Beyond Resilience: Givers, Takers, Matchers and Anti-Fragile Systems

“Our focus on removing or minimizing randomness has actually had the perverse effect of increasing fragility.”   How can we work through this  paradox in organizations?  Assistant Professor Adam Grant’s recent works provides insights. As a follow-on exploring the concept of anti-fragile systems that I blogged about earlier, consider the power of Dr. Grant’s recent work on Givers, Takers and Matchers, described in his book and in his recent article for McKinsey, Givers Take All: The hidden dimension of corporate culture.   

Professor Adam Grant cites surprising research from Harvard which indicates that teams displaying a high level of “help-giving” significantly outperform teams in which members have more of a “matcher” or “taker” mindset. This was also consistent across industries and using several different measures of performance.  The research also showed that “giving” teams:

  • Helped members solve problems and get work done faster
  • Transferred work expertise from experienced team members to new employees better
  • Consistently compensated for team members that were overloaded or distracted
  • Improved team coordination, and
  • Improved customers and supplier relationships, so that they felt their needs were highly valued by the organization

For context, a quick recap of Nasim Taleb’s work describing anti-fragility and “Black Swan” events is:

“…natural or organic systems are antifragile: They need some dose of disorder in order to develop. Deprive your bones of stress and they become brittle. This denial of the antifragility of living or complex systems is the costliest mistake that we have made in modern times. Stifling natural fluctuations masks real problems, causing the explosions to be both delayed and more intense when they do take place.” From the Book:    Antifragile: Things that Gain from Disorder

An earlier, recent post describes the “Black Swan” and anti-fragile context further  with several illustrations here:

Black Swan  Photo: Tamsin Slater, Flickr
Black Swan Photo: Tamsin Slater, Flickr

More info is also here:  Getting Stronger through Stress: Making Black Swans Work for You Below is my recent SlideShare presentation to the Valley Society of Human Resource Management, June 2013:

Sixty (60) of us walked through a simulated experience of decision-making in a group, in this case, 60 HR professionals at their June VSHRM chapter meeting.  It was a way to to sense the organic and adaptive complexity of human systems as each individual has his or her own sense of right timing or readiness to move through a decision-making cycle.

Zig-Zag Decision Making, Perception & Judgement Jung
Zig-Zag Decision Making, Perception & Judgement Jung

People as a System A change colleague, Dr. James G. Bohn, Ph.D., Principal at ProAxios  describes why supposed “soft skills” in dealing with human beings in group systems is such a misnomer or myth; soft skills ARE the hard stuff.  Dr. Bohn sheds light on the power and challenge of people working together to illumine our own blind spots, organizational pet projects in a recent SlideShare entitled, Organizational Mythologies. Here’s an excerpt:

Human beings are complex. When managers, leaders and executives step back for amoment, they realize human emotion, motivation and intuitions are far more complex than figures, equations and theorems. Albert Einstein reportedly said “I worked in mathematics, because people are too complicated.“ Paul Allaire of Xerox said “The hardest stuff is the soft stuff.”

See the full SlideShare via ScoopIt:  Organizational Mythologies – Can this Bad Leader Be Saved?    Source: James G. Bohn, Ph.D.

By working with others, we are more likely to take notice of our Known UnKnowns in reference to the book, Thinking Fast, Thinking Slow, by Daniel Kahneman. Otherwise, we prefer to fit events and things happening to our past and present experiences, our Known Knowns.

To explain overconfidence, Kahneman introduces the concept he labels What You See Is All There Is (WYSIATI). This theory states that when the mind makes decisions, it deals primarily with Known Knowns, phenomena it has already observed. It rarely considers Known Unknowns, phenomena that it knows to be relevant but about which it has no information. Finally it appears oblivious to the possibility of Unknown Unknowns, unknown phenomena of unknown relevance.

By Untitled blue, Flickr, CC - 2008
By Untitled blue, Flickr

Yet organisms in nature have been very successful in trying circumstance due to adaptation and flexibility.  Small, yet mighty, bacteria, plankton and ants are the top three most adaptable and anti-fragile organisms on earth.

