Giver vs. Taker: What leadership qualities will serve you best?

By Deanna Cioppa
The Brief
If research showing that obnoxiousness can lead to success is true, then did Adam Grant get it wrong when he asked us to give more and take less? What leadership qualities will get you furthest?
leadership qualities


Is it better to be feared or loved?

Or, to put it in terms of today’s business culture, is it better for someone with leadership aspirations to be a little too nice or kind of a jerk? When Adam Grant published Give and Take in 2013, arguing that to be more successful one had to be a “giver”—of one’s time, energy, advice, etc.—many took it as a sign that the era of the nice guy had finally arrived.

But as a whole slew of research cited in a recent article from The Atlantic entitled, Why it Pays to be a Jerk,” makes clear, the jerks are just as, if not more, likely to ascend to the top of the ladder:

“…semi-obnoxious behavior not only can make a person seem more powerful, but can make them more powerful, period. The same goes for overconfidence…People will even pay to be treated shabbily.”

Does that mean Grant had it wrong? Like most thought pieces on organizational behavior, this one ends with a split decision: there are instances in which being nice is strategically advantageous, and times when you should let your jerk flag fly free. 

“Act toward the benefit of others in your network, but don’t stretch yourself too thin.” 


Perhaps one of the strongest points the article makes, and it comes with back-up from Grant himself, who was interviewed, is that the culture of niceness people may try to construct after reading Give and Take is not the one Grant was speaking of in his book. 

Being a doormat—in other words, being a wholly selfless giver—is a straight shot to the bottom, says Grant. Givers occupy both ends of the success spectrum. To reach the positive end, don’t allow yourself to be walked over. Act toward the benefit of others in your network, but don’t stretch yourself too thin. 

The point is, you don’t have to be nice to be a giver.  In fact, being a little “prickly” can actually be an advantage because it helps you get stuff done. Grant calls the most effective givers “disagreeable givers.” In this case, obnoxiousness doesn’t really matter. Who cares if the person connecting you to a potential new employer is a little arrogant, or if your team leader has a bit of a chip on his shoulder if it makes him fight for resources for your group?

As the article’s author makes clear, “jerks, narcissists and takers engage in behaviors to satisfy their own ego,” while Grant’s disagreeable givers are tough on others to fulfill a group goal. Remember that the next time your boss pushes you to meet a goal: is he doing it to make himself look good—in which case, he’s a full-on jerk—or is he doing it for the benefit of your department—in which case, you’d better rise to the challenge.

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RelSci provides a relationship capital platform that helps create competitive advantage for organizations through a crucial yet vastly underutilized asset: relationship capital with influential decision makers. 
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