Hail to the Selfish Employee

by Moe Glenner

Personal Return on InvestmentSelfish is a word commonly used in a derisive manner. When Gordon Gekko says, “Greed is good,” we tend to not empathize with him and instead opt to scorn his “all for me” mentality. Furthermore, we have been counseled from an early age about the virtues of sharing and giving, albeit for some of us it was a forced lesson. But is this really the best lesson?

There is a common misperception that a selfish person makes for an unmanageable employee. After all, the reasoning is, they are in it only for themselves. Perhaps this person will actually destroy the team dynamic that we all strive for within our organizations. We frequently seek out the “all for one and one for all” mentality. We truly want the “rah, rah, go team” imbued throughout our organization. We also love to repeat the mantra “There is no ‘I’ in ‘team.’”

What we overlook is, while there may not be an ‘I’ in ‘team,’ there is a ‘me.’ Organizations don’t pay positive attention to the ‘me’-oriented employees at their own peril. They miss on the opportunity to gain highly self-motivated team members whose working end-result will significantly benefit the organization.

The selfish employee can actually be the hardest-working member of the team. However, we do need to distinguish between the selfish employee and the obstinate employee. A selfish employee is seeking satisfaction of his or her personal drivers. This employee is willing to do the work and sometimes even ‘go beyond’ in his or her personal driver satisfaction efforts. A selfish employee is not obstinate or insubordinate, but rather focused on attaining personal goals. By providing the path to this satisfaction, an employer can harness this selfish motivation for the greater good of the organization.

An obstinate employee, on the other hand, is someone who refuses to do the work assigned and frequently conjures up avoidance methods. There may be many reasons for this resistance, such as confusion and fear, which, if left unaddressed, will result in the employee being a serious risk for the continuing viability of the team. But if the underlying reasons are successfully addressed, this employee can be transformed into a productive team member.

Consider the great statesman Gandhi. When he would move to a new area, he would immediately busy himself with communal needs. When others pointed to him as an example of unselfish giving, he would pointedly correct them. His communal activities were merely a means to him benefiting from them. In other words, while his actions were altruistic, his intentions were selfish. Thus, selfish can also be a useful trait for the greater good.

An organization is also a community. This community relies on the diverse input from its members and the able direction of its leaders. One of the primary tasks of a leader in this community is building a motivated team. This is not a static task; it is, rather, a continuing activity with endless iterations. Without constant attention and nurturing, today’s motivated team can easily be tomorrow’s disillusioned crew.

However, motivation doesn’t exist in a vacuum, nor is it isolated or coincidental. The progressive organizational/team leader understands that motivation is created and harnesses it through careful delivery of personal drivers — in other words, being able to deliver on each team member’s Personal Return on Investment (PROI).

A grand bargain must be made with each team member. In exchange for the individual’s active personal investment, manifested by cooperation, participation and contribution, the leader will provide to that individual a personal return. The key is to understand the nature of those personal returns. For some, it may be public recognition, enhanced status within the company, promotion opportunities, increased compensation or even just an easier and/or more efficient way to accomplish everyday tasks. There may be more than one return for a single person and there may be other returns not enumerated above. Either way, it behooves the attentive and progressive team leader to be able to deliver on these returns.

While employers give significant credence to the team-oriented employee, they frequently overlook the value of the selfish employee. This is a common mistake. While team-oriented employees ostensibly operate for the greater good, they ignore their own personal drivers. It is likely their motivation levels will drop off at some future time. The selfish employee is motivated by personal drivers. Satisfy those drivers and deliver on the PROI, and that employee will continue indefinitely with a high level of self-motivation.

For the team leader who finds the PROI of the team members, communicates to them the path for achieving them and then delivers on his end of the grand bargain, a team of selfish employees can indeed be an organization’s best friend and a powerful tool for continued success.


PURElogi3stics, L.L.C.    purelogistics.com


Moe Glenner is the founder and president of PURElogistics, L.L.C., a leading consulting firm that specializes in change management, logistics and supply chain strategies. In his recently released book Selfish Altruism: Managing & Executing Successful Change Initiative, Glenner explores best practices in organizational change.


  1. […] Moe Glenner has served in a number of senior management and consulting roles for multi-national, multi-billion dollar enterprises as well as mid-range and entrepreneurial ventures. Moe helps organizations to transform their management and corporate cultural functions through innovation. He is the author of PlusChange: Genesis of Innovation (Jan. 5. 2016 – LID Publishers) and has been seen on ABC, NBC, CBS & Fox and has had many articles on creativity, leadership and change management published in magazines such as Inc., Bloomberg Businessweek, The Huffington Post, Internet Truckstop and inBusiness. […]

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