I’m not a fan of TED Talks. What’s the point of recruiting interesting people who are experts in their field – who have highly detailed and specialized knowledge gleaned from years of intensive study – if you are going to impose an 18-minute time limit that forces them to generalize to the point of meaninglessness? No introvert thought that up, that’s for sure!
I’m similarly unenthused about “Big 5” personality trait theory, the extrovert bias of which I have ranted about elsewhere. I mention it only because one of the Big 5 traits is “agreeableness,” which is probably the inspiration for the same-named trait mentioned in this TED Talk.
Give and Take
Yes, this post is about a TED Talk, by organizational psychologist Adam Grant. Despite my skepticism about the format, his discussion of workplace sharing styles and how they relate to productivity and career success is highly relevant to my own experience.
Grant defines the sharing styles as taker, giver, and matcher. About a quarter of people are givers, a sixth are takers, and the rest are matchers. It’s interesting that a substantial majority are matchers. I’m betting most people think only in terms of givers and takers.
Go on, watch it. I can wait. You’ll love the part about the Canadian national slogan – so HSP!
I suspect there is significant overlap between givers and HSPs. According to Grant, research identifies the least productive workers as givers, who are either so busy helping other people that they neglected their own work, or whose ethics conflicted with their job responsibilities. Sound familiar, HSP readers?
Not that Grant uses the E word, but his quote from a salesperson who cared too much about customers to sell them a crappy product could’ve been mine. Sales managers LOVE that HSP quick-bonding ability. They don’t get that we aren’t going to turn around and exploit people we’ve bonded with. Nor do they see that this is a better policy in the long run, not only for sales, but for making the world a better place for us all. This is an example of the ways companies benefit from givers without recognizing those benefits, which means givers go unrewarded for their efforts.
One of my favorite quotes from Marianne Cantwell (HSP and founder of Free Range Humans) is “A weakness is just a strength in the wrong environment.” If this is true, there must be contexts in which above-average empathy and ethics are an advantage. Or so I keep telling myself, though the fact that I’m still looking for them does cause me, at times, to doubt.
HSP, and Leveraging It
But if HSPs are the givers in the above scenario, that gives me hope. According to Grant, not only the least productive workers, but also the MOST productive ones turn out to be givers.
I would’ve expected takers to come out on top, since they are devoid of any inhibiting concern for rules, or for others, and being on top is what they are all about. However, it turns out matchers don’t like takers because they upset the balances, so sooner or later, they bring them down. I have not witnessed this in the workplace, but perhaps I missed it because I got frustrated and left before the full cycle ran its course (Grant also says one taker in a group is enough to cause all the givers to pull back from giving).
I would’ve liked to hear more about the differences between givers who did well in their jobs and those who didn’t. Is it the type of work, the workplace culture, their own family history? Does it change over time – do givers better understand themselves as they age so they can choose more suitable environments? Instead Grant tells us the most “successful” givers were those who also received. OK, but isn’t that the definition of a matcher, rather than a giver??
And then Grant starts talking about “agreeable” and “disagreeable” givers. In Big 5 theory (boo, hiss), “disagreeable” people are defined as high on self-interest and low on empathy. Which is also Grant’s definition of takers. So how could you have disagreeable givers? And where does another Big 5 trait, “conscientiousness” (a big one for HSPs), fit into all this? If your head is spinning by now, that’s what you get for mixing personality systems.
Big 5 aside (which is where it belongs), I’m willing to accept Grant’s alternate definition of disagreeable givers as the people who give the necessary critical feedback that no one wants to hear, and absorb the resulting backlash, for the greater good. I’m happy to embrace his call to value such people more highly, since I suspect I am one of them!
It might all make more sense, though, if he factored in the conscientiousness trait. I’m betting people who are disagreeable out of conscientiousness are a lot more likely to be givers than those who are disagreeable because they just don’t give a damn about anyone else.
Grant is neither very kind to nor very interested in takers. In his video, they are brown-nosers, team-wreckers, and backstabbers.
It’s hard to argue with this, if you have ever known a taker. You probably have, if you are an HSP. They have a special nose for us, like sharks scenting blood. They love to steal our credit, blame us for their mistakes, and grind their jackboots into our faces when no one else is looking. To top it all off, they turn around and tell other people that we are the real takers! Takers know we have something they can never get. They hate us for that. They have no qualms about punishing us for simply existing.
Alas, many people will believe an agreeable taker over a disagreeable giver because it’s the taker who’s telling them what they want to hear (even if it’s a self-serving lie).
However, if they are 17% of the work force, we can’t weed takers off every team, as Grant suggests. Could “taking” also be a strength in the right environment?
Ironically, it may be up to the givers they have treated so badly to figure out how takers’ self-referential energies can be safely harnessed for the greater good.
Who else would bother?