In my experience, many businesses struggle to make referrals, even when they’re in an industry – for example professional services – where good quality referrals are the lifeblood of a successful enterprise. Most experienced professionals are aware of the benefits that flow from applying the “givers get” principle. Of course, most would much rather just receive referrals but – perhaps grudgingly – accept that reciprocity is the key to receiving.

What is the fear then, sitting behind the widespread reluctance to commit to abundant, giving-based behaviour? The interesting news is that our fear reflects rational concerns:

  1. It takes precious time and effort to build good client relationships
  2. I’m worried that I might lose control of my clients
  3. Can I trust someone else to look after my clients like I do?

Most people accept that giving referrals is a virtuous activity, particularly if they’re truly focused on delivering the specific advice and services their clients need. But is there actually any truth to the maxim “givers get”?

Let’s consider the argument Professor Adam Grant of Pennsylvania’s Wharton University puts forward in his book “Give and Take: A Revolutionary Approach to Success”.

Adam approaches the argument from the perspective of behavioural psychology. According to conventional wisdom, success involves a combination of hard work, talent and luck. Adam proposes that success also depends on how we behave with others: in essence, are we more likely to give or do we take? It turns out that people typically display one of three distinctive behavioural styles: Takers, Givers or Matchers.

Takers like to get more than they give, whereas Givers pay more attention to what other people need from them. As Grant points out though, few of us are purely givers or takers — rather, most of us become “Matchers”, trying to preserve an equal balance of giving and getting and exchanging favours on this basis.

SO which behaviour gets the best results in business? The answer seems at first unfortunate. Research demonstrates that givers sink to the bottom of the business success ladder.

If givers are at the bottom though, then who’s on top, takers or matchers? As it turns out, neither! Grant’s data showed that givers can be both the worst and the best performers, with the takers and matchers more likely to land in the middle of the performance curve.

The reason for this apparent dichotomy of performance between givers, lies less with raw talent or aptitude, and more about the strategies and tactics givers use as well as the choices they make. Successful givers are every bit as ambitious as takers and matchers. They simply employ a specific approach to pursuing their goals that enhances their chances of success.

And guess what else showed up in Grant’s investigations? When givers succeed, they create a ripple effect, enhancing the success of people around them. As Grant says in his 2013 HBR article “In the Company of Givers and Takers“.

“A willingness to help others achieve their goals lies at the heart of effective collaboration, innovation, quality improvement, and service excellence.”

So here’s a challenge: why don’t we all strive for more business success by spending more time practising being effective givers?

Peter Wilkinson – Director, Sam Wilko Advisory