Give and Take: Summary & Review

give and take book cover

In Give and Take (2013) Adam Grant examines how people’s value-giving or value-taking attitudes towards social exchanges and interpersonal relationships influence their success in life, concluding that givers are both big losers… And big winners.

give and take book cover

Exec Summary

  • Different people fall over a continuum of give and take
  • Givers and takers are on opposite sides of that continuum
  • People prefer, like, and support givers, and dislike (and can undermine as frenemies) the takers
  • Different types of givers are on opposite ends of personal success: either winners, or losers
  • Winning givers are power-aware and can be more strategic, assertive, or high-power

This is the same we often said on this website and the same concepts over which we base several of our foundational strategies in Power University.


About the Author: Adam Grant is an organizational psychologist, author, and professor at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania.
He is also the author of Originals and he dabbled into the sociology of power dynamics with “Power Moves“, a book that he wrote while observing the power players at the Davos Economic Forum.

1. People differ in their inclinations to either give or take

Adam Grant says that “social scientists have discovered that people differ dramatically in their desired mix of taking and giving” (Miles et al., 1989).

In the psychological literature, they’re sometimes referred to as “reciprocity preferences”.
In common parlance, we can call it a predisposition towards taking or giving.

The reciprocity can be thought of as on a continuum:

the continuum of reciprocity preferences
Note: the colors don’t reflect what’s “better”. Being a giver can be naive at times. The colors are seen from the point of view of “contributions” to an imaginary whole

In brief:

  • Givers: prefer to give more than they get
  • Matchers: preserve an equal balance of giving and taking -they’re the majority-
  • Takers: prefer like to get more than they give

Grant says that takers self-promote and make sure they get plenty of credit for their efforts. The “garden-variety takers” aren’t cruel but more like cautious and self-protective.

TPM Note:
On TPM we believe self-promotion when you’re not getting your due credit or making sure people know the value you bring doesn’t make you a taker, but it’s just smart and sensible behavior.
We call it “fair value marketing”.

It’s not just about behaviors and putting one’s own interests first, but also about mindsets.
Takers believe that the world is a competitive, dog-eat-dog place.
And they tend to place a high premium on independence. If they depend too much on others, takers believe, they’ll be vulnerable to being outdone. It’s not difficult for takers to think of themselves as separate, because they tend to see themselves as superior to and separate from others.

TPM Note: individualism is not necessarily bad and collectivism is often poor
A certain degree of separateness is a good thing and does not have to harm collaboration.
Also see: enlightened individualism.

Matchers instead believe and 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 in functional exchanges, you prefer your relationships to be an even exchange of favors.

While takers put themselves above other people’s needs, givers are other-focused, paying more attention to what other people need from them.
Givers also reject the notion that interdependence is weak and appreciate interdependence. Givers are more likely to see interdependence as a source of strength, a way to harness the skills of multiple people for the greater good.

Social Exchange Calculations: How Givers and Takers Calculate Differently

Here on TPM we say that everyone runs a subconscious “accounting” of value exchanges.

As a matter of fact, we promote here a conscious approach towards value exchanges.

And indeed Adam Grant confirms the same… With a small exception.
“Give and Take” says that some givers might not think of the personal costs at all. However, many “selfless givers” do run some calculations.
It’s just that givers run a calculation that differs in nature from takers and matchers.
Grant says that if you’re a giver, you help whenever the benefits to others exceed the personal costs.

While if you’re a taker, you help others strategically, when the benefits to you outweigh the personal costs.

Closer relationships are more giver-based

According to research by Yale psychologist Margaret Clark, most people act like givers in close relationships.

Here at TPM we say that’s indeed possible and that those are the best relationship.
However, we place a healthy amount of emphasis on that “most”, plus we look for specific situations when a value-taking attitude might crop up, and we learn how to address it and stamp it out -lest it grows like poison ivy-.

So, in good chunk, the reciprocity style of choice depends on the context and relationship.
Adam Grant makes the care that there is no point in keeping the giver style for close relationshpis only, and that people could probably do more and succeed more by extending that “giver approach”.

2. Givers are at the bottom… And at the top

Says Grant:

Research demonstrates that givers sink to the bottom of the success ladder

Givers are at a disadvantage because they make others better off but sacrifice their own success in the process.

It’s important to note though that Grant focuses on the workplace, albeit we can probably say that the workplace is a good proxy of at least financial success.
The research is:

  • Givers are poor engineers at work (Francis J. Flynn, 2017) The least productive and effective engineers are givers. In one study 161 professional engineers in California rated one another and the least successful engineers were those who gave more than they received. These givers had the worst objective scores for number of tasks, technical reports, drawings completed, errors made, deadlines missed, and money wasted.
    Going out of their way to help others prevented them from getting their own work done.
  • Givers get poor grades in med School (Lievens et al. 2009), : In a study of 627 medical students in Belgium, the students with the lowest grades had very high scores on giver statements like “I love to help others” and “I anticipate the needs of others.” The givers went out of their way to help their peers study, sharing what they already knew at the expense of filling gaps in their own knowledge, and it gave their peers a leg up at test time.
  • Givers sell less (Grant & Barnes, “Predicting Sales Revenue”, working paper, 2011) Givers brought in two and a half times less annual sales revenue. Givers were too concerned about what was best for their customer to sell aggressively enough

And there’s even evidence that compared with takers, on average, givers earn 14 percent less money, have twice the risk of becoming victims of crimes, and are judged as 22 percent less powerful and dominant.

