(3 min read)

“This hybrid engine of self-interest and concern for others serves a much wider circle of people than can be reached by self-interest or caring alone.” Bill Gates

As the COVID-19 pandemic progresses, reports of selfish behaviours decrease and altruist behaviour increases. Our change of perception regarding this virus could explain this shift.

At the beginning of the COVID-19 crises, the media talked about the need for individual responsibility (self-imposed isolation). However, some of us didn’t comply with voluntary responsibility as cooperation didn’t align with our self interest (we didn’t want to change our daily lives and stop sports and socialising). As the pandemic became more virulent and mortalities increased, suddenly we were told and perhaps understood that we had a collective responsibility – a moral duty to comply with the rules. 

Then, all over Europe, we observed an increase of altruist behaviour. Non-compliance, with rules imposed by governments, was not perceived as freedom of choice but as antisocial behaviour with dire consequences. Individuals disrespecting rules were seen as pariahs and even criminals. They were shunned and shamed by their community and seen as irresponsible and dangerous. The fear of sanctions could also have motivated this decrease of selfish behaviour.


But are people entirely selfish or entirely selfless?

Research shows us that purely selfish behaviour is motivated by self-interest, but also by social recognition, reputation and immediate reward. Selfish behaviour can often also cause inertia (as we don’t want to change what works for us).

Purely selfless behaviour is motivated by putting other people’s needs before one’s own, the protection of those around, the positive performance of a team and the ability to see long-time benefits.  Selfless behaviour can often lead to self-sacrifice and exhaustion.

Very few of us are always selfless or selfish.  Most of us are selfish in some situations and selfless in other situations. Doctors volunteering to leave their family and travel to areas rife with COVID-19 choose to risk their lives to save more patients every day. Their behaviour may appear incredibly generous and brave from an outsider point of view but from their own family perspective, their behaviour is selfish.    


The importance of looking good when you do some good.

In these troubled times, we can be stuck in a social dilemma; “Should we do what is best for ourselves and hope that others compensate for our selfishness?” or should we do what’s best for the group, hoping others won’t take advantage of us?

As David Mayer writes, a combination of self-interest and altruism drives us to be our best -most of us care about “doing good” (altruistic behaviour) whilst “looking good” (selfish motive)-.

Religious traditions have conveyed the idea that helping others is a very commendable act that our society values. As part of this we are taught to put ourselves in other people’s shoes. This empathy leads to prosocial behaviour.  However, what we aren’t told is that often the motives that underpin our altruist impulse are selfish.

Jonathan Haidt, professor of ethical leadership, got infected by COVID 19. He confessed “As someone who studies moral psychology, I can say we all do care about the welfare of other people – although inconsistently. We also all care about our reputationsvery consistently

Both David Mayer and Jonathan Haidt state that civic courage is motivated by “social glory”, so doing good is only valuable for us if it makes us look good.


Why is social glory important?

Recognizing that innate desire for social recognition motivates prosocial actions brings heroes back down from their pedestals. It makes them more vulnerable, more human, more like us. It also means that “taking a risk to help others” is not an innate quality reflecting bravery but an attitude that one can choose to emulate


The quiet force of  the ‘everyday hero’ compared to the ‘big hero’.

The dedication, the endurance and the bravery of doctors and nurses are truly awe-inspiring. However, it doesn’t necessarily motivate us (the medically uneducated or unskilled) to take initiative to “to do some good” in this time of crisis.

Research from Keczer et al. underlines the difference between the big hero and the small hero. The first one, refers to doctors, nurses, ambulance drivers. They can affect a large number of people, they harness a lot of publicity, they take life-threatening risks, they shine in unusual circumstances and they have specific abilities. In contrast, everyday heroes or transparent heroes refer to conscientious janitors in hospitals, street cleaners, thoughtful neighbours who clap every night to express their gratitude to healthcare workers or delivery men. Everyday heroes affect a small number of people, they often go unnoticed by the public, they tackle social challenges and display courage and heroism in common situations and they don’t have specific abilities.

Keczer et al. states that displaying concrete examples of everyday heroism would be a more efficient way to encourage individuals to behave heroically in their everyday lives. Behaving heroically can be defined as acting as a life-saviour. Everyday small initiatives such as singing happy birthday from your balcony to an 80 year old neighbour or disinfecting hospital beds can save lives by fostering connection and emotional support or keeping the environment clean of viruses

The efforts of everyday heroes are rarely recognized.Whilst everyday heroes don’t do good to look good – their motivations can also be self-centered. In cleaning beds, the hospital janitors benefit themselves as much as the patients – as they may be the next patient. The balcony clappers want to express their gratitude to the health workers but also secretly hope that their action will be rewarded in case they need medical help. 

