“Who belonged to no one, who belonged to everyone.
Who had nothing, who wanted everything.”

Lana Del Rey


Business has always struggled to navigate self-interest versus collective interest. They create these sweeping uplifting visions and now even discuss a grander purpose with the intent to create collective interest in a common objective. Yet at the same time they design a long menu of incentives, bonuses, pay raises and in general every tool available to encourage every individual, every self, to do what is right for themselves. This conflict is a tug of war between self and the collective ultimately makes an organization less productive. I would be remiss if I didn’t point out that this conflict, which is incredibly important to every individual because this is how they earn their living, bleeds into society kitchen table by kitchen table.

But then there is this an added feature. And that would be group level selfishness. Humans aren’t stupid. Employees clearly understand what it takes to get ahead and to get more money and they understand they more than likely need other people to get what they individually want. Therefore, small groups form to not only fight within the system, but often to fend off the other groups from getting what they believe is a zero-sum pot of gold. It’s obvious this group level selfishness makes it hard for groups to get along. Like minded groups tend to amplify one key self-interest feature and that would be the different ideas of the appropriate terms of cooperation about what people should and should not expect from one another. Every individual has a point of view on this. Within a business, groups tend to coalesce around the common belief of their view on this. Obviously, what this means is that business has several different groups with number of different definitions of what they expect when they are asked to collaborate and cooperate with each other often of which are not in alignment.

Which leads me to shared ambition.

Look. I am all for communities, informal networks, distributed decision making and a variety of other ideas with regard to alternative thinking to command-and-control, but I think a business is a microcosm of society – a social construct grounded in some social contracts. Social constructs are inherently, and naturally, territorial therefore it would seem like the only way to share in a desired outcome is to tap into ambitions (which is inevitably a type of social contract). Based on that I think we need to spend more time on the social contracts aspect, as in “shared ambitions.”

Shared is important. Shared is not about efficiency, it is actually a “benefit multiplier.” An individual is additive and collective effort is a multiplier. I don’t need a case study to prove that, its common sense logic. Think about it in these terms: “if you say ‘I know I can generate these results, but I cannot generate these (something else) withouthout them.” that is tapping into potential through collective effort and collective interests. It is a combination of ‘me to you’ (what you get from me) and ‘we to you’ (how others expand individual effort). But this sharing demands a bit of a mindset agreement (not just in ambitions but in coexisting). What I mean by that is part of the uneasy social contract society has is its dealings with ‘helping others.’ Most people are perfectly happy to give money to their churches and other local institutions that serve other people. but when the government uses ‘their money’ (taxes) they think it goes not to hardworking people who just need a helping hand, but to welfare queens. Within this uneasy social contract, it means help goes to ‘them,’ not ‘us.’ This is group level selfishness and is fairly common – consciously or subconsciously. The tragedy of commons is a tragedy of selfishness, a failure of individuals to put us ahead of me which actually inhibits shared anything let alone ambitions. It gets a little trickier. The weird thing is that while moral thinking enables cooperation within groups it can simultaneously undermine cooperation between groups. This happens because each group has their own ‘codes’ and ‘moral ideas’ which remain slightly misaligned from either the collective interests or other groups. The outcome is the same however you view it – inefficiency and less-than-optimal effectiveness. In business terms, not maximized productivity. We need something that enables groups with conflicting moralities/codes to work together and thrive and a mindset that can resolve disagreements that create obstacles to progress. This is where shared ambition steps in. Complex social structures are about ‘us versus them,’ our interest versus theirs, our values versus theirs, disparate feelings and beliefs that make it difficult to cooperate and coordinate. I am not going to suggest every group thinks the same way, some will be more collective interest driven and some will be more individualistic driven, but if there are shared ambitions it creates a social contract which shifts the social construct. The automatic construct settings of each group, and individual, gets shifted just a bit to accommodate the shared ambitions. To be clear. What I am suggesting is that even group level self-interest has some vague outlines, rather than hard and fast boundaries, within which cooperation and effective collaboration can occur.

Which leads me back to self interest.

De Tocqueville said in 1845: “Desires still remain extremely enlarged while the means of satisfying them are diminished day by day. On every side we trace the ravages of an inordinate and unsuccessful ambition kindled in hearts which is which it consumes in secret and in vain.” He also said after taking a long hard look at America: “among democratic nations ambition is ardent and continual, but it’s aim is not habitually lofty and life is generally spent in eagerly coveting small objects that are within reach.” He was speaking of goals, but you can see the underlying seeds of self-interest and consumption within the thought. And then we should remember Faustus and his demon, Mephistopheles, wherein the insatiable thirst for individual knowledge leads him to make a pact with the devil –  a message about human ambition and stretching the limits. Everyone, every individual, has ambition in some shape and size. But the reality is any one ambition has limits and constraints which can only be expanded upon by interacting with others. Yeah. When we share ambitions, the tide does lift everyone; maybe not always equally, but all get lifted. It is a little dangerous even if you balance it all fairly well.  Clearly this is a tricky idea because to be as good as you can be you gotta give a little of yourself up to feed your talent and ambition to grow it beyond the normal levels. Someone is going to want to throw ‘trust’ into the ring here, but I will not. I tend to believe conflicting self interested groups will never really trust other groups, but they may trust in a more intangible, non human, thing like a shared ambition. In other words, we have the same ambition so despite their means, despite the fact they are ‘them’ and not us, they aren’t go to screw me/’us’. The good news with share ambition is that success at each level can be so addictive or pleasurable you have a tendency to want to feed it a little more. And maybe that’s the real prize with shared ambitions. Ponder.

Written by Bruce