Grant says that the givers are also at the top, though:

But when we look at the engineers with the highest productivity, the evidence shows that they’re givers too.
The worst performers and the best performers are givers; takers and matchers are more likely to land in the middle.

  • The California engineers with the best objective scores for quantity and quality of results are those who consistently give more to their colleagues than they get.
  • The Belgian medical students with the lowest grades have unusually high giver scores, but so do the students with the highest grades. Over the course of medical school, being a giver accounts for 11 percent higher grades.
  • The least productive salespeople had 25 percent higher giver scores than average performers—but so did the most productive salespeople. The top performers were givers, and they averaged 50 percent more annual revenue than the takers and matchers

Grant says that “across occupations, if you examine the link between reciprocity styles and success, the givers are more likely to become champs—not only chumps”.

TPM Note: How about those other studies showing givers as victims and more submissive?
Albeit Grant might romance it a bit, these are remarkable studies that he brought to our attention and that show the power of collaboration.

But there are 3 studies missing on this “giver turnaround”. How about those studies showing that givers are more likely to be victimized and are judged not as dominant?

3. Givers enjoy many life-advantages: success, social networks, happiness, & more

Among the advantages:

Winning givers create circles of winners

Grant says that givers, takers, and matchers all can—and do—achieve success.

But there’s something distinctive that happens when givers succeed: it spreads and cascades.

When takers win, there’s usually someone else who loses.
But when givers win, a virtuous circle starts that lifts the people around the successful givers.

Givers make friends and allies

Grant says that when givers win, people are rooting for them and supporting them, rather than gunning for them.

And this is a good quote for some of our basic success strategies here on TPM:

As the venture capitalist Randy Komisar remarks, “It’s easier to win if everybody wants you to win. If you don’t make enemies out there, it’s easier to succeed.”

Giving also provides givers with people who offer help in exchange for the givers’ past giving, honest willingness to help, for their great reputation, or for wanting to be in their networks.
Says Grant referring to one of his givers’ examples who “magically” had doors opened for him:

These karmic moments can often be traced to the fact that matchers are on a mission to make them happen. Just as matchers will sacrifice their own interests to punish takers who act selfishly toward others, they’ll go out of their way to reward givers who act generously toward others.

Givers avoid making enemies and frenemies

Says Grant:

One study found that highly talented people tend to make others jealous.
But if talented people are givers, they no longer have a target on their backs. Instead, givers are appreciated for their contributions.

Givers’ success grows over time as their reputation grows

Part of the givers’ success is in the social capital they build, including social credits, trust, and goodwill.

And that means that when they keep interacting in the same environment and the same people, their success also grows.
This seems to be backed by the data. Says Grant:

In fact, you’ll see that in sales and medical school, the giver advantage grows over time

So giving can be seen as harvesting and reaping rewards, a long-term winning game.

Chip Conley, the entrepreneur who founded Joie de Vivre Hotels, says that “Being a giver is not good for a 100-yard dash, but it’s valuable in a marathon.”

Givers have an advantage in the digital age of open reputation?

I’ve heard this more than once:

As the world becomes more connected and information flows, givers have an even bigger advantage.

Conley believes today’s connected world makes relationships and reputations more visible, and that allows givers to accelerate their pace of trust-building.
More informal background checks are also possible with mutual connections, and mutual connections are much more obvious with social networks.

Grant also says that as we organize more people into teams, givers have more opportunities to demonstrate their value.
And as we move away from factories and service jobs, the relationship-based services make giving all the more profitable.

TPM Note: True, but there’s the other side of the coin
The internet also offers more anonymity and the ability to rip off many people at once, and then disappear.
A few of the guys who show up at TPM are looking for “dark psychology to seduce“, to sell, or to persuade. And some of them bought courses purporting to sell “manipulation techniques” to bend other people’s minds. That’s value-taking marketing-manipulation that the Internet made far easier.

Plus, plenty of great takers’ schemes isn’t even recognized as taking from the flocks of naive sheep.
Take for example the various newly minted bitcoin coins, or the various NFTs.
The sheep drink from their gurus and many of said gurus suffer little or no consequences.

