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How to Work With a Self-Centered Person

Dear David,

What do you do about someone who is so self-centered that everything is all about him? This happens to be my 14-year-old son, but I’ve also seen this pattern with co-workers and managers where I work. Sometimes, I wonder whether the world is filling up with egotists.

Fed Up

Dear Fed Up,

I have some real-life experience with this challenge, because my mom and dad faced this same problem with their eldest son—me. I’ve used their ideas with others and I think they have value.

As a fourteen-year-old, I was an okay kid, doing well in school and staying out of trouble. But I was the center of my own little universe. It was pretty much all about me.

My parents had a saying, “If you think you need help, go help someone.” And that became their prescription for me. They signed me up to spend a summer 100 miles from home, working for a nonprofit that rehabbed houses in Kansas City.

Suddenly, I was on my own, with a lot of freedom and responsibility. I had to find transport (Greyhound Bus), luggage (dad’s old duffle bag), and supplies (I arrived without any toiletries—oops!). There were eight of us volunteering

that summer. We shared a large dorm room, ate our meals together, but mostly worked together.

Only a few of us had any carpentry skills. I know I didn’t. But we had several supervisors coaching and keeping us on track. Most importantly, the families who would be moving into the houses worked alongside us. They were our ultimate bosses, but were really far more than that. They were so grateful, and put us on such a pedestal, that meeting their unrealistically high expectations became paramount to us.

It stopped being about me and started being about them. It was a life-changing experience. Here is what made it work:

  • I had the freedom to make good and bad choices. Nobody was holding my hand or helicoptering nearby to make sure I didn’t mess up.
  • I was responsible for myself. I had to figure out how to get to Kansas City, what to bring with me, and how to spend my very limited funds.
  • I was responsible for someone else’s success. It was about them, not me.

I don’t want to pretend a single summer changed me from selfish to selfless. In fact, when it was time to apply for college, my parents generously offered to help me with the tuition but only if the college was at least 1,500 miles from home. We lived in Kansas, so that gave me the two coasts to consider. They wanted me out of the nest.

My wife and I have had a chance to test these principles with other young people. We don’t have children, but we have twenty-four nieces and nephews. We’ve invited several to spend summers with us when they were in their teens. We’d warn them that they’d have to work, as my wife and I worked full time. But we’d make it fun and meaningful as well.

We’d sign them up to work forty hours a week at a local nonprofit that served wounded warriors. They’d report for work each morning at 8:00 a.m., and they’d have to bike five miles to get there. The challenge was that only half their route was paved. The rest was up and over a mountain on some of the sweetest single-track in Utah. All these kids fell in love with mountain biking. But, back to the point . . .

I’ll use our fourteen-year-old nephew as an example. His job was to belay on the climbing wall and high-ropes courses. This meant he held the line that kept the wounded warriors from falling. One day, he said he wanted to talk. Here’s the story he told:

“I worked today on the climbing wall with a guy who is partially paralyzed from an IED. He was struggling, but doing really well. But then he said he needed to go to the bathroom. I said, ‘Sure,’ and he said, ‘You’ll need to help me.’ I had to help him get on and off the toilet! But he treated it like it was the most normal thing. He didn’t act embarrassed or sorry for himself. He was more worried about how I would feel!”

It’s this kind of experience that helps a person see beyond themselves.

We also worked to create a degree of freedom and responsibility. For example, we gave our nephew a weekly food budget and had him shop for and prepare his lunches. He lived in our spare bedroom and had to maintain it and his bathroom to our specs. He was also responsible for two dinner meals per week—planning, shopping, preparing, and serving. And he was responsible for maintaining his mountain bike.

A couple of fun scenes: The first time he had to buy a week’s worth of food for his lunches, he froze in front of the deli counter. There were too many options to choose from. The first time he cleaned his bathroom, it took him half an hour. I took out a stopwatch and told him he had to get it down to 5 minutes. We did fire drills cleaning the toilet and shower.

So, do these strategies only work on teenagers? How can this relate to your self-centered managers?

When you look at employees’ career paths, most grow deep in a specialty before they are given the chance to grow broad. Their perspective is formed within their narrow function, region, or profession. And they haven’t had the chance to take a broader, enterprise-wide view. From the outside, their narrow perspective appears self-centered or egotistical.

The main point I want to make is that it takes personal experience, not lectures, sermons, or training, to change people’s perspective. If you can, find a way to give these employees cross-functional accountability—a role where they are responsible for another group.

Of course, you aren’t always in the position to create personal experiences for others, so I’ll provide some more immediate advice. Establish boundaries. Don’t assume you can change a self-centered or egotistical person. Instead, draw clear lines between what you can do without them and what you need from them.

