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Leadership > Managing Employees

Why You Should Encourage Employees to Be 'Selfish'

Selfishness doesn't have to be a negative trait.
Why You Should Encourage Employees to Be 'Selfish'
Image credit: SIphotography | Getty Images

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Earlier this year, The Japan Times reported that three Japanese companies had introduced strikingly different anti-smoking measures. I predict that one of the strategies will work better than the others because it harnesses human "selfishness" more effectively. The case illustrates why encouraging selfishness can align the interests of employees and employers.

Related: Want to Get Ahead at Work? Be Selfish!

Goldilocks and the three anti-smoking policies

One of the Japanese companies, the convenience store chain Lawson Inc., introduced an all-day ban on smoking. There's no penalty for violating the ban or reward for complying, but the company's PR officer said Lawson is  "willing to take an even tougher anti-smoking measure in the future." The comment suggests that the policy is lacking, and a more coercive version is on the way.

The second company, Sompo Japan Nippon Kowa Himawari Life Insurance Inc., also implemented an all-day smoking ban. It tried to smooth over the ban with subsidies for "tobacco cessation" programs. It's an appeal to reason rather than selfishness. Sompo thinks that if it makes these programs inexpensive or free, rational people will participate and obey the policy. But, smoking isn't rational behavior. Sompo is offering the removal of a voluntary cost, not a tangible reward.

The third company, an online marketing firm called Piala, offered six additional vacation days to non-smokers. CEO Takao Asuka reasoned that smokers take frequent breaks and therefore work fewer hours than non-smokers. The incentive sends a message: You choose how you spend your free time. You can spend it smoking, or you can spend it on vacation.

Related: The Selfish Reason You Should Be Extremely Generous

Irrationality and instant gratification

Piala made the employee's self-interest good for the company. That works better than empty coercion or appeals to reason because human beings struggle to make decisions rationally. Behavioral economists have been telling us that since the 1970s.

If people were rational economic actors, no one would smoke in the first place. What smoker wants to spend an extra $1.1 to $2.3 million over a lifetime and die prematurely?

The behavioral economics concept of temporal discounting illustrates why Piala's strategy could reverse that irrational behavior. Researchers find that we place a higher value on immediate rewards than distant rewards, even if the distant rewards are of objectively greater worth. That tendency, compounded with addiction, means smokers are more likely to seek the immediate gratification of nicotine than the long-term payoffs of quitting.

By offering the short-term reward of extra vacation days, Piala challenged the immediate allure of nicotine. Its anti-smoking program could be even more effective if employees earned vacation days gradually as they take fewer smoking breaks.

Related: Being a 'Boss' Entrepreneur Doesn't Mean You Have to Be Selfish

The taboo on selfishness

Clearly selfishness can help people overcome destructive tendencies, but the word selfishness has an image problem. For example, Merriam-Webster defines selfish as "arising from concern with one's own welfare or advantage in disregard of others." Modern definitions imply that an action is only selfish if it causes harm to others.

That wasn't always the case. In her book The Virtue of Selfishness, philosopher Ayn Rand notes that the "dictionary definition of the word 'selfishness' is: concern with one's own interests. This concept does not include a moral evaluation; it does not tell us whether concern with one's own interests is good or evil ... "

Over time, our culture has attached evil connotations to selfishness. However, when we reframe "encouraging selfishness" with "offering incentives," it becomes more palatable. We say that the salesperson earning a 30 percent commission has "strong incentives" to sell. The incentive works because it taps into selfishness, a part of human nature we should embrace rather than shun.

Leaders who feel uncomfortable with encouraging selfishness and materialism might turn to gamification instead. Piala could reward non-smokers with points and badges instead of vacation days, right? The problem is that games must convince players that a point or badge has inherent value. That's a much tougher sell. Who needs convincing that vacation days and money have value?

Related: 10 Ways to Make Your Employees 10x More Productive

A tool, not a judgment

Selfishness is more trustworthy, more dependable and more resistant to irrationality than coercion or reason. That said, we need laws and policies to ensure people don't harm others in the pursuit of self-interest. Selfishness needs guardrails.

Piala's anti-smoking incentive is brilliant because it's immune to unethical behavior. Unless you can cheat nicotine tests (unlikely), you can't abuse that incentive.

Leaders who demonize selfishness miss opportunities to change behaviors that harm individuals and the companies they work for. If selfishness can curb smoking, it can also change spending habits, reduce smartphone abuse, encourage high performance and accomplish much more.

Selfishness without cultural baggage is a virtuous and powerful tool. Use it to bring out the best in human nature.

Related Video: Why Do You Hate Selling? Because You're Being Selfish.