Are you a giver or a taker?

(Reading Time:  5 minutes)


Applying evolutionary biology to business


Consider the cleaner fish.

A very large fish will swim by a particular location where a smaller fish will go to work on them. The large fish will sit still in the water in a neutral position, and the smaller, “cleaner” fish will go all over them cleaning up, eating barnacles and all kinds of parasites off them. A cleaner fish will even go inside the mouth of a shark and clean between their teeth.

This is an example of cooperation behaviour in the marine world that Richard Dawkins, a British evolutionary biologist, has highlighted in his work on evolution. There are many examples of this type of behaviour in the natural world—where two creatures cooperate on something for a mutual benefit. In our case, the large fisher gets cleaned up and is less likely to catch a disease, while the smaller fish make a meal out of it…so it works for both fish.

Some studies have shown that every now and again, the big fish—the client—would take a little nip out of the smaller, cleaner fish. But that would mean the next time the client came around, he wouldn’t get cleaned because he didn’t act properly the last time during his last visit.

There are also studies that show some creatures who receive no net benefit from the behaviour will continue to perform the same activity, even without any reciprocation, because they are givers. And then there are the creatures who never do anything in return, which are, you guessed it, the takers.

Computers have modelled which strategy is most conducive to long-term survival. Does it matter if there’s reciprocation? If a fish is always cleaning, but never getting cleaned, it will ultimately get parasites and die. Alternately, if a fish is always taking a nip out of the smaller cleaner ones, it will become isolated for being objectionable.

Another model looked at what would happen if there were two activities for every one return benefit, called the two tits for a tat strategy, to see if that would be more progressive and ultimately more successful. It wasn’t and showed that tit for tat was really the best strategy for success in the long run.

It seems to me that this has a lot to do with survival—and success—in business.

What do you gain?

It can be easy to lose sight of why you’re doing something. But if you want to be successful, it’s important to stay focused on the why.

If you’re networking, for example, you want to make sure that you’re investing your resources into a group that brings you a return. Say you’re going to an industry cocktail party; recognize that you’re there for business and to get leads. You can always get a drink at home. You need to make some money. So there’s a whole bunch of people there for that main purpose.

But if you’re always collecting leads and never giving any…you come out of there with a bunch of business cards, but you’ve never given anything to anybody, eventually the leads will dry up.

Yet if you’re a giver, a non-stop giver, and all you do is run around and give people leads, and you haven’t got anything for yourself, you’ll starve to death after a few months. If you’re not generating any business, and you’re spending all day long trying to do things for other people, it’s not going to work out well.

So there’s a combination of those two – selfish and selfless – activities that is optimal. You need to find the balance that works for you and your business.

To volunteer or not to volunteer

There’s a similar calculus for volunteering. You might hold a senior position in an industry association and spend a lot of time on it. If you’re not getting paid, you need to be mindful of what you’re getting out of it. Not all benefits are financial and many people enjoy helping others, socializing, and contributing to the long-term aims of an organization. However, it is important to maintain a balance between selfless activities that help others or organizations and activities that actually earn you revenue.

Sometimes the benefit is something that takes longer to realize. It might take some time to gain credibility in an industry association, for example, but once you do, the benefits are invaluable. You can meet a lot of people, sometimes high-profile people, and even gain some profile out of it yourself. That’s a worthwhile commitment.

Just don’t fall into the trap of staying long after the benefit has ended. You might do something for one or two years, and then it starts to level off: everybody you’re ever going to meet you’ve already met, you’ve delivered the value that you can deliver, and even gained some profile. Then it’s time to think about a gracious reduction in time.

There’s nothing wrong with helping others just for the sake of helping others with no thought of return. Just be clear that that’s the goal in those instances, and make sure it’s not taking away from your ability to do your paid job. Because if that’s all there is, unless you’re independently wealthy or have some other source of income, you need to balance that against the need to survive.

Five keys to success

Here are five things to keep in mind when considering where to dedicate your time:

  • What’s the why – are you there to get leads, build your profile, give back, or help for helping’s sake. This will help you prioritize your time and help you assess if this is something you should keep doing.
  • Be clear about time – how much you can give, how long you expect to be involved, how long before you start to see a return.
  • Be reciprocal – if you’re doing something for leads, for example, make sure you’re giving leads. Conversely, don’t always be giving leads.
  • Survival is key – you need to eat. Don’t prioritize a volunteer position over something that will generate revenue.
  • Be open and curious – sometimes an opportunity will come your way that’s a little out of left field. Don’t hesitate to explore it, because you never know where it might lead. You might learn something new, gain a new client, or even find a new passion.

Larry Smith is the founder and president of Kathbern Management, an executive search firm based in Toronto. Kathbern helps companies find the executives and senior managers who not only have the experience and credentials to fulfill their responsibilities, but also have the emotional and “fit” requirements that will enable them to be successful in a particular environment. Kathbern simplifies the process and, through deep research, brings more and better candidates forward than would ever be possible through a do-it-yourself passive advertising campaign.

 Learn more at, or contact us today for a free consultation about your key person search. Follow us on LinkedIn, Facebook, and Twitter.

Join our community to receive more monthly insights

Subscribe - Blog CTA
  • Hint: it comes down to good leadership (Reading time: 5 minutes)   In the early days of my career, I was hired as the general manager of a small ...
  • Don’t rely solely on resumes. (Reading time: 5 minutes)   The frustration of recruiters Imagine the frustration of recruiters when their carefu...
  • Do you know the story behind the development of the Oxford dictionary? It involves a dedicated editor, a mansion housing the criminally insane, and a ...