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Research Warning: Being Selfless Can Hurt Your Career

October 22, 2010

I came across a study recently that says selfless people are annoying.

Well, the language was a little more scientific than that, but the gist of the research says that selfless and generous contributors – those who go out of their way for the collective good of the team and ask for nothing in return – are valued so little by the other team members, that they believe the group would be better off without them.

This strange outcome is the unexpected result of a study that was conducted to explore something else entirely: the negative effects of greedy behavior.

Smells Like Team Spirit

Psychologists at Washington State University tested groups of teams to determine precisely how they would view those who exhibit greedy behavior, compared to those who were “fair” or “selfless.” Not that you really need a scientific study to answer this question, but, you know, these professors need their tenure and all.

To make the selfish and greedy behavior really stand out, the researchers also introduced selfless behavior to the experiment. Then the subjects were asked to rank the participants.

The expectation, of course, was that the greedy participants would be rated very poorly. This would allow the originators of the study to spread the message to Wall Street and Main Street and all the PR machines that greediness does not come to any good! People will hate you! You will be ostracized and expelled from your group! You will be the last one chosen on the team! Which is exactly what happened in this study.

But the strange twist came about in the ratings of the selfless team members. You would think the selfless members would have been ranked highly, but they were rated equally as low as the greedy.

Selfless Team Members Are Not Trusted

What is going on here? Why would selfless behavior be viewed as bad?

Apparently, the subjects in this study did not trust the selfless behavior. They didn’t like the fact that these too-eager-to-help members did not value the rewards, and thus didn’t believe they would actually want to work hard for those rewards in the future. Some even viewed those selfless team members as sinister, with ulterior motives up their sleeves.

By and large, there was a mistrust of the imbalance between what the team member gave to the group, and the little that was taken in return.

Servant Leadership Fail?

So does that mean you should stop being helpful at work? Should we back off of all that servant leadership hype? It might get you in trouble!

The helpful researchers put it like this “We suggest that generously-inclined group members could help themselves by making clear that the extra effort does offer them personal benefits, though the benefits might not be the same ones that others seek.”

Gee, I don’t know. This sounds to me like selfish manipulation in order to justify selfless behavior.

Or maybe this is just some crazy-ass research that should get thrown down the hopper.

One of my favorite sayings of Jesus comes from the gospel of Matthew, as he was sending his team out to recruit some new members to work on a major project:

Matthew 10:17

“Look, I am sending you out as sheep among wolves. So be as shrewd as snakes and harmless as doves.”

Now go and try to figure that one out, team.

Photo by Nancy Rosback, used with permission.

27 Comments leave one →
  1. October 22, 2010 7:24 am

    “Smells like team spirit” is the best.
    I have worked on my fair share of teams…and to tell you the truth, I would rather work alone. I feel like Bruce Willis at work, but I just am not a good team player. But I am learning.

    Interesting that the servant leadership model is less respected — but didnt Jesus tell us we would be reviled and mocked for his name sake?

    • October 23, 2010 11:34 am

      I wanted sooo badly to make “Smells Like Team Spirit” the title of this post. But I try to follow all the good blogger rules about using headlines telling you exactly what the story is about. Well, not all the time… So I made it a sub-heading.

      And true confession: I too hated working in teams. It’s not that I am a bad team player, it’s just that I would rather do things on my own because I can get it done faster. Usually.

      Of course, now there are plenty of times where I rely heavily on other team members to do things that I am not as agood at. I guess that is the point.

  2. Gordon Atkinson permalink
    October 22, 2010 8:00 am

    I think selfless behavior is highly contextual. What we are called to do in the gospels is to love others as we love ourselves. I think people get uncomfortable when they sense that someone might be “codependent,” to use an overly used phrase. Some of the worst people I’ve known in the last few years were people who seemed selfless but turned out to be manipulative and unhealthy. Passive aggressive behavior is one of their favorite tools.

    True selfless behavior as shown by Christ are people whose own needs are being righteously met and who chose to extend love and even sacrifice for others. What may be happening in the study is that people only have experience with codependence and not real altruism.

    • October 23, 2010 11:23 am

      Gordon – this is profound. When we are full and running over, dripping with wherewithal, this is when our love and sacrifice is without manipulation. We can be generous without need. I LOVE the point you made.

