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Does Your Company Have a Culture of Givers or Takers? – Part 1

This week I have found myself reading about and admiring once again the life of Nelson Mandela. One of his many, natural qualities is he is a giver, not a taker – and this quality can make all the difference.

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This week I have found myself reading about and admiring once again the life of Nelson Mandela. One of his many, natural qualities is he is a giver, not a taker – and this quality can make all the difference.

I believe one thing that distinguishes organizational cultures is whether the cultures themselves are framed by “giver” or “taker” philosophies. You can feel the difference when you are in each, and you know which is the right fit for you.

In a recent article entitled Givers Take All: The Hidden Dimension of Corporate Culture, Adam Grant summarized very well the difference between giver and taker cultures –

“In giver cultures, employees operate as the high-performing intelligence units do: helping others, sharing knowledge, offering mentoring, and making connections without expecting anything in return. Meanwhile, in taker cultures, the norm is to get as much as possible from others while contributing less in return. Employees help only when they expect the personal benefits to exceed the costs, as opposed to when the organizational benefits outweigh the personal costs.”

When I think about these types of behaviors I can see where some are natural ones that flow from the individual and some come from the culture created over time by the leaders.

In this post I’ll write about how mission plays a role in the development of the giver-taker culture and in Part 2, I’ll explore the elements of building a giver culture including selecting givers for your team.

Mission Attracts Givers

Of course a giver culture starts with the organization’s leadership and how it forms the mission, communicates the mission, and then behaves in ways that support the mission. If leaders are interested in building a giver culture they should infuse the mission with terms that encourage cooperativeness and reciprocity, even when the primary mission is to efficiently and profitably make some widget. Then leaders need to practice giving behavior and hire others who are givers. This helps the giver culture develop.

One of the advantages of not-for-profit organizations is that often their positive mission attracts givers with whom your mission resonates. Volunteers and employees both often give of themselves freely for the achievement of the common mission.

Family Promise

I have been volunteering for a number of years for an organization called Seacoast Family Promise. This organization succeeds because its mission attracts volunteers and staff who are really givers at heart. Its mission “is to empower families experiencing homelessness to achieve lasting self-sufficiency.” We are a collection of volunteers, area churches and synagogues that house homeless families (guests) and help them become independent. When we communicate real stories, like this one from last month, it is easy for us to attract the givers among us:

A local mother and her two sons entered Seacoast Family Promise after living in their car for most of May. This mother, Sara (not her real name) said:

“We are very thankful that we at least had a car to get into– some families don’t.” When I asked about their daily routine, Sara explained “Thank God I have boys. They were able to go into the woods to go to the bathroom. We used to travel to the trails in Northwood so the boys could run and we could wash in the waterfall.”

During this time the boys were out of school for over a week and a half. Sara confided:

“I was afraid that I would lose my children, I had no snacks to give them, and they did not have any clean clothes.” With no money coming in she was also trying to decide where she would drive and what to spend what little money she had on. “I was trying to save gas. I needed to buy bits of food from the Dollar Store so that the boys could have something to eat. It certainly makes you want a hot meal.”

Pausing, Sara went on to say “I finally ran out of gas in Exeter and noticed the Town offices. I went to the welfare office and they sent me here to you.”

If there is an upside to this difficult time, she explained, “we grew stronger, we talked more, and we tried to figure out what we would do next. To be honest it stinks both literally and figuratively.”

Building and leading a giver culture in the business world is challenging and fascinates me. If you are a leader interested in building a giver culture, perhaps these questions quickly come to mind:

  1. Do I exhibit giving or taking behaviors?
  2. How do I make sure the organizational structure facilitates giver behaviors?
  3. How do we go about recruiting and hiring givers?
  4. Can we teach takers to be givers or to, at least, give when it is most important?
  5. Can we make sure that giving behavior doesn’t dominate the culture so much that important things don’t get done when they need to?

In part 2 of this post, I will write more about givers and takers and I’ll tackle these and other questions.

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