Altruism in business

Why letting go of that “me-focus” can drive your career and business forward

Are we really there for each other? In several interviews I’ve conducted with business leaders on my Strategic Momentum podcast, kindness, humility, and altruism are recurring motifs in their advice for building momentum in business.

In their own ways, the interviewees stressed the importance of doing good and paying it forward, not just as a mission-driven organization, but on an individual basis as an employee, colleague, or supervisor.

But we all know the importance of altruism. So why are these business leaders presenting it as a “secret” to success?

Unfortunately, altruism in business really isn’t as common as we’d like it to be.

The problem: A Focus on “Me” vs. “We”

No matter how mission and purpose-driven companies are, the business of business will always be cutthroat. To survive, you have to be strategic in who you work with and where you go. And that can result in behavior that is completely counter to the notion of support and mutuality.

Take networking, for example. John Newtson, co-creator of the business development conference the Financial Marketing Summit, pointed out in his interview that networking is one of the most self-centered activities for businesspeople today. “People show up. They’re super me-focused. And they are just like, I have to get this deal done. I have to find this deal.’ And so, every conversation they have, they say, ‘Hey, how are you?’, and they start pitching you. And nobody likes that, and it comes off poorly…You can’t just show up out of the blue with a need and demand that people fulfill it for you.”

This self-interest has led to altruism falling down the ranks in priority.

Additionally, as Millennials continue to make up a higher proportion of the workforce, we see a greater shift towards the inward focus. Millennials by nature prioritize independence and individual achievement: “Millennials want to own a project, run with it, and make a real, measurable difference,” writes the Muse. And they “desperately want to get feedback (OK, also praise), along the way for motivation—and so [they] can integrate that feedback into the final product.”

Why are we, as an ecosystem, accepting selfishness instead of confronting it?

The Challenge: Fear, Misconceptions and Rigid Corporate Culture.

Competition and pressure breed fear and insecurity. When a corporate culture isn’t ‘we-centric’ and the behaviors and actions of those around you are about protecting oneself, it can be easy to understand why people can become more easily inward focused. This lookout-for-oneself mentality can impact business leaders of all ages and ranks. And the emotions stemming from this mindset trigger gut responses and actions like bullying, over-criticizing, and micromanaging. On top of this, there’s the misconception that empowering others takes power away from the individual.

Beth Freedman, Managing Director of Gyro: UK, shared in her interview how employees often feel less valued when others receive attention. “It really sets you up for failure when you get to a point where that praise has to be directed to someone else and you’re struggling to feel valued, and realize that your success is as much about this person who reports to you.”

The need for constant validation to alleviate fear and insecurity has become so commonplace that we accept the absence of altruism in its wake. With underlying negative emotions driving this “me” focus, it takes a deep penetration of the psyche to break through.

The Solution: Shift in Mindset, and Emphasis on Execution.

The lesson people must understand is that kindness and altruism lead to greater upward mobility and gratification than selfishness does. I captured powerful advice from numerous interviewees resounding this idea:

“The more we can make each other successful, the more you know it’s going to come back and drive success for ourselves as well.” – John Keeling, SVP of Business Development, Motley Fool

“In your professional life, it’s treating the people around you in that generous way…You never know who can be a mentor to you. Who can who can potentially make that make that connection.” – Dan Yu, Founder, FastBook Advisors

“The lessons are super simple. How do you make somebody feel respected?…It’s promoting the best talent of each person in your organization. And it’s overtly recognizing it.” – Dr. Phil Zimbardo, Psychologist, professor emeritus at Stanford University  (He adds that by promoting the talents of the people in your organization, they work harder.)

“If you really take responsibility for other people’s success, like the things that come out of that are so huge…That always ends up with new friendships, new relationships, and new opportunities because every person you meet is really a doorway to like this whole sea of opportunities that you wouldn’t access otherwise.” – John Newtson, Co-Founder, Financial Marketing Summit

“If you’re smart and you’ve got enough humility to have to admit, especially at a senior level that you don’t know what you don’t know, and you work hard, you can probably learn almost anything.” – Beth Freedman, Managing Director, Gyro: UK

Additionally, Dr. Richard Shuster, host of The Daily Helping podcast, explained in his interview how we should always be giving, as biologically we get as much reward out of giving as we do receiving. He revealed how the reward center of your brain lights up and you receive oxytocin, the love hormone, when you perform a good deed. When this hormone is released in your blood, it lessens levels of stress and anxiety and elevates your mood while promoting trusting feelings towards the recipient. Simply put, altruism makes us feel good and more connected with the person we’re helping. We help ourselves by helping others. We create a mutual benefit.

Set against a workforce that is hyper-focused on pursuing their “purpose,” altruism is a key ingredient to reaching that goal.  As Dr. Shuster dictated, “When you get at what you’re passionate about and find something that helps others, it really opens a degree of fulfillment that most people haven’t experienced.”

He summed up the phenomena with a simple maxim – the happiest people are those who help others.

As a workforce, it’s important to look at ourselves and question if what we’re doing is truly contributing to those around us. Start with a simple resolution to do one good deed each day, and you may find your mood and productivity improve, your ability to learn expedite, and your career and business to propel forward.


  • Connie Steele

    Author | Marketing and Strategy Leader | Host of Strategic Momentum Podcast | Executive Consultant

    Connie Steele is a marketing and strategy leader with more than 20 years of experience working in start-ups, Fortune 500 companies, B2C and B2B businesses. Connie started her business strategy and marketing consultancy Flywheel Associates as well as her internationally downloaded podcast, the Strategic Momentum Podcast, to help business leaders identify how to work through challenges commonly impacting organizations today. Having worked as a corporate executive and outside consultant, strategist, and project implementation lead, she’s seen the challenges from all sides that have inhibited people and the companies they work for from achieving their goals. Her cross-industry, cross-functional experience has provided her a unique perspective on what it takes to realize change in organizations.