PARTICIPANTS in a recent, spontaneous feel-good "pay it forward" event at a Winnipeg coffee shop didn't know it at the time, but they symbolized the types of individuals highlighted in this enlightening study of human interaction.
Give and Take shows how three kinds of people, whom U.S. academic star Adam Grant calls givers, takers and matchers, can also morph into further sub-groups as they acquire or shed behavioural characteristics in hopes of achieving success.
It is intended for American audiences but is applicable to all 21st-century industrialized societies. It shows how an adage long considered a purely moral concern can work wonders for personal careers and even help corporations to prosper.
"It's better to give than to receive" hardly seems to be a practical mantra in today's fast-paced, technology-driven, competitive economies, but it's exactly the approach advocated by Grant, a professor at Wharton Business School in Pennsylvania recently profiled on the cover of the New York Times magazine.
The conventional belief is that success rests on a three-legged stool: hard work, talent and luck. Using engaging examples, Grant shows that the sturdiest stool has a fourth leg, often neglected but critical for long-term stability.
Calling it simply "building relationships," he states, "Success depends heavily on how we approach our interactions with other people." This is his mantra throughout.
However, readers shouldn't assume that Give and Take is just another self-improvement publication or a gimmicky pop-psychology manual promising success and happiness.
The book's value lies in helping to pigeon-hole obvious takers like bullying bosses, while also explaining why some employees who are givers remain at the bottom of the success ladder while others rise to the top.
According to Grant, "being selfless, generous, and putting the team ahead of yourself" is a surprisingly common characteristic of highly successful people like Richard Branson of Virgin Airlines and Bill Gates of Microsoft.
Drawing on academic research, Grant shows how such famous people achieved success, and how their tendency towards giving or taking affected their legacy.
In a chapter titled The Peacock and the Panda, he traces the quick rise and eventual disgrace of Ken Lay, a taker who helped precipitate Enron's collapse in 2001. He compares him with Adam Rifkin of LinkedIn, whose giver approach within a highly competitive technology community has brought him respect and lasting success.
Grant also shows that the person long admired as the sole inventor of the oral vaccine that prevents polio failed to properly credit the team he worked with.
This selfish action cost Jonas Salk the respect of colleagues who labelled him a taker in a community where co-operation (giving and matching) should be paramount.
On the other hand, honest Abe Lincoln's status as an exemplary matcher and giver remains intact.
"In the oval office," Grant writes, "Lincoln was determined to put the good of the nation above his own ego." Grant is still in his early 30s. His teaching expertise and contrarian research have gained him recognition as one of the world's top business professors under the age of 40.
If Grant had been in Winnipeg when a giver, filled with holiday season generosity, prompted a long chain reaction by matchers, he would have had numerous, albeit less famous examples to fit his thesis: "Most people are matchers: their core values emphasize fairness, equality, and reciprocity."
Joseph Hnatiuk is a retired teacher in Winnipeg.