Years ago my wife and I went to a corporate pool party.  She felt she had to go because this was a very powerful individual in her company and she felt she had to put in an appearance.  He could be a real tyrant at work and she didn’t want to slight him.  When we got  there he was funny, engaging, and all together a different person than he was at the office.  This shocked my wife.  

More recently there was a tyrant manager who was torturing someone else I knew.  They were manipulating, political and all-together one of the worst bosses I had ever heard about.  Without going into all the details this boss went beyond tyrant to utterly evil.  Then one day during a conversation he mentioned to an underling  a statement about how he exists for his kids and went on to talk about all the things he does with them.  Since there was no reason that my friend could see for the a subterfuge they came to the conclusion that this guy was evil at work and a classic dad at home.  So why the schism between the two worlds?  What was the difference?  I was recently reminded of the quintessential line from the godfather, “It’s business, it’s not personal”.  What makes something business?  It’s that there is no emotion involved, and when there is no emotion, then you can be selfish, but that’s not the ideal.  At least not as we are taught as kids.  

When Selfless is the celebrated ideal

In our communities being selfless is the ideal.   Acting solely for the good of others gets rewarded in the public sector and accolades are always given.  Selflessness is preached about, it’s honored with community awards, and it’s always highly valued.  The stories are told over and over about the civic minded individual who is on every board, who is leads several boy scout troops or who volunteered every day at the local hospital, the nonprofit or community church.   

Sometimes it’s more personal.   We hear stories about the man who gives up everything for his family by working multiple jobs and then using his free time to coach for his kid’s teams or the Mom who goes on every field trip as a chaperone and always does something for the school fund raisers.  

In these cases the work is real, but the benefit is really more about emotion than it is productivity.   The bake sale doesn’t really raise that much money. We don’t really know how much of an impact the Boy Scouts has on the kids in the organization and how much does that nonprofit truly affect the lives of those it wishes to serve?  It’s the effort that’s appreciated because life is so tough there are few people who have the discipline and character to spend all that time on something that may help out.  That helps alleviate the burden by those who are shouldering it most, even if it’s just shouldering it a little.  

When Selfless only gets you in trouble.   

We also talk about selfless in the business world.   There is a bleed effect from our private lives.  We use the same language when we talk about the selfless in our work worlds.  There are nice words spoken but not nearly as often.  Part of that is because when you are at work you spend so much time together it’s a bit like family.  Someone can be an awesome team player who’s always willing to help out but little issues will come up creating friction.  How many kids complain about their selfless parent because they don’t like the things the parent has to do?  Rarely is someone universally perceived as being selfless in the business world. It does happen, but for the most part it’s rare at least with those who work closest to that person.  

The dirty little secret that apparently some managers have figured out is that selfish is what actually works in the business world.. The sales rep who steals accounts generally is the one who is able to have the biggest paycheck and sadly the one who doesn’t get cut when there is a rightsizing.  There is always a boss who takes credit in nearly every organization. You have CEO’s who create a cultures decidedly built around driving  employees beyond what is reasonable to try and achieve the impossible.  There is the recruiter who never tells you how abysmal the working conditions are at the company until after they have recruited you.   The list  is endless and sadly it’s been my experience that those who ‘play to win’ usually do, at least in the professional world.   

Let’s not forget the organizations themselves.  What organization wants to share a market with a competitor?  That is of course where this all stems from.  Wall Street and the culture of competition in business. Every single facet of business is built around getting as much as you can out of your particular market.   As organizations grow they become much more impersonal.  If you are fortunate to have direct reports how many of them are you close to?  How much does a manager know about them?  Since the ranks of management have thinned out most decision making has to be analytical and able to be validated by managers of managers who make their decisions by spreadsheet and operating reports.  This leaves little room for decision making on potential or attitude.

Let’s say your a tech company and you have an amazing programmer with a selfless attitude who has been loyal forever in the legacy business which is shrinking.  What if you have a crappy programmer in the cloud services business who has a bad attitude and has jumped company to company for a few bucks more a year?  Is there anyone left at the organization’s decision making structure who can connect the dots?  The answer is no, the one side shrinks the other side grows and the edict comes from an analysis of the revenue reports.  Hey Mr. Loyal employee, sorry but you are the victim of an action that also had the term ‘tough decisions’ associated with it.   

In all of these situations the selfish actions on the individual contributor level and the organizational level is rewarded.  It’s just how it happens systematically.

 What’s best?

If looked at completely amorally, the conclusion is that there is no right or wrong action.  It’s just that one behavior pattern works best in the community and one works better in our professional world.  But we are not amoral individuals.   We understand that selfless is the ideal because it furthers the things we most value in humanity.  It’s that one by and large seems to work better in our private lifes (selfless) and one works better in the hallways of the professional world (selfish).   If you stay up late and get that last minute fire-drill done for the boss is there a bonus?  Maybe, but probably not.  The bonus is that you get to keep your job.  If you stay up late and help tutor a troubled kid with their homework, is there a bonus? You betcha, it’s called a sense of accomplishment and a feeling that you contributed to the world.  

Does it matter what’s best?   

I honestly don’t think it matters what is better.  In my experience people who are wired one way or the other tend to be that way in all parts of their life.  There is always those unique individuals who can walk the line between the selfish world of work and the selfless world of life.  The one thing I know that does matter, it’s to know who you are and to understand that.  If you can’t bring yourself to be selfish in the business world, then understand you will get bolled over again and again.  If you are selfish in the private parts of your life then I promise you that there will be problems with every person you ever know.  If you understand who you are in the different parts of your life you’ll be able to manage your professional and personal lives much better.   Consider that piece of advice an act of selflessness on my part.  🙂

Posted by Mike Peluso

Mike Peluso writes about the collision between between the business / professional world and life. He also writes about the journey involved with the Peluso Presents efforts including the Blog, Books, and Podcast so that others may benefit from his efforts. From Mike: I spend hundreds of hours working on these articles every year with no compensation other than support I get through donations. You can support with a tip and by Subscribing to the Podcast (and writing a review on iTunes would be really appreciated as well!) One time tips:

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