Ants are considered to be a super-organism via their hive-mind composition and their evolutionary success attributed to their highly coordinated social organization.  They modify habitats, exploit resources, defend themselves.  Nearly 12,500 species have been identified, but it's thought that as many as 22,000 species may actually exist.    Photo: by praline3001, Flickr
Ants are considered to be a super-organism via their hive-mind composition and their evolutionary success attributed to their highly coordinated social organization. They modify habitats, exploit resources, defend themselves.
Nearly 12,500 species have been identified, but it’s thought that as many as 22,000 species may actually exist. Photo: by praline3001, Flickr

What’s That to Me? Using the concept of Anti-Fragile along with Adam Grant’s concepts of Giving Cultures Win, I suggest the following Top Five Practices for become more anti-fragile in building systems in your organization:

1. Start the Conversations, Share the Research Results We know that some of our organizational practices are flawed, providing low return on what we invest in them, with performance appraisal, especially rankings, being a prime example.  Others would include certification processes, measurement processes rooted in the industrial age and the like.   By simply sharing research and being willing to be creators, coaches and challengers, newer, better practices can develop.  In beginning to talk about ENDING low-value practices and replace them with something more flexible and system-serving, we can become less system fragile.

2. Start with Yourself: Model Individual & Team Help-Seeking & Giving By leaving behind the matching mindset of “I’ll scratch your back if you scratch mine” in organizational thinking and trading of favors, as discussed by Dr. Adam Grant, and looking actively for ways to personally embrace more giving behaviors across silo-ed boundaries, such as sharing access to resources and tools, you can help your own organizational culture change one action at a time.

3. Never Work Alone ~ Connect with Other Givers! There’s nothing so powerful as finding peer mentors to help you stay focused and clear on building your “giving” culture skills. They can help you understand how much you may be swimming up-stream, at times, and why it’s still worth it to continue to be a giver.

Photo by Radarsmum67
Photo by Radarsmum67

4. Creator, Challenger, Coach => Help Recognize & Reward Giver & Participative Team Practices Whenever you have the opportunity to serve in roles outside of traditional organizational “drama triangle” roles of victim, persecutor and rescuer, do it! Creators can change systems and impact many in doing so, by something as tangible as replacing a ranking scale with a 5 point narrative, with key-words, tied to aligned goals.


5. Hire “Givers,” take care with “Matchers,” Screen out “Takers” Providing research, education, stories, examples can help matching cultures grow to be more giving.  Hiring dyed-in-the-wool givers, often demonstrated through volunteer work on a resume and through asking good behaviorally based and performance based questions helps.  For example,  

  • “Tell me a time when you helped someone who could not repay you for the time you took to help them.”

Boundaries:   Too much giving also has its downsides as well.  As Dr. Grant writes, “to avoid this trade-off, leaders need to set boundaries [to avoid being] …constantly interrupted with requests for help.” Setting up fair expectations for mentoring, for uninterrupted work time and checking in on productivity using good metrics should help organization with the best “giving” intentions get the balance right.


I have found that among its other benefits, giving liberates the soul of the giver. ~ Maya Angelou

I added a rap of my experience with a “Near Miss” in working with a group of bus drivers at the University of Michigan back in the 80’s.  The video of that “Entre-Slam” experience, with subtitles is here. Here’s my custom mini-rap that I share with the VSHRM group this June on anti-fragile & giving:

Is it about Resilence? Is that the current game? It’s 2013. And it’s playing kinda lame. It’s time to be less fragile. The world has raised the bar. So bring on giver tools, culture. Together you can do it, VSHRM-HR.

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Published by dnrevel

Change & transition, Leadership team & organization development. Executive Leadership team coach. My LinkedIn profile:

10 thoughts on “Beyond Resilience: Givers, Takers, Matchers and Anti-Fragile Systems

  1. Žižek argues that if Rumsfeld thinks that the main dangers in the confrontation with Iraq were the “unknown unknowns,” that is, the threats from Saddam whose nature we cannot even suspect, then the Abu Ghraib scandal shows that the main dangers lie in the “unknown knowns” – the disavowed beliefs, suppositions and obscene practices we pretend not to know about, even though they form the background of our public values.


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