By Pratap Nambiar for The Business Times

Leaders need to walk the talk. They just cannot afford to be Takers and expect the rest of the organisation to give to each other. The first thing that’s really critical is for them to recognise that Givers are their most valuable asset and protect them or they will burn out..

In the process of coaching senior leaders over the last twelve years, I have found that CEOs who have been on a journey of self-development, gaining spiritual maturity and an innate capacity for introspection and reflection generally tend to evolve and show up as servant leaders.

Being self-less suggests that leaders are able to pursue service over self-interest. They do not have a personal agenda, are not driven by personal ambition or desire for credit and are focused on collaboration with all for the good of everyone in the organization. They build trusted relationships, at all levels and encourage the team to focus on delivering results without trying to fulfil their selfish desires.

Many effective leaders (about 35%) have invested in knowing themselves, becoming self-aware and have a strong internal locus of control. They do not seek external validation and as Harvard’s Prof.Robert Kegan has pointed out have a self-authoring mind with an internal compass and a level of independence that allows them to work without seeking the approval of others. They have strong self-esteem, are comfortable in their own skin living with their own set of internal principles.

This indicates a high level of personal development which comes from recognizing their own shadow selves, knowing their imperfections, and having developed the capacity for self-compassion to forgive themselves for it. They have reached a state of mind where they know that success in the workplace is no longer about trying to cover themselves in glory, but to seek collaborative relationships that allow all to perform at their highest versions to drive the results that the organization seeks.


Giving and Taking

After years of studying the dynamics of success and productivity in the workplace, organizational psychologist Adam Grant of Wharton, has in his latest book Give and Take, written about a powerful and often overlooked motivator: helping others. He has invalidated several conventional notions about motivational thinking with the thesis that giving unselfishly to colleagues can lead to one’s own long-term success.

Prof Kegan too has talked about people in organizations having two jobs – one that is the role for which they have been hired, and the other to focus on survival and thriving by keenly monitoring everything that is happening in the organization that could potentially derail them, lower their status, their power, or potential to climb the promotion ladder. This is a full-time job. They are paranoid about it and Adam Grant’s research has found that most of these paranoid leaders are essentially Takers.

Takers are self-serving in their interactions. It’s all about what can you do for me. Their ego has to be served. The opposite is a Giver. It’s somebody who approaches most interactions by asking, “What can I do for you?” All of us have a default setting that makes us generally Givers or Takers, though we could be both at different times and in different contexts. The extreme kind of Taker is a psychopath and we have seen such leaders in some countries where they have created an alternate reality for themselves and their narcissistic behaviour needs everyone around to cow-tow to them.

Adam Grant surveyed over 30,000 people across industries around the world’s cultures. And he found that most people are right in the middle between giving and taking. They choose this third style called “Matching.” If you’re a Matcher, you try to keep an even balance of give and take – quid pro quo — I’ll do something for you, and I would like you to do something for me. 25% of his sample were Givers, 19% Takers, and 56% Matchers.



Givers are often sacrificing themselves, even to the extent that it impacts their performance, but they make their organizations better. Adam Grant says he has a huge body of evidence — many, many studies looking at the frequency of giving behaviour that exists in a team or an organization – and the more often people are helping and sharing their knowledge and providing mentoring, the better organizations do on every metric we can measure – higher profits, customer satisfaction, employee retention — even lower operating expenses. So, the message is that organizations have to build cultures where Givers are able to succeed.

Who are the best performers? The good news is it’s not the Takers. Takers tend to rise quickly but also fall quickly in most jobs. And they fall at the hands of Matchers. If you’re a Matcher, you believe in “An eye for an eye” — a just world. And so when you meet a Taker, you feel like it’s your mission in life to just punish the hell out of that person. And that way justice gets served.

Well, most people are Matchers. And that means if you’re a Taker, it tends to catch up with you eventually; what goes around will come around. And so the logical conclusion is: it must be the Matchers who are the best performers. But they’re not. In every job, in every organization Adam Grant has ever studied, the Best results belong to the Givers.


Building a Giving Culture

Put simply, culture is how people show up in the organization. The way they do things. It is the behaviours that reflect the values and beliefs of people. So, leaders need to walk the talk. They just cannot afford to be Takers and expect the rest of the organization to give to each other. The first thing that’s really critical is for them to recognize that Givers are their most valuable asset and protect them or they will burn out.

The second thing that matters if you want to build a culture where Givers succeed, is you actually need a culture where help-seeking is the norm, where people ask a lot. What you see with successful Givers is they recognize that it’s OK to be a receiver, too.

