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Altruism Kills!

  • Kyiv, Ukraine
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Altruism means selflessly giving others more than you take back, while egoism means selfishly taking more than you return. Modern theories of management and social life tell us that altruism means prosperity for the society and success to the project. In my book Code Ahead I claim the opposite: altruism hurts the society and kills projects. I truly believe that any group activity eventually collapses if it encourages altruistic behavior among its members, be it a project, a company, or a family. This is why one of the core principles of Zerocracy is #NoAltruism.

Love Liza (2002) by Todd Louiso
Love Liza (2002) by Todd Louiso

Have you ever heard about the Equity Theory? J. Stacy Adams, the inventor of it, was sure that “employees seek to maintain equity between the inputs that they bring to a job and the outcomes that they receive from it against the perceived inputs and outcomes of others.” In other words, we feel motivated to contribute only when we know that we take back an equal amount of benefits.

You may say that transactional management is in the past and modern teams are all about transformational laissez-faire leadership, where we don’t do primitive piecework trade, but rather share common goals, kiss inspire each other, and contribute enthusiastically. You may say that modern leadership is not about giving and taking, but about sharing and helping.

I don’t buy this.

By the way, neither do Anders Skogstad et al. in their article The Destructiveness of Laissez-Faire Leadership Behavior where they call it a counterproductive leadership style associated with a stressful environment characterized by high levels of role stress and interpersonal conflicts; nor do Abdul Qayyum Chaudhry et al. in their study Impact of Transactional and Laissez Faire Leadership Style on Motivation, where they confirm that workers are more motivated in those banks where transaction leadership style is used. Neither does Gary Yukl in his critical article An Evaluation of the Conceptual Weaknesses in Transformational and Charismatic Leadership Theories.

No matter what we call it, a transactional management or an inspirational leadership, team work is always about an exchange of value: 1) team members give their time and skills, and 2) the team pays them back, either with cash, or appreciation, or a good office atmosphere.

There are two possible extreme attitudes: 1) the altruistic one, when programmers contribute and expect absolutely nothing back, and 2) an egoistic one, when programmers don’t contribute at all, but expect their salaries to grow every year (also known as software outsourcing).

Ever heard about the Fail Fast vs Fail Safe dichotomy? It is well known that any process survives better if it is designed to Fail Fast, revealing internal problems as soon as possible, instead of being Fail Safe and concealing defects in an attempt to survive. Even though Fail Fast feels more dangerous, it leads to higher quality, no matter where we apply it, whether in management or software design.

If the team doesn’t reward its members correctly, they (according to the Equity Theory) won’t contribute properly. If the team doesn’t reward correctly, it’s a defect in the system. Just like a bug in source code, this defect in the motivational system can either be 1) concealed (Fail Safe) or 2) revealed (Fail Fast).

Encouraging team members to contribute altruistically means concealing the defect. Programmers will keep working, slowly losing their motivation over a long period of time. The quality of the project will degrade and nobody will understand why it’s happening. The team will fall apart, losing its best players one by one. They will burn out without even understanding why. Eventually, the project will die for no obvious reason, while the key failure factor was the inability to discover the defect due to the very altruism of the programmers.

On the other hand, if every programmer acts egoistically and demands the project to pay them more than they deserve, the business will feel the problem very soon—simply by running out of money. Egoistic programmers reveal the defect in the motivational system and make it necessary for the business to fix it somehow. Either by introducing measurable KPIs, or by making requirements more strict and demanding, or maybe by checking the quality of work more attentively. Something will be done immediately, in order to save the business from bankruptcy. And the measures which will be taken will help the project to survive and become stronger.

Thus, by letting the team pay us less than we deserve, we kill the team. On the other hand, by letting the team pay us more than we deserve, we help the team understand its issues faster and, because of that, become stronger and survive.

If you are a manager I have a suggestion for you. Fire those who are ready to work overtime without any compensation. They are the trouble makers. Instead, work with those who are not afraid of putting their own interests on the table and demanding what’s theirs. They will make you stronger, … if you manage to configure your project to deal with their demands correctly. If you don’t, you will lose the money, the project, and your reputation. But you will learn something.

If you are a programmer, I guess you already understand what to do. Demand as much as you can and deliver as little as possible. This is how you teach your manager to manage projects and help the business understand and fix problems faster.

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