Is it okay to be selfish at work?

by Brett Henebery13 Feb 2017

There is a saying that goes ‘you must first help yourself before you can help others’…but to what extent should this apply in the workplace?

When it comes to putting yourself before others, there are clearly limits that should be exercised, and the same goes vice-versa.

Wharton professor Adam Grant and Wharton People Analytics researcher, Reb Rebele, recently wrote an article in The Harvard Business Review about a little-known phenomenon called “generosity burnout”. 

This happens when employees (or employers) help others so much that they become burnt out. The danger here is obvious: if someone becomes so overburdened that they cannot help others, it’s highly likely they’re not looking after themselves either.

Grant and Rebele invited readers of their research to answer a multiple-choice question they posed to hundreds of teachers in the US:

Imagine that you’re teaching a geometry class, and you’ve volunteered to stay after school one day a week to help one of your students, Alex, improve his understanding of geometry. He asks if you’ll also help his friend Juan, who isn’t in your class. What would you do?

  1. Schedule a separate after-school session to help Juan, so you can better understand his individual needs.
  2. Invite Juan to sit in on your geometry sessions with Alex.
  3. Tell Alex that it’s nice that he wants to help Juan, but he really needs to focus on his own work in order to catch up.
  4. Tell Alex that Juan should ask his own teacher for help.

Grant and Rebele said that selfless educators exhausted themselves trying to “help everyone with every request”.

“They were willing to work nights and weekends to assist students with problems, colleagues with lesson plans, and principals with administrative duties. Despite their best intentions, these teachers were inadvertently hurting the very students they wanted to help,” they added.

Perhaps most telling was that Grant and Rebele saw these findings replicated across a wide range of professions they studied.

A 2016 study, which involved researchers at the Universities of Zurich and Leipzig, looked at how the 'unconscious needs' of employees play an important role in the development of burnout. This involved looking at two ‘implicit motives’.

The first is the ‘power motive’ which is the need to take responsibility for others, maintain discipline, and engage in arguments or negotiation, in order to feel strong.

The second implicit motive is the ‘affiliation motive’ which is the need for positive personal relations, in order to feel trust, warmth, and belonging.

The results found a mismatch is risky because employees can get burned out when they have too much or not enough scope for power or affiliation compared to their individual needs.

Beate Schulze, a Senior Researcher at the Department of Social and Occupational Medicine of the University of Leipzig, said a motivated workforce is the "key to success in today's globalised economy".

“Here, we need innovative approaches that go beyond providing attractive working conditions. Matching employees' motivational needs to their daily activities at work might be the way forward,” said Schulze.

“This may also help to address growing concerns about employee mental health, since burnout is essentially an erosion of motivation.”