Over the holiday weekend, I went for a long walk with a friend on a beautiful deserted beach in Virginia. It was a clear, cold day. We let our dogs off their leash, and Harley (my Cockapoo) had a grand time racing and cavorting with Spot, my friend’s big Lab/Sheppard mix. Suddenly we realized that Spot had vanished into the large salt marsh beyond the dunes. After much calling, whistling, and frantic scanning of the horizon, we spied Spot deep in the bog. It soon became apparent that he was too frightened to retreat back through the icy water that crisscrossed through the tall reeds, so I decided to wade some 50 yards into the marsh to get him. Now, slogging through dense weeds, slimy black mud, and cold water up to my thighs is not my idea of a good time. (Do snakes live in salt marshes? What about alligators?) But as I assessed the situation, something deep inside me just clicked, as I saw my friend’s look of distress and her poor dog’s dilemma. I felt a compelling need to help.
Coincidentally, today’s edition of The New York Times contains an article titled “We May Be Born with an Urge to Help” that caught my eye. It talks about the findings of a developmental psychologist who writes that helping behavior seems to be innate in humans. This natural willingness to help shows up in children as young as 12 months, even before many parents start teaching children the rules of polite social behavior. As children grow older, they establish a sense of social norms, which are learned as they develop a desire to be part of the group. Yet we humans have moral dilemmas because we are both selfish and altruistic. Maybe what kicked in for me, and enabled me to put aside my own comfort and safety to rescue Spot, was this hard-wired altruism or desire to help another.
In my coaching work with clients, I notice this tug between doing what we want that serves just us, versus cooperating and serving others. Good leaders seem to intuitively recognize this tension. Appealing to both sides of our innate nature, where team members see benefits both personally and for the group, can often channel this energy in productive ways. Each of us must strike a balance every day between our selfish desires and what is good for the company (or family, or society, or team, or other person) as a whole. Often, acting out of our inborn willingness to help can be intrinsically rewarding. The grateful look on Spot’s furry face as I drew near to him in the swamp was payment enough for me, even before I saw the happy reunion my friend had with her beloved pet.
I hope that as you celebrate the holidays this month, you will encourage that part of you that loves to help and serve others, both at work and at home. What better way to share in the joy of the season?
Sharon Keys Seal