Best of luck,

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7 thoughts on “How to Work With a Self-Centered Person”

  1. Tracy Guo

    David -This topic is top of mind as a follow up (crucial) conversation with our daughter is planned for today – I won’t use up blog space or your time with the story, but want you to know I am grateful for your post. Serendipitous.

  2. Kathie Moe

    I love the perspective and wisdom that Vital Smarts has to share. It’s great. In this article I would differ on one thing. You don’t have to send your children 1500 miles away to accomplish the independence goals. You said that you didn’t have children. Family is a big deal and honestly what makes life worth living. Keeping the family in close proximity is worth any sacrifice. I found that sending my kid an hour and fifteen minutes away was perfect. He rarely came home, but I could still see him and maintain the relationship. Don’t forsake family, that’s a regret you don’t recover from.

    1. davidmaxfield

      Are you suggesting that the 1500 mile rule only applies to me??? Perhaps I was a more difficult teen that I’ve realized.

      Every family is unique. One way that ours was different was that we moved every few years. My parents were both mathematicians who treasured their careers far more than any region or geography we lived in. As a result, I grew up in China Lake, CA, Gainesville, FL, Canaan, VT, and Manhattan, KS. And, shortly after I left for college, my parents moved to Ruston, LA. If I’d stayed near to home after high school, it would have been my parents who moved away from me.


  3. Alec Sharp

    Wow, I just love this article. I wish it could be given to every helicopter parent out there who is still trying to do it all for their supposedly adult children. It made me want to write down some things I’ve never recorded – apologies for the long reply.
    I had some pretty good formative experiences along these lines when I was a teenager, but the most important was working as a steward on a railway out here in BC, starting at the age of 15. I worked Christmas, Easter, and summer for three or four years. We’d work 12 hours or so on the outbound trip, overnight in the bunkhouse with some pretty down to earth (“salt of the earth”) characters, and then return the next day. Two trips one week, one trip the next week. There would be me and a younger helper taking care of up to 48 “dining car” passengers – preparing, serving, and cleaning up after breakfast lunch, and dinner. And also doing “newsie runs” selling coffee, sandwiches, pop, snacks and so on to a lot more “day coach” passengers.
    The point of this is that I didn’t have a supervisor hanging over me – my helper and I were on our own, hurtling through the wilderness in an aluminum and steel tube at up to 80 MPH, with 100 or more people to take care of. There were some clear expectations, and the rest was up to us.
    I learned a simple formula pretty quickly – the harder I worked, the more money I made. And the time went faster and the passengers and crew were happier. Win-win. We absolutely met and exceeded the company’s expectations, including selling out of all of the product we were boarded with. Then we got ingenious. A simple example – the leftover roast beef from dinner would be quickly turned into sandwiches that we would sell. We also did everything we could for the crew, especially the engineer, so they would make quick stops for us to run into a remote general store to buy bread, mustard, and mayonnaise for our sandwiches. And a treat for the engineer, of course.
    This was the experience that turned me into an entrepreneur. Early on, I had a couple of corporate jobs, but, within four years of getting out of university, I was self-employed. 35 years later, I’ve supported a nice life for my family. In my field, I have a global reputation and provide consulting and education to many of the world’s best known companies and institutions. Flying up to 200,000 miles a year has its downsides, but I’m always learning about new businesses, working with smart (and young!) people, and travelling to great destinations. (Utrecht this week, Helsinki next.)
    And, more than anything, it’s because I was put on that train with some clear expectations and then left to fend for myself.

  4. lee

    David, I think you missed the point of the question that “Fed Up” posted…. As I read it, Fed Up was asking how to deal with those fellow workers (bosses as well as cohorts, team members, and subordinates) whose conversations and discussions are based on “I”, “me”, or “my”?

    Your response story was a wonderful example and I think all of us are glad that you shared it, but can you do a follow-up. Thanks,

    Too Often “Guilty as Charged”

    1. davidmaxfield

      Thanks Lee,

      I missed this aspect in the original question, but I get your point. Rather than try to craft an answer here, where only a few of us will ever read it. I’d like to take your question to the Newsletter, and answer it there. I’ll try to write it this weekend. If you send me your email (to my email address), I’ll send you a first draft. My email is:

      thanks again,

  5. Allison

    What I see in the question from “Fed Up” is a parent who is afraid that their child will not learn to consider others, and is seeing evidence of that in their co-workers. I encountered the concept of “developmentally appropriate, but socially unacceptable” in the context of smaller kids, eg two year olds who bite, but it’s relevant here, too. Fourteen year olds are almost all self-centered. That’s just the developmental stage they’re in. To cope with your own emotions, you kind of have to accept that it’s par for the course and trust that with guidance they’ll grow out of it. Just like with the biting two year old, it’s our job to teach them better behavior. Since “Fed Up” is clearly a thoughtful and engaged parent, I’m sure that’s happening. And David has given some great concrete examples on how to do it.

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