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.
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,
Want to master these crucial skills? Attend one of our public training workshops in a city near you. Learn more at www.vitalsmarts.com/events.