We live in momentous times. Everyday a new surprise, a new shock, something new to get our heads around.
Mother Teresa has this week become a saint. A saint of Selflessness. At the same time, in the US, we have the Saint of Selfishness, Donald Trump with his red ties and bellicose divisive style. In echoes of Gordon Gekko, Donald once proudly declared; “You can never be too greedy”
Saint Teresa and Donald Trump represent the opposites ends of the Selfless/Selfish dichotomy. All of us grapple between the two, trying to balance what’s best for us and the needs of others.
In this blog, I suggest that we are trapped in this dichotomy, that it causes enormous distress, and that there is a way out.
I’m going to introduce you to a word, a new concept that doesn’t yet exist, but should.
The word is: Selfist
I define being Selfist as;
“Caring for one’s own needs, so as to be best able to support others”
As an Organisational Consultant, I work up close and personal with hundreds of senior managers every year. I hear about their painful struggles reconciling their own needs to be well, healthy and balanced with the unending needs of their teams, their business, their families and the crazy expectations of our Western culture.
People manage poorly within the selfish/selfless paradigm.
Selfish people superficially solve the problem by being focussed on themselves and getting what they want first. Attention paid to others’ needs is dependent on their usefulness to Self. Such people, typically male in gender or style, can get quite far, quite fast. Their ability to climb higher up the greasy pole is compromised because we simply don’t trust selfish people. Gaining and maintaining power depends on building trust.
Even when selfish people seem to care, we don’t believe them. We assume they are using a ploy, a tactic to appear that way for an ulterior motive, to look after No 1.
The Donald’s and wannabe Donalds of this world focus on achieving transactional goals using charm preferably, or when that fails resort to bullying and manipulation.
Selfless people (typically female in gender or style) believe that others’ needs are much more important than their own. They are here to serve. Others come first, second and third. Of course colleagues usually love and trust Selfless people, let’s face it, working life is often easier when they are carrying the heavy load. Real saints, however, are thin on the ground.
The common or garden Selfless person holds a guilty secret. They are often angry, exhausted and resentful because they are caught in a trap of their own making. Selfless people get lots of strokes for their hard work and have become addicts who can’t say no.
By being so involved they get to exercise their secret desire for control, thus ensuring the job gets done to their standards.
Sometimes the stress causes a fuse to blow, in burnout or freakout or both.
In the mini emergency which ensues, the team are forced into the front line. Because they’ve been mollycoddled by the Selfless one, they haven’t mastered the task. Short term underperformance then ensues, as they ascend the learning curve. When the Selfless one returns, she gets the booby prize of proving to herself that, without her the task just doesn’t get done properly. The sour martyr can be born.
The sad truth is, most Selfless people suffer in silence and don’t blow their top, just slowly exhaust themselves with complexity and worry. The price is also paid by their neglected loved ones (partners, children and friends).
Without the concept of ‘Selfistness’, there is no healthy alternative to Selfishness and Selflessness. Consequently, people typically organise themselves along the continuum.
“Well, I am about in the middle, I can be Selfish sometimes, but at others I am more Selfless.”
‘Selfist’ isn’t in the middle of the line between Selfish and Selfless, it sits above both, forming a triangle.
Remember, Selfist people are able to care for themselves, so they are best able to support others.
Selfist people think; “I know that if I look after my needs, I will be fit, strong and clear headed. I will have lots of energy to help others. To do so sustainably means learning to look after myself.”
Selfist people know that having clear boundaries works for everyone. They can take a long weekend, a lunch hour massage, a walk in office hours, or say “no, I am afraid I can’t today, let’s discuss alternative options”.
Miraculously, being Selfist is a win win, you feel balanced, the team grows in stature and the world keeps revolving. The team learns to become more independent and resourceful, rather than relying on mum or dad.
I have witnessed the huge relief chronically Selfless people express when they first encounter the notion of being Selfist. At first they are somewhat skeptical. As the idea percolates and makes sense, they start to become cheekily defiant.
“So, does this mean I can tell my team that I won’t now be attending the XX project meetings?”
“Does this mean I can convene a meeting to focus on how the team can improve their collaboration and decision making, rather than relying on me?”
“Does this mean I can set a good example to others and go home on time?”
For self identified selfish people, it is relatively easy to reframe selfishness to selflessness. After all, it involves putting oneself first, that is the familiar part. The challenge will be to focus on a Win/Win. I gain, you gain.
Being Selfist is healthy, adult and grounding. It enables others to grow faster, and a healthier team dynamic to emerge. A Selfist team is a powerful and effective team.
We need to be out, loud and proud to be Selfist. Try it!