The Right Doses Of Self-Interest And Altruism For Your Career

There’s a difference between being self-serving and self-preserving.

The Right Doses Of Self-Interest And Altruism For Your Career
[Photo: Fesus Robert Levente/iStock]

There are, roughly speaking, two types of people out there: those who mainly look out for themselves (sometimes at all costs) and those who are eager to help any and everyone at the first opportunity. Of course, most of us fall somewhere on a spectrum between those two tendencies, but that means keeping them in balance isn’t always easy. That’s especially true at work, where office politics can cause us to tilt toward self-preservation in certain contexts and altruism in others. Here are a few ways to keep those impulses in balance.


The Right Way To Be Self-Serving

Many years ago I had a client who struggled with a “likability” problem. It was no wonder no one liked her, though. She was an attorney with her own practice but offered pretty shoddy services, treating employees badly, and refusing to pay vendors properly–all in an effort to pad the bottom line.

Her business eventually went under, but it was evident long before then that her only real motivation for having a business or working with clients in the first place was self-serving. She didn’t care about her clients and or her employees. She didn’t actually care about anyone else at all.

And that’s the point. The difference between being a self-serving person and a self-preserving one is the ability to care. When you’re looking out for yourself, you may have a specific way of doing things, a solid work ethic, and a refusal to let yourself be taken advantage of. You have ambitious goals you want to achieve, but you don’t want to achieve them at others’ expense–you don’t knock others down so you can climb over them.

This is worth spelling out because the difference isn’t always immediately apparent. Self-preserving people can come across as selfish, especially because they’re generally more willing to sacrifice other things in order to achieve their goals. And that perception can have real ramifications for your career, even if you genuinely do care about others and don’t want to purchase your success at their expense.

The trick is to make sure you communicate that your goals and ambitions will benefit the group, team, clients, or other people–and not just to say they they do, but to prove it. Find partnerships, build coalitions, and delegate to get the work done. When the objectives you’re so vehemently pursuing clearly benefit others and not just you, you’ll naturally win allies. People rally around self-preserving leaders as long as they know there’s a purpose behind the sacrifice.

Too Much Of A Good Thing

One the other hand, if you constantly volunteer to help people, work on side projects, fundraise, or get involved with others’ problems, it might be because you haven’t found your purpose.


We all want to feel valued, but sometimes when we don’t feel appreciated we go looking for it in other ways, not even realizing that we’re doing it. Take some time to think about what’s important to you, then make sure you’re giving back in ways that support that, as opposed to just lending a hand constantly and indiscriminately–which can be a recipe for burnout.

What resonates with you? Do you feel drawn to programs involving hunger, human rights, children, or animal welfare? It doesn’t have to be ambitious, but finding an organization or cause and committing to it helps you channel your altruistic energies. Selflessness is admirable, but it deserves some focus, too. And it’s fine if those pursuits help you out indirectly as well. Sitting on a board or working on a committee can also give you great exposure and expand your networking among likeminded people who care about the same things–which can only help your career.

Once you’ve found something to focus on, you’ll be better able to set boundaries around every other request that comes in. You don’t have to say yes to everything. In fact, being able to say no to anything that isn’t part of your charitable platform becomes much easier and allows you to manage your time better.

Being altruistic and wanting to help others doesn’t make you a people-pleaser or a pushover–it isn’t about putting others first and forcing your own interests and needs to take a backseat. It means you have a strong desire to give back in a meaningful way, not just any old way that arises. Once you channel that drive, you can have a bigger impact, and find more personal satisfaction out of it.

It’s Easier Than You Think

For people on either end of the spectrum, it’s important to find balance. Some of the most successful leaders were self-preserving first and philanthropic second. Think of somebody like Bill Gates, who built his fortune earlier in his career then shifted toward giving back.

You don’t need to wait to become a billionaire to follow this approach, though. By focusing on one area at a time, with small changes, you can set a series of bars for yourself for each new level of success: “When I get to X level professionally, I’ll be able to take up Y cause.” Then once you reach it, set a new goal–one that’s more ambitious but equally meaningful to you.


Setting boundaries and benchmarks like this can help integrate aspects of your life and career that sometimes feel isolated–the part that keeps you competitive and drives your professional success and the part that offers you something personally fulfilling. This way, people respond to you and respect your choices–because they’ll understand why you’re doing what you’re doing, and whom it’s meant to lift up.

Christina Holloway is an executive coach, writer, and speaker with more than 15 years’ experience in strategic consulting and management training. Follow her on Twitter at @originalCMH.