Why Saying “Yes” Is the Key to Business Success
Business + Economy

Why Saying “Yes” Is the Key to Business Success


A colleague asks for feedback on a report. A LinkedIn connection requests an introduction to one of your key contacts. A recent graduate would like an informational interview. New research from Wharton management professor Adam Grant reveals that how you respond to these requests may be a decisive indicator of where you end up on the ladder of professional success.

Grant's findings are explored in a new book, Give and Take: A Revolutionary Approach to Success. In this interview, he delineates the differences between givers, takers and matchers; explores who gets ahead and who falls behind; and reveals how we can identify our own style and adapt it for greater success.

Knowledge@Wharton (KW): You say people differ in their preferences for reciprocity. You divide people into givers, takers and matchers. Explain.

Adam Grant (AG): You could anchor this at two extremes: the takers and the givers. The takers, when they walk into an interaction with another person, try to get as much as possible from that person and contribute as little as they can in return, thinking that's the shortest and most direct path to achieving their goals.

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At the other end of the spectrum is a strange breed of people I call "givers." It's not about donating money or volunteering, necessarily, but looking to help others by making an introduction, giving advice, providing mentoring or sharing knowledge, without strings attached. These givers prefer to be on the contributing end of an interaction. Very few of us are purely takers or givers. That brings us to the third group of people, matchers. A matcher tries to maintain an even balance of give and take. If I help you, I expect you to help me in return. These people keep score of exchanges, so that everything is fair and just.

KW: It seems logical that in fields like engineering and medicine, givers end up at the bottom of the heap. If you're focused on giving more to others than taking back, it's likely you'll end up at the bottom. But who ends up at the top of the heap, and why?

AG: Across a wide range of industries and even countries, these three styles exist everywhere. Indeed, the givers are overrepresented at the bottom. Putting other people first, they often put themselves at risk for burning out or being exploited by takers. A lot of people look at that and say, "It's hard for a taker to rise consistently to the top, because oftentimes takers burn bridges. So, it must be the matchers who are more generous than takers, but also protect their own interests." When I looked at the data, I was surprised to see those answers were wrong. It's actually the givers again. Givers are overrepresented at the top as well as the bottom of most success metrics.

In sales, the most productive salespeople put customers' interests first. A lot of that comes from the trust and goodwill they've built, but also the reputations they create. The success of givers and the fall of takers is also driven by matchers. A matcher is somebody who believes in a just world. Matchers cannot stand to see takers get ahead by taking advantage of other people. The data suggests matchers will often try to punish them, often by gossiping and spreading negative reputational information. Matchers will also often promote, help and support givers. That's a powerful dynamic behind the rise of givers.

KW: You tell one story about a person called Peter Audet. Did being a giver help him or hurt him? What are the lessons to learn?


AG: Peter Audet, a financial advisor, goes out of his way to help everyone he meets. For years, he would interview job candidates. He would only be able to hire one, but would often give up an afternoon just trying to find jobs for [those] he couldn't hire, really opening up his personal network to do that. A lot of times, this orientation got him in trouble. He lost a ton of money in one case. He got burned by a taker in one situation.

Yet Peter has been enormously successful. His financial advisory firm [earns] well over seven figures in annual revenue. Being a giver is how he has gotten ahead. Oftentimes givers put themselves at risk in the short run. But in the long run, they end up building social capital that's really important for success in a connected world.

KW: How do successful givers approach networking? How does their approach differ from, say, takers or matchers?

AG: Takers tend to actually have incredibly broad networks. In part, because when they burn one bridge, they have to go and find new people to exploit, in order to keep the network going. Matchers tend to have much narrower networks. They will typically only exchange with people who have helped them in the past or who they expect to help them in the future. They end up restricting their universe of opportunities. Givers tend to build much broader networks than matchers, but in a very different way than takers. When they meet somebody new, givers will figure out, "How can I add value to this person's life, and what could I possibly contribute that might benefit this person?" They end up creating good will in their relationships.

KW: How do you spot a faker, or a taker in giver's clothing?

AG:  Let's start with the corner office. There's a phenomenal study by Chatterjee and Hambrick that looked at over 100 computer companies and downloaded their annual reports. They tried to figure out [if] you could identify the taker CEOs without ever meeting them. They got Wall Street analysts to rate how much each CEO is a taker. These analysts who knew the CEOs and interacted with them rated the extent to which they were entitled, narcissistic and self-serving.

The first factor that correlated highly with those ratings was the gap in compensation between the CEO and the next highest-paid executive. Typically, a computer industry CEO makes about two to two and a half times as much annual compensation as the next highest-paid executive in that company. The typical taker CEO had about seven times more annual compensation than the next highest-paid executive in that company. They literally [took] more in terms of compensation.

