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Good Employee, Selfish Employee

Put on your own oxygen mask before assisting your company or organization.

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I'm in the middle of reading marketing guru Peter Shankman's new book, Nice Companies Finish First: Why Cutthroat Management Is Over--and Collaboration Is In. It's an important topic. I’ve written frequently about why bully bosses lose and why nice bosses don't always win, and Shankman's book adds valuable new insights to the discussion.

In addition to his main takeaways, a side trip in an early chapter makes an important point that deserves highlighting: Being selfish at work is good.

Aphorisms abound about the selfless parts of work, from Edison's 99% perspiration, 1% inspiration to Maya Angelou's "give it all you got" to the coach's "take one for the team." But in our culture, there's a paucity of advice about actually taking care of yourself.

If employees were cars, most would have skipped the last 25,000 miles of oil changes, would be running on 10-year-old tires and would never replace the timing belt or perform any other critical maintenance.

[ Is your IT department toxic? Read 4 IT Leadership Failures That Make Employees Leave. ]

That's why this part of the book jumped out at me. Generally, Shankman's thesis is that if nice companies finish first, the people who lead and work at that company had better be nice gals and guys. But chapter three talks about "enlightened self-interest," leading the author to the story of Michael Tompkins, president and general manager of Miraval Arizona Resort & Spa.

Tompkins regularly sends some of his staffers to other resorts to not only learn about competitors' work, but also to treat a low-paid employee to a high-dollar pampering. Yes, the company sells wellness, so Tompkins would never suggest that wellness is a bad thing, but it's one thing to encourage wellness and quite another to send employees to exclusive spas to take care of themselves.

Shankman says: "This concept is enlightened self-interest to the core .… It reminds me of what we're told during the in-flight safety lecture -- always put on your air mask before helping someone else. Take care of yourself first, and you can care for others so far more effectively."

Employees need to be much more selfish -- and leaders need to be OK with it. Stop skipping your gym time because work is calling. Quit being afraid to ask for time off, especially when you've got it on the books. Don't put off that doctor's appointment because you're too busy.

I joke to my business peers that my IT employees "do their best work when all of the nice people are asleep," and I know it's an industry-wide phenomenon. Late evening updates, patches, testing and maintenance are regular occurrences. Operations staffers do all-weekend upgrades at least twice a year. Leaders conduct evening and early morning meetings, and they catch up on email and work-related social media during "off" hours.

These practices have a negative business impact, but we ignore it because it's as invisible as unchecked tire tread wear.

What are those negative impacts? Employees who are disengaged, who lack energy or passion for their work, who even go so far as to undermine their colleagues. Employees who become so ground down that they leave your organization to create value elsewhere. Brain drain has many causes, but you can't tell me that pure fatigue isn't one of them.

As a business leader, I must tell you this: The company will never love you back. It's up to you. Most employees think there's a goodwill bank, where they make deposits every time they make a sacrifice in the name of helping their companies and organizations. Such banks might exist at some enlightened organizations, but only to a point. You can't work 70 hours a week for 10 years expecting the big payback someday. You've got to take care of yourself on an ongoing basis.

Employees who practice enlightened self-interest will do so with the same rigor and discipline they practice with self-sacrifice. They'll get that project done. They'll spend the weekend lab testing so that update goes without a hitch for 3,000 employees. But then they'll go to the gym. They'll carve out meaningful time to spend with their families. They'll make it to their child's recital. It's up to employees to take care of themselves so that they don't flare out just when their employers need their talents the most.

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User Rank: Apprentice
7/1/2013 | 7:57:49 PM
re: Good Employee, Selfish Employee
It's more than just the buzzphrase work/life balance, it's also about getting an accurate picture of the environment.

I've been in too many shops where firefighting/heroic effort mode was the "norm" and the rest of the company just assumed that was the case - and never bother allocating resources to address the issues.
Cara Latham
Cara Latham,
User Rank: Apprentice
7/1/2013 | 1:49:57 PM
re: Good Employee, Selfish Employee
I think these are very good observations. I think more companies today are recognizing the work-life balance and the need for employees to be somewhat selfish, as long as they are performing. I don't think it is unfair to ask an employee to pitch in a few times a year to do a weekend update, as the article mentions, but the trade off should be more flexibility given to the employee elsewhere during the year -- including time at the gym and time to attend his or her child's recital.
User Rank: Strategist
6/28/2013 | 4:58:48 PM
re: Good Employee, Selfish Employee
An excellent reminder of the "all work and no play" philosophy. Only one additional word of caution, balance, to avoid it becoming an "all play and no work".
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