    • October 23, 2010 11:38 am

      I agree completely with Kathleen – You make an important point about our own needs being met righteously, AND also extending love to others. You can’t very well give give give without having any of your own needs being met. At least us humans can’t do that very well.

  3. October 22, 2010 8:03 am

    This post is right on, Brad. In the spirit of helping others, I’ve been accused of empire building, power grabs and all sorts of other nefarious and ugly motives. Most people don’t understand it so they have to invent stories to explain it to themselves.

    I didn’t expect this, but your words brought me to tears. I can put on the brave and stoic face, but it always hurts.

  4. October 22, 2010 9:20 am

    I think you stated this conundrum best, “By and large, there was a mistrust of the imbalance between what the team member gave to the group, and the little that was taken in return.”…
    when will people get it and learn from this?
    Puzzled, but hopeful still, Denise

  5. October 22, 2010 9:50 am

    Think back to elementary or even pre-school, and you might recall the same kinds of behaviors. Selfless children wear the label “brown nosers”. It just gets carried forth.

    Are there selfless people who participate in team sports? That might have been a more interesting study.

    • October 23, 2010 11:50 am

      Yes, Mo – a study in team sports would have been an interesting study to compare with. But most of us in adult life end up in work teams rather than sports teams, so for whatever reason, the dynamics of the “brown-noser” end up carrying through.

      I think dld hit on the real issue, which is around trust. That seems to be so critical to building bonds and performance in work groups – the ability to trust one another. Otherwise, everyone is just watching their backs.

  6. October 22, 2010 10:24 am

    My boss, as manager of several real estate investment funds, could have walked away after everything crashed in 2007-8. Lots did. He hung in, put in millions of his own money to try to save them, and has ended up selling his house (twice) and close to bankruptcy. His motivation is a sense of commitment and loyalty to his investors (and not a little pride, I admit). Still many still believe he is somehow making himself rich. The lawsuits still keep coming, and the harsh and hurtful comments still flow. And yes, it hurts him (and all of us). But we strongly resist changing our behavior because of what some people think. Is he less valued as an asset manager because of it? Probably. Does it damage his prospects of rebuilding a business? Almost certainly. Would he do it differently if he could go back? Other than making some better investment decisions with the benefit of hindsight, absolutely not. I for one admire his ethics and his loyalty and it has impacted me positively. The example and inspiration may be undervalued, but it is real – when we are unselfish, people do notice, even if they don’t say anything. Individuals are in fact shaped by our example even if it doesn’t feel like we’re getting anywhere.

    • October 23, 2010 12:04 pm

      Graham – This is certainly an example of “doing the right thing” at a huge personal cost, in order to maintain responsibility. But, in keeping with the theme of these responses, one could argue that it’s really his pride that is motivating him, rather than purely doing it for the sake of the investors. Or, that he is thinking that he’ll eventually make back his investment and regain his fortune. I’m not saying that is the case, but it’s the other side of the coin.

      Your greater point is that it takes sacrifice to maintain integrity and ethical responsibility. When you play hard, you pay hard. The risk was always there (for any entrepreneurial venture, especially real estate!) and he is owning up to his end of the deal with his investors.

      Thanks for a real-life example for us to ponder!

  7. October 22, 2010 10:55 am

    Oh… That ending was mean. My brain hurts now. 😉

  8. October 22, 2010 11:35 am

    generally, people are uncomfortable with anyone that is not like them.
    anyone that does not fit within their accepted group.

    people do not like to step outside of their comfort zone, buddy bubble, little square box. to accept someone different is to step out of their own place of acceptance and comfort. if you hang with someone that is different than your group, then the group sees you as different as well. a threat to their own place in the group.

    Jesus makes His own group, and this group does not fit into any of the worldly groups. Even though there are many groups that form and use His name, and look like worldly groups, the make-up and formation of the body of Jesus is Spiritual and very different.

    I would also like to add that there are no humans that are completely selfless, and there are no humans without greed.

    As any of us become a group, it is always based on our own human interest we cut ourselves and other people off. walls and rules appear. and it becomes just another human group.

    So either you are part of the group, team, club, denomination, staff, company, party, state, country, gang,…etc, or you are not.

    Human groups usually require that you not only think the same, but look the same and sound the same.

    Jesus reaches out to souls. not because of how they look, dress, sound, or act. It is not a body based on human interest but on God’s interest.