Givers have an easier time developing great networks

Givers develop better networks because they:

  • Develop more social capital
  • Develop better reputation
  • People are happy to see givers succeed, even when they haven’t “transacted with them”
  • Develop strongers networks around them. A study shows that giving is contagious and, especially when it’s distinctive and consistent, establishes a pattern that shifts other people’s reciprocity styles within a group
  • Have an easier time asking for favors because they are themselves are more likely to help without past exchanges

Givers are happier (and healthier?)

Supporting evidence includes:

  • Research shows that if people start volunteering two hours a week, their happiness, satisfaction, and self-esteem go up a year later
  • American adults who volunteered at least one hundred hours in 1998 were more likely to be alive in 2000

And if happiness isn’t enough:

There might be a cap on giving and happiness though:

  • Australian adults who volunteered between one hundred and eight hundred hours per year were happier and more satisfied with their lives than those who volunteered fewer than one hundred or more than eight hundred hours annually

Grant doesn’t say why, but it might be either because of burnout, or because those givers didn’t have anything else in their lives.

The key to give a lot but avoiding burning out is to be an “otherish giver” -see later-, and also take care of oneself, as well as to grow comfortable in asking for help.

Givers perform better in complex negotiation (enlightned givers, at least)

First, a caveat:

Grant seems to be talking about more complex negotiation, where the pie isn’t fixed and where communication and thought-through and strategic approaches can find more routes to win-win solutions.

And second, it’s not all givers who do better in negotiation, it’s what Grant calls “otherish givers”, and what we’d call here “enlightened collaborators“.

Now with those caveats, this is what Grant says, based on a meta-analysis of 28 different studies:

The best negotiators weren’t takers or selfless givers.
The takers focused on claiming value: they saw negotiations as zero-sum, win-lose contests and didn’t trust their opponents, so they bargained aggressively, overlooking opportunities to create value through developing an understanding of their counterparts’ interests. The selfless givers made too many concessions, benefiting their counterparts at a personal cost. The most effective negotiators were otherish
(ie.: the “enlightened givers“): they reported high concern for their own interests and high concern for their counterparts’ interests.

This is because the enlightened givers looked for opportunities considering BOTH their own interests and the other party’s interest and so they found more win-win and pie-expanding solutions that others missed.
Such as, these “strategic giverscreated more value than they were then able to negotiate and split.

More advantages:

Some more advantages disseminated in “Give and Take”:

  • Earn a “pass” for being “different”: groups generally prefer people who conform. But psychologist Edwin Hollander argued that givers “earn idiosyncrasy credits” -basically, what we call credits and debits-. Matchers then grant them a license to deviate from a group’s norms or expectations
  • Get more attention and support when proposing difficult ideas: research shows that when takers present “dangerous” ideas, others are skeptical. But when givers propose potentially thretening ideas, others listened and rewarded them for speaking up
  • Giving leaders foster environments with more innovation: research by Harvard professor Amy Edmondson shows that “psychologically safe environments” foster more learning and innovation. Research shows that it’s givers who often create such an environment
  • Giving leaders believe and trust their team more, which leads to better performance and results: an exhaustive analysis of seventeen different studies with nearly three thousand employees in a wide range of work organizations shows that when managers were randomly assigned to see employees as bloomers, employees bloomed. And givers are more likely to treat people as if they had the potential to bloom
    Takers instead do the opposite: Research shows that takers harbor doubts about others’ intentions, so they monitor vigilantly and treat others with suspicion and distrust. These low expectations trigger a vicious cycle and demotivates people
    Matchers instead “wait” for signs of potential and miss out on opportunities to develop people who don’t show early sparks of talent
  • Are more empathic, better put themselves in other people’s shoes, and can better assess their WIIFT: most people who try to put themselves into other people’s shows actually remain stuck within their own mindsets and preferences. Givers instead are better able to truly see other people’s point of view from their perspectives
  • Are more able to cut losses: Research shows that people stick with bad investments only in part because of “sunk costs” as it’s often believed. Instead, the single most powerful factor is ego threat: if I don’t keep investing, I’ll look and feel like a fool. Due to their susceptibility to ego threat, takers are more vulnerable to escalation of commitment than givers (see for example, Moon, 2001)
  • Have a natural “antifragile ego: in one research givers more easily accepted the criticism and followed the suggestion. This also makes sense if we consider that takers tend to have a bigger ego

4. If giving is so good, what stops it? Culture and fear, says Grant

TPM Note: probably not culture
Culture might have something to do with it, but I don’t think it’s a major factor or we should see cultures where everyone is a giver

Grant says that culture and fear of being screwed over stymie giving in ourselves and in our culture.

When it comes to culture, he says:

We may love Shel Silverstein for our kids, but the popularity of books like Robert Greene’s The 48 Laws of Power—not to mention the fascination of many business gurus with Sun Tzu’s The Art of War—suggests that we don’t see much room for giver values in our professional lives. As a result, even people who operate like givers at work are often afraid to admit it.

And when it comes to fear, he says:

The fear of exploitation by takers is so pervasive, writes the Cornell economist Robert Frank, that “by encouraging us to expect the worst in others it brings out the worst in us: dreading the role of the chump, we are often loath to heed our nobler instincts.”

