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When Serving, Check Your Self Interests at the Door

At some level, we’ve all tried to do something positive for someone else.  Perhaps it was doing a good deed or volunteering.  As you advance in your career, you may be asked to serve on a leadership team, committee or board or in a leadership capacity for an organization other than your own.  As time goes on, you may find yourself serving for many different organizations.

No matter what your age or career stage, it’s important to be honest with yourself about why you are serving?  Do you know?  Is it because it makes you look good, it makes your business look good, it makes you feel good, all of the above or is it for some other reason?  Are you taking up space or are you really contributing?

Although I believe that most of us intend to serve as a selfless act, I am surprised as to how hard that really is to do – especially when we have something to gain or something to lose – pride included.

As facilitators, we are tasked with creating a safe environment in which positive conflict can occur, creative ideas and solutions can be presented and commitment (not necessarily consensus) can be reached. At times, we are invited into the inner sanctum precisely because there is a volatile, highly emotional topic and someone in charge understands that views range drastically among the volunteer leaders.  In these situations, it is necessary to remind participants that they must put their personal opinions and interests aside and act in a manner that is best for the organization as a whole and members at large and/or excuse themselves by disclosing any conflicts of interests (having a conflict of interest in a business environment is not bad – it just is what it is).

Thinking back to situations with a variety of groups, I trust that the people around the table had good intentions; they were smart, highly respected, good people (a lot like you and me).  However, I have observed some dynamics that were painful to watch as they discussed, debated and had to work towards a decision.  At first, my instinct was to say “how bad,” then it turned to “how sad” and finally I got around to asking “how often do I do the same darn thing?” How often are we guilty of putting our self interests first when we’re serving as volunteer leaders?

Through my experience, I’ve identified a few “self serving” characters that seem to pop up in every meeting.

(1)    “The Great Debater” is outspoken, loud, has a strong physical presence and speaks to others in a manner that implies, “You must feel and think the same way as I do.  And, if you don’t, by the time I finish talking, you will.”

(2)    “The Pork Barreler” sees an opportunity to turn one conversation into another, ramrods their self interests into the discussion/decision, efficiently rallies support and negotiates, “I’ll approve that if I get what I want most.”

(3)    “The Planner” has a strong need of control and really must see and thoroughly understand a beginning, middle and end and thinks, “If I’m not in control, I don’t trust that the process is going to be an efficient, effective use of my time.”

(4)    “The Echo” believes that “everyone is doing an ok job expressing themselves, but until I say it, it doesn’t mean anything.”  This person also tends to complain about the time that the process is taking up but fails to realize that the group would have 50% more time if everything that has already been said didn’t have to be restated.

(5)    “The Cowardly Lion” sees bad behaviors, has the respect of the group and rather than step up and lead the group of peer leaders, sits back and does nothing.

I’ve shared only a few because I’m more interested in hearing from you which characters you’ve identified (and, it was getting too painful to admit that in different situations at different times, I may have been guilty of them all)!

So, as for me, I’m going to work harder on checking my self interests at the door – it would just be a lot easier that way!

><(("> Melissa Laughon

Melissa is a ><(("> Team Member at Catch Your Limit, a management consulting firm with offices in Tallahassee, Florida and Richmond, Virginia. To learn more, visit

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  1. Tom Laughon says

    How about the Devil’s Advocate! and Mr. (Ms., Miss, Mrs.) Know It All.

  2. sylvia gamble says

    Wow! Another really great article! I am now wondering to which group I belong — I fear I am all of these, at one time or another!!!

  3. Melissa Laughon says

    The more I started to think about it, I had the same reaction! Thanks for the comment. Do you write?

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