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Does Your Company Have a Culture of Givers or Takers? – Part 2

What were you doing on Memorial Day weekend? Three of my colleagues, Darlene, Emily, and Ariana, left their holiday time with family to help support one of our disabled clients on the job. If they didn’t provide additional on-site support all three days, the client may have lost his job.

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What were you doing on Memorial Day weekend? Three of my colleagues, Darlene, Emily, and Ariana, left their holiday time with family to help support one of our disabled clients on the job. If they didn’t provide additional on-site support all three days, the client may have lost his job. It turned out great and the employer was very happy with the client’s performance.

Would you have done this? All three of these people are givers and help make their team a “giver” rather than “taker” culture.

In my last Blog post, I introduced you to the work of Adam Grant, who has explored the differences between giver and taker work cultures. I discovered Grant’s book Give and Take as a result of reading an interesting article Givers Take All: The Hidden Dimension of Corporate Culture in the McKinsey Quarterly published in April.

Grant wrote about the findings of Harvard researchers who studied why some teams in the US intelligence system were more successful than others. They were surprised to find that the more successful teams were those that had “giving” rather than “taking” cultures.

Here are two important findings from the research

  1. “Many organizations don’t support information sharing. Worse, in ‘taker cultures’ the norm is for employees to get as much as possible from others while contributing less in return.”
  2. “The amount of help a groups’ members give one another is among the strongest predictors of group effectiveness. Building a ‘giver culture’ pays.”

Giving and Taking Behaviors

Givers help others, share knowledge, offer to mentor, and, most importantly, make connections without expecting anything in return. Takers get things from others without thinking they should give something in return. Importantly, they only give when they expect to receive personal benefits that exceed the cost of giving. Most organizational cultures fall in between and are called “matcher cultures.” In these cultures people help others who help them. Because this forms isolated groups of people who practice collaboration, they are less efficient than true giver cultures.

Organizational Structure Facilitates Giving Behaviors

In flourishing giver cultures employees are very comfortable asking for help. One interesting finding by Stella Anderson and Larry Williams is that 75 to 90 percent of all help exchanged between team members comes from direct requests for help. However, in many of our organizational cultures today people are hesitant to ask for help for fear of feeling weak or incompetent, which they may feel hurts their future advancement.

One Structural Idea – Reciprocity Rings

A professor from the University of Michigan, Wayne Baker, experimented successfully with reciprocity rings. These are 60-90 minute exercises with groups of employees. During the exercise each person makes a request for help with their job. Then others with experience or knowledge offer help and people get matched-up. Everyone has to ask for help with something.

This exercise has a number of benefits – 1) It communicates a norm that it is okay to ask for help; 2) It allows leadership to learn who are natural givers and takers; and 3) It teaches those who are “takers” the benefits and skills needed to be a giver.

Another Structural Idea – Peer Bonuses

Cash incentives that reward collaborative behaviors do support giver cultures. However, they won’t by themselves convert taker cultures into giver cultures because the takers will figure-out how to game the system. What does seem to work are “peer bonus” systems that come in all shapes and sizes. A “peer bonus” is when team members have a budget of money they can use to effectively “tip’ co-workers for helpful behavior. These usually include public notices of thanks to the recipients. These systems typically reward collaborative behavior and are in small denominations so that cash motivated individuals don’t undermine the intent.

Recruiting and Hiring Givers, Not Takers

Many organizations including Berkshire Hathaway have policies against hiring takers and they use customized team activities during the hiring process to screen-out takers. Here are some other ideas for screening-out takers:

  • Listen for candidates taking personal credit for successes. They might frequently use pronouns like I and me instead of us and we.
  • Takers often practice “kissing up, kicking down” and when dealing with powerful people, they become effective fakers, are charming, and sometimes charismatic. In these cases look for references from people who are supervisors; okay to ask for different references.
  • Takers often badmouth others. Listen for blaming responses during interviews.

Some firms are now testing for aggression. Larry James from Georgia Tech has developed an effective pre-employment assessment widely used by security companies that tests for aggressive and taker tendencies.

Making Sure Giving Behavior Doesn’t Go Too Far

One drawback of unmanaged giving cultures is that people can spend too much time giving, and too little time doing their own work. Successful cultures build-in time limits for giving activity. Others set aside certain hours for giving or certain hours where no one can be interrupted.

I had never thought about giver and taker cultures before and it makes total sense to me now. I’m very lucky to be working in an organization that leans more toward the giver culture – how about you? If not, what can you start doing to change it?