December 2013 Bar Bulletin
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December 2013 Bar Bulletin

The Polarity of Give and Take

By Robert W. Zierman


What motivates jolly old St. Nick to give and why is this activity so contagious? A couple of books published this year shed light on this topic in ways that may provide worthwhile takeaways for the whole year.

These are Adam Grant's Give and Take and Nicholas Lovell's The Curve. The former is written for a broader audience. The latter is appropriate for business operators seeking a more complex understanding of the positive attributes of giving in the information age.

Grant's book sets up the polarity fairly well by identifying that there are givers, takers and matchers. The book suggests that givers are actually the ones who have the best chance of becoming successful and retaining that position. Takers on the other hand may be able to successfully move up the ladder of success for a time. Yet, because of those they have burned below them, these individuals do not have real support when they get in a bind. This is when takers' lives can fall apart.

Grant explains that the reason for this has to do with the fact that most people are matchers. Regardless to what degree of clarity, it seems that people have a general sense of to whom they are indebted as well as those who are indebted to them. While not explicitly stated in the book, matchers seem in general to default to the neutral position of neither give nor take. Yet, because of the fact that they will match others' behavior, they will do either when prompted. The results can be quite spectacular.

Consider a situation in which a taker has made an exploitative strike. At some point, the matcher will likely seek some means of evening the score. At the extreme, this is the type of "accounting" that we see played out in our civil courts.

On the other hand, givers can bring out the best in their peers. Although running the risk of becoming doormats - a situation to which Grant devotes a chapter - givers can create an environment in which the matchers also give. This has two profound effects. One, the "pie" is enlarged. Two, the takers get smoked out or alter their behavior.

Grant talks about the effectiveness of a reciprocity ring in building a giver environment. For the mid-size and larger law firms, consider the following method to slightly alter your traditional "secret Santa" gifting this season. Don't continue to allow a situation in which some people give items that are really thoughtful and well received, and others give things that are nothing but kitsch. Instead, allow everyone to express what they would actually like to receive and then create a way to allow people to make it happen.

The transparency will certainly drive more appreciated gifts. By taking away the secret, there will be appreciation toward the individual giver and if everyone ends up receiving what they want, the end result will almost assuredly be the creation of greater goodwill across the whole organization.

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