Developers: Are You A Giver Or Taker?

Monday Apr 22nd 2013 by Eric Spiegel
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Among software development teams, the personal dynamics of the various coders is critical to efficiency.

Dustin walked into my office on a Monday morning looking a little disheveled, with bags under his eyes.

But he also had a big grin on his face.

I couldn’t help but smile back and said “You look like the cat who swallowed the canary.”

“Yes, but this cat also figured out what caused production to go down this weekend,” he answered with satisfaction in his voice.

Production had indeed gone down Saturday and my team had quickly figured out a temporary solution to get the wheels moving again, but hadn’t figured out the root cause.

“Wait, I’m confused. I thought Amber was on-call this weekend.”

Dustin looked down and shuffled his feet. “Yeah, well she had something going on, so she asked me to help out.”

Ah, Amber. This didn’t surprise me at all.

“Dustin, didn’t you have an out of town wedding to attend?”

Dustin responded while avoiding my eye contact. “Um, yeah, but she sounded desperate.”

It turned out Dustin had indeed solved the problem with the code. But I had a bigger problem. How was I going to deal with Amber’s ongoing tendencies to take advantage of other team members?

Others on the team had complained to me about her, but interestingly enough, Dustin – who was the primary target of her work being offloaded – never once complained. Actually, he never complained about helping anyone on the team.

Looking as refreshed and chipper as ever, Amber sat across from me later that day. I asked her what happened over the weekend.

Amber said “Oh, that Dustin is a sweetheart. I was busy with my friends hanging out.”

“Hanging out? With friends?”

“Uh huh. We had a great time. Watched a really good movie.”

I shook my head and I’m pretty sure I rolled my eyes.

“Amber, when you are on-call you must be available to solve production problems – day or night. Everyone makes this sacrifice one week every other month.”

“But it would have been rude to leave my friends in the middle of a movie for work stuff on a weekend,” she said without a trace of regret.

I sighed and said, “You do realize Dustin was at a wedding?”

With a look of surprise, she flashed an innocent smile and said, “Gosh, at a wedding? Really? I had no idea.”

And amazingly, she was innocent. I confirmed with Dustin that she had no idea he was out of town at a wedding.

Well, she was only partially innocent. She still shirked her on-call responsibility.

Over the years, I have seen this scenario play out over and over again. I have always wondered if some people were just predisposed to dealing with responsibilities differently.

And in the teamwork of software development, this is a critical question.

Givers and Takers

I recently came across research that delves into this exact topic. Give and Take is a book by Adam Grant, a professor in organizational psychology at Wharton School of Business. His research found people can generally be cast into three categories – givers, takers and matchers.

Givers look to help others without any strings attached. They make an introduction, give advice, or share knowledge – and never expect reciprocation.

Dustin was a giver. He would spend hours mentoring new team members and never think about what he would get out of this altruistic effort.

Takers are people who, when interacting with another person, are trying to get as much as possible from that person and contribute as little as they can in return, thinking that's the shortest and most direct path to achieving their own goals.

Amber was a taker. She would leverage everyone else’s good will and willingness to help. Even though she was perfectly capable of completing an assignment on her own, she would always look for shortcuts through other team members’ generosity. This was especially the case with Dustin.

The third category is where most people fall. Matchers try to maintain an even balance of give and take – often playing the role of referee.

Grant found that the category a person falls into can impact their career advancement. Givers can easily burn out, whereas takers burn bridges. So wouldn’t it be obvious that people like Dustin end up at the bottom of the ladder and the Ambers of the world end of at the top?

Grant’s research showed mixed results. Givers were overrepresented at the bottom, and surprisingly, at the top as well.

How is this possible?

Part of the reason is that matchers go out of their way to restore balance and make sure any injustice done to a giver is evened out by any means, even spreading rumors about the offending taker.

Matchers will often go out of their way to promote and help and support givers, to make sure they actually do get rewarded for their generosity. According to Grant, that's one of the most powerful dynamics behind the rise of givers.

In the short run, givers like Dustin pay a big price in time and effort. But people like Dustin never expect anything in return and they end up building a huge bank of good will that pays off in spades in the long run. This is because the majority of people are matchers and will go the extra mile to see givers like Dustin succeed.

Grant created a website, GiveandTake.com, where you can take a quiz to determine what category you fall into. I took the assessment and apparently I’m not a giver or taker – but a matcher.

I would have guessed I was a giver, because that is how I have been told I act in my personal life. But I’m okay with being a matcher. I do hate to see others being take advantage of and always try to broker the peace in difficult group dynamics.

And in the Software Development Team….

What happened to Dustin and Amber?

In retrospect, I should have been more direct with Amber. But because the team as a whole was operating efficiently and exceeding performance expectations, I let it go.

I’m not sure Amber would have changed her selfish ways, but I could have tried harder to help her see how others saw her.

Today, I could have the entire team take Grant’s assessment, because others can take the quiz to provide 360-degree feedback. It can be eye opening to learn how others interpret your actions.

Over time Dustin became a CTO. People loved and respected him because he selflessly gave his time to help. His LinkedIn profile is overflowing with recommendations from people he helped over the years. His giving disposition combined with his technical prowess eventually landed him at the top of the ladder.

And Amber? Well, she switched careers and moved into sales. She did very well for herself. But you won’t find many recommendations on her LinkedIn profile.

Although there was one particularly glowing recommendation.

From Dustin.

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