Chances are there was a point—maybe there were several—in the past year when you found yourself sitting angrily at your desk wondering why you had to do so much of the work yourself. You silently cursed your colleagues under your breath as you polished off yet another aspect of that big project. If it weren’t for you, you thought, the entire office might collapse under the combined weight of all its slackers.
The same thing might happen at home, too. Spouses and partners routinely fight over who takes care of the chores, and everyone feels like they’re doing more than their fair share.
And yes, it’s certainly possible that you actually are pulling your own weight and then some. Maybe you’re surrounded by freeloaders and are the only halfway responsible person in the bunch. But there’s a pretty good chance you aren’t, despite your perceptions to the contrary. Here’s why.
A likely explanation is that you’re suffering from a common phenomenon familiar to psychologists as “egocentric bias.” True to its name, it’s our tendency to pay more attention to ourselves than to other people.
That’s one piece of a large body of research collectively termed “construal level theory,” which posits that people think more abstractly about people and objects that are distant from them than the things that feel psychologically closer.
For many, that makes intuitive sense, but it’s often hard to tell in the moment when your perception is being shaped by this principle. Our sense of time falls under it, too. When it comes down to making day-to-day choices, we’re more likely to focus on the details of how to carry out a given action happening in the near- to midterm, and to think only generally about what it’ll take to accomplish something that’s further off.
Obviously, people are closer to themselves than they are to anyone else. So you remember the amount of time you had to wait for a document to print, how long it took to search the web for a piece of information, or the hours-long slog to populate that spreadsheet.
But while you may know that someone else compiled reports from everyone on staff, for example, you’re less likely to consider how much time they actually spent doing that—sending email reminders, proofreading responses, writing transitions from one person’s remarks to another’s, and then drawing coherent conclusions from all that feedback.
Some studies have examined people’s sense of what is fair compensation for their own work relative to others’, and egocentric bias is often found to play a big role; many people pay themselves a comparatively hefty chunk. And when you ask a group of people to estimate what percentage contribution they’ve made to a group effort, you’re likely to find that the total figure far exceeds 100%. Almost everyone has overvalued their own influence.
The problem with overestimates like these is that they prevent you from recognizing how much other people contribute to a project’s success. As a result, you may come to believe that your wins are largely the result of your own efforts. You may even begin to resent your colleagues for riding your coattails.
This can have real risks—not just for your team, but for you personally. When people have a false sense of their own roles, they may take on new assignments without putting the right kind of team in place to make sure all the details come together. To guard against this problem, it’s important to bring the work that other people are doing closer to you.
That may not mean actually collaborating on the execution. But at least understanding what goes into someone else’s execution is key. When you’re evaluating the success of a project, don’t just think about what your colleagues accomplished, imagine the steps you would’ve had to take in order to pull off their piece of it. By assuming somebody else’s perspective, you can begin to see the overall effort of the team in more accurate proportions.
And if that doesn’t work, take a colleague out for coffee and talk to them about their work. Get into the nuts and bolts—ask what steps they had to go through to do what they do. Chances are you’re not the only hard worker, even if it often feels that way. Recognizing that will help you feel like less of a martyr—and make you a better leader.