As I worked with a client, I repeatedly noticed his desire to avoid being selfish. He seemed to assume that to be empathic towards others he needed to find a space where he was focused on serving his team.
He wanted to be a good person and didn’t want anything to tarnish this impression in such a situation.
But life isn’t like this. It is more as Anne Lamott describes it in Bird by Bird: “Life is not like formula fiction. The villain has a heart, and the hero has great flaws.”
Someone’s behavior will be interpreted through the lens another person has or prefers to use. If they fear power, they will see control. If they appreciate care, they will feel guidance. If they fear greed, they will presume that there is a hidden motive. And if they are not sure, they will doubt and focus on what they fear.
As people contribute to an organization, they act in a system. This means that they will constantly serve different objectives and priorities. And even if they only focused on one of them, others would see other options, and add new interpretations.
This is especially true if one’s perception of selfishness is based on a transactional view of giving and receiving.
We worked on finding what it was he was enabling through his help, and how the team’s ability to acknowledge that help could give him the sense of contributing and doing what was asked for.