Chances are that you’ve experienced egocentric bias, even if you didn’t know the name for it. Basically it’s the tendency to overestimate the contribution you have made to any task compared to other people who also worked on it. If you’ve ever lived with roommates, you probably know exactly what I’m talking about. Everybody tends to overestimate how often they take the trash out or wash those cereal bowls sitting in the sink.
In the workplace, however, this can be a real problem. People want to be acknowledged for what they have accomplished. On top of that, a person’s career path is often determined by getting appropriate credit for the work they have done. Even on a well-functioning team, it’s important to ensure that relationships don’t get derailed.
Egocentric bias is caused by three related factors. First, people overemphasize the work they have done (and its importance to the overall process) compared to the tasks that other people work on. Second, people are aware of every single contribution they make to a project, but they often don’t notice or know about some of the tasks that other people are doing. Third, even when people have a clear understanding about what everyone is doing, they are more likely to remember their own contributions than to remember what other people did.
To help you and your team do better at counteracting the negative effects of egocentric bias, it’s important to address all three of these issues explicitly.
At the start of a project, it is useful to have group members create a document that everyone can access that describes the key tasks that need to get done and the people who are working on those tasks. This document is valuable, because it gives everyone on the project a chance to see all of the pieces that needed to get done in order for the entire project to get finished.
This document will make sure that people are not relying on their faulty memory for who did what to apportion credit for a project. For organizations where people need to account for time spent on projects, it’s also valuable to lay out the number of hours spent on various tasks so that everyone involved with the project has some record of the number of hours each person has devoted to the work. That can help people calibrate the extent of their own contribution to the work.
Project leaders should also acknowledge contributions people have made to projects explicitly. Emails to the team should include some specific pointers to things people did to move the project forward. Spreading the credit in this way can help people to notice more of what other people are doing and to create a mindset that the team effort is crucial for success.
Finally, now that you are aware of this egocentric bias, you can work to correct for it. Whenever you’re working on something with other people, look for the elements that get completed without your effort. Make a point of asking other people to talk about what they did.
In addition, try to appreciate the value of the effort other people put in. Often, you value your own expertise more than that of other people. As a result, even when you know what other people have done, you may still think your own efforts were more important. Recognize that a variety of people are bringing skills to a project. In general, their expertise is as hard-won as your own.
Finally, you need to internalize that there is little danger to you in overemphasizing other people’s contributions to projects. The best leaders share the credit for successes and shoulder the blame for failures. Whenever you share credit for a success, other people notice that. They begin to see you as a team player who makes projects better. In the long run, that opens up new opportunities for you. The paradox is that the more credit you give to others, the more credit you get for the work that gets done.