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Boundaries, disruption, and the incomplete myth of altruism (Part 1)

The tradition of altruism, disrupted

Altruistic behavior has long been valued within the work environment. When we are asked to sacrifice additional time, energy, and resources in pursuit of collective goals – a common operational definition of altruism - the message has often been, “if you are willing to give more, you will be seen as valuable to our organization, and will be rewarded as such.” In capitalist markets where shareholder value is often prized above stakeholder value, business leaders can easily see self-sacrificing behavior as value-generative within the broad employee population. The more their talent is willing to give, the more likely the business is to perform, grow, and leave investors contented.

In order to recruit such talent within an ever-evolving generationally mixed market, companies today frequently assess candidates for evidence of altruistic behavior, seeking to create corporate cultures that coagulate around this trait of self-sacrifice.  A willingness to work long hours, and a proclivity to say ‘yes’ to a request from a superior, together morph into a cultural value – “the welfare of the organization over that of the individual” – that we all-too-often see attributed to desirable qualities of corporate citizenship. It is not hard to see how this value inherently conflicts with the tenets of capitalism that it pretends to buttress – indexing more towards a socialist, “in it for the greater good” mentality in practice - and yet companies across the globe maintain this traditional mindset of how to achieve growth within a capitalist environment. As 2020 and 2021 have demonstrated, a shift in this mentality that does not sacrifice performance may be long overdue.

The COVID-19 pandemic and its unintended – yet predictable – disruption of work schedules has called into question the very broad, categorical manner in which altruistic behavior has been recognized, rewarded, and promoted. As global businesses undertake the critical task of addressing the post-pandemic demands of remote work, sharpening the blurred boundaries between professional life and personal life, it will be equally as critical to understand how a constant state of disruption has brought into clear relief not only the benefits of altruism, but also its potentially performance-derailing, inequitable consequences. And this understanding starts with a few basics of measurement…which we will dive into in future articles.

"What we value so much, the altruistic 'good' side of human nature, can also have a dark side. Altruism can be the back door to [an inferno]." Barbara Oakley, Pathological Altruism

Tags

altruism, assessment, remote work, selection, performance, sustainability

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