Being a ‘Selfless Giver’ Can Be Bad for You

Recognize This! – Givers find energy when they give in self-protective and personally meaningful ways, and when they are recognized and reminded of how their contributions matter.

It’s not just about giving and taking anymore.

Recent research by Adam Grant and Reb Rebele shows that the type of giving matters – specifically whether you are a “selfless” or a “self-protective” giver.

The selfless types often give indiscriminately, without regard for their own limited resources or time. They can easily become overloaded with requests and are at greater risk of both “generosity burnout” and less effective performance.

“Self-protective givers” – those on the lookout for high-impact, low-cost opportunities to give – can avoid some of those risks. They prioritize requests based on importance, focusing in areas that play to their strengths and contributing in ways that are often personally meaningful.

Consequently, self-protective givers tend to invest more of themselves in the contributions they make, in turn allowing them to make greater contributions.

What kind of giver are you? Take this online assessment to find out.

As Adam and Reb point out:

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As giving aligns with your interests and skills, it becomes less stressful for you and more valuable to others. Rather than feeling pressured to help, you’re choosing to help, which is good for your motivation, your creativity, and your well-being. Instead of being known as a jack-of-all-trades, you’re seen as a master of a few. That frees you up to focus on helping where you have the most impact — which replenishes your energy by reminding you how much your contributions matter.

As I wrote recently on Compensation Café, that last bit reminded me of a conversation I had recently with a colleague. He recounted something his spouse, a palliative care physician (and a fan of Adam’s work), had told him about giving in a healthcare setting: When you give, it is more than giving your time, resources, or even “capital” — fundamentally it’s about giving of your whole self.

Giving in self-protective and mindful ways, we all are more personally invested and find greater meaning in the help we provide.  When we are recognized for that investment and reminded of how our giving matters, we are rejuvenated.

Recognition plays an important role in sustaining the energy of givers, particularly as the level of personal investment and meaning increases. Through a strong culture of recognition, the organization is poised to benefit from the positive spirals of self-protective givers.

How does your organization support giving and the recognition of those givers?

You can find more from Derek Irvine on  Recognize This!

Derek Irvine is one of the world’s foremost experts on employee recognition and engagement, helping business leaders set a higher vision and ambition for their company culture. As the Vice President of Client Strategy and Consulting at Globoforce, Derek helps clients — including some of world’s most admired companies such as Proctor and Gamble, Intuit, KPMG, and Thomson Reuters — leverage recognition strategies and best practices to better manage company culture, elevate employee engagement, increase retention, and improve the bottom line. He's also a renowned speaker and co-author of Winning with a Culture of Recognition. Contact him at


1 Comment on “Being a ‘Selfless Giver’ Can Be Bad for You

  1. I find this article contradicting itself by both encouraging giving and also discouraging giving. The concepts between the two types of giving described have not been parsed out enough to make any real distinction. Also, the palliative care giver is most definitely a selfless giver, which also seems to contradict the first half of the article.

    I think some further clarification about selfless vs self-protective giving would be helpful. Selfless does not have to equal burnout giving. I think perhaps it’s the confusing terms pitting selfless against self-protective, when the usual antithetical pairing is selfless vs selfish. Maybe it’s just semantics I’m concerned about here.

    The end of this brief article attempts to sum up recognition in a quick and trite way, changing the whole direction of the conversation. Again, I think the ideas in this article are well intended but as someone truly interested in the psychology of gifts/giving/recognition/receiving, this article is lacking in research, clarity, and I might even add, profundity.

    For a writerly perspective on human giving, check out this book:

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