Why having a selfish employee isn't always a bad thing

Dec. 26, 2012
There is a common misconception that a selfish person makes for an unmanageable employee. The selfish employee can actually be the hardest working member of the team. However, we do need to distinguish between the selfish employee and the obstinate employee.

From Proofs editor Kevin Henry: In the small, tightly knit world of the dental industry, those who are percevied to be "in it for themselves" are often looked upon in a not-so-favorable light. Whether it's in the eyes of a dentist or territory manager, a "selfish" employee is often seen as more of a headache than an asset. However, the article below paints a different picture of the "selfish" employee. I thought it would make for some interesting reading as 2013 begins.

By Moe Glenner

When Gordon Gekko says, “greed is good,” we tend not to empathize with him, instead opting to scorn his all-for-me mentality. The word “selfish” is most often used in a derisive manner. Furthermore, we have been counseled from an early age about the virtues of sharing and giving – albeit for some of us, it was a forced lesson. But is this really the best lesson in all situations, particularly in business?

There is a common misconception that a selfish person makes for an unmanageable employee. After all, they are only in it for themselves. Perhaps this person will actually destroy the team dynamic that we all strive for within our organizations. We frequently seek out the all-for-one-and-one-for-all mentality. We truly want “Rah-rah, go team” imbued throughout our organization. We also love to repeat the mantra, “There is no ‘I’ in team.” What we overlook is that, while there may not be an “I” in team, there is a “me.” Organizations don’t pay positive attention to the “me-oriented” employees at their own peril. They miss on the opportunity to gain highly self-motivated team members whose working end result will significantly benefit the organization.

The selfish employee can actually be the hardest working member of the team. However, we do need to distinguish between the selfish employee and the obstinate employee. A selfish employee is seeking satisfaction of their personal drivers. They are willing to do the work and sometimes even go beyond in their personal driver satisfaction efforts. A selfish employee is not obstinate or insubordinate, just focused on attaining their personal goals. By providing the path to this satisfaction, an employer can harness this selfish motivation for the greater good of the organization.

An obstinate employee is someone that refuses to do the work assigned and frequently conjures up avoidance methods. There may be many reasons for this resistance, such as confusion and fear, but left unaddressed this employee will create serious risk for the continuing viability of the team. But if the underlying reasons are successfully addressed, this employee can be transformed into a productive team member.

Consider the great statesman Gandhi. When he would move to a new area, he would immediately busy himself with communal needs. When others pointed to him as an example of unselfish giving, he would pointedly correct them. His communal activities were merely a means to him benefiting from them. In other words, while his actions were altruistic, his intentions were selfish. Thus, selfish can also be a useful trait for the greater good.

An organization is also a community. This community relies on the diverse inputs from its members and the able direction of its leaders. As a leader in this community, one of your primary tasks is building a motivated team. This is not a static task – it’s a continuing activity with endless iterations. Today’s motivated team can easily be tomorrow’s disillusioned crew without constant attention and nurturing.

However, motivation doesn’t exist in a vacuum, nor is it isolated or coincidental. The progressive leader understands that motivation is created and harnessed through careful delivery of personal drivers. In other words, being able to deliver on each team member’s Personal Return on Investment (PROI).

A grand bargain must be made with each team member. In exchange for their active personal investment, manifested by cooperation, participation, and contribution, you will provide to them a personal return. The key is to understand the nature of those personal returns. For some, it may be public recognition, enhanced status within the company, promotion opportunities, increased compensation, or even just an easier or more efficient way to accomplish everyday tasks. There may be more than one return for a single person and there may be other returns not enumerated above. Either way, it behooves the attentive and progressive team leader to be able to deliver on these returns.

While employers give significant credence to the team-oriented employee, they frequently overlook the value of the selfish employee. This is a common mistake. While the team-oriented employee ostensibly operates for the greater good, they ignore their own personal drivers. It is likely that their motivation levels will drop-off at some future time. The selfish employee is motivated by his own personal drivers. Satisfy those drivers and deliver on the PROI and that employee will continue indefinitely with a high level of self-motivation.

By finding the PROI of your team members, communicating to them the path for achieving them, and then delivering on your end of the grand bargain, a team of selfish employees can indeed be an organization’s best friend and powerful tool for continued success.

Moe Glenner is the founder and president of PURELogistics, a leading consulting firm that specializes in organizational change. He earned his MBA at Lake Forest Graduate School of Management and his Lean Six Sigma Black Belt Certification from Villanova University. Glenner's new book, Selfish Altruism: Managing & Executing Successful Change Initiatives($13.95 on Amazon.com), examines the role personal motivation plays in change. For more information, visit www.moeglenner.com.

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