This is also something we repeat often here on TPM.
In “Enlightened Cynicism” we say that it’s actually good to assess others, think like a cynic, and protect ourselves in various forms. However, we also say that it’s imperative that you don’t let cynicism blind you to the possibility, benefits, and beauty of collaboration and win-wins.

5. Watch out for “fake givers”

Says Grant:

To avoid getting shut out, many takers become good fakers, acting generously so that they can waltz into our networks disguised as givers or matchers.

Eventually though, chances are that you’ll get to see the real face of takers.

Grant indirectly confirms something we say often here. Such as, you can only assess people’s true character when they are power-up:

Research shows that as people gain power, they feel large and in charge: less constrained and freer to express their natural tendencies. As takers gain power, they pay less attention to how they’re perceived by those below and next to them; they feel entitled to pursue self-serving goals and claim as much value as they can.

TPM note: the same research shows that when givers gain power, they’re socially responsible
The same research Grant quote says that when “communals” are power-primed, they responded in socially responsible ways.

However, that also comes at a cost:

6. There are costs to being a taker, including…

There are many costs associated with being a taker, including:

  • The “true face” eventually shows” in close relationships and daily exchanges

Continuing from above, with takers who ignore those around and below them when they acquire power:

Over time, treating peers and subordinates poorly jeopardizes relationships and reputations. After all, most people are matchers and they value fairness, equality, and reciprocity.
And you know what happens when you burn bridges and then you may need those bridges again.

We also have our own (funny) data to back that up here.
Look what’s one of the quickest growing keywords people use to end up on TPM:

“how to destroy your manager”, a post on how to deal with asshole managers is one of the quickest growing posts on TPM
  • Bad reputation through gossip

And new research shows that when people get burned by takers in social networks, they punish them by sharing reputational information -“gossip”-.

  • Lower status within groups

Stanford professor Frank Flynn asked a group of engineers to rate the status of ten other engineers. The takers had the lowest status because they burned bridges by constantly asking for favors but rarely reciprocating.
The givers had the highest status, outdoing the matchers and takers.

TPM Note: 10 people is too low to draw larger conclusions based on the date, but this just makes plain sense

7. But there are also risks to being a giver, including…

Adam Grant gives some space to the risks of being a giver, but not nearly enough in my opinion.

So here they are for you, simple and clear:

  • Givers without self-care and self-interest do NOT succeed: succeessful giving must be accompanied by self-interest as well
  • Naive givers can be ripped off by takers: in the last chapter Grand finally gives us some examples of givers who’ve been taken advantage by takers

Says Grant:

In one study, researchers tracked whether Americans had been victims of crimes such as fraud, con games, and identity theft. The givers were twice as likely to be victimized as the takers, often as a direct result of trusting takers.
Successful givers need to know who’s likely to manipulate them so that they can protect themselves

  • A giver’s attiude without the ability to ask can lead to burnout
  • Giving that is not strategic and thought-through can also be ineffective

Also, this is important and probably needed more space in “Give and Take”:

Keep in mind: successful giving is context-dependent and won’t work in win-lose situations

Grant says that in purely zero-sum situations and win-lose interactions, giving rarely pays off.


He also adds, correctly in our opinion, that most of life isn’t zero-sum.
Grant says that, on balance, people who choose giving as their primary reciprocity style end up reaping rewards -albeit, we add on TPM, it can’t be “naive giving“-.

8. When it comes to persuasion & influence, be like water

TPM Note: albeit Grant seems to promote the giver/lower-power approach, in truth sometimes higher power is better. And nothing beats a tailored approach
The chapter felt like the author wanted to show us that “powerless communication” was “superior”. In truth, it’s not. It’s circumstantial, and there are times when high power, assertive, or even dominant or aggressive communication are superior.

Grant dedicates a whole chapter to influence and persuasion.

He starts with the research on status and influence comparing prestige and dominance.

Says the author (redacted for brevity):

Takers are attracted to, and excel in, gaining dominance.
(…) To establish dominance, takers specialize in powerful communication: they speak forcefully, raise their voices, express certainty to project confidence, promote their accomplishments, and sell with conviction and pride. They spread their arms in dominant poses, raise their eyebrows in challenge, command physical space, and get angry and issue threats when necessary.
In the quest for influence, takers set the tone and control the conversation by sending powerful verbal and nonverbal signals. As a result, takers tend to be much more effective than givers in gaining dominance.

However, Grant says that dominance isn’t always the most effective at persuading people.

Dominance is not as effective when the audience is skeptical.
And it’s not as effective because dominance is zero-sum. If the taker is dominant, then the audience must lose power.
Grant makes a good point and on TPM we expanded on these dynamics quite a bit. The issue with dominance is that it’s power-taking, and it works less well with high-power people because high-power people don’t like and appreciate being disempowered.

