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Givers and Takers: Creating a Culture of Productive Generosity

Remember the story of the Harvard students who created that online social network? No, not that one. The original one. Few people know that a half decade before Mark Zuckerberg formed Facebook, another group of freshmen entered the university looking for a way to meet new friends. They too created online profiles, but sometime during that first semester, after they all had gotten to know one another, they shut it down. Five years later, Facebook was conceived in the house next door.

Do the original innovators have deep regret over not sticking with their creation? Most certainly yes. Adam Grant should know. He is one of them.

This, shared Grant at CRE.Converge, is a lesson learned. We have ideas – often ones with potential to change the world – but don’t share them.

Grant, an organizational psychologist, Wharton professor and keynote at CRE.Converge, has spent the last 15 years going into workplaces to see what makes cultures work – and what makes them break. What he sees most is paranoia, mainly caused by colleagues Grant calls “Takers.” You know the type: the ones who get more than they give, pass along the grunt work, and take all the credit.

The other two type of individuals are “Givers,” the rare breed of colleagues who constantly contribute to others without expecting anything in return, and “Matchers,” those who try to give and take in equal proportions.

Grant believes that a culture of productive generosity – where people get and give and collaborate for the best purposes – is the ideal workplace, and he shared some words of advice to help foster that culture in your own business:

Set boundaries with Takers. Have a draining coworker? Don’t be afraid to challenge them. When confronted with reasonable and steady boundaries, Takers are forced to change and often become Matchers.

Create psychological safety. Sometimes leaders shut down cultural creativity unintentionally by saying things like, “Don’t bring me problems, bring me solutions.” Businesses that strive to have productive cultures offer employees the opportunity to bring the worst issues to the forefront, sometimes offering a cloak of anonymity. Managers are committed to reviewing the problems and voluntarily taking on an issue to effect change. In short, it’s okay to allow employees to share the bad along with celebrating the good.

Encourage help-seeking. It’s tough for people to give when they don’t know who needs help. Grant says that leaders can change this by modeling desired behaviors, asking colleagues for help and showing that both asking for help and giving help are encouraged. Sometimes this can essentially reverse the roles: Givers get to take, and Takers have the opportunity to give.

Be a tempered radical. Share your ideas, even when afraid, but manage your emotions. But hold your ground, and don’t be tempted to “de-radicalize and de-risk” your ideas so that they’re accepted more easily. Instead, couch your unconventional idea in a familiar concept.

Set boundaries on time. Knowing where to draw the line is crucial to Givers not only protecting their own sanity, but also to help Takers realize that others don’t jump at their call. In short, set boundaries to avoid being taken advantage of to maintain a fine balance of giving and avoid burn-out.

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