In business, is it better to give than receive? | Mike Cook

By Mike Cook
Contributing Writer 

The May issue of the McKinsey and Company newsletter is one I’ll be holding onto for a while.

One piece in particular has captured my attention is  “Givers Take All: The Hidden Dimension of Corporate Culture,” by Adam Grant. He is author of the recently published “Give and Take: A Revolutionary Approach to Success,” a book that seems to be getting a lot of attention from a business community that continues to struggle for answers on how best the attract, develop and retain the millennial generation.

Before I get to far, let me ask you this: It is better to give than receive?

When was the first time you heard this adage—maybe bible study class, maybe catechism, maybe your grandmother said it first? Or, of course, when you read, “All I Need to Know I learned in Kindergarten,” by Robert Fulghum, right?

Ok seriously, the idea of giving being inherently a better way to live than taking isn’t brand new, by any means. So why, when a Wharton School PhD writes about it, do business leaders suddenly sit up and take notice?

I imagine for the very simple reason that, in the economically driven world we live in, things don’t really catch on until they have economic impact, no matter what we might like to think otherwise.

In the business world, where many of us spend most of our adult lives, it is apparently not obvious that helping others without expecting anything in return is a wise way to operate.

In his article for McKinsey, Grant introduces us to a range of research demonstrating that individuals and teams that operate from a helping-context bring the following benefits to an organization’s effectiveness:

– Enabling employees to solve problems and get work done faster

– Enhancing team cohesion and coordination

– Ensuring that expertise is transferred from experienced to new employees

– Reducing variability in performance when some members are overloaded or distracted

– Establishing an environment in which customers and suppliers feel that their needs are the organization’s top priority

Unfortunately, as Grant says: “Far too few companies enjoy these benefits. One major barrier is company culture—the norms and values in organizations often don’t support helping.”

 And who does Grant say we have to thank for this tradition of taking rather than giving? In his words: “All too often, leaders create structures that get in the way… many organizations are essentially winner-take-all markets, dominated by zero-sum competitions for rewards and promotions. When leaders implement forced-ranking systems to reward individual performance, they stack the deck against giver cultures.”

So once again, “We have met the enemy, and he is us,” and “Culture eats strategy for breakfast.” These are lessons we continue to learn the hard way and yet that seems to be the way we like it.

Fortunately Grant doesn’t leave us hanging on the question of how to bring about change in a business culture that is less than giving: “Creating  such a culture (of givers) starts with expanding performance evaluations beyond results, to include their impact on other individuals and groups.”

He then goes on to describe three methods that any organization should be able to implement: facilitating help-seeking, recognizing and rewarding givers, and screening out takers.

Grant provides several examples for implementation as well as his own suggestions on how to take steps to revolutionize cultures with taking histories.

As I had hoped as he neared the end of his article Grant concluded with a word to leadership: “When it comes to giver cultures, the role-modeling lesson here is a powerful one: if you want it, go and give it.”

Mike Cook is a management developer who lives in Anacortes, Wash. His columns appear on every other Tuesday. He also publishes a weekly blog at

Tags: ,

Related Stories