Be Selfish to Get Ahead

From the time we’re old enough to understand what our parents are saying to us, we’re told that being selfish is a bad thing – that you should share your toys, consider what others want, let other kids play too, and all that. For the playground, it’s good advice – no parent wants their kid to be labeled the spoiled brat! But sometimes we internalize these early lessons so much that we apply them when we shouldn’t be later in life.

The idea of selflessness – of putting others needs before your own – sounds great. But what it ignores is that you are just as critical to the overall system of your organization as anyone else! If you’re not getting your needs met, that means that you’re not setting yourself up for success, and that the organization is not reaping the benefits of having you in that position.

In other words, being successful at your job means being a little bit selfish! You have to fight for the things you need, for your goals, and for your priorities. There’s a reason your organization hired for your position in the first place – they need someone to do the job. If you’re constantly looking out for the needs of others over your own needs, you can’t deliver the results that you could be with a dash of selfishness thrown in.

Being selfish gets you wins

There will never be a time when I don’t argue for the idea of looking for a win-win with your co-workers. Compromise is always a good idea. Setting people up for success, lifting others up, supporting the people you work with – all good ideas.

However, sometimes you’re going to work with people who just don’t see the value in handing you a win. They prefer to hand out losses because they feel that’s the only way they can secure wins for themselves – by pushing other people down. It’s their way or the highway.

When you work with people like that, be selfish! If you accept the first part of this article – that you are a critical component in the overall organization – that means that their needs are not any more important than yours. If their goal is to hand you a loss by rejecting any sort of compromise or trying to work with you productively, then your only recourse is to be selfish. Otherwise, you’re just letting them walk all over you and it’s your priorities that will suffer as a result.

Pick your battles

Of course, there’s a caveat to this – you have to pick your battles. You should never fight for the sake of fighting because not all battles at work are worth winning. You have to ask yourself how much you really care about the outcome:

  • What are you going to gain from it?
  • Is it critical to meeting your goals?
  • Is there a different way you can achieve the same objective?
  • In the grand scheme of things,  how important is it really?

If winning a battle doesn’t advance your goals than walking away is the best win you can get, and is a selfish action. Your goal should never be to beat your difficult co-worker at any cost. But when it’s important, stand up for yourself.

Being selfish teaches others how to treat you

When you always put the needs of others before your own, you teach people that they can walk all over you and get away with it. You’ll end up giving and giving and giving… and you’ll pay the price for it. The people you work with will know that you are the guy (or gal) who will always help them – that person who will always say “yes” – no matter what the cost to you. Your work will suffer, your stress level will suffer, and your career will suffer.

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On the flip side, when you stand up for yourself, for what you want and what you need, you teach the people around you that you are not someone to be messed with. You teach them that you’re worth being paid a higher salary, that your time is valuable, and that your priorities matter. It’s not about being mean or overtly antagonistic to others – that misses the point! It’s simply about being clear on what types of behavior you will accept around you and what types you will not.

Being selfish will help build the career you want

I work with many people who are in less than ideal, or even toxic, working environments. Part of the problem is almost always that their self confidence is shot. Maybe they came into their organization energetic and full of vigor, but over the course of being in that environment, they’ve lost their sense of self worth. They’ve learned to roll over and give those in charge anything they want as a means of survival.

When you’re in those types of environments, it’s almost like being brainwashed into a cult. After a while, you start to think that it is acceptable behavior and that every organization is like that. You try to mitigate the stressful environment in other ways – maybe you work out more, or spend more time with your family. However, you will never build the career you want if you continue to sacrifice your own sanity to stay in that environment.

The best thing you can do for yourself is be selfish; get the heck out of Dodge! Find an organization that will treat you the way you deserve, that will meet your needs, and lift you up. If you don’t love yourself enough to take care of yourself, you can never expect others to treat you the way you want to be treated.

It can be scary, but there are so many opportunities out there. Do you want to spend your life dreading going into work every day, or would you like to get up and look forward to it? When you approach the problem selfishly, the choice becomes clear.

Karlyn Borysenko is the Owner and Principal of Zen Workplace , a consultancy dedicated to fixing the “people problems” to help individuals achieve professional happiness and success, and organizations to drive productivity and results. She’s an MBA, is a dissertation away from completing her PhD in Organizational Psychology, and is a certified DiSC trainer. You can connect with Karlyn on Twitter at @KarlynMB.

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