Are Takers Always Toxic?

Are you struggling to deal with someone at work whose only interest seems to be taking from others so they can make themselves look better?  Whether they’re stealing people’s ideas, selfishly grabbing onto opportunities, hoarding resources or claiming all the credit for team efforts, takers destroy trust in workplaces.  So what’s the best way to deal with a taker at work?

“While it can be tempting to believe that sometimes you need people who are hard charging, aggressive and mercenary, I’m now convinced that takers only have a toxic effect on teams,” explained Professor Adam Grant from Wharton Business School and best-selling author of “Give and Take” when I interviewed him recently.  “Takers use and exploit people for their own personal gain and as a result they create fear and paranoia in teams.”

The good news is not everyone in an organization is a taker.  Adam suggests you’re more likely to come across matchers – those who seek an even exchange of favors – who generally make up about fifty-six percent of workplaces.  And then there are the givers – those who generously support and help others, with no strings attached – who represent twenty-five percent of employees.

Unfortunately though approximately nineteen percent of your people may be takers, and the negative impact they have on your culture can be two to three times greater than the positive impact of matchers and givers. And even one taker in a team can undermine trust for everybody.

Generally people become takers at work because their doubts about other people’s intentions make them suspicious and distrustful and this has a contagious effect that spreads throughout the team. Even givers will stop helping others or contributing when they feel they’re working in a culture of sharks as no one wants to be consistently taken advantage of.

“When you’re hiring you may be investing a huge amount of time trying to get the right people on your bus,” advises Adam. “But it’s more critical to keep the wrong people off your bus, and avoid the costly damage that they can have on your culture.”

So how do you weed out the takers?

The reality is that takers can be hard to spot, because they’ve often learned how to get ahead by fooling us into thinking they have our best interests at heart.   A successful taker, is usually a good faker because they use the trait of agreeableness – being warm, polite and friendly – to appear as a giver for the sole purpose of advancing their own interests.

Adam suggests that when you discover a taker in your team you try the following approaches to help them realize that success relies on contributions not simply competition:

  • Look for the bright moments – very few people are takers in every role and every relationship. And perhaps takers are takers in the workplace because they’re just been taught it’s the best way to survive in the competitive rat race.  Look for moments where they seem to less selfish.  When you notice what these moments have in common you can start to tailor your requests toward the kinds of helping and giving that they naturally enjoy giving or they feel like they’re skilled at.  For example, it might be someone who’s passionate about computers, and they can’t help but share their knowledge when they’re asked a question about this topic.  Or you can jump in with questions on other topics just after they’ve shared some of interests, in the hope that their enthusiasm may naturally spill over. In this way you can help bring out and reward their more giving qualities.
  • Give reputational feedback – while you don’t necessarily want to call anyone a taker to their face, sometimes gently letting them know that they have a reputation for selfishness can motivate them to make some changes. For example, as a leader having the courage to tell them that some of their behaviors are eroding trust or going against how you want your team to be operating can give them the opportunity to earn a new reputation.  After all, as Adam has found people seldom want to be known as a taker.
  • Build accountability – don’t reward others selfish behavior with unconditional generosity. Unfortunately, if you’re a giver you can be too trusting and more vulnerable to takers, but dealing with them with the expectations of a matcher or a disagreeable giver, can help you prevent generosity burnout.   Matchers are extremely tough on takers, as they believe in reciprocity and expect their favors to be returned or forwarded on to others.  And while you assume that givers are always nice, warm and friendly, disagreeable givers are gruff, tough and critical as they hold people accountable to very high standards, and believe that’s the most effective way to help others succeed.

What are you doing to manage the takers in your workplace?