Human relationships thrive on the continuous balancing and counter-balancing of giving and receiving. Reflect on a time when perhaps you were unexpectedly given something of value by another person. Pleasure and surprise can quickly give rise to a compelling urge to reciprocate in some way – maybe to return the gift with something of equal or greater value in return. Yet that does not end the cycle, as the giver turns into the receiver and is now compelled to give something of equal or greater value once more, and so the cycle repeats.
If you hone your awareness of it, you will begin to see this cycle of giving and receiving playing out all around you in the subtlest of ways as a continuous cycle of reciprocity. And of course, we witness this exchange happening in our work environments between individuals and teams. Leaders are in a position to oversee these continuous currents of give and take from their teams and across the organisation.
We can also experience more extreme examples of this in times of crisis where we see extraordinary acts of giving beyond what would typically be expected. We work with an organisation in the maritime industry where extraordinary acts of giving occur in their onboard teams who mobilise with singular, dedicated intention to secure their passenger ships after safety breaches to protect passengers from risk of harm.
Yet what if a pattern emerges where giving extraordinary amounts in a crisis becomes a routine expectation? Highly engaged staff, exerting exceptional discretionary effort, subtlety shift from a welcome gift to an expected standard.
Over-giving in this way can become a belonging rule within a certain role, a team, or even an entire organisation and burnout can result.
Gratitude can give rise to complacency as leaders slip into a mental program of unsustainable productivity. This creates a false economy of efficiency that is in reality a deck of cards that will inevitably fall.
This is common not only in corporate environments when quarter-on-quarter shareholder growth cannot be realistically sustained, but also in not-for-profit organisations where purpose can trump human needs.
Just like the human body needs appropriate nutrition, rest, and a certain but not excessive level of exercise, so do organisations need a carefully metered economy of giving and taking.
If you lead a team, scan the roles that you rely on. Where could there be over-giving? And could some be compensating for others who seem to give less than what is needed? How many people are carrying other team members who are not fully occupying their roles? If your team is an executive group, then resentment and disconnection between functions will ensue.
If you lead an enterprise you will be noticing which functions are the most difficult to resource adequately. Is there any over-giving that is currently going unrecognised? Conversely, are there pockets of taking where consistent delivery of core expectations is missing?
Some signs to watch out for include:
Either due to the business itself relying too heavily on a particular individual or team effort or due to a personal tendency to increase security and belonging by over-giving.
The inverse of the previous, where taking is trumping giving and people seem immune to the need to reciprocate and give in return for what they are receiving and exert themselves to achieve.
A state where neither giving nor taking is occurring but rather a state of abstinence from human exchange and refusal to engage in relationships (not uncommon in IT teams after times of overwhelm).
Leaders are responsible for watching out for these tell-tale signs and promoting healthy exchange where people can give freely of their talents and their efforts without unnecessary drain and where they can receive recognition and secure belonging as a result.
Our human bodies need oxygen to inhale and the carbon dioxide we exhale is the life force to the plants around us. Organisations require energy exchange too, between individuals, roles functions, the marketplace, shareholders, and society.