Selecting for Sacrifice

Over the last few decades, it has become increasing popular to put candidates through personality testing prior to issuing a job offer. One purpose of this testing has been to give business leaders a degree of insight into how likely – or not – a candidate is to demonstrate self-sacrificing behaviors. High levels of altruism have been shown to have a positive impact on engagement, motivation, skill development, peer relationships, and even healthy competition. As such, employers and business leaders have readily accepted that higher measures of individual altruism translate into better business performance.

As with all personality traits, however, altruism exists on a spectrum. To the untrained interpreter of psychometric data, or even to an executive who categorically believes self-sacrifice to be a good thing for business, a high score on a measure of altruism may mean “near-total presence of these behaviors” while a low score may indicate its apparent opposite – selfishness or egoism, both of which we are conditioned to see as largely unproductive traits in the workplace. On paper, this may appear to be sensible for selection, though in practice it can cause problems. As an example of a common misconception, the opposite of ambition is not “a lack of ambition,” but instead something closer to “a valuing of stability and comfort.” Similarly, the opposite of the often-sought-after quality of “attention to detail” is not a lack of attention, but rather more of a sense of creativity, or an orientation towards ‘the big picture.’ Business leaders intrinsically understand that leveraging both ends of these spectra can yield positive results for their companies, and so it becomes necessary to do the same for altruistic behavior. When measured, the opposite of altruism is not its absence, but rather something more akin to valuing boundaries.

Seen this way, new doors can be opened to how we consider optimizing individual talent for reaching group or organizational goals. Though, before we venture into new considerations, it is important to note that the valuing of a highly polarized definition of altruism can also have a disparate level of impact across demographics, and therefore must be broken down if business leaders are going to meaningfully invest in creating equitable, inclusive work environments. More on that next time…