Spotting the Taker in a Giver’s Clothes

If you’ve ever put your guard up when meeting a new colleague, it’s probably because you thought you picked up on the scent of self-serving motives. When we see a taker coming, we protect ourselves by closing the door to our networks, withholding our trust and help.

To avoid getting shut out, many takers become good fakers, acting generously so that they can waltz into our networks disguised as givers or matchers. For the better part of two decades, this worked for Ken Lay, whose favors and charitable contributions enabled people to see him in a positive light, opening the door to new ties and sources of help. But it can be difficult for takers to keep up the façade in all of their interactions. Ken Lay was charming when mingling with powerful people in Washington, but many of his peers and subordinates saw through him.

Looking back, one former Enron employee said, “If you wanted to get Lay to attend a meeting, you needed to invite someone important.” There’s a Dutch phrase that captures this duality beautifully: “kissing up, kicking down.” Although takers tend to be dominant and controlling with subordinates, they’re surprisingly submissive and deferential toward superiors. When takers deal with powerful people, they become convincing fakers.

Takers want to be admired by influential superiors, so they go out of their way to charm and flatter. As a result, powerful people tend to form glowing first impressions of takers. A trio of German psychologists found that when strangers first encountered people, the ones they liked most were those “with a sense of entitlement and a tendency to manipulate and exploit others.”

When kissing up, takers are often good fakers. In 1998, when Wall Street analysts visited Enron, Lay recruited seventy employees to pretend to be busy traders, hoping to wow the analysts with the image of a productive energy trading business. Lay led the analysts through the charade, where the employees were asked to bring personal photos to a different floor of the building so it looked like they worked there, and put on a show.


They made imaginary phone calls, creating a ruse that they were busy buying and selling energy and gas. This is another sign that Lay was a taker: he was obsessed with making a good impression upward, but worried less about how he was seen by those below him. As Samuel Johnson purportedly wrote, “The true measure of a man is how he treats someone who can do him absolutely no good.”

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