How A Sense Of Community Could Transform Selfish Workers

Greed is one of the most toxic things that can exist in a work environment, especially when researchers say that it breeds even more greed. Here’s what you can do to end the vicious cycle.

How A Sense Of Community Could Transform Selfish Workers
[Image: Flickr user JamesCohen]

An office filled with selfish coworkers only begets more selfish coworkers, an upsetting discovery that should force you to rethink the way you run your office.


Sure, paying kindness forward might be nice–yes, those 1,000 Starbucks customers in Connecticut did in fact buy the drink for the next person in line–but as Harvard Business School assistant professor Michael I. Norton’s research suggests, what we really love to pay forward is greed.

Why We Pay Greed Forward

To unearth people’s levels of Scrooginess, Norton and his colleagues put hundreds of people into situations where they received greed, generosity, or fairness. This came in the form of an envelope of $6 for each participant to give to the next–either the person giving it to you left you no money, gave you all the money, or gave you half. How would they respond to each?

Norton’s research found that if someone split $6 evenly with the next person, then that person would in turn split the money with the next.

People who had received the full $6, however, did not reciprocate with equal generosity. Most were willing to pay forward only $3. The takeaway: regardless of whether we have been treated fairly or generously, we tend to respond by behaving merely equitably.

Even worse, the people who received greed mostly paid that greed forward, giving the next person just a little over $1, on average.


Bad behavior, they concluded, leaves more of an impression on people than good.

Norton’s research suggests that we pay the greed forward as a way of dealing with negative emotions we get when someone’s a jerk to us. “If I can’t get you back for being a jerk to me, all I can do is be a jerk to someone else.”

How this affects your employees

This is alarming because more and more research is showing that jerkiness isn’t just bad for people’s emotional well-being, but it has been found to wreck otherwise high-functioning organizations.

Take, for instance, that of a teaching hospital. Something we’ve talked about before, a teach-by-shaming culture still exists within medical education–after all, how can a resident become a full-fledged doctor unless she’s had her mentors eviscerate her in public?

But the problem with that ego-worshipping senior-centrism is that medicine isn’t practiced by an all-knowing dictator barking orders to orderlies; rather, it happens within a interconnected ecosystem–administrative staff, nurses, residents, and docs all rely on one another.


The problem with jerkiness, then, is that being mean to people makes them less likely to share ideas with you: when anger and intimidation flow down, information stops flowing up.

So when are people actually nicer?

When they experience “groupiness.” Norton references the work of Stanford sociologist Robber Willer, who has studied Freecycle, a site where people can give away or request anything from office supplies to cars, the only hitch being that there’s no compensation and no reciprocity.

Willer and his colleagues surveyed 805 users of the site. The results: people who felt closer to the site, who thought of themselves as a member of that community, were more likely to contribute, more likely to help one another. In other words, the more they identified with the group, the more likely they were to pay the kindness forward.

The takeaway for office denizens: getting rid of a shame culture may require building a shared culture.

Hat tip: Scientific American

About the author

Drake Baer was a contributing writer at Fast Company, where he covered work culture. He's the co-author of Everything Connects, a book about how intrapersonal, interpersonal, and organizational psychology shape innovation.