Here’s to generosity

Most organizations manage performance by encouraging competition between employees. But how do we reward the generous acts that help the team and the whole organization?

During the past few weeks, I’ve had three conversations about colleagues who went out of their way to help others. We talked about our admiration and thanks for those often unrecognized people who demonstrated what I would describe as generosity.

Everyone occasionally needs help — to work through a technical problem, to deal with a difficult client situation, to introduce us to people who could boost our careers or just to boost our spirits when we’re discouraged. Some people are more likely than others to be generous with their time, their expertise and their contacts.

Many people are motivated to act ethically out of self-interest (philosophers call this "enlightened egotism"). I will not cheat, because that might hurt my reputation. I will help develop the people working for me, because having a better team will make me more successful. I will do you a favour, because you are then more likely to do me a favour in return. People who don’t appreciate this equation tend not to be very successful in today’s business environment.

But generosity goes beyond self-interest. It means championing a younger colleague even though he or she might eventually supplant you in a client’s or a boss’s regard. It means taking the time to find the right technical solution for a colleague even though it takes time away from your own revenue-generating activities. We can all think of people we have worked with who have this generosity — and many who do not. (We can also think of people whose generosity has been exploited by selfish colleagues.)

Research on highly effective teams shows that they are made up of members who recognize that their success is based on each member of the team being equally successful. But organizations often manage performance by encouraging competition among employees (e.g., only the top 5% get promoted, or the bottom 10% get fired) and by using individual metrics to determine ratings and compensation.

Using objective measurement is a good thing — it focuses on results, not who you know or the biased impressions people have of you. And competition can be a great motivator. But how do we reward the generous acts that help the team and the whole organization?

Consider a common example. Two individuals in senior positions (partners, executives or project leaders) are asked to give up a talented team member because he or she is needed for another priority, and/or because his or her career would benefit from broadening experience. Individual A calls in every favour, exaggerates the importance of the team member to the project, makes elaborate promises to the employee, and in the end is able to keep him or her on the team. Individual B agrees to the transfer and then has to spend more time and effort with a new team member. In the end, A’s metrics are better than those of B, yet B has worked harder to get that result. In most organizations, A gets the monetary (and other) rewards. And younger employees, who look at A and B as role models, are getting the message about what behaviour is tied to success.

Cynics might think, "Well, of course. Only a fool would let such a key team member go. If you don’t look out for yourself, who will? Besides, B doesn’t really exist, and if he does, he won’t last long in his job."

The generous souls among you are thinking, "Good for B — he did the right thing regardless of consequences. It’s not all about rewards."

The problem is not just that A gets the monetary rewards. A also gets the promotions to leadership. What does that say about who our business leaders are?

Organizations need to think seriously about how to measure, reward and champion generosity. And we all have an obligation to call out both the generous and selfish behaviours around us.

About the Author

Karen Wensley


Karen Wensley, MBA, is a lecturer in professional ethics at the University of Waterloo and a retired partner of EY.

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