When I was first starting out in my career, I was righteously disillusioned. Maybe it was my Midwestern up bringing or pure naivety, but I believed that when you did something for the right reasons you would be rewarded; if you did something for the wrong reasons, negative consequences would follow. I knew nothing yet of organizational power dynamics and what it meant to be politically savvy. I couldn’t conceive that foul play would be rewarded and usurping someone else’s power was not only real but an acceptable way of getting things done in the workplace. I’ll never forget my first encounter with reality.
At the time, I worked for a department head who had a bitter rival heading up another department. Both leaders reported to the same Executive Vice President, and their departments were heavily interdependent on each other. During a tough financial time for the company, when resources were slim and work was heavy, I approached my boss with a recommendation that we share some of our resources and time with his rival department head. I acknowledged it would mean working more, but that my team and I were up for it for a period of time and would be willing to give it a go if he could help negotiate the boundaries with his peer. He was not in the least receptive. I challenged him and he continued to deny my request. Finally, I unskillfully pointed out that sharing resources with the other department was the right thing to do. He stopped what he was doing, laid down his pen, looked me straight in the eye and said, “Don’t be so altruistic, Angela. We do things because they are smart not because they serve others.” I left his office baffled and bee-lined my way to the dictionary to look up altruistic. I thought altruistic was a good thing but the way he used the term made me feel like a failure.
Even though Merriam’s Dictionary agreed with me, what I learned from my boss was what stuck. I came to the conclusion that workplace altruism was not realistic and not considered smart. Consequently, I began adopting bad behaviors that led to one of many success stories but also many painful, humbling experiences. As it turned out, I would spend the next 10 years unlearning this illogical lesson and reconciling my experiences. It’s not that altruism is not realistic or not smart in the workplace. What is true is not all leaders or cultures reward healthy behaviors. That does not mean that adopting unhealthy practices is the answer to thriving – that would make as little sense as eating junk food to train for and gain a competitive edge before a race. Healthy habits are consistently an advantage to success even if we don’t see an immediate return on our investment.
Doing what’s best for others does not mean you don’t do what’s best for you. Even though leaders genuinely choose to put others’ needs above their own does not mean they are not taking care of themselves. When a leader looks out for the best interest of the collective, the bigger purpose they seek to serve, they are also taking care of themselves. That’s because the altruistic good guy is part of the collective. It’s a win-win arrangement even if we don’t always see this right away. More than that, there are some pretty amazing bi-products of altruism that benefit the giver, such as increased status and influence, increased motivation of team members and financial rewards, as well as increased quality of life – proving that the good guy does finish first.
- Influence and Status. Research from the University of Kent looked at the relationship between altruistic behaviors and the social status and influence of group members. What they found was that appreciating the needs and contributions of others above your own without any expectation of return wins you influence and higher status in groups. As a matter of fact, the more significant the act of altruism the higher the social status of the group member.[i]
- Inclusion and Motivation. The Catalyst Research Center surveyed a total of 1,512 employees across all levels of organizations in Australia, Germany, China, Mexico and the United States to answer the question: “What can leaders do to help employees feel included?” What their research showed was that leaders who believed that their primary obligation was to support and assist their direct reports, rather than being motivated by concerns about self-promotion or protecting self- interests and needs, created a more inclusive environment. Consequently, their employees indicated feeling unique – recognized for their differences – and feeling a sense of belonging based on sharing common attributes and goals with their peers.[ii]
- Financial Reward. In a study published in Social Psychology Quarterly, researchers asked participants to give money to a person who had demonstrated generosity while playing a game where each player was given the same amount of money to either give to others or keep for themselves. Some participants were told this person knew his generosity would be reported to the participants. Others were told this person didn’t know that anyone would learn of his generosity. Those who traditionally gave less gave more to those who they found to be generous than those who gave for their own selfish reasons. Demonstrating that even those who are not altruistic in nature are willing and likely to reward true altruistic behavior.[iii]
- Increased Quality of Life. A study of patients with multiple sclerosis showed that those who offered other MS patients peer support actually experienced greater benefits than their supported peers. These benefits included more pronounced improvement in confidence, self-awareness, self-esteem, depression and daily functioning. The research also suggests that, in their longitudinal study, that those who offered support reported that their lives were dramatically changed for the better.[iv] Similarly, research conducted by Schwartz et al. explored whether altruistic social behaviors such as giving to others was associated with better mental health. A random sample of 2,016 members of the Presbyterian Church located throughout the U.S who were responsible for giving to others were asked to evaluate their mental health. The analysis revealed that giving help was more significantly associated with better mental health than was receiving help.[v] This phenomenon was actually coined “helper’s high” by a psychologist in 1979 after a research survey reported charity volunteers felt happier after volunteering their time with no expectation of anything in return.
 Hardy, Charlie L. and Mark Van Vugt. “Nice Guys Finish First: The Competitive Altruism Hypothesis,” Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin: Volume 32, No. 10, 1402-1413. October, 2006. http://psp.9sagepub.com/content/32/10/1402.short
 Prime, Jeanine and Elizabeth R. Salib. Inclusive Leadership: The View From Six Countries. New York: Catalyst, 2014.
 Paxton, Pamela and Jennifer Glanville. “Is Trust Rigid or Malleable? A Laboratory Experiment.” Social Psychology Quarterly: Volume 78, No. 2, 194-204 June 2015.
 Scott, Elizabeth. “Benefits of Altruism,” Verywell.com. June 29, 2016. https://www.verywell.com/benefits-of-altruism-3144685
 Schwartz, et al. “Altruistic social interest behaviors are associated with better mental health.” Psychosomatic Medicine: 65(5):778-85, September – October, 2003.
 Luks, Allan and Peggy Payne. The Healing Power of Doing Good: The Health and Spiritual Benefits of Helping Others. New York: Fawcett Columbine, 1992.