March 7, 2020

Selfish, Selfless and the Sweet Spot in the Middle

Clear boundaries are a fantastic self-care tool for maintaining your focus and sanity

“She’s so selfish.  All she can see is her own ambition.  Meanwhile, she walks all over the rest of us.  What a [insert unkind word here]!”

Ever heard something like that in the workplace?  Maybe you’ve said it yourself.  Maybe it’s even been said about you.

What about the other end of the spectrum?

“She is so selfless.  She will do whatever it takes to get the job done, and she always puts the company’s needs ahead of her own.  We are so lucky to have her!”

In American work life, and in our culture in general, there is a clear spectrum against which we measure behavior, and we use loaded terms like “selfish” and “selfless” to describe it, demonizing the “selfish” end and idolizing the “selfless.”

These are loaded terms with all kinds of connotations, and they can be applied unfairly, especially when gender politics and other issues come into play.  I’m going to save those topics for another post.  For now, I just want to talk about this spectrum of behavior, and what I think is the sweet spot in the middle.  I call that sweet spot “being pro-self.”

The spectrum of selfishness

Again, leaving gender politics out of the equation (but recognizing that they exist, and that the concepts of selfishness and selflessness often get “gendered” in our culture), we all probably have some sense of what “selfish” looks like in the workplace.

Maybe you know someone who clearly puts their own interests first, insisting others always accommodate their schedule, preferences and idiosyncrasies no matter how difficult they make others’ lives.  This might be someone who insists you reply to emails at all hours or that you rearrange your personal life for evening or weekend events.  Requests like this once in a while can be reasonable.  But a consistent pattern is more insidious.  This is someone who is not even considering the needs of others.

Less loaded labels, perhaps, might be self-centered or narcissistic.  These concepts describe the extreme, where one acts in one’s own interest at all times, regardless of the cost to others.  You can see the appeal of this behavior, perhaps, but it doesn’t facilitate collaboration, self-reflection, growth and all the other attributes that are key to building a satisfying career.

“Selfless,” meanwhile, looks a lot different.  This might be someone who is wildly accommodating no matter the request.  It can be common especially among people who are junior and just building their careers, but as these patterns become entrenched, burnout can set in (see the signs you might be experiencing this).  The selfless colleague may be everyone’s favorite to turn to with a need, but this person might also be passed over for important projects or promotions if he or she gains a reputation that looks less like “helpful” and more like “spineless” or “overcommitted.”

And yet, “selfless” is also a loaded word.  Many of us (especially women) learn to aspire to this description from a young age.  Natural caregivers — and there are many of these folks in health care — can be prone to a selfless stance, but we must recognize that you can’t nourish others from a hungry belly.  You must find a way to fill your cup, and taking a pro-self stance can be a way of doing so.

The pro-self approach

Right in the middle of this spectrum of selfishness to selflessness is the pro-self approach.  The pro-self person looks at the universe of choices around her and says, “What’s in my own interest, and what is in the interest of others?”  And then she balances those choices.

There may be times when the pro-self person acts in the interest of others (and in fact, there can be self-interest in doing so, such as when you build good will).  But the pro-self person has also defined boundaries she will not cross.

Here’s an example:

Suppose you have decided that it is important to you to be home for dinner on a regular basis.  You might define some boundaries around this, such as: “I will be home for dinner four nights a week, and one of those will always be Friday night.”  Then, when you are invited to an important work engagement on a Tuesday night, perhaps you agree to attend.  But when multiple invitations come in a single week, and perhaps an event falls on a Friday, you draw a line.

This can be tricky if you are navigating a new job or are junior to people making the requests for your time.  Seeking out allies and banding together can be one solution to this workplace challenge.  One small voice (particularly if it’s junior or new) can be easy enough for the boss to sweep aside.  Many voices are harder to ignore.  Tools for negotiation will help you advocate for your needs.

For people with more seniority, it can be easier.  And if you are in a more senior position, recognize that people who lack your clout might benefit from your support as they navigate their own boundaries.

Setting boundaries

Many of my coaching conversations start with the question “what matters most to you?”  Making a list of your priorities in this way can help you define boundaries.  If family time lands on your list, you might want to consider your own requirement for dinners at home, the number of days you are willing to spend on the road or some other kind of time-related boundary.

As you are thinking about this, also consider what you need to feel well and do your best.  I know I need enough sleep to be my best.  So, as I consider opportunities for work or social engagements, I assess what they will mean for my sleep schedule.

There is nothing in the world wrong with being pro-self, and it would be nice to see the connotations attached to these common descriptions  go away.  The longtime use of the term “selfish” as an insult and of the word “selfless” as a badge of honor means it can feel a little uncomfortable to make decisions that are pro-self.  But the truth is, a pro-self posture will also make you better for the people you support at work and home.  When I am rested, I can really show up, and I do.  It turns out that being pro-self is good for you and those around you.

A final note for leaders

Leaders of teams, departments and organizations have a special responsibility here.  If you are a leader, you have responsibilities: Tasks that must be completed, projects that must be pursued.  The way you go about this work can either enable a pro-self mentality (and a healthier workforce, with less burnout) or impede it.

As you make decisions, consider the unintended consequences, and in fact ask these questions of your team: How will you be affected by this, personally and professionally?  Will there be unintended consequences if I make this decision?  What you learn may surprise you.

In addition, recognize that unintended consequences may take time to become apparent.  Be willing to reverse course if you have made a decision and later learn it is causing undue hardship for some on your team.  And regardless of how you respond to revelations about unintended consequences, it is important that you not belittle anyone for their concerns.  Your job is to create a safe culture where employees are empowered to advocate for their needs.

Your perspective

Are there ways in which you have adopted a pro-self stance or empowered others to do so?  How did it work out?  Please share your thoughts in the comments or on social media!