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The Pinnacle of Partnership: Unselfishness
Business Journal

The Pinnacle of Partnership: Unselfishness

by Rodd Wagner and Gale Muller

Ernest Shackleton, Frank Wild, and their two fellow explorers were starving. Three weeks earlier, they reached closer to the South Pole than men had ever traveled before. They turned back in a desperate race against starvation and the scheduled departure of a ship waiting for them on the edge of the Antarctic continent.

True altruism is not sustainable, according to evolutionary theories, because it doesn't get passed on as well as more selfish tactics.

They were working their way between food depots set up for their return journey. Several times, they ran out of food before finding the next depot. At one point, the team had only enough biscuits to ration one in the morning to each man.

Wild was ill and extremely weak, unable to eat the dried meat and lard mixture that was the staple of the expedition. He devoured his single biscuit. As they set out to find the next cache of food, Shackleton took his biscuit and put it in Wild's pocket.

"What's that, Boss?" asked Wild.

"Your need is greater than mine," said the leader.

Wild was so awe-struck that he underlined every word of the story when he recounted it in his journal: "S[hackleton] privately forced upon me his one breakfast biscuit, and would have given me another tonight had I allowed him. I do not suppose that anyone else in the world can thoroughly realize how much generosity and sympathy was shown by this; I do, and by God I shall never forget. Thousands of pounds would not have bought that one biscuit."

With the nourishment of the biscuit, Wild was able to go on, and through the fortunate discovery of each of the food stores along the way, to regain his strength. He vowed never to return to Antarctica.Power of 2

His resolve did not last long. "On the return journey, while sharing a tent with Shackleton, he asked me if I would join him on another attempt at the Pole," wrote Wild. "One of my diary entries reads like this: 'This trip has completely cured me of any desire for further polar exploration. Nothing will ever tempt me to face that awful glacier and terrible plateau again.' However, so great was my regard for the 'Boss' that without any hesitation I replied, 'Yes!' We then went on to discuss details."

Five years later, Shackleton led the voyage of the Endurance, a ship that was crushed in ice, forcing the men on a heroic journey to an uninhabited island and an improbable rescue of every crew member. The journey made Shackleton famous, and it led to generations studying his leadership abilities.

Because of the trust built during the earlier expedition, Wild was Shackleton's second in command on the Endurance; he was the one Shackleton entrusted with the care of most of the men as the leader and five others went for help in a small boat. "Wild never forgot the private act of kindness" with the biscuit, wrote author Caroline Alexander, "and his adamantine loyalty to Shackleton would prove to be one of the expedition's major assets."

Darwin vs. the biscuit

The sacrifices some partners make for each other don't make sense. A partnership is based on the assumption that by working together, both people will achieve heights neither could have accomplished alone. You and your collaborator are supposed to be better off than you would be without the working relationship. While looking out for the other person creates trust, endangering your life for him seems to miss the point. What good is a partnership to a person who gets himself killed for someone else?

Since Charles Darwin published On the Origin of the Species in 1859, the scientific yardstick by which all behaviors have been judged is their effect on the survival of a creature or its family. Habits, instincts, or biases that reduce the risk of death, increase the odds of reproducing, or serve to protect a person's children are behaviors that are more likely to continue and spread through succeeding generations. From an evolutionary perspective, looking out too much for the other guy, unless it helps you or your family, is counterproductive. True altruism is not sustainable, according to these theories, because it doesn't get passed on as well as more selfish tactics.

This doesn't mean it never makes sense to collaborate. Darwin himself postulated that teamwork was a superior biological trait. "When two tribes of primeval man, living in the same country, came into competition, if (other circumstances being equal) the one tribe included a great number of courageous, sympathetic and faithful members, who were always ready to warn each other of danger, to aid and defend each other, this tribe would succeed better and conquer the other," he wrote. "The advantage which disciplined soldiers have over undisciplined hordes follows chiefly from the confidence which each man feels in his comrades. . . . Selfish and contentious people will not cohere, and without coherence nothing can be effected. A tribe rich in the above qualities would spread and be victorious over other tribes."

