I came across a study recently that says selfless people are annoying.
Well, the language was a little more scientific than that, but the gist of the research says that selfless and generous contributors – those who go out of their way for the collective good of the team and ask for nothing in return – are valued so little by the other team members, that they believe the group would be better off without them.
This strange outcome is the unexpected result of a study that was conducted to explore something else entirely: the negative effects of greedy behavior.
Smells Like Team Spirit
Psychologists at Washington State University tested groups of teams to determine precisely how they would view those who exhibit greedy behavior, compared to those who were “fair” or “selfless.” Not that you really need a scientific study to answer this question, but, you know, these professors need their tenure and all.
To make the selfish and greedy behavior really stand out, the researchers also introduced selfless behavior to the experiment. Then the subjects were asked to rank the participants.
The expectation, of course, was that the greedy participants would be rated very poorly. This would allow the originators of the study to spread the message to Wall Street and Main Street and all the PR machines that greediness does not come to any good! People will hate you! You will be ostracized and expelled from your group! You will be the last one chosen on the team! Which is exactly what happened in this study.
But the strange twist came about in the ratings of the selfless team members. You would think the selfless members would have been ranked highly, but they were rated equally as low as the greedy.
Selfless Team Members Are Not Trusted
What is going on here? Why would selfless behavior be viewed as bad?
Apparently, the subjects in this study did not trust the selfless behavior. They didn’t like the fact that these too-eager-to-help members did not value the rewards, and thus didn’t believe they would actually want to work hard for those rewards in the future. Some even viewed those selfless team members as sinister, with ulterior motives up their sleeves.
By and large, there was a mistrust of the imbalance between what the team member gave to the group, and the little that was taken in return.
Servant Leadership Fail?
So does that mean you should stop being helpful at work? Should we back off of all that servant leadership hype? It might get you in trouble!
The helpful researchers put it like this “We suggest 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.”
Gee, I don’t know. This sounds to me like selfish manipulation in order to justify selfless behavior.
Or maybe this is just some crazy-ass research that should get thrown down the hopper.
One of my favorite sayings of Jesus comes from the gospel of Matthew, as he was sending his team out to recruit some new members to work on a major project:
“Look, I am sending you out as sheep among wolves. So be as shrewd as snakes and harmless as doves.”
Now go and try to figure that one out, team.
Photo by Nancy Rosback, used with permission.