Looking Ahead: A Different View of Altruism

The pandemic has caused well-documented changes to our work lives, challenging our boundaries and our ability to self-regulate. While altruism continues to be a highly valued, highly reinforced trait, senior leaders must become aware of the dangers of its glorification. This ‘myth of altruism’ – that it is always a positive trait – needs to be revealed for what it truly is: another dimension of personality with a spectrum of behaviors that can be positive or negative for the individual and the organization.

Business leaders should reconsider what the setting of stretch goals looks like in practice, and how adapting to the boundaries of their evolving workforce need not sacrifice performance over time. Stretch goals, traditionally thought of as simply “pushing an employee out of his or her comfort zone,” can also be a way of balancing the scales away from traditional views of altruism. If an employee tells you that she can only give you ten hours a day in a normal work week, then managers should create environments that leverage that employee’s intrinsic motivation to be consistently working towards stretch goals in those 10 hours: do more within your boundaries. Leverage high potential talent to develop new product offerings, create Intellectual Property, and elevate the company’s brand. Put positive pressure on analysts to lead projects or deals. Essentially, allow boundaries to facilitate a deeper organizational impact and employees to earn their pay. This balancing of altruism and boundaries within the ecosystem of disruption demonstrates respect for the individual employee experience without sacrificing the need to hit targets, perform at a high level, and grow.

The question certainly arises of, “OK, but I still need to execute on strategy. So how can I do that if everyone is constantly doing higher-order work within their boundaries?” The answer is simple: stretch goals for individuals elevate an organization’s ability to grow over time. Individual contributors who simply value “doing good work” are not going anywhere anytime soon, and so it becomes necessary to understand your talent on a much deeper level – recognize what motivates them, ensure that those motivations support the strategy, and reward them for successes. While company leadership cannot be everything for everyone, a changing landscape of business through disruption - in which the war for top talent wages on – necessitates an evolution of the way we support and manage high performance to prevent burnout and costly turnover.

As Jennifer Moss notes in the Harvard Business Review article “Beyond Burned Out”, high levels of stress that already existed before the pandemic are now becoming chronic. To combat the negative consequences of this reality, business leaders should understand that redefining traditional values and expectations is now necessary to avoid the potential long-term negative impact on performance. Altruism - traditionally key among those values - is a trait that, going forward, requires nuance in order to be fully leveraged. If executed well, setting, respecting, and managing boundaries can prove to be an ingredient in the antidote to constant disruption.