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The Need for Other-Orientation

In a society that celebrates individual achievement and signals that you “have to look out for #1,” it isn’t always easy to stay tuned in to the needs of others.

In the workplace, high achievers often struggle when they reach a turning point in their career where they no longer have the capacity or broad enough control to succeed on their own. Across many disciplines and functions, I see it happen just like this:

  1. An individual contributor becomes a rising star, outperforming peer co-workers and getting noticed for his or her potential.
  2. This superstar is tested with a stretch assignment or two and, through sheer determination, proves that he or she is indeed capable of taking on higher level responsibilities. In this “test,” there is seldom development support, or often clear goals are missing. This can be construed to suggest that working independently to “figure it out” is the actual skill being tested.
  3. In time, this rapidly ascending, high-potential talent is given the title of “Manager.” The natural assumption he or she makes is that the reward of a promotion is due to the demonstrated ability to get things done. As manager, then, with a team of direct reports, surely the expectations must be to get more things done – to work harder and to teach others to do what’s been done in the previous role(s) that led to this promotion… Without training and clear expectations about how managing is an entirely different role, it’s no surprise that this assumption is made.
  4. Again, through sheer determination, this new manager continues to post achievements and perform at a high level. But it is not sustainable. It is, in fact, impossible for this high-potential contributor to do everything that is expected of the team. Eventually, as the work week hours mount and the direct reports grow frustrated because they have been disempowered and neglected, the cracks begin to show.
  5. Unless he or she acquires skills for delegating, developing others, process improvement, and setting performance expectations, this manager is doomed to fail. Many do, without really understanding why.

Some companies do offer manager training in those critical skills. Even then, some new (and not-so-new) managers fail because they are not other-oriented. The skills related to managing will never be correctly or effectively implemented unless the manager can step outside himself or herself to consider the needs of others.

This same principle applies outside the workplace. Parenting requires a shift from “me first” to “you first” and a balancing act that considers the needs of others throughout their lives.

It’s true, too, for friendships. The old maxim “they don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care” comes to mind. Sometimes, friends set aside their need to offer solutions because they recognize that the other person’s need is just to be heard and understood.

Societally, we don’t talk much about orienting ourselves to others. But people who never do that may become downright narcissistic, constantly pursuing individual glory and clamoring to take credit. They do not have an interest in others just for the sake of others.

Because they push for achievement, many narcissists are high achievers. They get recognized, rewarded, complimented and promoted. These affirmations of their achievements are also affirmations of their behavior, and, inadvertently, of their self-centeredness, too.

Without a healthy other-orientation, you can’t (or won’t want to) develop active listening skills, openness to critique that helps you grow, empathy for others, an ability to coach and support the people who depend on you, or an ability to gracefully accept even minor defeats.

Instead, a lack of other-orientation will cause you, over time, to seem arrogant and condescending. It will be a barrier to forming deep, meaningful relationships. And it will hold you back from achieving to the level of your full potential while also holding back the people around you.

To work on developing an orientation to others, consider first the benefits you will experience if you become more aware of and attentive to the needs of others. But don’t stop there! Next, consider what it means to you when others give you the support and understanding that helps you in various situations – if you did the same for others, it would mean something similar to them.

Finally, reflect on what prevents you from adopting an other-orientation more frequently. Is it a fear – that if you don’t put yourself first, no one else will? A concern that you just don’t have the time? Or maybe a belief that it would be inappropriate somehow to demonstrate an interest in the needs of others?

Whatever the barriers may be, weigh them against the benefits – to you and to others – that could occur if you were more cognizant and considerate of others’ needs. Your success, long-term, depends on others so orienting yourself to them is, after all, a smart strategy, too.

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