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Givers aren’t self-sacrificing to a fault, but they offer support and mentoring help, and they share credit without worrying about how they will gain from an interaction. (BRIAN JACKSON/GETTY IMAGES/ISTOCKPHOTO)
Givers aren’t self-sacrificing to a fault, but they offer support and mentoring help, and they share credit without worrying about how they will gain from an interaction. (BRIAN JACKSON/GETTY IMAGES/ISTOCKPHOTO)

WOMEN AT WORK

How giving can help you get ahead at the office Add to ...

Are you a giver or a taker? Not in the philanthropic sense, but in your interactions with others in your professional life.

Givers look for opportunities to support colleagues, or even strangers, while takers jealously guard their advances and look to take advantage of a situation.

I see myself as a giver, a difficult admission in the business world where “nice” is perceived as a four-letter word. Like many others, I am committed to my own success but I don’t view it as a zero-sum game, where my gains come at another’s expense.

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The usual advice about how to get ahead in the competitive business world is littered with war-like metaphors: Eat or be eaten. Take no prisoners. It’s a dog-eat-dog world. But for many, the kind of advice doesn’t resonate.

Thankfully, givers may be getting their moment in the spotlight and it couldn’t come soon enough. Give and Take: A Revolutionary Approach to Success is a new best-seller by Adam Grant, an organizational psychologist and professor at University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School. He shows that when givers do it properly, they come out ahead.

Dr. Grant divides business people into three categories on the collaboration spectrum, based on how they interact with others: takers, givers and matchers. Takers put their own interests first – they may give to others, but only when the personal benefit outweighs the cost.

Givers pay more attention to the needs of others. They aren’t self-sacrificing to a fault, but they offer support and mentoring help, and they share credit without worrying about how they will gain from an interaction.

Then there are the matchers, who try to achieve an equal balance of both giving and taking. While a person can shift between the three styles, one likely remains dominant.

According to Dr. Grant, givers find success because they build larger networks than matchers, who demand a quid pro quo. Takers build large networks, too, but it’s often done to compensate for the many bridges they burned in the process.

Within organizations, givers not only find personal success, they also turn into energizing forces that boost the productivity of those around them. Dr. Grant notes this in his book, citing research by University of Virginia professor Rob Cross and Andrew Parker of Stanford University, which contrasts givers with the takers in organizations, who act like “black holes,” sucking the energy from others.

In the same way that it might prove difficult for individuals to become givers, it’s also tough for companies to change. Evolving from a taking to a giving corporate culture is not easy, and Dr. Grant works with many organizations on how to do this.

“A lot of people assume that if you want to create a culture of givers, you should hire givers, but it’s important to have takers,” Dr. Grant said in an interview.

The key, he added, is to reward and recognize givers so “it’s not just takers hogging all of the spotlight.” A company needs recipients for the givers, which is where the takers come in.

Technology is helping to pave the way for companies to embrace this more collaborative approach and support the givers. “Every worker is becoming an information worker, and as technology continues to push throughout the business, collaboration is a big requirement,” said Wayne Ingram, Canadian managing director of technology at Accenture.

He noted that social-media trends, once the domain of a younger generation, have coming knocking on the doors of big enterprises and employees are “asking to collaborate in ways similar to their personal lives.”

Social applications, in particular, have turned giving into an expected practice, even in professional settings. “If you don’t offer up support, you are somewhat of an outsider,” Mr. Ingram said.

But before you start offering your time and resources to others in a burst of giving, consider the extensive research Dr. Grant also cites in his book, which shows that while givers often find themselves at the top of the ladder, they also appear on the bottom. Giving can be an asset, he points out, but only when accomplished properly.

Some givers risk being viewed as pushovers, which can be career limiting. Those who avoid this trap learned to give to the right people, who end up paying it forward.

Women, in particular, may be more likely to be taken for granted because social convention expects them to be more giving than men are. When men do take on the role of givers, their behaviour comes across as exceptional, which may get them further ahead.

That warning aside, one of the most encouraging parts of Dr. Grant’s book details the professional life of David Hornik, a successful venture capitalist and unapologetic giver. When asked what he wanted to achieve most in life, he said: “Above all, I want to demonstrate that success doesn’t have to come at someone else’s expense.”

I couldn’t agree more, Mr. Hornik. Let’s see if the business world is listening.

Leah Eichler is founder of Femme-o-Nomics, a networking and content portal for professional women and r/ally, a mobile collaboration app.

E-mail: leah.eichler@femme-o-nomics.com Twitter: @femmeonomics

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