Also see:

Instead, prestige isn’t zero zum.

In one study takers also persuaded by coming across as competent, including when they had little competence.

Givers Persuade With “Powerless Communication”

Givers tend to speak lower power, an approach Grant calls “powerless communication”:

Powerless communicators tend to speak less assertively, expressing plenty of doubt and relying heavily on advice from others. They talk in ways that signal vulnerability, revealing their weaknesses and making use of disclaimers, hedges, and hesitations.

And Adam Grant says there are situations in which powerless communication is more effective, including:

  • When you work closely together: as based on Fragale’s study
  • With employees who are proactive and motivated: in which case you need less dominance and more power protecting and respect to get the most out of people (one study instead showed that dominance discouraged employees from contributing)
  • When you lack authority: then more indirect and lower dominance approaches such as questions and advice-seeking are more effective

Of course, you also must be careful not to overdo the “powerless communication”, as Grant himself says that you don’t want to become a pushover or doormat.

9. The Caveat: Successful Givers Pursue BOTH Giving and Personal Interest

Finally, in the last chapter, we get to the truth.

I feel Adam Grant waited far too long to drop the most important caveat of givers’ success:

Successful givers care BOTH about others AND their personal success.
They seek to give but ALSO give strategically.

In a series of studies Adam Grant consistently found out that self-interest and other-interest are completely independent motivations: you can have both of them at the same time.
Put it in a chart:

matrix of the psychology concept of "otherish givers"
From “Give and Take” by Adam Grant, colored boxes have been added

Quoting the author (redacted for brevity):

Takers score high in self-interest and low in other-interest: they aim to maximize their own success without much concern for other people. By contrast, givers always score high on other-interest, but they vary in self-interest.
There are two types of givers, and they have dramatically different success rates.
Selfless givers have high other-interest and low self-interest. They give their time and energy without regard for their own needs, and they pay a price for it. Selfless giving is a form of pathological altruism.
(Instead) Being otherish
(ie.: the successful givers) means being willing to give more than you receive, but still keeping your own interests in sight, using them as a guide for choosing when, where, how, and to whom you give.

Basically, this is the “enlightened collaborator” of this website.
And it’s the theory, approach, and strategy that we’ve been advising on TPM and Power University.

Successful givers must become “enlightened givers”

And enlightened means, at times, more calculative and positively cynical about human’s nature potential of being exploitative.

Says Grant:

As the psychologist Brian Little puts it, even if a style like giving is our first nature, our ability to prosper depends on developing enough comfort with a matching approach that it becomes second nature.

Successful givers, says Grant, carefully scan their environments for potential takers, and they can move from unconditional giving, to a more calculative tit for tat.
Successful givers can also “draw from reserves to assertiveness” to demand what’s fair, stand their ground, or push back against exploitative takers.


Successful givers are power-awaken.

Adam Grant though says that you don’t want to become a giver whose only goal is to get, as that would backfire long-term.
Instead, he suggests to give in a way that you find enjoyable, to recipients that you care about.

Selfless Givers Are Losers

The title is TPM and not Grant’s words.

Selfless givers instead give randomly, sometimes sacrificing their own work and life, and that impacts their own performance and life.
Some selfless givers often give without an idea of how to have the most impact with their giving, so they also make little difference.
And they’re at risk of burning out, especially when they see no feedback on the impact of their giving.


  • The best networks have strong ties, weak ties, and dormant ties

On weak and strong ties:

Strong ties provide bonds, but weak ties serve as bridges: they provide more efficient access to new information. Our strong ties tend to travel in the same social circles and know about the same opportunities as we do. Weak ties are more likely to open up access to a different network, facilitating the discovery of original leads.

And on dormant ties:

Dormant ties offer the access to novel information that weak ties afford, but without the discomfort.

  • Matchers have smaller networks

Matchers tend to build smaller networks than either givers, who seek actively to help a wider range of people, or takers, who often find themselves expanding their networks to compensate for bridges burned in previous transactions.

  • Giving is contagious

One study found that giving spreads rapidly and widely across social networks.

When the groups included one consistent giver, the other members contributed more. The presence of a single giver was enough to establish a norm of giving.

  • Group dynamics influence the overall amount of giving: common ground, a shared identity, identification with the the group, they all influence members’ giving
  • Unique similarities are particularly effective in fostering shared identities: “the more rare a group, value, interest, skill, or experience is, the more likely it is to facilitate a bond”. People are also happier in groups that provide a sense of both inclusion and uniqueness (“optimal distinctiveness”, Brewer, 2007)
  • Research suggests that givers have an instinctive advantage in sincerity screening
  • Givers, especially agreeable givers, lose out in negotiation: Studies show that in zero-sum situations, givers frequently shy away from advocating for their own interests: they make more modest requests when negotiating salaries than matchers and takers, and end up accepting less favorable outcomes
  • Public pledges backfire, because they offer the public credit, without the need for the accompanying behavior (Gollwitzer et al., 2009)
    • Private pledges might backfire too, because we can get to feel good, without the action (Sachdeva, 2009). Furthermore, pledges seek to change behavior by changing the identity first. But changing behavior first is more effective

Real-Life Applications

In this section section we turn some of the wisdom into “practical applications”:

Assess The Givers & Takers In Your Life

Too many people fail this simple test.

