Egocentrism and why professionals should worry about it.

egocentrism

Over the last few years, it’s been difficult to not notice an increase in egocentrism, or to be more exact, egocentric behaviours and reactions. This goes for all types of settings, from social or romantic to professional. If you pay enough attention to polite small talk being had around you, you may pick up on what I have heard referred to as “Yet another ‘I’ conversation”. This is to imply that the people involved in the discussion tend to contribute only through “I” statements, i.e. personal stories or opinions, as opposed to actual listening and compassion.

Perhaps this isn’t too big of a deal amongst friends, family or romantic partners. Perhaps the depth of these relationships is such where empathy and egocentrism are traded off regularly without any repercussions. However, it is hard to imagine that egocentric behaviours can be without consequence when applied within a professional context.

This article aims to explore how egocentric tendencies manifest in the workplace, the risks they pose, telltale signs, and strategies to foster a more balanced and collaborative professional culture.

Speaking of Culture

Ever since I can remember, I was fascinated by the idea of us, as humans, falling in stride with the culture that surrounds us. I would apply Hofstede’s dimensions, as a cultural comparison tool, to every situation almost off the top of my head. In particular, the national culture dimension of ‘Individuality vs Collectivism’ was the most fascinating, as I always believed it to be one of the core sources of displayed egocentrism.

Countries like Greece and Cyprus, which tend to rank highly on the Collectivism score, would pride themselves on family and community. People would tend to prioritize on doing things together over doing things in the best way. They value themselves as part of their selected community instead of as individuals. An adventurer who would stray away from the pack for personal ambition may get shunned or made fun of. No one could relate to them.

On the other end, highly individualistic countries such the U.S., would regularly create superstars. Confidence and the need to stand out from the flock are common personal mantras. People want to value themselves more as individuals, not as part of a bigger collective. This had led to an entire generation of youth who genuinely believe, without a shadow of a doubt, that their YouTube comments matter.

Quite obviously, I would always correlate egocentrism much more with individualistic cultures. Lately, however, I believe I have been wrong. I have been seeing egocentric behaviours popping up in all cultures, even some of the most collectivist. One reason, I believe, are the latest trends of personalization, where everything from the content you enjoy to the pop-up ads you see while browsing the web, to even online learning (check out our smart courses if you don’t believe me) is tailored to you. Perhaps culture USED to play a big role. Just not AS big anymore.

Give me ANY word and I show you it’s Greek

Before proceeding, it would be best to clarify what this article is referring to as egocentrism. The overall definition describes a general concern of oneself over society. “Ego”, meaning “I” and “centrism”, from the word “κέντρο”, meaning “centre” combine to put ME at CENTRE OF EVERYTHING. However, I do NOT wish to over generalize this, so I won’t be touching on things like selfishness or even narcissism.

Instead, I want to emphasize that egocentric behaviours don’t necessarily mean that the person displaying them is always, or even usually, egocentric. We ALL display such behaviours from time to time. Sometimes, we may do this consciously. For example, constructive selfishness is a common tool recommended by psychologists for people to ensure they prioritize on their mental health before seeking to contribute to others.

So, I would like to distinguish between “positive” egocentrism, such as constructive selfishness and what we can label as  “detrimental egocentrism” which can occur subconsciously and has a negative impact on others around us. Let’s dive into the detrimental egocentrism and, more specifically, how it can impact the workplace.

What causes detrimental egocentrism?

There are many situations that can lead someone to behaving egocentrically. Perhaps it’s interesting to catch yourself in this moment to see what your brain went to automatically. What do you stereotypically correlate with egocentrism? I’ve asked this question to many people over the years and, more often than not, I was surprised with what I heard. So, without bias, let’s get into some of the categories that the answers fell under.

Status

Professional status is a key driver for success, for some more than others. However, if you’re not careful, it can also be a pitfall. I read a great article from Andrea Petrone in which he mentions a man who, after decades of hard work and climbing the corporate ladder, was promoted to CEO of his company. After his promotion, his focus shifted from team performance to his status.

In an effort to maintain his new official position, he focused on himself and how he was perceived. He stayed within his comfort zone, avoiding causing any turbulence. There was no need to take any risks. As far as he was concerned, he had achieved his goals. As a result, he lost what he focused so hard on holding onto. If only he looked outwards.

