Think about yourself. That’s not that hard to do; we’re humans, which means we think about ourselves all the time. When we’re on the highway or in the subway rushing to get to an appointment and someone pulls in front of us, do we think, “Oh, that person must be in a terrible rush; perhaps she has even more urgent business than I do. I will pull back and let her go first.”? No! We think, “Excuse me, I’m on a mission here. You can get behind me.”
Of course, it’s natural to think of ourselves first. Who do we spend the most time with? And, in many cases, self-interest is quite advisable. “Looking out for number one” is a philosophy that can easily be stretched into selfishness or avarice, but the seed from which it grows – the idea that each of us has a responsibility to nurture our own survival and growth – is sound and healthy.
Still, in the working world as in many other contexts, it is important to know when to redirect your focus. You can’t always be thinking of yourself – or at least be perceived as thinking of yourself – because everyone else you are dealing with is also thinking of himself. And if you want to persuade him to work with you, you have to convince him that you are thinking of him, too.
Job applicants, for example, often make the mistake of writing a cover letter that says something like, “I am very interested in this position because it would give me an opportunity to expand my knowledge and experience.” It may sound earnest, but the reflexive self-focus it demonstrates is out of place in a letter in which you are essentially trying to convince a stranger to do you a favor (invite you in for an interview). When you want to convince someone to do something for you, you need to focus on the benefit to him. If you were hiring a plumber, would you hire the one who says, “Hire me – I can fix your leaky toilet and save you $20 a month on your water bill,” or the one who says, “Hire me – I would very much like to expand my knowledge and experience by working on your toilet”?
In the workplace, too, people sometimes forget the self-interested benefit they can reap by appearing to be more than just self-interested. This is particularly tricky in highly territorial organizations, in which employees have essentially been trained to compete amongst themselves for limited resources (money, time, credit, etc.). Such employees may be entirely justified in continually thinking about how each decision or action might affect their own bottom lines. But habitually expressing that self-interest will limit them. Sometimes, in order to get what you want from someone, you need to explain to him why giving it to you is worthwhile to him. This is a well-known tactic that people have no trouble adopting when they are being overtly commercial (“Buy my product because it will make you happy!”), but often seem to forget in more utilitarian, quotidian interactions. Force of habit, perhaps.