You Don’t Have to Be a Jerk to Get Ahead

Life is war, some businessmen say, and winning requires ruthlessness. But recent research shows that isn’t the case at all.

“Everyone has a weakness, a gap in the castle wall. That weakness is usually an insecurity, an uncontrollable emotion or need; it can be a small secret pleasure. Either way, once found, it is a thumbscrew you can turn to your advantage,” writes Robert Greene in his provocative book The 48 Laws of Power.

In this popular bestseller, Greene provides detailed explanations, with examples from classical history, on how to exercise power in business, work environments and in relationships. Much of what he recommends is shockingly amoral and disgusting.

“The best deceptions are the ones that seem to give the other person a choice: Your victims feel they are in control, but are actually your puppets,” Greene explains with Law 31. “Give people options that come out in your favor whichever one they choose. Force them to make choices between the lesser of two evils, both of which serve your purpose. Put them on the horns of a dilemma: They are gored wherever they turn.”

While not every law that Greene discusses is so coldly self-serving as Law 31 (“Control the options: Get others to play with the card you deal”), the few that are not still require a large measure of self-interest to implement since the intent is always to deliver the upper hand to the person using the law.

Anyone striving to live by a moral compass would have great difficulty getting through the book. Yet Greene justifies his premise by claiming that our modern world is no different from the scheming world of the old aristocratic court. “Life in the court was a never-ending game that required constant vigilance and tactical thinking,” he says. “It was civilized war.”

Greene further explains that at that time the court considered itself the pinnacle of refinement, yet in reality, “underneath its glittering surface, a cauldron of dark emotions—greed, envy, lust, hatred—boiled and simmered. Our world today similarly imagines itself the pinnacle of fairness, yet the same ugly emotions still stir within us, as they have forever. The game is the same.”

Greene actually is on to something here. In fact, the only redeeming aspect of the book may be its truthful description of the cunningly evil inner world most human beings live in.

Greene’s solution to the problem is too shortsighted. “If the world is like a giant scheming court and we are trapped inside it, there is no use in trying to opt out of the game. That will only render you powerless, and powerlessness will make you miserable. Instead of struggling against the inevitable, instead of arguing and whining and feeling guilty, it is far better to excel at power.” Wow.

Isn’t there a better solution to our dog-eat-dog world than “if you can’t beat them, join them”?

There is a proven better way—even for the business world. For all those not interested in stepping on someone else’s neck or crushing your enemy to get ahead, this article is for you.

Adam Grant, researcher, professor and highest-rated teacher at the Wharton School (University of Pennsylvania Business School), highlights a positive and radically different approach to business, interactions and work—different rules of the game. He discusses his distinctive findings in his book Give and Take: A Revolutionary Approach to Success. The book is worth reading and implementing. Grant’s well-documented research not only provides individuals new rules—he opens a way to completely change the game.

Givers and Takers

Conventional wisdom says it takes hard work and talent to succeed. Adam Grant builds on this by saying that “success depends heavily on how we approach our interactions with other people.”

He explains, “Every time we interact with another person at work, we have a choice to make: Do we try to claim as much value as we can, or contribute value without worrying about what we receive in return?” Grant spent 10 years studying these choices in business, organizations and the U.S. Air Force. He discovered that the option people chose had a dramatic effect on their success.

Based on the choices people make in the workplace, Grant discovered there are three types of people: givers, matchers and takers. Each type revealed the worker’s preference for reciprocity.

Takers get more than they give. “They tilt reciprocity in their own favor, putting their own interests ahead of others’ needs. Takers believe that the world is a competitive, dog-eat-dog place.” He also states that takers “self-promote and make sure they get plenty of credit for their efforts.” Grant concedes that not all takers are cunningly vicious though. Some are just cautious and self-protective.

Matchers work in the middle ground between takers and givers. “Matchers operate on the principle of fairness: When they help others, they protect themselves by seeking reciprocity. If you are a matcher, you believe in tit for tat, and your relationships are governed by even exchange of favors,” explains Grant.