    Humans do things for their own interest, all humans.

    But… I think i will start a group that thinks just like me, so that
    we can do great things together. Great things for us, and maybe
    it will also do great things for someone else, especially people
    that might be like us, but maybe even some other poor pitiful person that is not like us.

    Honestly, i don’t see how God puts up with humans, or uses humans to His Glory, but, He does. Isn’t He amazing?! I have such a hard time understanding that spirit and soul stuff.

    i’m annoying without being selfless.
    does anyone want me on their team?

    • October 23, 2010 11:57 am

      Reality check from Nancy. Well done.

      I especially like, “Buddy Bubble.”

      You absolutely say the truth, that “There is no human that is selfless or without greed.” We are all, at different times, somewhere along that continuum, whether we are aware of it or not. This, i guess, could be a big philosophical discussion (as I remember in college a huge debate between some Christian/non-Christian friends) – how can anyone say that they actually do something that is self-less? Even selfless acts can be done to make us feel good about ourselves or to feel like we are following some special code of behavior. It’s a fine line, I guess.

      Blogging is a perfect example. What is our motivation behind putting up all these posts and poems and getting followers and comments?

      Sure, Nancy, I will be on your team.

  9. October 22, 2010 12:31 pm

    Interesting thought, Bradley! I’ve never looked at it that way. I’ve always told people that none of us are working just because it’s fun (even if we do enjoy our jobs). Well, maybe 1% or less of the population work because it’s fun…and those people make me sick (although I want to be one of them).

    But we all work to gain something for ourselves, no matter how selfless we choose to behave, although the selfless would never admit it! 😉

  10. October 22, 2010 9:45 pm

    The study, the post, the discussion are all really interesting. I’m sitting here trying to figure out what a truly selfless person would do in light of the data (if it is to be accepted as true) — would he continue to contribute selflessly as he has, despite the risks to his own advancement, because he truly meant to be selfless and not just to act like that to be recognized as a generous leader and move ahead? Or would he retool his selfless approach in some way to still be just as generous but in a way that invited less misgivings? Or would he conclude it just didn’t matter and go ahead and take are of himself?

    I’m a little upended that we’re really that cynical, though given some of the environments I’ve been in the past few years, I haven’t any idea why that would surprise me.

    And Maureen really asks a good question about sports teams. As I follow my guys around all year long, I’m often struck more by some of the finest athletes I’ve seen that are also the most generous. They are keenly aware of the player on the court that has the best chance to score or to get the ball into a better position, even if he has the ball himself and could go ahead and put up a shot. They look for opportunities to let their teammates shine. But then, are they being selfless? Or are they pragmatists who just want to win?

  11. October 23, 2010 11:12 am

    Bradley, you sure know how to get a discussion going. Love the dialogue. I see my own black and blue areas tinged with yellow and purple, then wonder where I have battered someone else. And many, many people believe we are born good? I groan, knowing how desperately I need a Savior. I often ask myself – what is my real motive? Narcissistic behavior can appear quite altruistic. Kindness is suspect because people aren’t used to it.
    Nancy, I’d like to be on your team. Glynn, kingdom building is what you do. Take heart.

    • Bob Gorinski permalink
      October 23, 2010 3:11 pm

      Great comments. Along Kathleen’s thread…Bradley, or anyone, what are your thoughts on “people are basically good” being the underlying assumption in Maslow’s hierarchy of needs versus sin nature (Romans 7 and such)? Doesn’t seem like they can both be right.

      And yeah Bradley, smells like team spirit is awesome. I’d love to see the grunge video.

  12. October 23, 2010 11:46 am

    if i were totally selfless…what would i be?

    and if i were totally greedy…what would i be?

    do i really know where i can place myself on the scale
    between selfless and greedy?

    does it matter where other people may place me on that scale?

    should i even be placed on that scale?

    is selfless something i should try to be?

    how much self can i keep, and how much should i give up?

    what do i really give up to be selfless?

    is self my desires?
    desires for me
    for others
    for control
    for things
    is self greed?

    is desire greed?

    is there a place where desire becomes greed?

    what or who is my guide to self and greed?

    does it matter what i do in my work?

    does it matter what is in my heart?

    can anyone really know what is in their heart?

    • October 23, 2010 12:09 pm

      All I can say is, thank God for grace, which covers for all of this tangled mess.

