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Helping professions like financial planning often attract "Givers" - people who are naturally inclined to put others before themselves and help those people to succeed. Yet the challenging reality for many helping professions is that often the practitioners go so far out of their way to help others that they undermine their own careers and success in the process. When comparing Givers who tend to focus on others, and Takers who put themselves first, it's no surprise that those at the bottom of the success ladder are often a group of burned out and worn out Givers.

Yet recent research from Wharton Professor Adam Grant made a startling discovery; while the bottom of the success ladder is populated by Givers, the top of the ladder is also dominated by Givers! In other words, the traits that lead some people to be Givers who are taken advantage of lead others who are also Givers to propel themselves to success. Accordingly, in his research Grant digs further to identify what the key traits are that separate the successful Givers from the unsuccessful ones, and how anyone can set themselves on a more successful path.

Although the book is written as a guide for success in any business context, the lessons of Grant's research are certainly relevant for financial planners in particular, from how to help those experiencing burnout, to making slight changes in your Giver behavior to keep from "being a doormat," to how to shift the Takers in your business to act more like Givers for the benefit of the team. Ultimately, changing one's style of interacting with others is difficult - the implications of Grant's research are profound, but certainly not a cure-all. Nonetheless, what emerges is some interesting clarity about why some financial planners seem to build growing, successful businesses, while others stay mired in a practice that can't seem to get ahead. 

Givers, Takers, And Matchers

In his book "Give And Take," Wharton Professor Adam Grant looks at three different styles of recriprocity. 

At one extreme are the Takers - those who consistently look to get more than they give from any interaction, which they typically view as an essential survival skill in their competitive world. Takers tend to be focused on self-promotion and taking credit for their efforts (or sometimes even a bit more), and often choose who to interact with and network with based upon what that person can get for them or do for them.

Givers, on the other hand, are at the opposite extreme. They look to give more than they get, and evaluate prospective interactions and relationships based not on what other people can offer them, but what they can offer (i.e., give) to others. Viewed another way, givers tend to help when the benefit to others exceeds the personal cost, while takers tend to "help" when the benefit to themselves exceeds the personal cost. This isn't necessarily about giving in terms of money and charity, or engaging in deep self sacrifices; often givers can simply be recognized by their tendency to give help, make introductions, provide mentoring, and share credit with others. In practice, most people operate like givers in close personal relationships - think marriage and best friends - but the dynamics are often far more complex when applied in a business/work environment.

In the workplace, Grant's research finds that most people adopt a more blended style, which he labels as "matchers" - people who try to balance out the giving and taking, operating on a more "tit for tat" basis; giving may happen, but matchers are often keeping score and may expect to take something in return (and similarly, if they feel they're interacting with a taker, expect to receive some giving reciprocity down the road). Ultimately, then, Grant finds that matchers are often the ones that keep the overall workplace in balance, boosting givers they feel have been underrecognized and punishing takers who are too lopsided in their interactions. 

What's significant about these characterizations is that Grant found in his research that the bottom of the success ladder is populated almost entirely by givers; they self-sacrifice so much by giving to others, and not striving to get credit for it, that they either limit their own success by being so focused on others they never get their own work done, or they are outright abused by takers who enjoy greater success from the fruits of the giver's labor. Yet the surprising discovery of Grant's research is that while many takers do better than givers - in no small part by outright taking advantage of them - it's not the takers who end out on top, as their success is often held in check by the mass of matchers who seek to ensure that there is a come-uppance (or in some cases, the takers simply trigger their own downfalls with their self-centered behavior). Instead, while the givers populate the bottom of the success ladder, Grant finds that givers - albeit with a slightly different set of subtraits - are also the ones found at the top! 

The Traits And Actions Of Successful Givers

Grant's book shares several ways in which Givers operate differently than Takers, and in how the successful Givers differentiate from the unsuccessful ones. For instance, Givers tend to be more proactive in networking and providing introductions; while takers often only network when they believe the relationship will benefit them personally, givers tend to make introductions simply for the sake of helping others, but with an end result that some of the most connected networkers in the world are Givers. Similarly, Grant finds that Givers are far better collaborators on teams as well; in fact, because of the group dynamics that emerge, when Takers present suggestions to groups they're viewed as self-serving, while when Givers offer up challenging ideas they are appreciated for their efforts to contribute, and as a result teams with Givers tend to have more fruitful creativity and end out with more success. In addition, Givers tend to communicate in a manner that expresses more vulnerability, which ultimately engenders a greater level of trust.

On the other hand, Givers also have a much stronger tendency to give so much that they burn themselves out, though notably not all of them do. The differentiating characteristic appears to be whether the Giver can find a higher purpose in what he/she is doing, or be able to see a tangible impact. For instance, a student call center for alumni donations drastically increased its activity levels and donation success after receiving some letters from other alumni who had benefitted from the scholarship fundraising program, and increased their activity even further after meeting some of these "success stories" in person; while all candidates had at least some improvement (the Takers and the Matchers and the Givers), it was the Givers who showed by far the most significant improvement and led them to be the most successful of anyone in the group. In other words, "when people know how their work makes a difference, they feel energized to contribute more."