What about the givers? How do they conduct themselves? “In the workplace, givers are a relatively rare breed,” says Grant. “They tilt reciprocity in the other direction, preferring to give more than they get.” Rather than being self-focused, givers are others-focused.

It doesn’t take a lot of thought to figure out our individual work style. What about you? Are you a taker, a matcher, or a giver?

Bottom and Top of the Pile

It is hardly shocking that the vast majority of workers fall within the takers and matchers groups. In our working lives, most of us have come into contact with some givers—they do exist in nearly every workplace—but we would likely all agree that these people are in the minority.

However, where do givers end up on the mountain of success? Grant’s research findings are both surprising and not surprising.

When studying the research done in three particular arenas—the world of engineering; medical students in Belgium; and salespeople in North Carolina—Grant discovered that givers achieved the worst results. “Across occupations, it appears that givers are just too caring, too trusting, and too willing to sacrifice their own interests for the benefit of others. There is even evidence that compared with takers, on average, givers earn 14 percent less money, have twice the risk of becoming victims of crimes, and are judged as 22 percent less powerful and dominant,” writes Grant. Proponents of the “laws of power” would be correct in assuming that many givers end up at the bottom of the pile.

So who is likeliest to be at the top of the success ladder? Laws-of-power believers may be equally shocked to learn what Grant discovered when looking at the research data in depth: that the ones who tend to reach the top aren’t the matchers and takers. They’re the givers.

While the engineers with the lowest productivity were discovered to be givers, the engineers with the highest productivity were also found to be givers. “Even in sales, I found that the least productive people had 25 percent higher giver scores than average performers—but so did the most productive salespeople,” explains Grant. In fact, the top performers were givers; Grant discovered they averaged 50 percent more annual revenue than the takers and the matchers. Surprisingly, givers dominate the bottom and the top of the success ladder.

Biographies of Givers

Grant’s book is chock full of biographies of some of the most ruthless takers and the very successful givers. For example, to show the downside of being a taker, he uses the example of how Enron was destroyed by the extreme self-interest of its own leadership. It is a fascinating study.

Grant also provides inspiring details about those who have discovered the incredible benefit and power of giving without expecting anything in return. He tells the compelling story of Adam Forrest Rifkin, a software programmer who successfully built a robust LinkedIn network with more connections to Fortune’s list of powerful people than anyone else has on Earth—including the founders of Facebook, Netscape, Napster, Twitter, Flickr and Grant shows that Rifkin built his online network by operating as a bona fide giver. Rifkin has willingly shared his know-how and expertise with thousands at no cost to them.

Grant uses Rifkin’s generosity to show that givers create an atmosphere of giving, which produces more givers. “When people feel grateful for Rifkin’s help, like Stephanie, they’re more likely to pay it forward. ‘I have always been a very genuine and kindhearted person,’ Stephanie says, ‘but I had to hide it and be more competitive so that I could get ahead. The important lesson I learned from Adam [Rifkin] is that you can be a genuinely kindhearted person and still get ahead in the world.”

Grant has discovered that giving is contagious. Rifkin’s work life proves this out. “Every time Rifkin generously shares his experience or connections, he’s investing in encouraging the people in his network to act like givers,” Grant writes. “When Rifkin does ask people for help, he’s usually asking for assistance in helping someone else.” A business leader who creates an environment of giving increases the odds that others in his network will follow his example and add value to the work life of others—not simply match or take value.

Rifkin is only one example Grant uses. Give and Take records the case histories of givers who are medical professionals, venture capitalists, professional sports coaches, teachers and writers. These real-life examples show that givers make an impact across multiple disciplines.

