Book Reviews

Nice Guys and Gals Can Finish First

Putting others first—within limits—is an undervalued recipe for business success.

June 25, 2013

Can nice guys—and gals—finish first in the cutthroat business world?

Absolutely—yet they can also finish dead last, says Adam Grant, the prodigious Wharton School of Business professor who specializes in organizational psychology, the study of workplace dynamics.

In his new book, “Give and Take: A Revolutionary Approach to Success,” a New York Times and Wall Street Journal best-seller, Grant examines why some individuals who help others succeed rise to the top, while counterparts with the same altruistic drive become doormats, burning out or fading into obscurity.

The 31-year-old Grant, Wharton's youngest tenured professor, has presented solutions for leaders of organizations including Google, the National Football League, IBM, Merck, the World Economic Forum, Goldman Sachs, Estee Lauder, and the U.S. armed forces.

The award-winning researcher and author will deliver his belief in the power of paying it forward in a keynote address at the America’s Credit Union Conference July 3 in New York City.

While self-serving individuals might get to the top more quickly, people who put others first prime themselves for long-term success, Grant says.

“After we cover the usual suspects of hard work, talent, and luck, I find that in the long run the people who rise the highest are those who add the most value to others,” Grant said in a recent Forbes.com interview. “The people who get promoted are those who establish a track record for advancing the interests of the group.”

In his research through many industries and professions, Grant discerned three employee archetypes: Matchers, Takers, and Givers.

Most of us fall into the Matchers category—people who are glad to do favors in return for assistance of more or less equal value—a quid pro quo. A select number are Takers, who strive to obtain as much as possible from others with limited return, while Givers are the rare breed of people who contribute to others without expecting anything in return.

“Give and Take” shows how one of America’s best networkers developed his connections, why the creative genius behind one of the most popular shows in television history toiled for years in anonymity, how a basketball executive responsible for multiple draft busts transformed his franchise into a winner, and how we could have anticipated Enron’s demise four years before the company collapsed—without ever looking at a single number.

Three major developments have elevated the appeal of “pro-social motivation,” Grant told Forbes.com. The confluence of these factors rewards Givers' altruistic track record while delivering Takers a costly reputational blow:

Popularity of project-based work;
Shift to the service and knowledge economy; and
Emergence of social media.

The main factor determining whether Givers succeed or fail is their ability to set reasonable boundaries, Grant says.

His advice: Take on tasks only when you can add unique value, develop a specialty that will naturally limit the type of requests you receive, and avoid doing favors for Takers—whom you can ferret out by asking whether they'll pay your contribution forward.

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