Why do soldiers sometimes sacrifice their lives for their unrelated comrades? Why do the selfish gene's greatest defenders revolt at its Hobbesian cruelty?

Using Darwin's rationale, scientists are not impressed by most partnerships. They usually find some way to explain that what appears to be unselfishness on the surface pays off for the one who did the good deed. "Instrumental reciprocity," they call it -- a means to a self-serving end: If I can keep my partner happy, he'll do what I need him to do for me. It's nothing more than a deal, a mutually beneficial arrangement.

Some believe human nature works against every behavior that cannot ultimately be traced to a genetically selfish reason. "Be warned," wrote Richard Dawkins in his book The Selfish Gene, "that if you wish, as I do, to build a society in which individuals cooperate generously and unselfishly towards a common good, you can expect little help from biological nature."

Instrumental reciprocity is common and can be quite constructive. Much of this book describes how the right partnerships, properly managed, create the optimal strategy for your success. All partnerships begin as instrumental agreements. In the early stages, they could even be called mutually selfish. For many collaborations, this coming together so that both partners go away richer is enough to carry the partnership all the way to the goal.

But then there's that biscuit.

Why would Shackleton endanger himself to feed his partner? Why would Wild sign on for another expedition on which he nearly died? Why do soldiers sometimes sacrifice their lives for their unrelated comrades? Why do the selfish gene's greatest defenders revolt at its Hobbesian cruelty? "My own feeling," wrote Dawkins, "is that a human society based simply on the gene's law of universal ruthless selfishness would be a very nasty society in which to live." It is difficult to write off selfless acts as simply the irrational tactics of people who don't understand how the game should be played.

"Like a brother or a sister"

Three statements about unselfishness from Gallup's research proved to be the ultimate measures of the strength of a partnership:

  • We take as much satisfaction at seeing the other succeed as we do from our own success.
  • My partner will risk a lot for me, and I will do the same for him or her.
  • My partner is like a brother or a sister to me.

Good working relationships average at least 3.3 on these statements on a 1-to-5 scale. Those in excellent partnerships strongly agree with all three statements. As extreme as the final statement is, the question of whether you have formed a fraternal bond with your counterpart discriminates between successful and poor alliances better than any of the other statements Gallup tested. It raises fascinating questions about how humans blur the genetic boundaries for those they have come to know well and regard highly in a major endeavor.

None of the traditional economic models, evolutionary extrapolations, or game strategies explains why humans' highest ideals are fundamentally unselfish -- the Golden Rule, the Good Samaritan, and the admonition that "Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends."

They don't explain why Benjamin Franklin took pleasure in lending money with a pay-it-forward condition that ensured he would never see the cash again. "I do not pretend to give such a sum; I only lend it to you," he wrote in the letter that accompanied the money. "When you meet with another honest man in similar distress, you must pay me by lending this sum to him; enjoining him to discharge the debt by a like operation, when he shall be able, and shall meet with another opportunity. I hope it may thus go through many hands, before it meets with a knave that will stop its progress."

There are hints in various studies that something deeper, something more meaningful, is going on in the minds of great collaborators. Some studies show that the act of cooperating itself, apart from the tangible benefits it brings, is intrinsically rewarding. The brain's reactions "extend beyond players' processing of outcomes, such as monetary gain, usually associated with mutual cooperation in human societies, and reflect emotional responses based on social and moral judgments."

Feelings of moral obligation come naturally to people. We have an incredible capacity and reverence for unselfishness.

There are intriguing clues about why humans enjoy making others happy, such as how various hot spots in the brain coordinate to impose moral values on ordinary social events. A part of the brain that tracks the actions of others may be partly responsible for a reflex remarkably similar to the Golden Rule. "Perhaps altruism did not grow out of a warm-glow feeling of doing good for others, but out of the simple recognition that that thing over there is a person that has intentions and goals. And therefore, I might want to treat them like I might want them to treat me," said study author Scott Huettel, an associate professor of psychology at Duke University Medical Center.