Status, however, isn’t always about official titles. It can be the role you play within your team and, when that role begins to FEEL important, another trap begins to loom. If a person feels like everyone has become dependent on THEM, it’s highly likely that they begin to place themselves at the centre of their team, well, at least as they see it in their mind’s eye.

This self-assigned role can lead a process of entitled thinking, based entirely on the pressure they perceive from the position. The need to recognize their status as important can lead to overwhelmed egocentric behaviours that may lead to inner exclamations such as “Do they not realize they NEED me?!”, while in reality the team is balanced and interdependent.

Doing things the RIGHT way

Another easy way to get caught up in yourself is when you do your job well. So well, in fact, that you perceive your own approach as the superior method of any task. Even if you’re right, which you’re probably not, the thought alone is capable of solidifying your opinion as “correct” and filters your perception. Instead of observing your team with an open mind, you place an almost contemptuous lens which proclaims, “You’re doing it wrong!”

I, myself, have fallen for this trap and can honestly state that I had blindsided myself. The truth was simple. I stopped trusting my team, through no fault of their own. I had experienced enough success that it made me feel superior. As a result, I micromanaged everyone. Until today, I regret my behaviour and am forever grateful to the colleague that had the guts to tell me off. Once my focus shifted back to my team, the tension was alleviated and the egocentric behaviours stopped.

Perhaps at this point, it should be emphasized that detrimental egocentrism is only visible when amongst others. There is always a trade-off between focusing on yourself and focusing on others. Impossible to do both simultaneously. For every second you spend considering something about you, you miss the opportunity to observe others and what they may need…from you.

Egocentrism is our In-Security Guard

Although some may believe that egocentric behaviour is more associated with power trips, over-confidence, arrogance or straight up selfishness, that’s not necessarily true. While power-related egocentrism may be more harmful on a bigger scale (see Donald Trump), weakness, or better yet, self-perceived weakness is responsible for a much bigger volume of egocentric tendencies and behaviours. Our insecurities manifest themselves.

Underperformance

One of the most common insecurities is performing outside of our comfort zone. Perhaps someone assigned you a project unlike any you’ve ever done before. Perhaps you’ve been assigned responsibilities you’ve never had. You may be aware that the tasks assigned are brand new to you, and that you’re likely to be immature in their execution. However, I’m willing to bet that in such circumstances, you don’t perceive a level of leniency from the person who gave you the assignment. Performance is performance. Results are expected.

The effects of such situations include things like self-doubt, hesitance, and over-thinking. You may get worried about being perceived as incapable or that your deliverable would be seen as sub-par, compared to your previous projects. As you begin to question yourself, the focus turns inwards. All the while, the real culprit is uncertainty.

Fear of the Unknown

Facing uncertainty is one of the core difficulties of most people in general. Uncertainty, in many cases, is actually the secret little culprit behind most stress. If we don’t know what to expect but are required to proceed regardless, things get uncomfortable pretty fast. If anything, this is why we, as humans, created the scientific method, to help us assume through our hypotheses and test our assumptions through designed experiments. Unfortunately, maintaining a scientific mentality during a stressful time is much easier said than done. Instead, we worry about ourselves and our health. Especially if the uncertainty is tied to our personal fears.

One of the most powerful fears tied to uncertainty is loss of control. Especially for managers, keeping things within their locus of control is vital, but loss of control is tied to many phobias as well. Claustrophobic people seem to lose all rational in closed spaces. People with agoraphobia or hypsophobia tend to stress out if they find themselves amongst a crowd or at a large height respectively. When you have a metaphorical gun to your head, it’s usually tough to consider how others around you feel in that moment.

This is more relative to professional life than you think as many companies have very tall and densely populated buildings. I have always chuckled at the idea that a professional with a fear of heights may secretly avoid getting promoted to avoid top floors.

Egocentrism can lead to disaster

I believe we can all empathize with at least one of the mentioned triggers that can lead to detrimental egocentrism. However, when considering the types of damage it can lead to, we should prioritize on keeping our egocentrism in check.