Each of us can relate to gestures of kindness (and selfish motives) as kindness is within everyone’s reach and ability. The actions of everyday heroes will help our community as much as those of big heroes by providing emotional support, by offering creative solutions to maintain connections and finally by embodying what it is to be human

For most of us, self-interest is a synonym of selfishness and self-serving behaviour. If a colleague defines her/his co-worker as “looking after her/his self-interest”, it’s rarely a compliment and is said in a depreciative tone.

In his Ted talk, Adam Grant describes three categories of people at work, a minority of   “takers” who focus mainly on their own personal reward to the detriment of others, a minority of  “givers” who sacrifice themselves for the benefit of others and a majority of “matchers” who give and take in equal measure. Grant highlights the toxicity of “takers” who often feel entitled and create an atmosphere of mistrust and paranoia that is more conducive to competition than collaboration. “The negative impact (of takers) is double or triple the positive impact of givers” states Grant.

However, “the behaviour of “givers” can be toxic too. Indeed, people with no apparent self-interest who only act for the good of others can be seen as martyrs who resent the ones who ignore their hard work. Tony Featherstone, a small business owner, underlines that this constant need for validation can “damage the organisation culture” as the martyr’s dedication and long working hours reveal a difficulty to delegate and a tendency to control.

Knowing your self-interest

Being driven solely by self-interest exposes can create a situation where “the end justifies the means” – where a person will set aside their scruples and exploit others to accomplish their goals – whatever the cost. However, being aware of self-interest can lead to a different dynamic. If an individual knows, enjoys and matches their self-interest to their strengths, this can be helpful to colleagues and the organisation.

Many entrepreneurs who understand their own motivation and thus their own self-interest are particularly adept at passing on a vision that suits their self-interest to others. An example of this could be where a CEO wants to become a thought leader and requires an innovative company for him to project from – which requires his employees to be innovative.

Allowing employees or CEOs to pursue their own goals and self-interest is not necessarily harmful, and can be helpful to the company, as long as these goals are aligned with the company needs.

Some CEOs encourage their team to explore their passion by giving them the time, and resources to pursue them. For example, Google allows its engineers to work on a project that interests them using 20% of their working week. The company considers this as an opportunity to become creative and develop new products.

In a ‘WorkLife podcast, Adam Grant mentioned the case of an executive assistant at Warby Parker who became a software engineer after helping to remove software bugs. Her manager rewarded her curiosity and perseverance and allowed her to focus on her own interest (software design). The manager and the company gained doubly – not only did she fix a software issue, but she also changed from a bored assistant into an enthusiastic and loyal employee.

Mutuality mindset

In her Ted talk, Kare Anderson talks about a “mutuality mindset”the realisation that combining talents can allow each of us to accomplish goals we couldn’t have reached on our own. Moreover, this mutuality mindset contributes to unearthing new interests.  “When you observe people, you might see talent in them that they don’t recognize yet”, states Anderson. So, by identifying talent, not only do you increase the value of the company, the talent holder but also your own value as well. For example, in John Hopkins’ hospital in Baltimore, Dr Oldfield recognised the value of the information after talking to one of the hospital janitors. This ranged from the exact location of equipment to the feedback of her conversation with the hospital administration about her salary. Listening to her concerns made him realise that hospital policies were excluding her. Sharing her testimony boosted his self-interest as a doctor as it allowed him to fulfil one of the principles of the hyppocratic oathI will remember that I remain a member of society, with special obligations to all my fellow human beings”.

Enlightened self-interest

In ethics, the action of responding to the need of others which contributes to satisfying one’s self-interest is called  enlightened self-interest. One case of enlightened self-interest in business is the case of Julie Sweet the CEO of Accenture, North America. In 2017, she started the program “Involve U challenge”, where she sent a daily reminder to her employees challenging them to answer this question “Who did I help today?”. In her words One of the most powerful ways we can help each other is by taking the time to see others’ potential. She puts particular importance on “paying it forward”. Accenture became one of the Fortune 100 best company to work for in 2017 and Julie Sweet one of the most powerful women in business in 2018.

Our constant struggle between individual needs and organisational demands can be resolved if we – as people and as companies- accept that our job should aim to satisfy both individual and social needs. Allowing employees to explore their self-interest where these match company goals give the ultimate empowerment to employees.