Good Employee, Selfish Employee

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

Jonathan Feldman, CIO, City of Asheville, NC

June 27, 2013

4 Min Read

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10 Ways To Fight Email Overload

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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.

About the Author(s)

Jonathan Feldman

CIO, City of Asheville, NC

Jonathan Feldman is Chief Information Officer for the City of Asheville, North Carolina, where his business background and work as an InformationWeek columnist have helped him to innovate in government through better practices in business technology, process, and human resources management. Asheville is a rapidly growing and popular city; it has been named a Fodor top travel destination, and is the site of many new breweries, including New Belgium's east coast expansion. During Jonathan's leadership, the City has been recognized nationally and internationally (including the International Economic Development Council New Media, Government Innovation Grant, and the GMIS Best Practices awards) for improving services to citizens and reducing expenses through new practices and technology.  He is active in the IT, startup and open data communities, was named a "Top 100 CIO to follow" by the Huffington Post, and is a co-author of Code For America's book, Beyond Transparency. Learn more about Jonathan at

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