There are two kinds of employees in this world.
Well, at least, according to Adam Grant there are.
“Let me introduce you to two kinds of people who fall at opposite ends of the reciprocity spectrum at work,” writes Grant in his book, Give and Take. “I call them takers and givers.”
What a taker is
According to Grant, takers like to get more than they give. “They feel that to succeed, they need to be better than others. To prove their competence, they self-promote and make sure they get plenty of credit for their efforts. Garden-variety takers aren’t cruel or cutthroat; they’re just cautious and self-protective.”
On the other hand, givers are the opposite: they like to give more than they get. “Givers are a relatively rare breed,” explains Grant. “They tilt reciprocity in the other direction, preferring to give more than they get.”
In reality, though, there’s a third category we should mention. Many of us don’t fit squarely into the giver or taker category – we’d be what Grant calls matchers. “Matchers operate on the principle of fairness: when they help others, they protect themselves by seeking reciprocity. If you’re a matcher, you believe in tit for tat, and your relationships are governed by even exchanges of favors.”
Why (and how) takers wreak havoc
While it might seem like a good idea to focus all your energy on finding the givers in your next shortlist of candidates, it’s way more important to weed out the takers.
During his keynote address at the Human Resources Professionals Association (HRPA)’s annual conference in January, Grant explained how the damage that one taker can do to a team is far worse than the good that one giver can do.
“If you let one taker onto a team, paranoia starts to spread,” he explains.
It has to do with making your workplace a psychologically safe place to try out new ideas. A true leader should do everything they can to empower their team to think creatively, eschew the status quo, and push the company toward exciting new directions.
When you have a taker in your midst, that psychological safety is immediately in jeopardy. Because when it comes to collaborating and sharing ideas, takers either want to shut down another employee’s idea – or worse, steal it.
And that, in turn, leads to givers and matchers feeling vulnerable and unsafe – so they either stop contributing altogether, or they change their tack…and become a taker.
How to avoid hiring takers
If you’re looking to identify a taker in the job interview, Grant has a simple suggestion.
“Weed them out by asking, ‘What percentage of people in your industry steal at least $10 a month?’”
The higher their estimate, the higher the chance that they’re at taker. “Takers anticipate selfish behaviour in others,” explains Grant. It doesn’t have to be office theft – simply identify the most toxic behaviour prevalent at your workplace, and ask them what percentage of people they think do it. Grant also recommends asking them how they came up with their answer. If you get an answer like, “I just believe people are selfish,” you probably are looking at a taker, he says.
Full disclosure on this: we tested this theory out at work, and we’re not 100 per cent sold. Answers ranged from 25 per cent to 95 per cent – and from team members that we’d all agree were definitely not takers. While we all agreed that this is definitely an interesting question to pull out at an interview, we feel like answers should be taken with a grain of salt.
How to manage existing takers
If reading this has you panicking over how much Frank in marketing sounds like a through-and-through taker, don’t fret. If you already have one in your midst, you should automatically start looking to replace them.
“Nobody is a taker in every role and in every interaction,” explains Grant. If you identify a taker on your team, try to look for situations where their inner taker seems to back off. For example, Frank in marketing might ruin every brainstorming session he takes part in, for example, but maybe he’s a great liaison with sales.
Another option is to simply address the situation head-on. Some people might not even realize that they’ve become a taker – and are more than willing to take steps to change. “Make their reputation visible to them,” says Grant.