When I began exploring the topic of enlightened self-interest in the realm of coaching and change (spurred by my re-read of Tame you Work Flow) I reached out to several people on the topic. I got a lot of responses which I am incorporating in essays for the blog. Joe Schofield responded in his typical very thorough style. I have convinced him to allow me to use his response as a guest essay. Just so you know, Joe Schofield and I go back . . . I can no longer remember how long. Most recently a few years ago we served on the Board of Directors of the International Function Point Users Group (IFPUG). While we did not always see eye-to-eye, we always listened and learned from each other. I am still listening and learning. Joe’s website is https://www.joejr.com/


Enlightened Self-Interest and Rational Selfishness; A Guest Essay by Joe Schofield

From Wikipedia:

Enlightened self-interest is a philosophy in ethics which states that persons who act to further the interests of others (or the interests of the group or groups to which they belong), ultimately serve their own self-interest.[1][2][3]

It has often been simply expressed by the belief that an individual, group, or even a commercial entity will “do well by doing good”.[4][5][6][7]

My ‘essay’ contribution:

The question:  Can leaders and coaches use enlightened self-interest (ESI) to channel behavior without addressing culture or structure?

The question above can only be answered with a clear understanding of enlightened self-interest, its constituent flavors, and whether they stand simple tests of reason.  Wikipedia’s taxonomy and definition is used as the reference.  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Enlightened_self-interest#Related_and_contrasting_concepts

Each of the five subtypes of ESI will be considered using two premises:

First premise:  every act of human behavior is intended to benefit the actor.  That benefit or those benefits may be realized immediately or delayed, or never realized due to other acts or events.  The consequences of those acts may even be perceived as of some detriment to the actor in the short-term but may contribute to the actor’s sense of ‘duty,’ ‘fulfillment,’ ‘commitment,’ or another intrinsic value.  Philanthropic efforts are obvious examples.  The act may merely be expected to contribute to the reputation and or credibility of the actor.  Even sacrifice, the surrendering of a life-saving organ, or exchanging one’s life for another’s are examples of probable short-term harm with some delayed benefit to the actor or the actor’s legacy.

Second premise:  As depicted above, actor benefit does not imply evil intent, greed, or depriving others.  Acts of hatred and revenge are examples of evil intent, but the accrual of benefit to an actor is not necessarily synonymous with evil intent.

Examining the five flavors of ESI (from Wikipedia)

  1. Unenlightened self-interest (USI) suggests that the larger population suffers a loss when others act in their apparent self-interest.

An example of apparent truth:  I buy more toilet paper than I need AND others cannot buy that product; still others may go without.

An example of apparent mistruth: (1) Maintaining my health by running, I breathe more air BUT this does not deprive anyone else of breathing; in reality, plants enjoy the carbon dioxide.  (2)  My hobby of collecting bear scat creates no loss to others since no one else values bear scat.  (One could argue the world population suffers loss because the removal of scat from the forest disrupts the ecological balance.  This argument seems rather weak but no doubt we could find someone who benefits from making this ludicrous case!)

Conclusion:  USI fails under the scrutiny of mistruth because USI is often but not always true.  While one can argue that air is a free resource, USI doesn’t limit itself to any scarcity of resources.  Nor is anyone harmed in the ‘re-location’ of bear scat from the woods to my ‘collection.’

  1. Golden Rule: (GR) act towards others as you would like others to act unto you.

An example of apparent truth: (Preventive) I stop at red lights because I want others to stop at red lights and not kill each other.  (Prescriptive) Or, I’m respectful towards others because I want to be respected.

An example of apparent mistruth:  A fellow gym member rushes to encourage me and help with my bar while I’m struggling with a bench press.  BUT, I expect to struggle with the last few reps and the last thing I need (or want) is someone to give me a verbal ‘push’ or to ever touch my bar.  If I need help, I’ll ask for it while the bar is crushing my chest.  The opposite can result as well if I were to wait too long to help someone because I wouldn’t want them to help me.

Conclusion:  GR fails under the scrutiny of mistruth because GR is often but not always true.  In both instances, the actor did the opposite of what the other person wanted.  Yet the intent was to benefit the impacted party in both cases, first to ‘rescue’ them from the weight, and the second to provide them the confidence to complete the rep.  A potentially deeper understanding of the GR is ‘do unto others as they would want you to do’ which may be entirely different than what you would want them to do to you.  ‘Yes,’ I believe this deeper understanding is consistent with the teaching on the Mount of Olives.

  1. Deferred Gratification: (DG) longer-term benefits outweigh the short-term costs.

An example of apparent truth:  When I forego dessert, I am less likely to develop certain health problems increasing my life span and quality of life.

An example of apparent mistruth: (1) Despite practicing healthy habits for three decades, I am shot and killed at a health food store during an unforeseen robbery.  (2) Despite stashing the limit into my 401K each year, either market crashes, inflation, or premature death preclude the reaping of any expected reward.

Conclusion:  DG fails under the scrutiny of mistruth because DG is usually intended but is not always realized.  In neither case does the actor experience any gratification.

  1. Altruism: (A) act on behalf of others with no benefit or future expectation of benefit.

An example of apparent truth:  Mother Teresa is a well-known example of someone who works for the good of others, tirelessly, endlessly, selflessly.

An example of apparent mistruth:  Everyone who pretends to act selflessly fakes altruism.  Sadly, many religious figures have been ‘revealed’ over the years to be something other than how they represented themselves.

Conclusion:  Altruism fails under the scrutiny of mistruth.  I know of no human who acts or has acted even once, solely on the behalf of others without expectation of future benefit.  Even Mother Teresa dedicated her life to the ‘poverty of the cross’ as she said ‘the Lord wants me.’  Her life was a life of obedience with an expectation of pleasing the Lord she served with an eternal blessing.

  1. Rational selfishness: (RS) behave to enhance one’s own well-being, or self-interest more so than others.

An example of apparent truth: (1) Every act a person does.  (2) I give to the poor after my basic needs are met.

An example of apparent mistruth:  ???

ConclusionRS best explains all human behavior, and may include DG.  Even when the benefit is deferred, often hope, self-image, or another emotion is elevated.  Even when the benefit is monetarily in favor of others and significant, and otherwise inexplicable, RS is visibly or less visibly in effect.

The Conclusion of the Matter:  Returning to the original question “Can leaders and coaches use enlightened self-interest (ESI) to channel behavior without addressing culture or structure?

The above question is a more sophisticated version of the old WIIFM, or what’s in it for me?  Altering behavior, if even for a short-term pilot, by appealing to stakeholders’ self-interest seems plausible certainly without addressing structure.  King Darius comes to mind (see Daniel 6).  Culture may be more difficult to answer since culture is an amalgamation of the way an organization behaves.  As a result, the above question seems to ask the question “can we alter behavior without addressing behavior?”  The behavior aspect of this question is clearly rhetorical, if one is to make any sense of it at all.