Another distinction from the most successful Givers and the least is that some are truly selfless givers who focus solely on others, while some Givers are what Grant labels as "otherish" Givers, which means they focus on the interests of others and of themselves. In fact, while most thing of the self-versus-other focus on a single continuum, Grant finds that they're actually separate. In other words, people can be high or low in caring for others and high or low in caring for themselves: those with low caring for both are just apathetic, those who care for themselves but not others are takers, those who care for others but not themselves are selfless givers, but those who care for others and themselves are "otherish" givers who tend to achieve the greatest success. So how are the two balanced? Grant finds that otherish Givers still have a focus on helping others over themselves, but use their own interests to choose when, where, how, and to whom to give help, recognizing that it's simply not possible to help everyone all the time.

In some cases, though, Givers aren't very good at structuring their giving activities in a manner that lets them balance their selfless and "otherish" tendencies, and/or they struggle to find the right balance of enough giver activities to inspire them but not so much they drown in it. Accordingly, Grant's research finds many interesting tips and tricks that seem to work. For instance, Givers appear to be happier if they do 5 random acts of kindness in a single day, than spreading them out through the week; it appears that "chunking" the giving activity together ultimately helps make it more personally motivating. Similarly, one company made a rule that certain times were "quiet time" were everyone had to work on their own, while other times were collaboration times, effectively forcing the employees to "chunk" their proactive giving tendencies, and again the end result was a significant improvement in productivity and morale. On the other hand, it's also notable that sometimes the problem isn't too much giving, but too little; in some cases, adding more volunteer activity, where tangible results can be seen immediately, can actually help inspire givers in otherwise wearying work. The magic number appears to be about 100 hours per year (averaging 2 hours per week) to reinspire weary givers.

Implications For Financial Planning Firms

Ultimately, Grant's "Give and Take" book has a lot of implications for financial planning firms, which are often populated or led by givers who entered financial planning with the goal and intent of helping people (as givers tend to do), but often corner themselves into financially unrewarding positions or outright burnout scenarios in the process. Grant's book provides many useful suggestions to combat this. For instance, instead of occasionally helping clients in need, regardless of whether they can afford your services, set up a "Pro Bono" afternoon once a week or once a month, where you chunk together a focused period of time for helping... but in exchange, commit to focus on your core clients the rest of the time. Similarly, if you're feeling burned out, try engaging more as a volunteer; even if you don't feel like you have the time, Grant's research suggests it may be even more energizing and motivating, even if there's less time for everything else! And if you're concerned staff aren't sufficiently motivated, try to connect them to the higher purpose of the business; for instance, make sure behind-the-scenes staff have an opportunity to meet real clients who are benefitting from the services of the firm, so the staff can understand first person the value of what the firm provides.

For those who perhaps aren't Givers, but perhaps are Matchers - either intrinsically, or because they were originally Givers but found themselves adopting a more defensive approach after feeling taken advantage of - the book provides some insight about how to become more of a Giver while minimizing the risk of being abused. For instance, anyone can be more proactive and engage in a "Giver" style of networking, and engage in habits like the "Five Minute Favor" where you try to take 5 minutes - but just 5 minutes so it's not overwhelming - to help someone out. And for those who are Takers, the book may be an inspiring call to shift to a more balanced approach, and to recognize the benefits of not necessarily trying to get something out of every interaction. Or at least, not something immediate; as one entrepreneur quoted in Grant's book states, "Being a giver is not good for a 100-yard dash, but it's valuable in a marathon." Although with an increasingly transparent world, thanks in large part to the internet, the long run is happening faster and faster! The book also shares some very interesting insights about how to turn the takers in your business or community towards a more giving approach; as it turns out, when a giving environment is created, the effects can be contagious.

But ultimately, I suspect that the book will resonate most with those financial planners who naturally tilt towards being Givers, but struggle with how to avoid being a "doormat" and want some ideas about how to find a better balance in their lives (in fact, "Overcoming the Doormat Effect" is a subtitle for one entire chapter of the book). If you're not entirely certain where you fall on the spectrum, Grant's own website offers up a relatively easy 15-question assessment tool to find out (if you want an honest assessment, make sure you answer honestly though!). And if you're interested in learning more about Grant's research - and a lot of other studies that he draws upon to connect to his own - I highly recommend the book itself! Enjoy!

  • Maria Marsala

    Being a volunteer since age 10, it’s been ingrained in me to share and give.

    But I had to learn how to take compliments, awards, etc. and how to hold back a bit because it’s not uncommon for me to ‘give away the shop’.

    Thomas Leonard, CFP, and Master Coach, said it best. His lesson is on the importance of filling your own up first, with all the goodness of you and THEN giving from the overfill.

    It really feels better to do that than to give from bottom of the cup — which is draining.

    That story has had a major impact on my life.

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Michael E. Kitces

I write about financial planning strategies and practice management ideas, and have created several businesses to help people implement them.

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*Understanding Longevity Annuities and their Potential Role in Retirement *Generating Tax Alpha with Effective Asset Location @ FPA Southern Wisconsin

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