advice/perspective on jobs, work and management

Is greed good?

I’m a very successful Wall Street investor, and I’ve always told my shareholders that “Greed is good.” I think it’s a pretty cool thing to say…but it’s also true, right?  Sincerely, G. Gekko        

No, Mr. Gekko.

Greed is not good. Or at least not in the way you seem to imply.

I suspect what you’re trying to do is say something profound about capitalism, and, more specifically, about self-interest and its role in the free market.

That idea does indeed have its place – so much so that many consider it economic dogma. As the father of economic theory Adam Smith wrote in The Wealth of Nations (1776):

It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest.

Not to get too in the weeds here, but it is only when consumers and producers act in their own best self-interest that the power of those supply and demand curves from Economics 101 kicks in, resulting in any and all efficiencies the marketplace has to offer. That much is true.

But not all acts of self-interest are necessarily ‘good’. And in Give and Take (2013), organizational psychologist Adam Grant offers insight as to why.

Grant’s text distinguishes between the various types of self-interested behaviors in which a person might engage, the first of which is the selfish act. This is of course an action which benefits the individual, and them alone. Any possible consequences for others—be they good or bad—are not considered. So, for instance, a selfish act would be to acquire and then break up a successful airline after deceiving its union just so you can raid its pension fund. You (and your investors) undoubtedly profit, but it comes at the expense of the workers who lose both their jobs and retirement savings.

A second type of behavior is the selfless act, according to Grant. This is action that benefits everyone else, except you. It may even come at your own expense. So for example, a selfless act would be to re-purchase that airline from the soulless corporate raider who initiated the takeover, and then hire back those same workers, making the company whole again. It would be especially selfless if, in order to execute this plan, this person were to violate insider trading laws, thus risking prison time.

There is, however, a third type of self-interested behavior, according to Mr. Grant. It too benefits others, just like a selfless act – but is also to your own advantage, just like a selfish act. Kind of an ‘everybody wins’ scenario.

Grant refers to these behaviors as otherish.

So, just as a totally hypothetical example: If this airline, once its hostile takeover has been averted, were to promise to hire their ‘angel investor’ upon their release from jail, that would make this individual’s action ‘otherish’. The company benefits (in that it continues to exit), but so does the individual (at least in the long-term). It is in everybody’s best interests, in other words (except the selfish Wall Street investor). But it could still be considered otherish if it simply means an unwitting pawn in a cruel plot to takeover and destroy an otherwise successful business is able to sleep better at night.[1]

Anyway, I trust you see what I’m getting at.

Self-interest—aka, greed—is not always good. Some acts of self-interest are ‘otherish’ – that is, they benefit you and everyone around you.

Others are just plain selfish, and to no one’s advantage but your own.


[1]  [SPOILER ALERT] I suppose it’s possible to even hatch a scheme to both buy back the company AND bankrupt the Wall Street investor who executed the takeover. And perhaps later, this person could even secretly wear a wire so when you…I mean, ‘the investor’ berates him in Central Park for screwing up his illegal plan, that might be used as evidence—in exchange for a lighter sentence, of course—to put the investor behind bars. Or something like that.

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