If you run an organization, you can actually make this easier. Leaders can make it easier for people to ask for help by setting an example themselves. Adam and his colleagues studied hospitals. They found that on certain floors, nurses did a lot of help-seeking, and on other floors, they did very little of it. The factor that stood out on the floors where help-seeking was common, where it was the norm, was there was just one nurse whose sole job it was to help other nurses on the unit. When that role was available, nurses said, “It’s not embarrassing, it’s not vulnerable to ask for help — it’s actually encouraged.”

Help-seeking isn’t important just for protecting the success and the well-being of Givers. It’s also critical to getting more people to act like Givers, because the data suggests that somewhere between 75 and 90 percent of all giving in organizations starts with a request. But a lot of people don’t ask.

Why? Because they do not have a growth mind-set and are afraid of accepting that they do not know. This incompetence they feel will negatively impact their reputation which they must protect at all times. Unless there is a culture of asking you cannot get a culture of giving.

But the most important thing, if you want to build a culture of successful givers, is to be thoughtful about who you let onto your team. Intuitively it seems like if you want a culture of productive generosity, you should hire a bunch of givers. But Adam Grant was surprised to discover, actually, that that was not right — that the negative impact of a Taker on a culture is usually double to triple the positive impact of a Giver.

Bring in even one taker into your team, and the result will be the givers will stop helping. They’ll say, “I’m surrounded by a bunch of snakes and sharks. Why should I contribute?” Whereas if you let one giver into a team, you don’t get an explosion of generosity. More often, people are like, “Great! That person can do all our work.” So, effective hiring and screening and team building is not about bringing in the Givers; it’s about ensuring you don’t hire Takers and are also constantly weeding them out. If you can do that well says Adam Grant, you’ll be left with Givers and Matchers. The Givers will be generous because they don’t have to worry about the consequences. And the beauty of the Matchers is that they follow the norm.


The Personality Trait of Agreeableness

Typically, in most organizations we intuitively know who the Takers are over a long period of time. However, we are quite bad at figuring this out particularly in the early days of interaction. Grant says there is a personality trait that throws us off. It’s called agreeableness, which is one of the major dimensions of personality across cultures. Agreeable people are warm and friendly, they’re nice, they’re polite.

We always assume that agreeable people were Givers and disagreeable people were Takers. But then when Adam Grant gathered the data, he was stunned to find no correlation between those traits, because it turns out that agreeableness-disagreeableness is your outer veneer: How pleasant is it to interact with you? Whereas giving and taking are more of your inner motives: What are your values? What are your intentions toward others?

The agreeable Givers are easy to spot: they say yes to everything. The Disagreeable Takers are also recognized quickly and are clearly not on top of anyone’s friendly list. There are Disagreeable Givers in our organizations. These are people who are gruff and tough on the surface but underneath have others’ best interests at heart. Adam Grant refers to it as people with a bad user interface but with a great operating system.

Disagreeable givers are the most undervalued people in organizations because they are the ones who give the critical feedback that no one wants to hear but everyone needs to hear. We need to do a much better job valuing these people as opposed to writing them off early, misunderstanding their surface social style and mistaking them for a Taker.

The deadliest version is the Agreeable Taker, also known as the Faker. This is the person who is nice to your face, and then will stab you right in the back.


Identifying the ‘Fakers’

Adam’s favourite way to catch these people in the interview process is to ask the question, “Can you give me the names of four people whose careers you have fundamentally improved?” The Takers will give you four names, and they will all be more influential than them, because Takers are great at kissing up and then kicking down. Givers are more likely to name people who are below them in a hierarchy, who don’t have as much power, who can do them no good. And we all know we can learn a lot about character by watching how someone treats their restaurant server or their Uber driver.

If we do all this well, if we can weed Takers out of organizations, if we can make it safe to ask for help, if we can protect Givers from burnout and make it OK for them to be ambitious in pursuing their own goals as well as trying to help other people, we can actually change the way that people define success. Instead of saying it’s all about winning a competition, people will realize success is really more about contribution.

Adam Grant believes that the most meaningful way to succeed is to help other people succeed. And if we can spread that belief, we can actually turn paranoia upside down. There’s a name for that. He calls it “pronoia.” Pronoia is the delusional belief that other people are plotting your well-being. That they’re going around behind your back and saying exceptionally glowing things about you.

The great thing about a culture of Givers is that’s not a delusion — it’s reality. Like Adam Grant, I too want to live in a world where Givers succeed, and I hope you will help create that world.

Pratap Nambiar, Chartered Business Coach (ChBC), is the founder and chairman of Thought Perfect (Singapore), dedicated to coaching CEOs and senior leaders transform themselves for better performance. 

This article was originally published in The Business Times on February 19, 2021.


Thought Perfect offers leadership transformation coaching  for CEOs and senior business leaders to improve their business performance and maximise their potential. The company has coached senior executives of global multinationals based in Singapore as well as in other parts of the world, including India and the United States. If you are looking for an experienced executive  business coach to help your senior management, contact us now to discuss your business objectives and challenges.

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