How Good Is Your 'Good Deed' Really?

May 22nd 2014

Selfish is hard to resist

As part of my work as a speaker on human behaviour, I'm constantly teaching those in the HR industry how to use our key human drivers to do better business. One of the key drivers, our biggest motivator as human beings is self interest. Which doesn't seem like a good thing does it? But once we get that, as leaders and professionals in HR, we can actually use this knowledge to do a lot of good.

Self-interest drives us more than most of us would care to admit. Consider something as mundane and everyday as the wave you hope you get when you let another driver pull in front of you in a line of traffic. We all long for the wave; we look for the wave and we get surprisingly irritated or even irate if we fail to receive one.

I once shared a stage with a Buddhist monk when the topic of lack of gratitude came up. ‘People are so ungrateful, even when you do something generous like letting them into traffic’, someone in the room lamented.

The wise old monk smiled in a knowing way, paused thoughtfully and then asked, ‘Why did you let them in, in the first place?’

The person indignantly replied, ‘to do something nice for someone else’.

The monk questioned further. ‘Are you certain?’

‘Yes,’ the person protested, ‘it was a kind thing to do’.

The monk calmly observed that, ‘perhaps ‘you did it because you wanted to be acknowledged. You wanted that feeling that comes from being nice to someone else’. Of course, it is quite hard to argue against this logic as, upon reflection, we may all question the total purity of our ‘kinder’ motives.

This same line of thinking underpins why throughout Asia, monks often do not acknowledge gifts of food or assistance. As they see it, people are essentially buying good karma by taking care of the holy men. They see it not as a generous act, rather as a selfish one: the sense of satisfaction that we get; the self-righteous feeling that enables us to think of ourselves as decent human beings; and the hope that we’ll get an upgrade to first class when our number ultimately comes up.

This explains why monks often do not bow or verbally thank the people who support them. They understand that even when we think we are being kind, we are often driven by our own selfish needs.

If we take that knowledge, that we are driven by our own desire for recognition, we can start to apply this understanding to others. If you are a leader and you want your employees to start being more proactive or taking on further responsibility then harnessing their desire for recognition and praising their achievements will build a culture of hard work. If you want your partner to do more for you then praise them when they do something good, it sounds obvious but so many people forget that, whilst an act my appear selfless, recognition will spur them on to do these good things more often.

Of course, we are not monks and while we are making a case to Think Selfish, a thank you and a wave are still welcome responses.

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How Good Is Your 'Good Deed' Really?
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