Harvard students correctly expect that friends pass more tokens than strangers.
But they do not expect more tokens from generous friends compared to selfish friends.

Such as, these supposedly smart guys did not know who are the givers and takers in their own social networks.

One common mistake is that we tend to stereotype agreeable people as givers, and disagreeable people as takers.
But giving and taking are based on motives and values, and they’re independent on whether our personalities trend towards agreeable or disagreeable.

How to Spot Givers & Takers

You generally want more givers or matchers around you, and you want to be more cautious with the takers.

To do that, you must learn to recognize givers and takres first.

Here are some tips:

Look for narcissistic signs

Grant says that ordinary people can identify takers just by looking at their Facebook profiles.

And, it seems, Adam Grant points to signs of narcissism to spot takers.
One study asked people to fill out a survey measuring whether they were takers. Then, the psychologists sent strangers to visit their Facebook pages. The strangers were able to detect the takers with astonishing accuracy.

The cues were:

  • Information that was self-promoting, self-absorbed and self-rimportant
  • Boastful and arrogant quotes
  • More Facebook friends (the author say “racking up superficial connections so they could advertise their accomplishments and stay in touch to get favors”)
  • Vainer, more flattering pictures of themselves

Look for narcissism in your superios (ie.: how to spot a taker CEO)

How do you spot CEO who’s a taker?

Well, there is a popular study by Arijit Chatterjee and Donald Hambrick aptly called “t’s All About Me: Narcissistic Chief Executive Officers and Their Effects on Company Strategy and Performance”.

They analyzed 111 CEO and their companies’ annual reports over more than a decade, looking for signs of ostentatious displays (“lekking”).
They were looking for narcissists rather than takers, but Grant labels them as takers.
Here are the cues.

  • They use more first-person singular pronouns

They found several clues of takers lekking at the top. One signal appeared in CEO interviews. Since takers tend to be self-absorbed, they’re more likely to use first-person singular pronouns like I, me, mine, my, and myself—versus first-person plural pronouns like we, us, our, ours, and ourselves.

  • They earn more

Another signal was compensation: the taker CEOs earned far more money than other senior executives in their companies.

  • They use bigger pictures of themselves

When Chatterjee and Hambrick looked at the annual reports from the computer companies, they noticed dramatic differences in the prominence of the CEO’s image. In some annual reports, the CEO wasn’t pictured at all. In other reports, there was a full-page photo of the CEO alone. Guess which one is the taker? For the taker CEOs, it was all about me. A big photo is self-glorifying, sending a clear message: “I am the central figure in this company.”

Leaders: hire givers & foster a giving culture

The reasons are two-fold:

  1. Givers spread a giving attitude, which is great for the team
  2. Givers work harder: Grant says there’s a close connection between grit and giving. In his research, because of their dedication to others, givers work harder and longer than takers and matchers. Even when practice is no longer enjoyable, givers continue exerting effort
  3. Givers are naturally team-oriented

Writes Grant:

This is a defining feature of how givers collaborate: they take on the tasks that are in the group’s best interest, not necessarily their own personal interests. This makes their groups better off: studies show that on average, from sales teams to paper mill crews to restaurants, the more giving group members do, the higher the quantity and quality of their groups’ products and services.

And remove -or watch out- for the takers

Takers do what’s best for them, even if it costs the team.

For example, they will waste resources throwing good money after bad if that helps them hide the responsibility for a mistake -even if they know it’s wasteful-.

Says Grant:

Because escalating his or her commitment allows the decision maker to keep the prospect of failure hidden, such behavior is personally “rational” from the perspective of a taker.

Spread a culture of giving

As social animals, individuals’ behaviors are heavily influenced by the group.

When giving seems to be the norm, people give more, they get back more, they are happier, and giving becomes a feature of the group -potentially, even a reason to be proud of belonging to that giving group-.
A great way to foster giving is by rewarding it, and making it public. Making it public, in a way, makes giving rational even for selfish individuals.
This is really powerful stuff: while givers would givers anyway, it’s matchers’ and takers’ behavior that changes. As shown in “reciprocity rings” even takers give in a giving group.

And the opposite is true: if taking becomes the norm, people shy away from giving and they focus more on taking, and “what’s in it for them”.

Says Grant:

If many people personally believe in giving, but assume that others don’t, the whole norm in a group or a company can shift away from giving.

