“You’re always asking, ‘What’s in it for me.’” That’s what one of my friends told me when I was 17 years old. I was stunned. It was painful to hear, but to this day I am thankful for those frank and wise words. It was a pivotal moment for me, transforming the way I viewed myself and my relationships with others. Myopically focusing on my own self-interest was not the best way to live? To my 17-year-old self this was a major revelation.
This memory returned to me as I read, Remarkable!, a leadership parable written by Dr. Randy Ross and David Salyers. The book tells the story of Dusty Harts, Vice President of a customer care service provider called Query and his mentor/classic car mechanic, Fred Walters, who happens to be an ex-Fortune 500 executive. Fred explains to Dusty that a fundamental shift in perspective is necessary to heal the sick culture that has infected Dusty’s company. What’s needed is a shift from a focus on extracting value to a focus on adding value. People who are always asking, “What’s in it for me” are looking for every opportunity to extract value—from relationships, situations, and organizations. This opportunistic leach-like attitude reduces human relationships and organizations to simply resources to be plundered instead of entities to engage and collaborate with.
According to Remarkable!, this self-centered behavior stems from the false and damaging beliefs of a scarcity mentality. Those with a scarcity mentality believe that:
- Life is a zero sum game. Your gain is exactly proportional to someone else’s loss. There’s no such thing as a win-win situation.
- Because there is not enough for everyone, manipulation and exploitation of others is justified and necessary.
- Each other employee is a competitor and a threat instead of a potential team member.
In addition to this soul-sucking scarcity mentality, Value Extractors believe that their happiness is directly correlated to how much money they make. Thus, money guides their entire decision making process and is their ultimate measure of success. They believe this despite study after study that empirically proves that after a certain threshold (about $80,000), the correlation between happiness and earnings breaks down. What Value Extractors fail to recognize is that each additional dollar will bring less happiness than the one previous to it. This is what economists call diminishing marginal utility, and it explains why so many “rich” people are so unhappy. Making more money isn’t making them happy the way it used to and their purpose in life has been reduced to one of accumulation and consumption.
Value Contributors, on the other hand, have a mentality of abundance and know that using their unique skills and talents to solve big problems and make a positive difference is rewarding in a way that making money isn’t. Instead of gravitating towards or performing the work where they can extract the most value, Value Contributors gravitate towards and do the work that allows them to add the most value. When they are contributing the most, they are the happiest. This does not mean that they work for free or are being exploited by the owners of the company. Rather, Value Contributors are paid according to the (high) value they contribute and not their political prowess or ability to better their own situation (at the expense of the group).
The authors of Remarkable! suggest that leaders can create cultures that move individuals from focusing on value extraction to value contribution. It starts at the top. If the leadership team can’t operate collaboratively and generously, and maintain an abundance mentality, the organization can’t either. It is important for leadership to create an environment where people can move, shift, and gravitate towards a place where they can add the most value. In addition to this, employees need the freedom to respond creatively to challenges as they see fit. This high level of autonomy—and the responsibility that accompanies it—is the means by which employees begin to think like owners and feel good and fulfilled because of the work they are doing.
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