How Adam Grant’s Concept of “Give and Take” Plays Out in the Teaching Workplace

Apples scattered on a table

Organizational psychologist Adam Grant has a wonderful book called Give and Take: Why Helping Others Drives Our Success.

This concept often makes some level of intuitive sense as soon as you hear it, but there’s more to the concept, and I highly recommend Grant’s 14-minute TED talk: Are you a giver or a taker?

The upshot of the Give and Take concept is that every organization—including schools—has three types of people: Givers, Takers, and “Matchers.”

Givers do favors for others without worrying about whether they’ll get paid back.

Givers make organizations stronger—but without good boundaries, they’re at risk of burnout. For teachers, who spend so much on-the-job time giving already, the risk of burnout can be especially strong. In addition to general burnout, givers are also at risk of getting more directly burned by takers.

Takers accept favors without worrying about whether they’ll ever pay them back.

And they often won’t. In fact, they may get right back in line for another favor. They take credit for other people’s ideas. They let other people do their work. They borrow your stapler and you never see it again. And they’re probably not going to change any time soon. The most frustrating thing about takers is they can be agreeable and charming on the surface (more on this at minute 9 or so of the talk). According to Grant’s research, there is zero correlation between whether someone is a taker and how pleasant it is to interact with them. Which means there are some very smiley takers out there. You know the type.

Matchers both give help and accept help, but they pay attention to what gets paid back.

If they’ve accepted a favor, they look for opportunities to pay it back. If they’ve done a favor, they’ll notice if it’s not returned. Matchers might be natural givers who have learned to set boundaries. Or they might be natural takers who have learned to play more nicely with others. Either way, their behavior naturally rewards givers and punishes takers. They might pick up the tab this time, but next time you better remember your wallet.

How to make sure you’re a giver or matcher in your teaching workplace—but never a taker.

Return favors and borrowed supplies as soon as possible.

Give back that stapler, is what I’m saying. But also remember who has given you their time and energy, which can be even more valuable.

Look for opportunities to do “five minute favors.”

This is a term coined by Adam Rivkin and is described in the TED talk at the 5:29 mark as “finding small ways to add large value to other people’s lives.” This is a good way to be helpful while still keeping strong enough boundaries to protect you from burnout.

Know thine own schedule and be true to it.

If you sense that other people are treating your time like public property, your first step is to make sure you know what times you’d like to avoid being interrupted. It’s especially important to know your in-class teaching time and the most productive hours of your week as a teacher.

Find your “I Can’t”

Once you’ve figured out the chunks of time you’d like to protect, you need a polite-yet-firm way of protecting them. Depending on your job description, it’s not always possible to avoid being asked to cover another teacher’s class during your planning period, or being handed a walkie-talkie, or being volun-told to take on an additional responsibility. But it may be more possible than you think it is. Psychologist and boundary expert Vicki Tidwell Palmer calls this skill “finding your ‘I can’t.”‘ I highly recommend this episode of her podcast if you’re trying to find your “I can’t” as a teacher.

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