Self-Orientation: Make It Your Common Denominator

In the quest to understand how trust is cultivated in today’s corporate environment, we’ve been dissecting and distilling down Maister’s Trust Equation. So far, we’ve made quite a few discoveries, not the least of which is that the word Trust implies so much. Who knew that earning this social badge of honor could be the foundation of healthy workplace morale? Moreover, who knew how much effort and detail were required to maintain it? It’s become clear that credibility, reliability and intimacy all feed into the perception of trust. With that, it’s time to consider the denominator of the Trust Equation, which puts all of our investigation into perspective….that is, literally a person’s perspective. It’s known as Self-Orientation, and it’s a standpoint that we should examine within ourselves, and more acutely, within our colleagues.

All Talk, No Action

Self-Orientation as it relates to the Trust Equation refers to one’s personal focus. Think of a particular colleague in leadership. Is her (his) focus primarily on herself (himself), or do they put others’ needs first? This is the basic determination of someone else’s Self-Orientation. Now think of this same colleague against the backdrop of your company’s culture. Is that culture cutthroat or does leadership encourage collaboration? Notice that there are leaders who preach collaboration (words) but don’t model collaboration (actions). This can be the factor that most accurately identifies a person as having a Self-Orientation that’s, well, self-serving. We might think, “I can’t trust her on this deal; she’s totally fixated on her exposure to leadership and won’t put in the focused work we need.” Or more commonly, “I don’t trust him. I suspect he might take my idea and claim it as his own.” And it’s not necessarily through a high-stakes situation that people become too highly self-oriented. Remember, orientation is not about your own perception; it’s about the other person, and how they see the world. It’s their self-perception that helps you analyze the person’s fidelity, not how you interpret an actual situation.

Going Hollywood

Permit me to share one of my very favorite analogies: Each of us lives as a leading character in our own movie. Yes, YOU are a movie star! Depending on a person’s Self-Orientation, he or she may see their colleagues as co-stars and supporting characters, or instead as mere extras in their movie. Each of us has a general Self-Orientation set point. On the low extreme of the continuum, a person has profound concern for others, often to their own detriment and expense. Everyone gets top billing in this movie. At the other end are those who are motivated solely for selfish reasons. These folks see themselves not only as the main character, but as a box office draw. Many of us fall somewhere in the middle of the spectrum, and regardless, our set point can have fluidity depending upon the situation at hand. More often than not, that situation is stress.


Let’s face it: In the competitive environment known as the workplace, people feel they’re under threat. We’re racing towards deadlines, worried about receiving due credit, and competing for promotion. These are all interpreted as perpetual threats, which breed continuous stress. In response to such hazards, our reptilian brain roars, and our instinct defaults to “dog eat dog”. In this trance of “defending our territory”, the brain becomes foggy from the cortisol pumping through our veins. It is at this point that emotional intelligence flies out the window. With it goes self-assessment, compassion, and our view of the world.

In order to reclaim our clarity (and sanity), we have to zoom out and gain perspective. Step one…take a breath. Connecting with your breathing is the quickest way to reengage your prefrontal cortex, also known as the executive brain. Begin by asking some questions of yourself by which you can assess another’s words and actions. “Did he actually say this or did I misunderstand my manager’s request for this project?” “Am I making an assumption, or is this truly the direction he sent me in?” “Who is impacted by the outcome of this miscommunication?” These questions will allow you to more accurately interpret your manager’s position and Self-Orientation.

Looking Ahead

Self-Orientation is especially skewed in workplaces where trust is scarce. This makes perfect sense, as people instinctively look out for number one. Another environment where high Self-Orientation lurks is an office culture that does not actively promote succession planning and stewardship. In this setting, ambitious professionals can sense they’re “in it alone”. This keeps them looking ahead toward fulfilling their agendas exclusively, when they should also be lending a hand back toward their team….the people they should be mentoring and bringing ahead with them. To dial back colleagues’ Self-Orientation from “It’s all about me” to a “We”-centric attitude, a company can encourage a trust-building culture. Imagine how highly-functioning a workplace with open lines of communication, transparency, and collaboration could be. We’ll assess how you’re closer than you think to this kind of environment in my next article, which will wrap up the Trust exploration.