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  • Writer's pictureChuck Cusumano

We Are All Servants

By Chuck Cusumano and Jillian Broaddus

Servant leadership is a popular term – one that we have written about several times before. When we ask participants in training classes, or when we survey an audience during a keynote address at a company meeting, the answer is normally the same – "I am a servant. I serve." The responses, we believe, are true and authentic.

In President John F. Kennedy's inaugural address on January 20, 1961, he challenged the nation, “Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country.” It was a call to action for Americans to contribute to the betterment of their nation. It was a call to service: both to your country, but - more practically - to your neighbor.

“The best way to find yourself is to lose yourself in the service of others” - Mahatma Gandhi

We have been socializing our citizens in America to serve, to volunteer, and to give back to others and/or to those less fortunate. Many still say that they joined the "service" as a way to describe volunteering in the military. We are encouraged to list volunteer organizations on our resume. We celebrate serving others. But how does all of this servant / service mesh with our American identity of individualism, our self-care ideology, and our social media fixation of showing off oneself?

Maybe the answer is that we are all servants! Some are other-serving, and some are self-serving.

Adam Grant, bestselling author and professor at the Wharton School of Business, shows us in his book Give and Take that some people are more inclined to get what they need first, then once they have theirs, they will give to others, while some people are more inclined to give to others first and once others have what they need, then they will give to themselves. Both groups are giving, the only difference is to whom they give. Another way of looking at it is in terms of abundance or scarcity. A scarcity outlook model views the world with finite resources, such as time, talent, or even treasures. From that model, one must get what one needs first before helping anyone else, whereas an abundance outlook model views the world with infinite resources. Therefore, one thinks they can help everyone get what they need, because there will be enough to replenish themself.

“Life’s most persistent and urgent question is, ‘What are you doing for others?’” – Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

So, what is the best way to serve? Research tells us that serving others can have a positive impact on our own health and psychological well-being. Some of the effects from serving others are:

  1. Increased Happiness: Engaging in acts of kindness and serving others has been linked to increased levels of happiness. When we help others, our brain often releases “feel-good” chemicals like dopamine, which contribute to a sense of well-being.

  2. Reduced Stress: Altruistic behavior can reduce stress levels. When we focus on helping others, it can shift our attention away from our own worries and anxieties, leading to a decrease in stress and its harmful effects on our health.

  3. Enhanced Social Connections: Serving others often involves interacting with people and building relationships. These social connections can provide emotional support, reduce feelings of loneliness, and improve overall mental health.

  4. Increased Life Satisfaction: Research suggests that individuals who engage in volunteer work or other-serving activities tend to report higher levels of life satisfaction and a greater sense of purpose in their lives.

  5. Improved Physical Health: Studies have shown that people who regularly engage in acts of kindness and serve their communities tend to have better physical health. This might be due to reduced stress, improved emotional well-being, and a healthier lifestyle associated with altruistic behaviors.

  6. Boosted Self-esteem: Helping others can boost self-esteem and self-worth. Knowing that you’ve made a positive impact on someone’s life can increase your self-confidence and sense of accomplishment.

  7. Greater Resilience: Serving others can improve psychological resilience. When we engage in acts of kindness, it can help us develop coping skills and a more positive outlook on life, which can be valuable in times of adversity.

  8. Longer Life: Some research has suggested that individuals who engage in volunteer work and other-serving activities may live longer. This could be related to the overall health benefits and improved psychological well-being associated with serving others.

On the other hand, self-serving or being self-centered, has positive effects on our health, as well. Several of those benefits are:

  1. Independence: Self-centered individuals often rely on themselves for decision-making and problem-solving, which can lead to a strong sense of independence.

  2. Self-Confidence: A degree of self-centeredness can be associated with high self-esteem and self-confidence, as individuals trust their abilities to navigate life’s challenges.

  3. Goal Achievement: Self-centered people may be more focused on their personal goals and ambitions, which can drive them to achieve success in their chosen endeavors.

