Crucial Skills®

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Additional Tips for Addressing Self-Centered Behavior

Dear David,

I think you missed part of the question that Fed Up posted a while back. As I understood it, Fed Up also asked how to deal with self-centered coworkers (bosses as well as cohorts, team members, and subordinates) whose conversations and discussions are based on I, me, or my. Can you address that?

Please Elaborate

Dear Please Elaborate,

You’re right. I only answered part of Fed Up’s question—the part about a self-centered teenager. I’ll address here the part about self-centered behavior in the workplace and offer a few approaches for dealing with it. You can use these approaches in combination or sequentially.

First, let’s consider why people often behave more self-centeredly than usual.

Lack of Safety

Humans are designed to respond to threats. In Crucial Conversations, we address two interactions commonly perceived as threats: whenever we think someone is standing between us and our goals, and whenever we think we’re being disrespected or devalued.

When we experience either of these, our attention focuses like a laser beam on the perceived threat, and everything beyond and beside it disappears. Our motives become similarly focused. All we care about is surviving the threat. Internally, this focusing makes perfect sense. To an outsider, however, it can come across as being shortsighted and selfish.

When a lack of safety is the cause of the self-centeredness, then creating a bit of safety is the solution. Here are two ways you might do that.

First, avoid the Fool’s Choice. When people feel attacked, they are likely to take an either-or or win-lose perspective. Often you can nudge a person out of this perspective by saying something like, “I don’t think this is an either-or decision. I think we can accomplish your goal and marketing’s goal at the same time.” Doing this may create enough safety to get them back on course.

Second, use a Contrasting Statement to fix misunderstandings. Consider the following illustration. Imagine your colleague has crunched some customer data and has made a recommendation accordingly. You disagree with the recommendation and have said so. Your colleague feels attacked and says, “What do you know about statistics? You don’t even know your way around a regression coefficient!”

Your colleague has misunderstood your disagreement. She’s taken it as an attack on her statistical competency. A contrast statement takes the form: “I don’t think (whatever the misunderstanding is); I do think (whatever you really meant to say).” To continue with the example, you might say, “I don’t disagree with your statistics or your analysis. I think you’ve got it right. What I’m saying is that this data doesn’t account for some of our key stakeholders’ input. It may be incomplete.” Correcting the misunderstanding can restore Safety and get the conversation back on track.

In short, when a coworker takes a critique or suggestion personally—which often looks like a self-centered response—restoring safety can bring focus back to the issue rather than the perceived threat.

These skills work well for incidents. But what if the self-centered behavior is more pervasive?

Blind Spots

We all have blind spots—consequences of our behavior that we’re unaware of. Of course, each of us is more aware of the effect we experience. We often fail to see how others are affected—and this can make us appear selfish.

When a blind spot is the cause of self-centered behavior, then illuminating an unseen impact is the solution.

If your position allows you to see victims and effects that are beyond the view of your teammates, share what you’re seeing. Addressing these unseen consequences can fill in your coworkers’ blind spots and help them take a broader, more inclusive and long-term perspective.


What if the self-centered behavior is a consistent pattern? Then you might need to address it as a problem in itself. Begin by collecting the facts. Here’s how you might start:

1. Identify Elements of the Pattern

Ask yourself, first, what are the circumstances surrounding the self-centered behavior—specific times, places, topics, people, etc.—that seem to provoke it? Second, what are the actions that come across as self-centered? Third, what is the impact of these self-centered actions? Having the facts will prepare you for holding a respectful and honest conversation about the behavior.

2. Identify Cases that Illustrate the Pattern

Identify three specific cases that demonstrate the pattern. Make sure you have the circumstances, actions, and impact for each of these cases. Plan on using two of these cases to illustrate the pattern, but hold one in reserve. Presenting all three at once may cause your teammate to feel as though you are beating them up.

3. Diagnose Whether the Pattern is Due to Motivation, Ability, or Both

If the person seems unmotivated, explain natural consequences—the hidden victims and unseen impact we discussed above. For example, you might highlight a hidden victim: “When you change your production schedule without checking with sales, it can cause real mayhem with some of our customers.”

When you do this, listen carefully for two possible ways by which the person might dismiss your concern.

For example, the person might say, “Nope, our lead times are so long that our customers have plenty of time to respond.” When a person says no, they essentially disagree with your facts. The solution, then, is to show them your facts, and have them show you theirs.

If, on the other hand, the person says something like, “So, what? Most of those customers are one-time buyers anyway,” then they disagree with your values—the value you place on the consequence. When this happens, your first job is to avoid getting hooked and angry. Proceed, instead, by explaining why you care about the consequence, and why you think they should care too.

Finally, if the person seems to lack the ability to take a broader, more long-term perspective, brainstorm options with them. Include them in the search for possible solutions. As it relates to our example here, solutions might include visiting key customers, meeting with salespeople, adding customer input to their data stream, etc. Of course, you’ll want to search for solutions that relate to your peers’ responsibilities.

This is a lot of suggestions. Not all of them are relevant to every case of self-centered behavior, but I think I’ve used all of them at one time or another. I hope this helps.


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1 thought

  1. Peter Eastman

    I think you have just given me one of the best insights of all time:

    “Do they disagree with your facts, or with your values?”

    It makes me realize that fundamental value differences underlie most disagreements. These get hidden when opposing parties use selective facts to buttress their original value judgment.

    This framework will allow me to
    1. Better recognize hidden value disagreements
    2. Discover the underlying value disparity
    3. Help the parties either find the common ground, or discuss openly the real disagreement.

    Thank you!

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