys.
So be neither a raptor nor a pigeon—rather take the best of each and leave the rest—think of the migrating geese who lead each other to feed and shelter.
Argyris, C. (1996). Organizational Learning. Reading, MA: Addison Wesley.
Grant, A. (2013). Give and Take. New York, NY: Viking.
Grant, A. (2013). In the Company of Givers and Takers. Boston, MA, USA: Harvard Business Review.
Oncken, W. (1974). Management Time: Whose Got the Monkey. Boston, MA: Harvard Business Review.
Podsakoff, N. (2009). Individual and Organizational Level Consequences of Organizational Behaviors: A Meta Analysis. Journal of Applied Psychology.