How Selfishness Eats Profits
By Don Schmincke
“Some of my employees are focused on the business, but others are
only concerned about their personal agendas.”
“Where did these entitlement attitudes come from?”
“If they’re not trying to ‘look good’ to me, they’re trying to take
credit for someone else’s ideas.”
“How do I always get pulled into turf battles?”
Managers commonly voice such complaints in all industries, but why
do they arise in some organizations more than others? Seeking an
answer led our research to a unique laboratory - the death zone;
that altitude above 26,000 feet where lack of oxygen threatens
long-term survival. Climbing teams bear a resemblance to
corporations. They live passionately while confronting impossible
odds. They have some employees who are deeply humble; and others who
are psychotic narcissists. And their employees come with all levels
of competence; from naive wannabes to elite athletes. And when put
to the test, organizations react like climbing teams: sometimes
heroically, other times self-destructively.
We expected to find new principles that separate the great
organizations from the not so great, but we found something else.
Organizations that produce peak performance in the face of extreme
challenges – what we call high altitude organizations – succeed by
recognizing and surviving specific dangers. Complaints like those
above thrive where a particular danger exists: Selfishness.
At altitude, selfishness kills people when teamwork is critically
needed to deal with injuries, equipment malfunction, limited
resources, and threats of avalanche and weather. In corporate teams,
selfishness kills performance, projects, profits, and possibilities.
This persistent danger stalks organizations at every altitude. What
may seem like innocent office politics ends up bringing down the
largest of organizations. Postmortem business school case studies
blame the failures on reasons like strategic missteps or poor
implementations of good ideas. But digging deeper among the
carcasses, we find that selfishness alone drove the denial,
avoidance, blindness, or cover-ups until it was too late.
At the SAGA Leadership Institute, when we develop high-performance
cultures in client companies, we get a close-up of how much
selfishness damages an organization. Our conclusion:
How much profit is lost?
Selfishness drives the protection of sacred cow projects, blaming,
accountability avoidance, backstabbing, political maneuvering, silo
protection, power plays, passing the buck, gossiping, and grin
faking (smiling in agreement when you have absolutely no intention
of supporting the project).
Analyzing the resulting damage with over ten thousand executives
from 1997 to 2007 produced an alarming statistic: selfish behavior
sucks 20 to 80 percent of productive time out of organizations, with
the overall average hovering around 50 percent. Rarely does a
company measure this damage to productivity, quality, and speed. And
the damage extends even further to immeasurable costs from missed
sales opportunities, quality erosion, higher legal exposure, lower
competitive advantage, increased waste, employee turnover, and poor
morale. What’s a manager to do?
Overcoming Selfishness: Aligning Passions With a Saga:
Throughout history, great leaders
constantly focused on creating passion in their people by inventing
stories of gods, kings, and heroes. The ancient Norse called it a
saga, and leaders for millennia knew the art of conceiving one. The
compelling saga leverages the leader’s power in aligning people
toward a higher cause than someone’s selfish agenda. High Altitude
Organizations use sagas today to drive fervor and zeal for achieving
a strategic result, and such sagas possess:
A dramatic theme to beat an enemy, achieve an ideal, or fulfill
A difficult goal to achieve, a challenging summit that needs to
A language that drives performance, values, and strategic focus
even in the face of risk, sacrifice, or pain
A context of how success (or failure) will be defined
A focus on strategic results, not selfish, territorial, gossipy,
A brief statement, though it spawns stories and legends which
permeate an organization’s culture
Today’s companies no longer teach sagas. Instead they create
visions, missions, and values. Great ideas but many of these turn
out to be passionless platitudes that fail to provide the background
for the struggle and pain, the triumph and sacrifice. They explain
the business but fall short in giving people something to “die”
for—to subjugate their selfishness to. The result ends up being
empty content hanging on walls. Because of this, employees abandon
their mission statements at the first sign of distress—if they
believed in them at all. The ensuing passionless vacuum gets filled
by employees with their own selfish, petty dramas.
Why aren’t compelling sagas used more often? Two reasons commonly
Industry experts earnestly promote positive, touchy-feely,
optimistic statements and shy away from the ugly, uncomfortable, and
even painful elements of the epic journey. Yet it is precisely the
epic journeys that drive passion.
One company’s compelling saga may not inspire passion in another. In
an age where copying quick-fix ideas are the rage, few companies
take the time to truly craft their own.
If we look at successful contemporary organizations over the past
century we see signs of a compelling saga in their language. Look
what happened to the following companies who crafted sagas in their
early growth stages or in new market initiatives:
Wal-Mart: Give ordinary folks the chance to buy the same things
as rich people.
Mary Kay: Provide unlimited opportunity to women.
Nike: To experience the emotion of competition, winning, and
crushing competitors. (Nike’s saga today is, “Bring
inspiration and innovation to every athlete in the world.” It
HP: To make technical contributions for the advancement and
welfare of humanity.
Komatsu: Encircle Caterpillar.
Citicorp: Become the most powerful, the most serviceable, the
most far-reaching world financial institution that has ever
Coke: Put Coke within arm’s reach.
Harley-Davison: Fulfill dreams through the experience of
Some may have labeled these missions or visions, but they had a
saga-like component which separated them from the missions of their
competitors. Passions aligning people toward high-performance
behavior drive the greatest achievements. A compelling saga drives
this strategic drama. What’s driving your company right now?
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