Culture & Leadership: How to deal with selfishness
Five suggestions for managing selfish co-workers.
So, have you encountered colleagues or team members who are driven by their self-interest? Or who like to protect their own turf? Those who are fixated on gaining more power? Or those who undercut the efforts of others? Or like to take all the credit?
For generations, conversations on what drives success revolved around individual elements such as hard work, talent, luck and passion. A few years back, acclaimed Wharton Professor, Adam Grant, wrote a wonderful book called Give and Take. In his book, he examined that in today’s world, success increasingly depends on how we treat each other and that giving is the secret of getting ahead. And in his Ted Talk, Are you a giver or a taker?, Grant says that while we all have moments of giving and taking, our style is defined by how we treat people most of the time:
Takers are self-serving in their interactions. It’s all about what can you do for me. The opposite is a giver. It’s somebody who approaches most interactions by asking, “What can I do for you?”
"It’s no surprise that takers have a very sapping effect on the people and organisations that they interact with. Their drive to focus on themselves and their interests causes a lot of anxiety and frustration for everyone they leave in their wake. It’s even more damaging when leaders demonstrate and foster this behaviour.
Drawing from this, my message this week is on how to deal with selfishness.
Interestingly, we aren’t naturally wired to be selfish. There is enough research now to challenge older theories that we are born selfish. Erin Coulehan, in the article, The science of selfishness: Humans aren’t actually hard-wired to be jerks, talks about how the more time we spend thinking things through, the more selfishly we tend to behave. Our impulsive human reactions are actually much more selfless. This probably comes from the fact that living together in groups has been an intrinsic part of our evolutionary history.
Take the famous Prisoner’s Dilemma example from game theory. Two participants are put in a scenario where they are prisoners who need to decide on whether to betray each other or work together. They are given different options and encouraged to turn on each other. While it could appear that individual gain is the easy way out, they only maximise benefits if they both don’t turn one each other. When played, most people, surprisingly enough – and this is even true for real life choices given to prisoners – choose to stick by each other.
Would you consider yourself selfish?
Do you tend to focus much more on yourself? Look for what’s in it for you? Do you like control and dominance for the sake of it? Or are you more generous with your choices? Only you can really answer this. (Most of you have probably already said no :)). Be honest. Ask people you trust for their perspectives.
William Aruda, in his Forbes article, How Being Selfish Will Limit Your Career Success, shares examples of the kinds of choices that giving people make. It’s worth thinking through how you would react in these situations.
- Encouraging your star performer to join another part of the organisation because you know the company needs her there, and it will be a good career move for her
- Pitching in to solve a problem in another department because you know you have the unique, required skills, despite the fact that you have more on your plate than you can handle
- Giving your first class seat to a member of your team who has chronic back problems, even if it means you’ll be sitting in middle seat 34B for your trip
- Forwarding an attractive opportunity that you’re offered to a colleague because you believe she is the best person for it and will do a great job, even though you would like to pursue the opportunity yourself
- Publicly acknowledging someone’s contribution despite having had a rocky working relationship with that person
- Letting a co-worker have the office with walls, while you take a cubicle instead, because you know he has a greater need for privacy
How do you deal with selfish people?
There will be many times when you will find yourself grappling with takers. Just given the number of people you interact with, they could be anyone from your team member to your manager. It’s not easy. Sometimes these interactions can deeply hurt, frustrate and even make you want to change the way you are. True, you can’t fundamentally change how someone behaves. But you can try and manage this better for yourself. Here are five suggestions on how to go about it:
1. Identify the signs
Pick up on it. There is a very clear line between looking out for yourself and being plain selfish. You have to be able to tell the difference and call it out when there is a problem, whether with your colleagues and team members, or even for yourself.
Jay Parikh, the global head of engineering and infrastructure at Facebook, in his Harvard Business Review article, How Facebook Tries to Prevent Office Politics, points out why it is important to “look for empire builders, self-servers, and whiners in the hiring process — and don’t hire them”. Facebook’s selection process is designed to weed out such people. In fact, they actively look for examples of how people have demonstrated exactly the opposite kind of behaviour. For example, they would ask you: “Can you tell me about four people whose careers you have fundamentally improved?” It’s really important to get this right because selfishness can very easily encourage more selfishness. Even if someone is really great at what they do, but selfish, your organisation won’t stand to benefit in the long run. Ultimately, they are just going to do what works best for them.
2. Build on the positives
Sure, some people are selfish all the time. But that’s not necessarily the case with others. Before you write someone off basis a couple of interactions, give them the benefit of doubt. Could it be that they aren’t intentionally like this? Perhaps they learned that this was the way to be? Maybe it was the way someone behaved with them early on? Maybe they just think that nice guys finish last?
You will find that if you put your bias aside, most people have enough moments when they aren’t being selfish. The trick is to find these, learn what motivates them to not be selfish and then use it to encourage more such behaviour.
3. Use motivation
While it may sound counter-intuitive, you can try using what motivates a selfish person to make them change. Think about it. Let’s assume for a moment that what is really driving the star performer in your team, is to overachieve against goals. And she is doing this at the cost of being rather ruthless when it comes to her team members and the interests of the larger team. So, swing it around. Redefine success. Skew more goals towards team performance and collaborative tasks. Make her consider changing her behaviour to achieve what she set out to.
4. Make it sound like a win
Selfish people don’t like making an effort for things that aren’t benefitting them directly. So rethink how to frame your ask. Call out more directly what’s in it for them. Show them how contributing to this can actually benefit them.
Nicole Torres, in her Harvard Business Review article, What Generous People’s Brains Do Differently, shares neuroscience research on why some people find it harder to give than others. The scientists who studied what happens in our brains when we make altruistic choices found that the decision was basically around how much importance you attach to your interests versus the other person’s. Your brain calculates a trade off. So, if you can make selfish people see how they can win through being more generous, they will be likely to change.
5. Give reputational feedback
Often, what you hear of a person’s reputation could bias you way before you get the chance to form your own opinion. Sometimes, the best way to approach this to be upfront. To give, what Grant, in his article, How to Change a Selfish Person’s Stripes, calls “reputational feedback”. He shares this very telling example:
A few years ago at a financial services company, a woman named Kathy got a big promotion. She was leading a new team with a guy named Colin, and four different people warned her not to trust him. In their first meeting she sat down with him and did something courageous: she shared all the reputational feedback. “I don’t know whether it’s true or not,” she said, “But I don’t work well with people who operate that way. If this is who you are, you are not going to like working with me.” Kathy called out his reputation and gave him a chance to earn a new one. For the next year and a half, he was unusually generous in sharing credit, mentoring junior colleagues, and volunteering for unpopular assignments.
So, the question we really need to ask ourselves is how do we foster a culture at Ndiema which not only encourages people to be more of givers, but also helps them be successful while they do so. We also need to think hard about how we take tougher calls on people who behave like takers, even if they are among our better performers.
As always, I look forward to your thoughts.