Matchers and Takers

What does Grant have to say about the work life of matchers and takers? For starters, matchers and takers consider continual giving risky business. Sharing knowledge and experience to help others is considered a threat to their personal productivity—a real hindrance to their ultimate success. Matchers and takers would seriously question whether Adam Rifkin could maintain productivity without a guarantee of return from those he helped.

“When takers build networks, they try to claim as much value as possible for themselves from a fixed pie,” Grant writes. “When givers like Rifkin build networks, they expand the pie so that everyone can get a larger slice.” Essentially, Rifkin has helped so many people in his professional career that he does not have to fear not receiving help if he needs it.

Takers hoard help from others, creating a serious downside for themselves. Takers are distrusted individuals. Coworkers feel used by takers and are not likely to reciprocate when takers seek help. Even matchers will severely punish a taker.

Grant devotes some space in his book to a study done in a California engineering firm. The study shows that takers held the lowest status among peers. “They burned bridges by constantly asking for favors but rarely reciprocating. Their colleagues saw them as selfish and punished them with a lack of respect. The givers had the highest status, outdoing the matchers and takers. The more generous they were, the more respect and prestige they earned from their colleagues.”

Matchers are generally very productive workers who call in favors to receive help. They see success in terms of balancing individual accomplishments with fairness to others. Matchers live by a refined sense of justice—they work hard to play fair—they will give, but expect giving in return. Matchers often hold giving as a value, but are too timid or fearful to become an Adam Forrest Rifkin.

Two Ways of Life

Adam Grant’s book would undoubtedly be a unique addition to anyone’s bookshelf, not just the businessman or businesswoman. While it may never be as popular as The 48 Laws of Power, the concepts in the book are vital for everyone to know.

One reality of life every human being must accept is that our individual success, no matter what we undertake, depends on help from others. Someone must be willing to give us the help we need. The big question Adam Grant lays at our doorstep is, will we remain takers, or grow to become relentless givers?

“In all things I have shown you that by working hard in this way we must help the weak and remember the words of the Lord Jesus, how he himself said, ‘It is more blessed to give than to receive,’” taught Paul, one of the hardest-working of Christ’s apostles (Acts 20:35; English Standard Version). This is phenomenal teaching that this world has real difficulty seeing, yet desperately needs.

We must take off our rose-colored glasses and see clearly that we live in a wretched world. Paul called this age of man “this present evil world” (Galatians 1:4). We are in a world that embraces the take way of life. Paul describes our world perfectly in 2 Timothy 3:1-5.

Herbert W. Armstrong, the greatest theologian of our time, taught that there are two basic ways of life. He described these two ways very simply: There is the give way and the get way. God the Father and Jesus Christ live by the give way. As a family of love, they give every good thing to mankind (1 John 4:8, 16). Jesus Christ came to this Earth and demonstrated how to live the give way of life (e.g. Acts 10:38). God intends that all men live as He does. He wants us to become great givers just like He is.

“But human nature simply doesn’t see it that way,” Mr. Armstrong wrote. “That’s the way the Creator designed it—but humans differ with Him who said, ‘It is more blessed to give than receive.’ Unfortunately that has been regarded as impractical idealism. Yet every evil in today’s sick, sick world has been caused by the ‘get’ motive—self-advantage at the cost of others, vanity, coveting, lust and greed—envy and jealousy, hostile competition, strife, violence, war, destruction. And above all, resentment of authority” (Plain Truth, February/March 1985).

All human beings must come to see that only the give way of life works. What about you? Are you willing to step up and start giving to help others? You don’t have to be a jerk to get ahead.

Stop for a moment and think about how different this world would be if every man, woman and child lived to give rather than to get. Think about the difference living the give way of life would make at the city, state, national and international level. We would have utopia!

Utopia is not an idealistic pipe dream—it is coming in our time!

Request a free copy of Herbert Armstrong’s most important written work, Mystery of the Ages. This book shows you in detail how our world has come to be the way it is and how it will be changed into a magnificently productive, success-filled world—all based on living by giving, not getting.