Self-Interest is Not Our Interest

When we do leadership training at Schuitema, we have a story that is fundamental to the concept of Care & Growth. The story of Fred and Joe. A reflection on self-interest. Fred and Joe work together, for the same boss, and one day the boss comes to Fred and says, “Fred, this task that you are about to do now, I have done many times before. Do as I did.” To Joe, on the other hand, she says, “Joe, this task that you are about to do now, I have done many times before. It may be helpful to you to take a look at it.”

The first question we ask is who will work for their boss because they have to, and who will work because they want to. It is easy enough to see that Fred works because he has to, and Joe because he wants to. There is never any argument about that.

The next question is more intriguing: why? At first glance, one may think it is because Fred is told what to do while Joe gets a choice about how to do it. But we actually need to dig deeper than that.

Means and Ends

I’ll take the risk and let the cat out of the bag, even if you haven’t attended any Care and Growth leadership event yet: it is a question of Means and Ends. In the Fred interaction, the boss is trying to secure the result, to get the job done. The job is her Ends and she uses Fred as her Means to get it done. In the Joe interaction, however, she is taking a risk with the job since she is leaving it up to Joe to decide how to do it. It is thus Joe’s growth that is her Ends, and she uses the job as the Means for that.

As with several things within the Care and Growth model and the Intent thematic, this might seem counterintuitive at first. Surely, it must be better to secure the result! Make sure you get your slice of the cake, watch your back and keep a close eye not to lose any opportunity to someone else? No, as a matter of fact, it’s not better. Let’s explore why.

Self-Interest – A Counteractive Relationship

When the boss interacts with Fred above, she is doing just that – trying to secure the result. Fred will feel this. He will feel that he is used as a resource for her interests. Feeling like someone else’s resource makes you hostile. It can sometimes be subtle, but deep down it will manifest as hostility, and you will therefore not happily to the job. You might still do it, but it will be because you have to, not because you want to, and you will not be your boss’s ally. So, her trying to secure her own interests actually turns you against her and your relationship suffers conflict. You will in turn try to get out of her what you can, and she will get proof of her original thinking “I must make sure to get my slice of the cake – see, otherwise others will take it!”.

This shows us why self-interest is not in our interest. Self-interest creates a hostile world around us, which is not pleasant to be in. Neither for us, nor for those around us.

Use things and love people, not the other way around

When the boss interacts with Joe above, she is foregoing her intuitive self-interest of securing the result, in favour of Joe’s growth. This will make Joe the immediate beneficiary of the interaction and make him his boss’s ally. They will have harmony instead of conflict. He will work for her because he wants to. Furthermore, she will – interestingly enough – also in this case get proof of her original thinking. “My primary task as a boss is to Care for my subordinates and help them Grow – see how well that turns out: Joe is thriving and the results are, too!”

This too shows us why self-interest is not in our interest. Foregoing one’s self-interest for the interest of the other creates a friendly world of harmony. Which is pleasant for us, as well as for those around us.

Taking this reasoning from the leadership context into our personal lives, we could therefore conclude how important it is for our wellbeing to use things and love people, rather than the other way around. Using people and loving things is just miserable for everyone involved. Yet so common.

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