Avoiding Generosity Burnout

Abundance Accountability Respect


Story: It’s Canadian Thanksgiving and the themes of gratitude and generosity are abound. As I listen closely to the undertone of many casual conversations between family and friends, I am interested in how many people see themselves as “givers,” yet are quietly disappointed and sometimes even hurt that they haven’t been acknowledged adequately for their generosity. For example, “we have them over for dinner often but they rarely ask us in return…” “I used to change her diapers when she was little all the time, and now she doesn’t have time to call me.”  “I send him a birthday card, and he doesn’t even know when my birthday is.” Etc.

Key Point: Perhaps many of us are actually more “matchers” than “givers.” Wharton Prof. Adam Grant, who has written and done extensive research on the differences between giving, taking and matching, notes: “Many of us operate by the principle of matching. If you’re a Matcher by default, your instinct is to try to maintain an even balance of give-and-take in your interactions. You try to keep fairness and a sense of quid pro-quo in your dealings with others. If you do someone a favor, you expect an equal one in return.”

My view is that if one lives primarily as a “matcher,” they will exhaust themselves from trying to keep the ledger balanced, and may spend a lot of time being disappointed. Matchers put so much of their relationship happiness in the hands of others. Too often the “match” is interpreted as insufficient. It is way more gratifying to just give and do it because you want to, rather than what you expect in return. However, I would like to present a caveat to “just giving.”

Grant’s research, popularized in his breakthrough book Give and Take, highlighted with qualification, that Givers (rather than Takers or Matchers) were most successful in the long run. Yet, the blind application of giving, regardless of how well intended is not sustainable. Being in service and unbridled giving does not need to translate into painful servitude. We need to be more discerning or we can find ourselves in what Grant and Rebele outline in a great HBR article as, “Generosity Burnout.”

“Our research shows that across industries the people who make the most sustainable contributions to organizations — those who offer the most direct support, take the most initiative, and make the best suggestions — protect their time so that they can work on their own goals too.”

Personal Leadership Moves:

  1. Please consider the following framework, what Grant and Rebele define as “7 Habits of Highly Productive Giving,” to guide our application of generosity:
  • “Prioritize the help requests that come your way — say yes when it matters most, and no when you need to.
  • Give in ways that play to your interests and strengths to preserve your energy and provide greater value.
  • Distribute the giving more evenly — refer requests to others when you don’t have the time or skills, and be careful not to reinforce gender biases about who helps and how.
  • Secure your oxygen mask first — you’ll help others more effectively if you don’t neglect your own needs.
  • Amplify your impact by looking for ways to help multiple people with a single act of generosity.
  • Chunk your giving into dedicated days or blocks of time rather than sprinkling it throughout the week. You’ll be more effective — and more focused.
  • Learn to spot takers, and steer clear of them. They’re a drain on your energy, not to mention a performance hazard.”

Giving wisely in Personal Leadership,


One Millennial View: There’s no denying the good feeling that giving delivers. Is that partially because we may consciously or subconsciously know that a generous act may yield something positive in return? I’m not sure. That said, could you imagine how much more empty you’d feel if you decided to always withhold instead of giving without expecting reciprocation? The gift of giving is pretty great in itself, and completely in your control.

– Garrett

Edited and published by Garrett Rubis