Screening Out the Takers from the Candidate Pool

I recently saw a great TED Talk by Adam Grant that was just posted this month via the TED Talk app on my AppleTV. Unfortunately, there isn’t a YouTube link for the TED Talk yet, but I found a link to a similar talk he gave on the same topic at ZeitgeistMinds called “Givers, Takers, and Matchers.”

Adam Grant is an organizational psychologist and he said he has seen widespread paranoia and fear within companies through his studies. Of course, this paranoia and fear destroys the work environment for collaboration and teamwork because it is unsafe and dangerous to be generous or sometimes even fair…basically giving without being taken advantage of. He said one group is responsible for the vast majority of this paranoia in workplaces…Takers.

Takers, Givers, and Matchers are the three categories on how we treat the majority of people the majority of the time. We all have a mix of the three, but one category will be our dominant type. If you are curious about your type, Adam Grant offers an online self-assessment. For a more complete view, there is a 360 assessment where you send the questionnaire to friends (peers and below ideally…not superiors in any way).

Takers have an extremely profound influence on the environment. Adam says Takers have two to three times the negative impact on an environment than the positive impact of Givers. So adding a Giver to the team has less of a positive effect than the negative effect of adding a Taker to the team.

Basically, Takers are known for kissing up the ladder and kicking down the people below on the ladder. They like to look good in front of the bosses and don’t care about anyone else. They take high profile assignments and leave the boring or low profile ones to others. They don’t tend to help or give back unless it helps them in some way. Otherwise, they shirk work and do as little for others as possible. They are poisonous to the work environment if you want collaboration and teamwork.

In the TED Talk, Adam says Takers account for about 19% of the population…but in the ZeitgeistMinds talk he says “relentless” Takers account for 8%. In the TED Talk, Adam says Givers (they give with no strings attached) are about 25% of the population and Matchers (take and give in return or give expecting a favor later) are about 56% of the population.

The goal is not to have just a team of Givers, however. He said Matchers supply a defensive line for Givers, because Matches like seeings things come around and be balanced (justice). So if there is a Taker in the office, it is usually the Matchers that are trying to make life difficult for them (karma police). They hate seeing Takers continue to take and getting away with it. They will try to sabotage the success of Takers one way or another.

The goal is to eliminate Takers from the work environment through effective hiring and screening. This is tricky, because often people confuse agreeableness with Givers. It doesn’t work that way. You can have an agreeable Taker (known as Faker) and a disagreeable Giver who has everyone’s best interests at heart and because he or she is a bit prickly…gives the critical feedback no one wants to hear but should be heard. Adam says the disagreeable Givers are undervalued assets in most companies and our lives.

So if agreeableness and disagreeableness has no correlation with Givers and Takers, how do we screen out the Takers?

Adam Grant says he likes asking candidates the question, “could you give me the names of four people whose careers you have fundamentally improved?” Takers will give you four names, but they will all likely be bosses or people of influence who could help the Taker someday. Givers tend to give four names of peers or people below them. People who really could not benefit them in any way in the future.

A word of caution when trying to screen out Takers, some Takers are previous Matchers or Givers who have been burned one too many times by Takers and decided they needed to protect themselves in the dog-eat-dog world. The people you are trying to screen out are the narcissists who are are insecure and really only think they will succeed if someone else fails. I think Adam’s question is clever in that his question may identify burnt-Givers because of the kind of people have helped in the past.

Also, Adam said when you ask for references…check a few of the peers or subordinates. Takers will look good to the bosses, but peers and below often see the reality if the person is a Taker.

Asking general questions about the behavior of the population at large is another way to screen. Adam asked his audience, what percentage of people in the USA do you think steal at least $10 from their companies in a typical month? He said the ones with higher percentages have a greater chance of being thieves or at least less adverse to stealing (because everyone else does it…in their minds). We tend to project our own motives on the behavior of the wider population when asked these kind of general questions.

So we could ask something like, what percentage of people in the USA do you think help their work peers routinely to shine in their jobs. We might hear some interesting figures thrown out. A better question might be…we hear that there are Givers, Takers, and Matchers (define the terms if need be) in the world, what percentage of the US population do you think are Takers?

That is a few ideas and potential ways of screening out Takers. In doing so, the environment is safe and better for Givers to thrive as Givers. As Givers give more, the Matchers give more (because they want a give and take and don’t like taking all the time.). They seek balance in give and take. This, of course, improves teamwork and collaboration.

There is an extra piece I want to mention from the video. Adam also says that studies show that the workers with the lowest productivity are Givers. The workers with the highest productivity are also Givers. The ones with the lowest productivity often are so busy helping others that their own productivity suffers. A difference between the lowest and highest productive Givers is the willingness to ask for help. Adam says we need to protect Givers from burning out (giving too much) as well, but willingness to ask for help is a big element between top and low performing Givers.

I bring this up for one last idea to share. He mentioned the idea of Reciprocity Ring and 5-minute favors…and both together would be ideal. Basically, if Givers are unaware of what others need, sometimes they are unable to Give by not knowing. I know this is an issue for me. I just don’t know how I could help and wish more people would ask for help (not that I ask for help much either). It has not been a habit of mine to ask for help and I think it is a weakness others may have as well. To solve this, I loved the Reciprocity Ring.

So in some department/group meeting (not too big), have every participant ask for one thing they need (business or personal…perhaps, to leave it open). Something fairly small – perhaps something that would take no more than five minutes for someone to give. An introduction, a quick piece of advice or how to, or whatever. Ideally, something high value to the asker, but of low demand on resources for the giver. Then everyone else in that meeting will use their resources to fulfill the request. This then gives the Givers (and Matchers) and opportunity to give. This also gets everyone used to asking and know that it is alright to ask for help.

If we want to see more Givers in our workplaces, we need to cultivate more askers. This makes the above exercise very valuable. We need to get everyone around us to become better at asking for help. Why? The data shows that 75 to 90 percent of all helping begins with a request. There really are not that many proactive givers. Givers are normally uncomfortable being on the receiving end or asking for anything. They do not like being a burden to others and need become comfortable asking as well.

Adam Grant says at the end of the video that perhaps we can turn this widespread paranoia around into pronoia – the belief that others are plotting your well being.


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Eric Putkonen is a public speaker / presenter and he is passionate about recruiting / talent acquisition & retention, culture & employment brand, engagement, and leadership (which affects all of the prior).

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