Read more on leadership:

More real-life applications

  • To avoid thinking you’ve “done more”, make a list of what others have done: most people tend to over-estimate what they’ve done. Givers don’t. To avoid falling for this mental trap, make a list of what others and/or your partner have contributed
  • Don’t outshine the taker: when takers are impressed by another person’s capabilities or motivation, they’re more likely to see this person as a threat, which means they’re less willing to support and develop him or her.

Don’t over-use the “reciprocity approach”, it feels manipulative

The reciprocity norm has been made popular by Cialdini.

It means that when you give something, people feel indebted to give back, so you can give something just with the intention of getting something back later.

Grant says that reciprocity is powerful, but it comes with two heavy downsides:

  1. You make people feel like you’re manipulating them, they feel that you’re not genuine, and that you’re there only as part of Machiavellian strategic plots in which they’re just a pawn
  2. You grow smaller and lower quality networks when you only focus on immediate gains and transacting only when you can get something


On making friends, not enemies:

As the venture capitalist Randy Komisar remarks, “It’s easier to win if everybody wants you to win. If you don’t make enemies out there, it’s easier to succeed.”

On the importance of strategic giving:

Success involves more than just capitalizing on the strengths of giving; it also requires avoiding the pitfalls.

On the “otherish” construct and concept:

As Bill Gates argued at the World Economic Forum, “there are two great forces of human nature: self-interest, and caring for others,” and people are most successful when they are driven by a “hybrid engine” of the two.


Let me preface this section:

“Give and Take” is great.

As a matter of fact, it will be probably become one of TPM’s foundational books & resources.

And, as it’s often the case, we analyze and delve especially hard and deep on the best books -the “OK” and poor ones don’t justify that much investment-.

Is “Give and Take” biased? Success is collaboration and win-win, not just “giving”

Let me preface this first:

  1. I haven’t checked all the studies myself
  2. Overall, I think that Adam Grant does a good job at presenting evidence to back up his claims (rather than just his preference)
  3. Overall, I feel that his theory is good -except we should stress even more that it’s not just givers who win, but selective givers who also get back-

That being said, I felt there is some embellishment to make the case for “giving = winning”.
It feels like sometimes Grant even states it outright. He says:

In this book, I want to persuade you that we underestimate the success of givers like David Hornik.

Maybe he meant “persuading you with the evidence” or “persuading you with the truth”.
Still, he might have wanted to be more careful.
I don’t want to be persuaded of anything, I want to know the truth and what works.

In another passage, he says:

In this chapter, my aim is to challenge traditional assumptions about the importance of assertiveness and projecting confidence in gaining influence.

I think he’s right: assertiveness and confidence to persuade may be overblown indeed.
Still, when you want to challenge something, an almost obvious consequence is that your approach will be biased towards your challenging proposition.

The “giving is winning” bias under-represents the importance of strategy, situation, and, sometimes, matching

Large portions of the book show examples and evidence for “giving = winning”.

Only in the last section we get to learn that the givers who win are strategic.

And Grant does present exceptions to giving=winning, and he does list some examples of successful takers.
However, they are mentioned quickly and the main narrative seems to favor giving.

Instead, it’s important to remember that:

  • There are win-lose situations in which giving doesn’t make you better off
  • Takers can take advantage of you
  • Which style is “superior” depends also on the people you deal, and the situation

Grant says so himself:

As the psychologist Brian Little puts it, even if a style like giving is our first nature, our ability to prosper depends on developing enough comfort with a matching approach that it becomes second nature.

It’s a pity that Grant quotes Brian Little, but then fails to expand on the importance of being a matcher.

Some studies didn’t add up

In the study of engineers, this is what the paper says:

(…) an employee’s level of productivity significantly increased as favor exchanges with other employees became more balanced (as other employees believed the focal employee gave as much as he or she received), although a minimal level of generosity appeared to be most strongly related to productivity.

The authors refer to increased productivity as exchanges increased, not just “giving”. The giving was being matched by other people’s giving.

And this is the curve for “The Interactive Effect of Perceived Imbalance in and Frequency of Favor Exchange on Productivity”:

From Flynn, 2003

The curve refers to favors exchanges, not just giving.

Some supporting evidence was correlation, rather than causation

Says Grant:

In another study, American adults who volunteered at least one hundred hours in 1998 were more likely to be alive in 2000.

But that is no proof that volunteering is the ingredient that makes people live longer.

And again:

As expected, higher income led to higher giving. For every $1 in extra income, charitable giving went up by $0.14.* But something much more interesting happened. For every $1 in extra charitable giving, income was $3.75 higher. Giving actually seemed to make people richer.

This is just silly.
Maybe the givers expected to earn more in the future ant thus gave more freely.

Some more studies-related doubts

  • Some studies have been selectively ignored

Grant references that givers have more meaning in life, but conveniently omits that the same study found that takers are happier -while he presents plenty of studies showing that givers are happier-.
I quote the study:

Happiness was linked to being a taker rather than a giver, whereas meaningfulness went with being a giver rather than a taker.

