A New Attitude: How Thinking About Others Will Advance Your Career

As a Partner with an executive search firm, I have a familial sense of responsibility to the company I am helping grow and differentiate in our fast-paced, competitive industry. At a SMB (small and medium business), the need for teamwork is an inescapable fact-”we work closely with each other to succeed. At the heart of teamwork is an attitude of dedication to and self-sacrifice for the organization as a whole. Conversely, in a company culture that emphasizes individual self-interest, the workplace is not a hospitable environment for the altruistic.

It is likely the focus on self is a result of the economic uncertainty we see today. The Gallup Economic Confidence Index measures how good or bad Americans believe the current economy is and future economy will be. The scores range from -100 to 100 and the Index has not broken into positive numbers since January 2008. In fact, it has been in negative double-digits for most of 2011. Uncertainty leads to fear, and fear causes people to take an “every man for himself” approach.

Ironically, a self-focused mindset actually works to impede the very thing that provides employees all opportunities for advancement, the success of the business. I discuss in a recent blog post that it can begin as early as the interview process. For example, when you ask a candidate if he or she has any questions, Candidate A asks what opportunities for advancement he may have at the company. The essence of this question is: “What can this company do for me?” Candidate B instead shares an idea he has on marketing the company’s leading product based on research he conducted prior to the interview. The essence of his question is, “What can I do for the company?” Who do you think will get the job?

Now, Candidate A isn’t wrong, he is simply trying to learn about his opportunities with the company and assess the job. But he could approach it a better way. If he focuses instead on his contribution, he can create his own opportunities for advancement.

The expression “the whole is better than the sum of its parts” certainly isn’t new, however, taking that idea and incorporating it into even the smallest parts of our workday will have impact both personally and for the organization as a “whole.”

Appreciate diversity: Diversity of thought, ideas, backgrounds, work experience all matter in our global economy. A myopic view here will shut off all kinds of personal and professional opportunities and ultimately restrict growth and advancement. Incorporating diversity in the workplace means understanding, valuing, and using the differences in every person for the benefit of the organization. Make a point to reach out to other teams and colleagues, other departments and peers to brainstorm new ways of approaching the business.

Share knowledge: The old way of doing things is keeping information to yourself, thinking knowledge is power. The absence of dialogue and exchange of ideas breeds mistrust and miscommunication that can quickly undermine a team. Today’s key to business success is innovation and that rarely happens in a silo. Professionals and, collectively, teams that communicate openly and seek to understand all aspects of your product or service will be highly competitive. Err on the side of over communication and take responsibility for being heard and understood.

From the top: Management practices can be unintended supporters of self-focused employee attitudes. Consider personal performance-based bonuses. Though designed to incentivize employees to work toward meeting business goals, they have a more sinister effect on the much-needed interactions among employees by encouraging competition and generally sending a message to employees that their purpose is to succeed individually. Instead, offer collective bonuses based on the team’s productivity as a way to emphasize a collaborative work environment through common goals.

Despite statistics, the news is not all bad. In general, there is evidence that people are self-sacrificing, even in the face of economic hardship. The World Giving Index, which gathers data annually on charitable work and donations throughout the world, ranked the U.S. as the world’s most giving nation. Ranked fifth in 2010, the U.S. “has shown a steady increase in each of the three measures over the past year” including donating money to a charity, volunteering time to an organization, and helping a stranger who needed assistance.

If we can give to others, we can certainly apply a self-sacrificing mindset to the workplace. The incentives and the example set by managers just need to set the stage for employees in general to shift their focus from their own success to that of the company as a whole. Ultimately everyone will benefit.

Clinton Browning is a partner with Aquinas Search Partners, www.aquinassearchpartners.com, a leading executive search firm that blends search knowledge with business learning. Browning can be reached at [email protected].