Thursday, January 28, 2016

In the Work Place, Is It Better to Receive Than to Give?

By now, students of organizational behavior are probably familiar with Professor Adam Grant’s research on givers and takers, which he has summarized in his book Give and Take (Grant, 2013). Grant has found that people have three general interaction styles: taking, giving and matching. Takers, according to Grant, like to get more than they give. They believe in a dog-eat-dog world, like to promote themselves, and make sure they get credit for their efforts. It’s a looking-out-for-me mentality. Givers on the other hand pay more attention to what other people need from them, sometimes helping others without expecting anything in return. Their focus is on acting in the interests of others. Matchers try to balance the two and believe in a fair exchange.

While people may shift their interaction style based on their different roles and relationships, Grant claims that everyone has a primary style. Most of us (about 55-60% by his estimate) are typically matchers in the workplace. However, what he has found is that givers tend to be more successful in their careers than either takers or matchers, although they are also the least successful. This is because there are two types of givers. The successful ones tend to be more selective on who to help, when to help and how to help. Those who are not may become doormats and spend too much of their time helping others and not getting their own work done.

Matchers (and they are the vast majority of us) don’t like takers because they violate a sense of justice and fairness. Furthermore, according to Grant (Dearlove, 2014): “ … as the world shifts to become one that’s more about collaboration and service than it has been in the past, it’s going to be harder and harder for takers to succeed.”

Grant has done a number of studies with colleagues to validate his concepts, and a recent study by Keysar et al. (2014) also has supported his findings. They conducted a series of experiments in which they found that positive actions by subjects were reciprocated, but negative actions (in other words, subjects who were takers) not only were not reciprocated, but led to even more selfish responses. Their conclusion was that there are different patterns of reciprocity: “ … people reciprocated in like measure to apparently prosocial acts of giving, but reciprocated more selfishly to apparently antisocial acts of taking.”

Grant points out that these interaction styles do not seem related to personality traits. In fact, he has found that the correlation between agreeableness (one of the so-called Big Five personality traits) and giving-taking is virtually zero. There are agreeable takers and disagreeable takers, just as there are agreeable givers and disagreeable givers. Interaction style is more about intentions and motives.

What about cultural differences, however? This concept of reciprocity and fair exchange is indeed fairly common in the Western workplace, which is dominated by what the behavioral economist Dan Ariely (2008) refers to as market norms. Many of our social exchanges in the work place are based on cost-benefit trade-offs. How does reciprocity work in other cultures, and do similar dynamics take place?

Interestingly enough, other cultures do have their own terms to describe these types of exchanges. Most of us have probably heard of the Chinese concept of guanxi, which is based on Confucian beliefs about hierarchy and relationships. Creating exchanges of favors builds relationships between parties, and is considered as essential to doing business successfully in China.  These social connections built through guanxi generate loyalty, dedication and trust. In their meta-analysis of fifty-three empirical studies, Luo et al. (2012) found a linkage between guanxi and organizational performance; guanxi enhances organizational performance and confirms the value of guanxi networks on firm performance in greater China.

Smith et al. (2014) proposed that there are three related attributes that characterize a guanxi relationship between subordinates and their supervisors: strong affective attachment (an emotional connection to care for one another), inclusion of one’s personal life within the relationship (the degree to which supervisors and subordinates include each other in their private or family lives), and deference to the supervisor. They developed measures for each of these attributes, and collected data from managers in eight nations (e.g., Brazil, India, Russia, and the United Kingdom) including two Chinese cultures. Their results indicate that both affective attachment and deference demonstrated “metric invariance” across the eight nations sampled, while the personal-life inclusion scale (as they predicted) did not. While guanxi is indigenous, aspects of it do indeed exist in other cultures.

In the Philippines, the concept of utang na loob also describes a web of reciprocity and exchange of favors. According to Hunt et al. (1963, p. 62):
“Every Filipino is expected to possess utang na loob; that is, he should be aware of his obligations to those from whom he receives favors and should repay them in an acceptable manner … One cannot measure the repayment but can attempt to make it, nevertheless, either believing that it supersedes the original service in quality of acknowledging that the reciprocal payment is partial and requires further payment.”

Here are two key take-aways for global managers. First, the good news. The concept of reciprocity seems to generalize across cultures, and universally everyone at least in the work place seems to understand and acknowledge the importance of fairness. For managers supervising others from different cultures, applying basic management principles such as treating people fairly and using a matching style of interaction would seem to work well. In addition, a taker style is not likely to win you many friends nor help you become successful, regardless of the culture where you are working.

I say this in spite of what Pfeffer (2015) recently wrote about the norm of reciprocity. In his book, Leadership BS, Pfeffer claims that “when people are in an organizational as contrasted with an interpersonal setting, they feel less obligation to repay favors and, in fact, are less likely to do so.” (p. 177) He cites a couple of studies he has conducted where people felt less likely to return favors when these favors were in the context of the work place. He concludes that in work settings people view others strictly in terms of whether they can be useful to them in the future. However, many do view work places as not simply a place where they can earn a living and where every day is a Darwinian, win-lose struggle. People do form strong bonds in the work place, not just with their peers and colleagues, but also with their bosses and with the companies they work for. In Japan and other non-Western cultures, especially, people’s identities are very much tied to their companies and the lines between transactional, market-driven norms and social norms do get blurred.

Second, at the same time, the basis for how such exchanges can lead to trust and effective working relationships with others seems to be influenced by culture. In particular, using Ariely’s distinction, non-Western cultures rely more on social norms while Western cultures rely more on market norms in these exchanges. While guanxi, utang na loob and similar concepts imply a kind of matching, they are not based strictly on transactional terms. Ariely acknowledges that it is challenging when you mix social norms with market norms.

While a giver style might be preferable, global managers still need to understand the specific cultural context and cultural norms in the different cross-cultural settings in which they may find themselves. In particular, recognizing that in non-Western cultures the intention of these exchanges is to build relationships and not necessarily to get something back in return quickly is an important distinction that Western global managers need to be aware of in succeeding cross-culturally.

Ariely, D. (2008). Predictably Irrational. New York: Harper.

Dearlove, D. (2014). Give and Take: An Interview with Adam Grant.

Grant, A. (2013). Give and Take. New York: Viking.

Hunt, C. et al. (1963). Sociology in the Philippine Setting. Quezon City, Philippines: Phoenix Publishing House.

Keysar. B. et al. (2008). Reciprocity Is Not Give and Take. Psychological Science,19 (8), 1280-1286.

Luo, Y., Huang, Y. and Wang, S. (2012). Guanxi and Organizational Performance: A Meta-Analysis. Management and Organization Review, 8 (1), 139-172.

Pfeffer, J. (2015). Leadership BS: Fixing Workplaces and Careers One Truth at a Time. New York: Harper.

Smith, Peter B., et al. (2014). Are Guanxi-Type Supervisor–Subordinate Relationships Culture-General? An Eight-Nation Test of Measurement Invariance. Journal of Cross-Cultural Psychology, 45 (6): 921-938.