The second cue was in their speech. The takers tended to use first-person singular pronouns, like "I" and "me," as opposed to "us" and "we," when talking about the company. The third, and my favorite, was the takers literally felt it's all about me: I am the most important figure in this company. When you looked at their photos in the company's annual reports, they actually had larger photos. They were more likely to be pictured alone.

New research by Keith Campbell and his colleagues suggests you can even spot these cues on Facebook. Look for a pattern that translates from Dutch as basically "kissing up, kicking down." Takers tend to be very careful at impression management and ingratiation when they're dealing with someone superior or more influential. But it's hard to keep up the façade in every interaction. It's often peers and subordinates who have a more direct window into this person's true motives.

KW: You say givers and takers differ quite a bit in how they approach collaboration and sharing credit. Can you give examples?

AG: One was Jonas Salk, remembered as a hero for discovering and commercializing a polio vaccine. But he never gave credit to any people in his lab who helped him discover the vaccine and actually caused the team to fracture and splinter. Salk never made a discovery that was nearly as influential again. This is a cost of appearing like a taker in a collaboration: slighting other people who might deserve credit. What givers tend to do in collaboration is assume that credit is not zero sum. If I give you credit for your contributions, that doesn't necessarily take away from my contribution. That makes it a lot easier to keep people on board in a team over time. It means, typically, that if you're a leader or a manager, people will follow you to a different job. That's powerful.

KW: A big challenge for a manager is identifying the so-called "diamonds in the rough," people who have the potential to do great things. Tell us how a legendary teacher described in your book does this.

AG: An accounting professor at the University of North Carolina and Duke by the name of CJ Skender has taught over 35,000 students in his career. He's won every teaching award on the planet. He has a remarkable gift for bringing out the best in his students. He's had many, many students win gold medals, both in his state and nationally, for accounting achievements. He's had more than three dozen students follow him to become professors of accounting. The question is, "How does he do it?" A lot of people assume he's got a great eye for talent and that he's immediately able to spot the quantitative savants and then basically work with them.

CJ says, no, it's the opposite. He sees every student as a diamond in the rough, waiting to be polished. Then he tries to make his classes as interesting as possible to bring out the best in those students. This is true of coaches and leaders and managers everywhere. If you look at research by Benjamin Bloom and his colleagues about what made somebody a world-class tennis player or a world-class musician, or even a mathematician of great acclaim, rarely were those world-class candidates superior early on in their careers. But they had in common someone who believed in them and set their aspirations very high. That often created a self-fulfilling prophecy, by inspiring them to engage and to put in the 10,000 hours that we all know are critical to achieving expertise.

KW: What can givers do to avoid burnout and to avoid becoming doormats?

AG: In a way, being a matcher is a safer strategy. Knowing that givers end up at the bottom and the top means there are some risks associated with it. But those risks actually can be mitigated with careful strategies. A lot of it comes down to setting boundaries. Many givers confuse being helpful or being generous with being available for every person and request all the time. There are other givers who confuse being generous with empathizing and dropping everything you're doing to help others. There are also plenty of givers out there who feel like it's uncomfortable or inappropriate to advocate for their own interests. We need to work with people who fall in the giving end of the spectrum to help them set clear boundaries and determine, "Okay, how am I going to help most of the people most of the time?"

One of my favorite concepts is what's called the five-minute favor. Instead of helping everyone all the time, [ask], "Can I offer something of unique value to this other person that will take me five minutes or less?" It's about finding high benefit to others, but low cost to the self.

KW: Normally people believe that the alternative to being selfish, a trait that takers usually have, is being selfless. But you've come up with another term, called "otherish." What is the difference?

AG: Takers tend to be purely selfish. There's one group of givers, who are purely selfless, who constantly put other people's interests ahead of their own. But there's this other group of givers I call "otherish." They are concerned about benefitting others, but they also keep their own interests in the rearview mirror. They will look for the "win-win," as opposed to win-lose. Here's the irony. The selfless givers might be more altruistic  because they constantly elevate other people's interests ahead of their own. But my data, and research by lots of others, show they're actually less generous: They run out of energy, time and resources, because they basically don't take enough care of themselves. The "otherish" givers are able to sustain their giving by looking for ways that giving can hurt them less or benefit them more.

KW: What practical advice could you offer those who want to start applying these principles to their own lives?

AG: The first question is, what is your own style? On the Give and Take website, Giveandtake.com, there's a self-assessment you can take. There's also a 360 assessment, both available for free, where you can get other people to rate you. The second step is, there are surprising opportunities for success and for meaning in operating like a giver. I would ask, "What are the types of giving that you find most energizing or most consistent with your skills?" For some, it's making introductions. For others, it's sharing credit. For others, it's mentoring. Finding your own giver style is powerful. The real meaning and purpose associated with that is that even if givers don't always do better than takers or matchers, they manage to succeed in ways that make others better and lift others up, instead of cutting them down.

This article originally appeared in Knowledge@Wharton.