Are Relationships in life just Mere Games of Manipulation?- Givers, Takers, and Everyone In Between

Megan Ng


I sit quietly trying to process and absorb the past ten minutes of our conversation. A revelation so insightful, it elicits a stupefying reaction. I sit there looking slightly foolish with marginally widened eyes, mouth slightly agape, and in notable flabbergasted silence. My reaction is a result of a personal anecdote just shared by R, a friend and fellow graduate student. Call it a golden nugget of insight, or a pearl of life wisdom. Either way, I could tell R’s father had imparted an impressionable truth onto her when she was younger. We had been talking about relationships, both professional and personal ones, as I had asked her for advice about handling work relationships as I begin my journey through graduate school.

Three Types of People in the World

According to R’s astute father: “There are three kinds of people in the world: The Givers, The Takers and The Clueless. How you handle your relationships with others is dependent on the type of person they are. The givers give and give of themselves tirelessly without asking for anything in return. The takers take and keep taking if they can get away with it to solely benefit themselves. The most dangerous people in the world, however, are not the takers like you would think.

Because with the takers, you can at least predict their actions and figure out a way to manage them accordingly based on their predictable behaviour. It is the clueless you really have to watch out for. They often take, take and take some more without even realizing it themselves. Some of them never figure out their own identity either for the rest of their lives. So ask yourself. Are you a giver, a taker, or are you clueless? What about the people you know?”

R had extrapolated this idea to our academic work environment as advice for managing relationships with colleagues and supervisors. The idea, I believe however, can be applied to all types of relationships in our lives – both personal and professional.

Organizational Psychology Applied to our Lives

As it turns out, research conducted by Adam Grant* within the field of organizational psychology shows that givers in the workplace tend to be successful leaders in their field, but only if they give in a specific fashion. Grant has been said to practice what he preaches in the work place and some argue that his methodology has helped him to be the youngest and highest-rated tenured professor at Wharton. His book, Give and Take: A Revolutionary Approach to Success incorporates social science research from several decades on the idea of reciprocity and divides people into givers, matchers and takers. The book also provides criteria to help a reader categorize him/herself.

According to Grant’s definitions, givers give without expectations, are never too busy to help, share credit fairly and mentor generously. Matchers only give when they feel they will get something of equal value in return, and they give only to people who they think can help them. Takers seek to come out ahead in every exchange and they are defensive about their territory – on guard as active managers in profiting for their own gain. According to Grant, most people surveyed are matchers, but Grant also believes that givers are not always successful either. Givers tend to be overrepresented at both ends of the spectrum of success because they are either doormats who go nowhere and end up burning out or they are stars who give in a motivational manner that distinguishes them as influential frontrunners.

The rest of Grant’s book sets out to establish the difference between givers who are exploited and those who end up as success stories. Grant believes that the most successful givers are those who rate high in concern for others but also in self-interest. Successful givers are strategic in their giving as they often give in consolidated and calculated portions to other givers and matchers only so that their work has the maximum desired effect – reinforcing social ties and spurring cascading impacts down the line that are intense enough to be personally fulfilling.


I believe though that no one is, of course, a pure giver or taker. Perhaps Grant’s category of matcher is the closest to the idea of an individual as inhabiting both roles as giver and taker, instead of giver or taker. Our identities and where we lie on the spectral range is also highly dependent on environmental and external cues in addition to intrinsic factors. A relationship, after all, is a dynamic entity that changes and is mutually influenced by two people in a relationship. I also do not mean to use reductionism to strip all relationships of their other fruitful aspects such as companionship and emotional gratification, down to a mere “give and take” transaction.

The Problem with Categorizing

I feel that a problem with categorizing relationships as “give and take” is that there is a potential to view relationships as antagonistic. This perspective offers a sanitized (?) view of our bonds with others as interactions based on mere risk calculations such as the classic Prisoner Dilemma case found in game theory – if Prisoner A makes Choice A, Prisoner B will then choose…

How sad would that be? If our relationships in life were just mere games of manipulation? I believe relationships are synergistic and will go through cyclic periods of strained tension and synchronized harmony, and our roles as giver, matcher or taker is hardly static but will change depending on circumstances. How do our actions and thoughts affect our relationships with our family members, friends, colleagues, and acquaintances? And how do their actions and thoughts affect our own behaviour both in the workplace and at home?

Regardless of whether you agree or disagree with my take on relationships or Grant’s view on successful givers, I believe everyone can benefit from asking themselves these very same questions. So I would like to ask those apart of Generation Y, where do you spend most of your time in the giver-matcher-taker spectrum?

Feel free to share your thoughts on the comment box below.