Book Review: “Give and Take”

Ever since I retired and stopped working with a lot of people, I’ve had the time to read and learn how to be much better at working with a lot of people.

I wish I’d read Adam Grant’s “Give and Take” before the Navy unleashed me upon my unsuspecting shipmates. It’s fantastic leadership training for anyone who works with a team. (For today’s unsuspecting active-duty servicemembers, my daughter will be commissioned next May. She’s already reading this book and will soon learn everything there is to know about leadership. You’re welcome!) Instead of karma psychobabble or simplistic homilies like “Take care of your troops“, Grant walks us through the latest behavioral psychology research on group dynamics. He explains exactly why we gain by taking care of our troops, and how we can be confident that we’ll also benefit from our generosity.

Behavioral psychologists have divided group behavior into three classes: givers, takers, and matchers. Givers are always happy to lend a hand, even when it means that they’ll fall behind on their own work. Takers, of course, are happy to take whatever they can get from anyone else – especially givers. Matchers are more concerned with balancing the books. They’ll display giver behavior when they can see a payoff, but they’ll be takers if they see an opportunity.

It turns out that I spent most of my military career being a sucker giver. In my case it’s more of a personality trait (or a family culture) than a learned skill, but I was lucky. I still would have appreciated understanding its conscious and deliberate application. Everyone who’s ever had to work with a group can learn to be a giver, and it turns out that giving is far better than playing a zero-sum game. Of course being a giver is much easier when you’re financially independent, but it also appears that being a giver will help you reach financial independence that much more easily. Instead of fighting over a small pie, givers learn how to grow the pie so that everyone gains a larger share.

Give And Take Adam GrantGrant shows that “givers” can rise to the top of the performance charts when compared to “takers” and “matchers”. Unfortunately givers can also be at the bottom when they’re exploited by takers, especially when they’re working on their own separate projects and not part of a team. Grant uses research studies and many personal stories to show how givers eventually prevail. They may start out at the back of the pack, but their progress will accelerate and even leapfrog their counterparts. They may not place in the 100-yard dash but they will win the marathon.

Grant also explains how to be a giver without being… taken. When you begin building a relationship with a team you’ll get to know the people, their jobs, and their challenges. As trust builds and the work proceeds, eventually your assistance will be reciprocated– or not. Your communication among the team members and your giver behavior will reveal the takers and matchers, although eventually, you may inspire them to also start giving. Grant also explains how to figure out whether a “taker” is sucking up to you while treating peers and subordinates in a completely different way.

I learned the most from Grant’s chapter on “powerless communication”. You might expect that a military organization favors a dominant and forceful command, but that’s not always necessary. A discussion should end with a decision and an order, but before that point, it’s better to ask open-ended questions and to invite debate– even dissension. Asking for opinions and really listening to people’s concerns will persuade them to contribute and even help solve the problems. “Powerless communication” can also convince the team to take ownership of the problem and to help each other avoid mistakes. People will speak up when a problem comes along instead of letting the boss figure it out. Navy submariners are quite accustomed to having their orders challenged with a new report or a recommendation, and that “forceful backup” has kept a lot of submarines off the rocks.

The personal stories cover the business and academic worlds from lawyers, MBA programs, doctors, venture capitalists, senior military officers, Silicon Valley, teaching, philanthropy, banking, the professional basketball draft, and even Hollywood. Givers learned to succeed everywhere with their techniques.

250 pages later, it turns out that the answer is still “take care of people”– not just your people, but everyone you encounter. Instead of playing a zero-sum game, focus on mutual goals and on building relationships. Negotiate from the other person’s perspective, not just yours. The more you clear away the obstacles from people’s jobs and help them get things done, the more they’ll support you when you least expect it (yet most need it). The more you share with a team, the more the team will help you succeed.

I know: I was also skeptical when I started reading. But by the end of the second chapter, I was ready to learn from the research, and each personal story taught a new technique in developing “giving” into a life strategy instead of simply a sacrifice. “Taking” is a short-term tactic, not a winning game plan. Even “matching” will only work for a limited time. Grant’s book will have an impact on every high school, college, leadership program, and group project.

Want to see “giving” in action? Take a look at certified financial planner Jason Hull’s free eBook about “Four Places Your Monkey Brain Should Never Live”. He’s not only giving it away, but he’s also throwing in a 52-week game plan of one short weekly e-mail for an entire year. You’ll read about the same concepts of behavioral psychology described in “Give and Take”, and you’ll get bite-size weekly doses of financial advice that you can act on. If you like what you read then consider signing up for Jason’s “Winning With Money” course. If you’re paying interest on credit-card debt or fees on actively-managed investments then I think you’ll recoup the course’s expense within the first six months. If you’re not happy then Jason will give you your money back.

You can start your own “Give and Take” movement, too. Buy the book, read it, and pass it on to a friend or donate it to your local library. You’ll be happy that you did.

Related articles:
Book review: “You Are NOT So Smart.”
Book review: Leaving the military for “The Corner Office”
Book report: “The Mindset List”
Book review: “Why We Buy”
Making the leadership transition

About Doug Nordman

Author of "The Military Guide to Financial Independence and Retirement" and co-author of "Raising Your Money-Savvy Family For Next Generation Financial Independence."
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