Altruism In The Workplace

Enough has been written about how Enteprise 2.0 can possibly help with expertise location. A few days back, Mike Gotta highlighted some of the potential flaws in this argument by pointing out problems that we need to solve – with or without technology. Towards the end of the post he says:

However, I typically find “expertise” over-sold when framed in techno-centric manners or when it is based on altruistic participation and contributions that may not exist in many workplace environments.

As I was reading this, I was wondering if building altruistic work cultures was something HR/OB strategists need to be thinking about. Maybe, but then it is important to remember the tension between self-interest and altruism and how both of these are deeply influenced by the culture of the organization. Self-interest may not be bad after all within organizations as long as we have the mechanisms to relate those actions into a peer recognition model.

Warning: The example that follows refers to “mailing lists” – E2.0 purists please avoid.

Lets assume we have mailing list that a community uses within the organization. Someone posts a question and 10 people from around the world reply within a few hours and the person who asked the question thanks the people who answered the question. Let’s dissect this a bit – Why did the 10 people take time out to help this person who asked the question – Is it altruism? Is it self-interest? Is it a mix of both? What is the impact of the person who asked the question thanking the people who answered the question? This happens in the organization I work for almost every single time – almost every question gets answered on mailing lists – and at least in this case, I believe people contribute not because they are altruistic but because they want to let the community know that they have a point of view and use this as a way of positioning themselves in the community as an expert – and this peer recognition matters in this culture – the fact that peers look up to you for suggestions matters – This may not be the case in every culture. However, the point I was getting to was that people acting out of self-interest in a community is ok as long as there are mechanisms to ensure that this act is socially situated [ happens in a mailing list or a workspace of some sort ] , is visible and fits into a larger peer recognition model.


4 thoughts on “Altruism In The Workplace

  1. Dinesh My feeling for the above example of a community mailing list (assuming its a vibrant community) is 50% of the people are altruistic in nature (The ones who have been there done that who dont have anything to loose) the rest could be the set of people who are half baked but who think they now it all or people who wants to be challenged or the new ones who wants to get the SME label

  2. Dinesh

    I would like your view points on the impact of Group size on Altruistic Behaviours.

    Do you perceive a change in the behavior of the aforementioned mailing list if the number of members increased to say 50

    • Satya – I’m not sure – depends so much on the norms that evolve in the community – But from what I’m seeing, the behavior is not altruistic.

      • Does interdependence for a common goal have an affect on altruistic behavior.

        lets say children working together to clean the house, when the parents say “Lets go for movies, after cleaning the house”

        My specific question was to understand the reasons for altruistic behaviour. Can we define the parameters or would Enterprises be best helped by sociologists who understand the nature of collaboration in the company

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