Decision Making Bias

The first thing to understand is that egocentrism refines our scope of visibility. When focusing on ourselves, our focus is subconsciously refined. Let’s just say we’re not genuinely considering the interests of all stakeholders. Given, as mentioned above, that this refined lens is brought about by drivers like fear or control, we continue to feed it by rejecting ideas or thoughts that challenge us or simply put, fall outside our temporary comfort zone.

Without knowing it, we can become very myopic or selectively observant. If we maintain such a state of mind during a meeting or discussion that will lead to a decision, we are highly likely to reduce the number of ideas that will be entertained. Suggestions can be rejected under the excuse of limited time and capacity. People may even be cut off while speaking.

The result is that team members will be demotivated to suggest anything that may be “hard to hear”. They may become more agreeable or simply reduce their own scope of thinking to match the most egocentric lens in the room. This can lead to groupthink, which in turn can bias decision. One of the most extreme examples of this is the Enron case study, where drivers such as status and fear, led to one of the biggest global economic crises in history.

Team Dynamics

When we’re behaving egocentrically, whether consciously for personal gain, or subconsciously from insecurity, the one thing we are definitely NOT doing is appreciating those around us. If anything, egocentric behaviour is really what tests the strength of team relationships. How long can one continue to provide a required empathy, especially when there are signs that this empathy cannot be reciprocated due to egocentric focus.

Managers, especially, can cause damage when falling into such traps. They must cognitively dedicate time to acknowledge and appreciate their team. Undervalued team members decrease their productivity, and if undervalued for a while, they leave. We can see this happening via an increased voluntary attrition rate.

In 2011, approximately 25 million people in the US quit their jobs. By 2021, this figure had doubled to approximately 50 million. This isn’t surprising. Egocentric behaviours displayed by managers can make team members feel unacknowledged. If credit for success isn’t given. If effort isn’t seen. If perspective isn’t heard. Lending an ear goes a long way. However, it gets difficult to keep your ears truly open, when the inner priority is subconsciously you.

Communication Breakdown

Active listening requires actual willingness to understand what someone is trying to say. Perhaps they are not amazing at expressing themselves and so you would need to dive deeper into their words to understand where their words are coming from. This would require you to take yourself and your opinions ENTIRELY out of the equation. I.e. This is quite literally the opposite of egocentrism and A LOT more easier said than done.

When we are unable to do this, we tend to filter what we hear with our own perspective. This can lead to misunderstandings and, if they are not identified immediately, lead to a complete misinterpretation of the messages being shared. I have seen teams that left a meeting feeling aligned while, if you asked them, you would have heard various interpretations.

Stifling Innovation

Lastly, egocentrism can act as a major blocker for innovation within companies. For innovation to occur, it needs diverse collective brainstorming to be facilitated and empowered. In other words, management needs to motivate teams to feel free to express any idea, no matter how crazy or disruptive it may be. Actually, the more disruptive an idea is, the more it should be welcome.

However, disruption itself is extremely uncomfortable. Imagine needing to entertain an idea that implies that your job, your department, or even an entire offering (service or product) would be made obsolete. It won’t come as a surprise to hear that it takes a very open-minded manager who ONLY considers the good of the company, regardless of themselves, to not only tolerate but, moreover, to inspire such ideas. If they get too stuck at “protecting” their current mindset and business understanding, they create stories similar to that of Kodak.

Cliffhanger

On that note, I need to catch myself. Normally, I would have proceeded to suggest methods of minimizing egocentric behaviours within yourself as a person, others around you, and your company as a whole.

However, I would like to know that there are some of you out there that are ACTUALLY interested in knowing more about how to mitigate egocentrism. I must entertain the idea that this article has been my own egocentric rant with an intent of inflicting my opinions upon you. I should eat my own dog food.

So, if you would like the Part 2 to this article, please comment below or in the LinkedIn post you saw this on. If you ask for it, I will proceed. And of course, any feedback is welcome. Thanks for reading this far.

Taz Constantinou

Taz is an innovation coach that also enjoys "smarketing" tasks. He brings his own spin to coaching, combining his diverse international experience with his keen interest of human behavior and psychology, and even throwing in a few tricks from his journey as a comedian.

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