      • October 23, 2010 8:23 pm

        yeah. it’s good to be covered.

        okay, those were a lot of weird questions, i know.
        but, the fact is, it is hard to be selfless, without some people
        being jealous, suspicious, or defensive.

        like the sheep being sent among wolves…the sheep is better off
        staying with the herd.


        shrewd as snakes and harmless as doves.

        can sheep really be as shrewd as snakes? really, come on.

        but, yeah…it looks like one must be cunning
        to pull off selflessness at work and get away with it!

  13. October 23, 2010 11:47 am

    My daughter and I were just talking about this blog post, and she told me about the girl from her senior year high school class who won multiple awards for “Caring Most About Peers” – that everyone really thought she was a bitch (excuse the high school jargon) and she was faking it, because she was “too” friendly.

    She said this research is so true. If it’s true in high school, then you know for sure it applies to corporate life.


  14. October 23, 2010 7:44 pm

    I’ve often wondered why people feel threatened by the nice folk, why they feel the need to find their faults, their weakness, and look for the underlying motive. Is it in our nature to mistrust? No one wants to feel played, or worked. Sometimes it is easier to strike first?

  15. October 25, 2010 12:24 am

    1. I work for Jesus, in whatever situation He employs me, so I’ll keep taking the risks and eating the all-too-plentiful snubs while waiting for eternal treasure (by the grace and strength of God—thank You, Lord!)

    2. I have the impression that the study failed to account for long term team relationships, where trust and pure motives have been established.

  16. October 25, 2010 6:46 pm

    I wanna be on Nancy’s team!

    I think there’s something to this: “We suggest that generously-inclined group members could help themselves by making clear that the extra effort does offer them personal benefits, though the benefits might not be the same ones that others seek.”

    Each year our company gives someone the Associate of the Year Award (sometimes abbreviated to Ass of the Year). One year the winner stood up and thanked everyone who should have been thanked, and then he said that he fully intended to be promoted to every department in the company before leaving. This is a guy who goes above and beyond every single time. Everyone wants him on their team. He serves the company, and he serves each member of the team. And on the day he got the award, he put it out there. Personally, it made me appreciate him more. I know that what he does benefits him, but when we’re working on a team together, it benefits me, too. I know. I know. More team spirit talk.

    He’s been promoted three times since he won that award, and everyone still likes him. Maybe he’s fooled us all.

  17. October 26, 2010 8:13 am

    On the job selfishness is rewarded more frequently than selflessness. I have thought this more and more often in the past few years. Perhaps it is also about rewarding a strong sense of self, but in most cases I’ve seen recently I believe the primary reason is that a selfish person wants to get ahead regardless of ethics or acceptable behaviour and will please no matter what. The face turns to the sun, and the sun is the boss or whoever can provide the highest rewards. That person will do what you want any way you want, will give to get. You know you can ‘count’ on them. There will be no argument. I think that’s why selfishness and greed is trusted. And to be honest, you will get a higher level of commitment to what you want done. (What makes boss happy makes me happy.) There is no debate over ethics, rightness or wrongness, simplicity, a better way. Idealism gets no play. All that matters is getting the job done (as directed), and making someone with greater power than you very happy.

    I work with someone who says invariably after doing something nice for me, “Now you owe me.” And yet others think this person is a sweetheart. I don’t hear that ‘now you owe me’ quite so often around others though. I will not give to get and I try to make that as clear as possible: Don’t expect a favor in return, I don’t give ‘in return’. I’ll give because I want to give, and/or when giving makes the project/team run more smoothly. It is part of my Christian work ethic, but I never say that. It doesn’t do a thing for me, though. I think it is a handicap, and yet I feel it is the right thing to do. It’s a different set of rules, though, so I’m playing outside the game which may from a certain perspective seem like cheating. I don’t fulfill expectations. Every nice thing done for me falls flat (as long as the favour is expected in return).

    I did receive all those good citizenship, class favorite, congeniality awards in school. I never felt not trusted though. I had a really broad base of friends in school, much broader than at church or work. I’m working on being mean enough for work. I’m joking a little, but not joking a little. I do push more now. And you have to, or things just keep on as they are — but I won’t give to get. A gift is freely given. Call it something else if it isn’t freely given. It is a trade or a exchange, so what is called giving or a gift is a product with a marketable value. Name it for what it is and I might be willing to deal.

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