Our highest ideals

If we valued most those strategies that best fit the selfish gene, our highest ideal would be Tit for Tat, not the Good Samaritan. Yet we aim for something higher. "Self-sacrifice does not follow the rules of evolutionary biology," wrote collaborators Ernst Fehr and Suzann-Viola Renninger. "If the immediate family does not profit and if [there is no] future advantage, then selflessness gains nothing. Worse, it is costly in terms of resources, health, or money. By this logic, there really should not be any Good Samaritans. Yet they clearly exist."

Feelings of moral obligation come naturally to people. For a species allegedly controlled by selfish genes, we have an incredible capacity and reverence for unselfishness. Many people can't resist finding religious overtones in our noblest motivations. "In an age of enlightenment and secularization, scientists such as Charles Darwin shocked contemporaries when they questioned the special status of human beings and attempted to classify them on a continuum with all other species. Humans were stripped of all that was godlike," wrote Fehr and Renninger. "Today biology is restoring to them something of that former exalted position. Our species is apparently the only one with a genetic makeup that promotes selflessness and true altruistic behavior."

While most working relationships start as calculated alliances, a remarkably large proportion of good partnerships advance to a higher plane. This level goes by different names. Sometimes it's called "mutuality." Academicians occasionally use the clumsy phrase "self-other merging." In the vernacular, it's sometimes called "kinship." Liv Arnesen used the Norwegian word søstersjel, a "sister soul." This bond occurs when each partner ceases looking at the arrangement strictly in terms of what it does for him and begins genuinely concerning himself with the happiness of his counterpart.

Unselfishness changes everything about collaboration. When you value your partner's rewards as much as you do your own, concerns over fairness either melt away or go in the opposite direction. "What's in it for me?" becomes "What is my counterpart getting out of this?" "Am I being paid enough?" becomes "Am I being paid too much compared with my partner?" Waiting for the next perfect message from a counterpart becomes a concern with finding the most considerate way to communicate with him or her. "Is my partner doing enough?" becomes "Am I doing enough?" If a person values his comrade getting a reward as much as he does getting one himself, the optimal solution is always collaborative.

Science does not now and may never have all the answers as to why many partnerships, despite the compelling reasons to the contrary, reach the level of true unselfishness. But something about us deeply appreciates that they do.

The Eight Elements of a Powerful Partnership

Great partnerships don't just happen. Whether your joint mission is to build a successful company, coach a team, improve the government, do something spectacular for a charity, or any other worthy goal, all successful partnerships share the same crucial ingredients. When all these elements combine, partnerships become not just effective in accomplishing the mission, but also personally rewarding, sometimes intensely so.

Complementary Strengths: Everyone has weaknesses and blind spots that create obstacles to reaching a goal. One of the most powerful reasons for teaming up is working with someone who is strong where you are weak, and vice versa. Individuals are not well-rounded, but pairs can be.

A Common Mission: When a partnership fails, the root cause is often that the two people were pursuing separate agendas. When partners want the same thing badly enough, they will make the personal sacrifices necessary to see it through.

Fairness: Humans have an instinctive need for fairness. Because the need for fairness runs deep, it is an essential quality of a strong partnership.

Trust: Working with someone means taking risks. You are not likely to contribute your best work unless you trust that your partner will do his or her best. Without trust, it's easier to work alone.

Acceptance: We see the world through our own set of lenses. Whenever two disparate personalities come together, there is bound to be a certain friction from their differences. This can be a recipe for conflict unless both learn to accept the idiosyncrasies of the other.

Forgiveness: People are imperfect. They make mistakes. They sometimes do the wrong thing. Without forgiveness, the natural revenge motives that stem from friend-or-foe instincts will overpower all the reasons to continue a partnership, and it will dissolve.

Communicating: In the early stages of a partnership, communicating helps to prevent misunderstandings; later in the relationship, a continuous flow of information makes the work more efficient by keeping the two people synchronized.

Unselfishness: In the best working relationships, the natural concern for your own welfare transforms into gratification in seeing your comrade succeed. Those who have reached this level say such collaborations become among the most fulfilling aspects of their lives.


Rodd Wagner and Gale Muller recently completed five years of research identifying and analyzing the crucial dimensions of a successful partnership. Their book, Power of 2: How to Make the Most of Your Partnerships at Work and in Life, is the product of that research.

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