Posted on Harvard Business Review: September 20, 2010 12:02 PM
Wouldn't any group cherish a member who went above and beyond? It would seem self-evident that someone who behaved selflessly and in the interests of collective achievement would be a boon to the group's performance and happiness. Indeed, the Nobel laureate Herbert Simon argued in 1979 that such people are necessary in groups, if for no other reason than to give more self-oriented members someone to exploit. Consider the alternative, too: In a group consisting mainly of self-oriented people, the collective effort doesn't add up to much, and many tasks either go undone, or are done insufficiently.
Research suggests, however, that such selfless contributors are not so valued by their colleagues. In fact, they can inspire such negative reactions that others might believe the group would be better off without them. In a series of studies Asako Stone and I conducted, we found this to be the case: selfless people were almost as unpopular as their polar opposites, the very greedy people who contribute next to nothing but expect to reap the full reward of a group's success.
Consider an experiment we designed which required student subjects to contribute to and draw on a common pool. Each participant was placed in a five-person group, but did not see its other members. Each was given endowments that they could in their turn choose to keep or return, in whole or in part. There was some incentive to maximize one's holdings, but not an obvious one. (The participants were told that, at the end of the semester, a random drawing of their names would be held and those few who were chosen would have their holdings converted to Dining Services coupons redeemable at campus eateries.) After completing a number of rounds, students were shown the mean contribution and take for every other group member, and asked to indicate on a scale how much they would want to keep that member in their group.
In reality, the other "group members" were fictions of a computer following programmed choice strategies. Subjects saw three of these making moderate contributions and takings, and a fourth that behaved differently, giving or taking noticeably much or little. By staging the experiment in this way, we aimed to report with precision on the effect we fully expected to see: that the greedy members would be rated poorly, the fair members would be rated well, and the selfless members would be rated highly.
Imagine our surprise when the selfless group members were rated almost as badly as the greedy ones.
In a follow-up study we repeated this procedure, but asked students to explain their evaluations. Two main reasons, and a less common third reason, emerged to explain the dislike of the selfless person. First, some participants resented that, in light of the selfless individual's behavior, a merely fair actor looked bad—despite the fact that the fair actor had done nothing wrong. Second, some reacted negatively to the selfless member as a kind of rule breaker. Convention dictates that certain rewards accrue to certain activities, and that those who don't value a reward, don't work for it. The selfless member was defying convention, and even though that helped the group, it struck some as defiant and therefore wrong. Finally, a very few people saw something sinister in the selfless member's actions. "Perhaps this person is lulling us into a false sense of security," they thought, "in order to take advantage of us later."
In psychological studies like ours, the use of students as subjects is often challenged. Give them some experience in the workplace, a critic might say, and they will see the value of selfless people. I understand this point, although there is no scientific reason to expect students to perceive things radically differently from older individuals. But as the news has filtered out about our findings, the reactions we hear from working professionals would suggest that our research captured a common phenomenon. We've heard from both the ranks of the selfless ("I've been treated like this for many years") and from the colleagues they've inflicted their selflessness upon ("I am sick to death of these people"). This admittedly unscientific set of responses suggests that appreciation doesn't grow with experience.
What are the implications, then? Should we allow work groups to slowly beat out generous tendencies in their members (if not the generous members themselves)? Should workers who yearn to do more learn to sit on their hands, or risk bad relations?
I don't think the situation is this dire. It is crucial to note that, in our study, people were not hostile toward heavy givers; rather, they were hostile toward heavy givers who asked for little in return. It was the imbalance between what was given and what was taken that bothered people. This suggests that generously-inclined group members could help themselves by making clear that the extra effort does offer them personal benefits, though the benefits might not be the same ones that others seek.
For those of us who are first to volunteer, eager to help, always on call, this may be a bitter message. There is no doubt that being truly selfless is philosophically attractive. But in practice it can hurt you—and might even diminish group performance over time.