  4. Resourcefulness: Extremely self-reliant individuals tend to be resourceful problem-solvers. They are adept at finding solutions and taking initiative.

  5. Self-Sufficiency: Self-reliance can lead to a high degree of self-sufficiency, where individuals are capable of meeting their basic needs without depending on others.

  6. Autonomy: Extremely self-reliant people often have a strong sense of autonomy and control over their lives.

If both serving others and serving self have positive effects on our lives, then which is the better approach? Consider the negative effects on yourself if you are self-serving:

  1. Isolation: Excessive self-centeredness can lead to social isolation. People may perceive self-centered individuals as self-absorbed and may avoid or distance themselves from them.

  2. Difficulty in Relationships: Self-centeredness can strain relationships. These individuals may prioritize their needs and desires over others, leading to conflicts and emotional distance in relationships.

  3. Lack of Empathy: Self-centered individuals may struggle to empathize with others because they are primarily focused on their own concerns and experiences.

  4. Loneliness: Over time, self-centeredness can lead to feelings of loneliness and isolation because building and maintaining deep, meaningful relationships often requires a degree of selflessness and reciprocity.

“You can have everything in life you want if you will just help other people get what they want.” – Zig Ziglar

A study Conducted by Michael Dambrun and published by the National Institute of Health found that self-centeredness (being self-serving) produces fluctuating happiness. While authentic, durable happiness results from selflessness (being other-serving). Additional findings were that self-centeredness and selflessness are not simple opposites but are distinct psychological constructs. A University of Chicago study concluded that loneliness contributes to self-centeredness. Another study of college students over a 24-year period showed that students are more narcissistic and self-centered than their predecessors. The researchers say that most of this self-centeredness can be traced back to a “self-esteem movement” that emerged in the 1980s. We told our children that they were "special." Add to this the social platforms of today’s culture and it is no wonder that we have so many people whose full attention is on themselves!

Self-serving, self-centered, and selfish are terms that describe a psychological construct that prevents teams from forming correctly, work groups from functioning effectively, and organizations from reaching peak performance. All of these situations lower worker productivity, decrease engagement and hinder well-being in the workplace.

How do you spot a self-serving person before you hire them, a supervisior before you agree to work for them, or a project partner or business partner before you join forces with them? Here are a few signs to look for. (But just because someone exhibits one of these characteristics does not mean they are fully self-serving!)

  1. They talk mostly about themselves or their experiences in conversations. When someone tells them a story, they will one-up that experience. Conversations with them are one-sided.

  2. They are not good listeners. They are just being quiet and waiting to talk. They ask few questions of others, mostly because they do not care about the other person as much as they care about what they are experiencing. They do not exhibit curiosity about the other person when in a conversation.

  3. They lack empathy. They have a hard time putting themselves into any other person’s situation because they are so self-focused, they can not see anyone else’s situation.

  4. They take more than they give. They do not reciprocate others' efforts into the project or relationship.

  5. They struggle with feedback and consider it all negative criticisms. They are defensive.

  6. They believe others have wronged them before they even ask. It is because they believe people are all out for themselves.

  7. They like individual projects over group projects because they believe others hold them back.

  8. They tend to be individual producers and prefer to have their own results, not held to a team goal or result.

  9. They talk poorly of friends or how others have wronged them. Rarely do they admit wrong and - when they do - they frame it as no big deal.

  10. They are selfish.

If you already have a self-serving person on your team, here are a few tips to help keep the person from treading over the line:

  1. Set good boundaries on all outcomes and expectations.

  2. Get them to be on as many teams as possible but monitor their performance. Maybe they will develop some empathy for the other team members.

  3. Or, lastly, give them projects that they can do alone and let them be an individual producer for the organization, but tell them why you are doing this.

  4. Best practice of all, do a better job of sorting out who is and isn’t a self-serving candidate before you bring them on your team.

“Service to others is the rent you pay for your room here on Earth.” – Muhammad Ali

If you need more information on how to identify the best candidates for your team or how to manage a self-serving person that is on your team, give us a shout at – and go out and be of service to others!

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