Can we really be categorized into givers, takers and matchers? Or are we just learners adapting to the cues we pick up as we wend our way across organizational minefields?

As I listened to this highly engaging and entertaining TED talk, I kept wondering what assumptions about organizations and people led Adam Grant to believe that it would be helpful to suggest we can (should?) divide our peers up into givers, takers and matchers.

I believe he is onto something important, and I agree that we should do more to encourage giving and discourage taking. I’m not so sure the “divide and label” framing is useful, especially given the limits of any individual’s ability to understand what’s going on inside the minds (and lives) of the people being categorized. This is a far cry from the credo to “assume positive intent.”

At any rate, I’m guessing the majority of us behave like sophisticated matchers, navigating our way through permutations of these three categories as we learn from contextual clues about what is expected of us and what actions will serve our interests.

Setting this quibble aside, Grant’s “giver/taker/matcher” hook does make for an accessible and relatable TED talk! I’m pretty sure I’d enjoy chatting with him about this topic or almost anything else related to organizations. And I wouldn’t be surprised if he frames things a bit differently in 2024 than he did in 2016:)

If I were giving a similar talk, I suppose I might have framed things a bit differently, giving more emphasis to the greater system’s influence on the behavior of individuals trying to survive and succeed within that system. I might have asked questions that shifted the conversation out of nouns (labels) and into verbs or gerunds (behavior trends):

– What might be happening in your organization that encourages people to feel like “giving” (contributing) is in their best interest?

– What might be happening in your organization that encourages people feel like “taking” (whatever exactly that means) is in their best interest?

– What could you do to encourage more of the former and less of the latter?


A few years ago, I wrote an essay arguing that research on game theory and tipping points reveals a strategy for triggering positive social change EVEN in a world where 25% of us “tend to” act as homo economicus (takers), 25% of us “tend to” act as homo communicus (givers) and 50% of us “tend to” act as homo recipricans (matchers).

My own take is that we each have within us the power to choose to contribute (give), and we in fact make choices about the right context to give all the time based on our interpretation of past experience and environmental cues. We also each have the power to take actions to nudge the greater system toward more giving, producing waves that might eventually push the system past a tipping point toward giving as the behavioral norm.

© Dana Cogan, 2024, all rights reserved.

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