Can You Be Selfless & Lead A Culture Of Engagement? No.

Dawn Burke Audacious Ideas, Culture, Dawn Burke, Employee Engagement, employee experience, Employee Relations, Employment Branding and Culture, Good HR, HR, Uncategorized

I’m not a great Catholic; decent I’d say.  Decent enough to go to Ash Wednesday service after several months’ absence.

Better late than never.  

I was inspired by the sermon, which gave the congregation some perspective on Lent, including how to personally reflect over this time.  The sermon also touched on themes of forgiveness and selflessness. The sermon got me thinking: is it possible to be selfless in a corporate environment? More importantly can you be selfless as an HR pro?  And the kicker-question: must you be truly selfless to successfully lead efforts of creating corporate cultures of engagement?

Here is the blogger’s requisite “post definition”:

Selfless (adjective):  concerned more with the needs and wishes of others than with one’s own. Synonyms: unselfish, altruistic, self-sacrificing, compassionate, kind, charitable, benevolent.. (Oxford Pocket Dictionary)

Corporate environments of all sizes have not proven to me (yet) that one can survive or thrive as an individual selflessly (as defined above). The C-Suite, usually riddled with pressures outside of their control, forget to model selflessness themselves. I can list 20 more deterrents to selfless leadership, but It really stops and starts there.  

So, what if you are the pro trying to create an employee engagement strategy or more significantly lead a cultural shift in your organization?  A shift within your company to actively pursue a more employee-driven environment. A strategy that includes all the cornerstones, typical in cultures of engagement including building trust, allowing for and modeling vulnerability, allowing people to be their authentic selves, being transparent, creating many channels for feedback,  focusing on strengths, rewarding and recognizing great work, and giving most employees more decision making autonomy.  

My experience tells me those leading that movement should inherently posses the synonyms listed above in their DNA. But damn, that’s a whole basket-full of pressure for anyone.

This is really hard. So much so, I don’t think being truly selfless, even if you are a believer in engagement cultures, is possible.

But, who is to say complete selflessness is even prudent or smart business. In fairness, corporate environments also need conflict to thrive, for without conflict it’s hard to have important breakthroughs necessary for innovation and success. Also, if you happen to be a leader, your job is to make tough calls which by default could selfishly benefit you (aka that big bonus you need. #justsayin). And that’s not all bad. But, if you want to engage, I still think behaving in altruistic, selfless, and kind ways is the way to go.

Now back to the Ash Wednesday part. My solve for this conundrum is inspired from the sermon I heard.  If you are leading engagement efforts, put it all in perspective.

  • We are humans.  Lovable, complex, brilliant and flawed; the whole sha-bang. Changing a culture is hard.  Giving up control, a big tenant of engagement cultures is hard. It’s OK if you aren’t 100% selfless.


  • As employees, we need to give our selves a break.  Those of us even contemplating creating corporate inclusivity are fighting for good. Don’t worry if you aren’t perfect. Stop.


  • If you are leading the efforts to create an inclusive culture of engagement, you must identify why you even care. What is your purpose in leading these efforts?  Is it for altruistic reasons, is it because your turnover is awful, or is it because you want recognition from your boss?  You don’t have to be selfless in these endeavors, but I do think you need to be crystal clear on your why?  If your own reasons are too much in conflicts with some selflessness traits, you may need to re-assess you plan.


  • Recognize and embrace your limitations and the companies limitations in regards to engagement.  Know your limitations, create a reasonable plan, and if you stray from the plan, that’s cool.  It’s even forgivable.


  • “Listen to understand” others needs.  If you do that, you probably are much farther ahead than most in a) being selfless and b) creating the foundation of an engagement culture.


  • Be an ambassador of the project, even when it is difficult. Be an ambassador of the project even if you fail to model some of the tenants of engagement.


  • Apologize when necessary.  If you do something that goes against some of the engagement practices you are trying to incorporate, it’s cool. It happens.  

In a nutshell, no one can be completely selfless at work, nor do they have to be.  And just because engagement practices intuitively incorporate selfless practices, it doesn’t mean you or your strategy will be perfect.  The intersection of business and humanity is never easy, but if your intentions are good, you have a fighting chance of creating good things.

BONUS:  For a pretty comprehensive toolkit on engagement, check this out from SHRM.