Organizations and Organic Self-Interest


His e-mails are incredibly long—and arrive in bunches of two or three a day. Of course I enjoy reading them, but sometimes it’s just too much. He covers everything from the Rothschild banking conspiracy to the social reform of the late Buckminster Fuller, and peppers them with links to YouTube and the TED Talks.

The writer in question is an old friend I met in the UK years ago. He’s a really interesting guy who just happens to be a total misfit in the real world. He can’t seem to hold down a normal job, which is just as well; if he did he’d be a lot less entertaining. His other friends must think so too. One older couple, a retired doctor and his wife temporarily donated a cottage to him. Another professional couple put him up periodically in their guesthouse. A young investor friend of his just paid his way to Europe for a few weeks.

From what I can tell, his friends don’t gain anything from supporting him, other than listening to his never-ending stream-of-consciousness flow of ideas. So there’s no enlightened self-interest on their part. Nor can I ferret out much enlightened self interest on his part either. He never stays long enough with any one friend to have a secure home base, and he’s always living a bit hand to mouth. Like some struggling artist or a poet, he’s always on the verge of being destitute.

But if there’s no enlightened self-interest, there is some kind of organic symbiosis that supports him. Somehow, his social circle always expands to accommodate his peculiar needs at just the right moment in time. Still, I have to wonder how much of this he engineers vs. how much things simply work out for him serendipitously. What I’ve concluded after watching him all these years is this: he doesn’t have a plan. He doesn’t consciously engineer relationships. He just kind of “grows” toward the next new thing.

Coincidentally, I’ve also noticed this in business—and I think everybody does this to a greater or lesser extent. For example, a while back I heard a couple of older career guys talking about getting their kids through college. Each of them started off bragging up their own kid’s achievements, then moved on to comparing notes, and finally probing mutual opportunities for their kids, discussing how each might be able to hire the other’s kids for summer jobs. It wasn’t really calculated nepotism—it was more like an organic need finding an organic opportunity.

My English conspiracy-theory friend would beg to differ, I think. He’d view this as a low-level version of some elite compact, in which everyone at a certain level has an unspoken understanding of the game, and gets free access to privilege. He’d see it all as social engineering.

In my more naïve moments, I’d like to believe that most of us don’t have the time or the inclination to actually work at pressing our social advantage to the max. Or even to organically grow their advantages. In my naïve moments, I’d like to believe that everyone follows the rules and doesn’t try to “tilt” the pinball machine.

But I guess on reflection, I have to admit that maybe my English friend is speaking from experience. Perhaps he’s engineering his relationships more than I suspect, which is why he has such a low tolerance for others doing the same thing, particularly those he identifies as “elites”.

So the lines between blatant self-interest, enlightened self-interest and what I would call organic opportunism are pretty grey and fuzzy. And why would anyone bother to figure it out? Good question. I suppose it’s because a person’s motive actually matters to the rest of us.

We’ve all seen this in business and politics many times over—especially when there is ample opportunity with little supervision. Here in southwestern New Brunswick there’s a shortage of skilled workers—as well as a shortage of high paying jobs. So there’s a great temptation, if one is a boss, to hand out jobs to reasonably qualified friends and relatives rather that doing an intensive search for the right candidate.

There’s also the temptation, and I’ve seen this one in action especially among those whose egos border on the god-like, to unilaterally take control of organizations by constricting the flow communications and then quietly setting one’s agenda in motion. Usually there are plenty of organic opportunities available. These could include the availability of a large temporary pool of money or the presence of a lucrative contract and a narrow window of time in which to spend the funds. Alternatively, budget shortfalls present other organic opportunities, such as getting rid of staff members that one subconsciously doesn’t like.

And it’s not just money. Power and control are just as organically compelling as a cash advantage. I’ve seen power-fixated individuals worm their way into organizations in very strange ways. Over-supervision can become an addiction with these people—probing computer files and e-mail, monitoring phone calls, even sifting through the trash to gain some sort of advantage on the job. It’s pretty sad, really.

Yet there can be a lot of abuse on the job that necessitates supervision. Drinking on the job, stealing company supplies, hijacking cheques, misuse of company vehicles and equipment are everyday occurrences. A lot of this too, is not intentional. It’s just part of an organic impulse to take advantage of a lax situation.

The modern view is best defined as “situational ethics”. In a world where everything is relative, we are able to tolerate a certain level of organic opportunism. Above a certain threshold the rules kick in.

I’d have to say that such relativism is a positive survival mechanism, which allows societies to function smoothly. We’re probably not operating that much differently from beehives, ant colonies, wolf packs or gorilla tribes.

Where it gets to be a problem is when an individual’s natural organic opportunism begins to impinge on the organic success of the group. Hopefully, the presence of conscience, or Jung’s idea of a punishing superego, will keep most of us revisiting our motivations and keep our worst impulses in check.

Better yet, it’s cooler to just concentrate on all the great things that need to get done.


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