  • Sometimes present individual studies as unquestioned truths

Grant for example says “social scientists have discovered that”, and then he links to one study.

  • Some slight contradictions or over-generalizations

In one passage, the author says “extensive research reveals that people who give their time and knowledge regularly to help their colleagues end up earning more raises and promotions in a wide range of settings”.
But then again, the rest of the book shows that givers are also at the bottom, so that just feels like an untrue over-generalization.

  • Some bad and wrong pop-psychology, including the 10.000 hours

I was surprised to see this:

As Malcolm Gladwell showed us in Outliers, research led by psychologist Anders Ericsson reveals that attaining expertise in a domain typically requires ten thousand hours of deliberate practice.

That’s really false pop-psychology.
Also see:

Grit” was also in there, albeit as Jordan Peterson said, “grit” might simply be part of “conscientiousness”.
Grant says that “givers strive to cultivate girt in the first place”, which wasn’t supported by much data and that seems quite random to me.

Quoting Gladwell again in “Blink” as well as Susan Cain and Daniel Pink also felt over-relying on pop psychology (P.S.: talking about “give and take”, Cain and Pink are in the list of people who endorsed the book).

  • Some information contradicted each other

“Give and Take” presents some information that seems to contradict each other.
For example, one study on salary negotiations says that givers tend to lose out in negotiation. But then Grant says that otherish givers do better in negotiation.

The two aren’t necessarily contradictory actually because the first study was more of a case of win-lose and it was agreeable givers who lost the most.
And negotiations in general can make the overall pie bigger.
However, Grant should have explained that -lest a nitpicker, pain in the ass like me will wonder :)-.

Some supporting “evidence” is based on stories, anecdotes, and interviews

For example:

When experts in history, political science, and psychology rated the presidents, they identified Lincoln as a clear giver.

On one hand, I understand Grant had to sell the book, so he needed some captivating stories.
But I wasn’t looking for stories, so this was a non-evidence for me and a waste of space.
“Experts” in history and political science is also meaningless: none of those people even knew Lincoln, let alone if they could provide a good assessment -and even if they did know him, many people can’t tell between givers and takers-. All they had to go about was snippets of biased storytelling and biographies.

There is no universal, scientific measure for “giver” or “taker”

I believe that the construct is very real and, indirectly plenty of studies as well “real life” shows it.

However, there doesn’t seem to be a universally accepted measure for giving and taking as there is, for example, for narcissism or Machiavellianism.
So different studies that Grant presents as evidence of how givers and takers behave are all actually measuring slightly different personalities.

Takers can also win big, and that must be made clear

This point is not stressed out nearly enough.

For example, while Adam Grant talks up Lincoln as a successful giver and none of us will ever know if he was a true giver, many of us did live through Donald Trump’s presidency.
And Trump, many of us would also agree, most certainly didn’t operate as a giver.

Adam Grant says that Michael Jordan is a taker, and Jordan won big.

David Hornik is one of Grant’s poster children’s of successful givers.
And well, here’s what Hornik says:

Giving is especially risky when dealing with takers, and David Hornik believes that many of the world’s most successful venture capitalists operate like takers—they insist on disproportionately large shares of entrepreneurs’ start-ups and claim undue credit when their investments prove successful.

For the record, I’m not sure they operate like takes, actually.
It’s more like “maximizers of profits”. They’re the ones who give the capital, and they’re the ones who can field demands. So they demand as much as their money allows them to.
If the start-up succeeds, the founders succeed and there is plenty in it for them, there are plenty of new high-tech jobs and, hopefully, there is plenty in it for society as well.

Grant’s own reference study on supposedly taker CEOs showed that they earned more than their non-taker CEOs.

Equates narcissism to value-taking. But… Are they (always) the same?

More than once Adam Grant uses signs of narcissism to spot takers.
And, at least in one case (the Enron accounting fraud), it felt indeed that those people did act like takers.

However, I wouldn’t be so quick to jump to the conclusion that narcissist = taker.

Some narcissists may succeed and find their glory through entrepreneurship, and potentially develop companies that give value.
Some others may seek personal validation via huge charity donations, or by defeating some specific ailment or sickness. And that, too, would end up as being value-giving.

So, yes, the motives might be self-serving, but the end results might be value-giving nonetheless.


  • Best overview of giving and taking
  • Great mix of entertainment, instructive read, and scientific rigor
  • Inspiring
  • Not an “how-to” book, but it’s easy to take away important real-life applications for life


“Give and Take” is a wonderful book.

I am grateful to Adam Grant for writing it, and “Give and Take” will probably become one of the “foundational resources” for this website -after all, some TPM’s main strategies are already based on what Adam Grant calls “otherish giving”, which we call here “enlightened collaboration-.

I have also taken copious notes of this Adam Grant’s “Give and Take” to integrate its wisdom into this website’s offering -and that’s always the greatest compliment I an pay to any resource-.

So we can most certainly recommend “Give and Take”.

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