Is There Room for Altruism in Business?

Guest Contributor: Professional Englishman

The subject of Altruism came up in conversation during the Rugby World Cup in England a few weeks ago. What kicked that off, you may ask? Well, it was the vision of big men “putting their bodies on the line” for the benefit of their team mates, while receiving a bit of a shoeing from the opposition for their pains. Was that an altruistic act, or did that individual gain something from the experience, in terms of enhanced reputation, the trust of his team, certain selection for the next test? Richie McCaw probably leads the honours list in terms of bruise count over the years, and in the view of his team coach “He never played a bad test for the ABs”.

So, what is altruism, and does it/can it convert to the business arena?

Reading “The Selfish Gene” a few years ago, I noted that author Richard Dawkins gave barely half a page to the phenomenon of altruism, the direct opposite of egoism and the self-serving instinct which are the drivers of his theory of the survival of the fittest. Received wisdom says that altruism is the practice of putting the welfare of others before oneself. This selflessness is at a cost to oneself and benefits another but without any expectation of reciprocity or compensation for that action. In the natural world, the animal that gives a warning cry that benefits others of its kind but reveals its own location to a predator is arguably acting in an altruistic manner. The cynic might contend that that kind of leadership wins kudos, and perhaps reproduction partners… assuming the caller survives the experience, of course!

Religions tend to focus on altruistic behaviour as examples of complete selflessness for the common good; a state of mind to be striven for. Separating true selflessness from motive is the key test: even a deeply held moral stance may result in self-esteem and a warm inner glow. We are pack animals, stronger as a unit than the sum of our individual parts. Contributing to the team is important. The regard of one’s peers is a powerful driver in a business partnership, for example (it was in mine). A strong collective vision and a clear goal can achieve incredible results.

If profit is the chief motivation in business, then is there any room for altruistic actions? Where is the gain to the business in that? Does a corporation accept lower profits rather than compromise global warming without making sure that the Press knows about it? Do they apply Health & Safety standards beyond those required by law? How many insist on their employees taking their full holiday allowance? (hands up here – personal time management is important, as is the opinion of the employees’ partners!)

Charitable giving, and being seen to give, is perhaps a means of showing compassion and thereby attracting custom? Do public companies ever give anonymous donations and, if so, how would the shareholders view that? That said, I know of one Scottish distillery company that donates 10% of its profits to charity each year, but it is a private company. We read of wealthy entrepreneurs, Bill and Melinda Gates and the “Sage of Omaha” among many, who donate huge sums to good causes.

So, can altruism be a part of business? That, as they say, is in the eye of the beholder.