Having a healthy ego is inherently healthy. Yes, having a healthy ego is good for you. It also can be good for your learning and development organization, provided that egos don’t excessively inflate.
“In spite of all the training and the efforts that we go through to get people up to a competent level in different disciplines, ego can undo everything when it gets out of control,” said David Marcum, co-founder, MarcumSmith, LC. “Regardless of what you do, what skills you have, every law of leadership that you know, regardless of what that is on an individual level or what organizations are looking to develop in terms of competencies in their companies, everything passes through this little black box. Inside that black box are free radicals, anti-oxidants or what we call ego, and the anti-oxidants of humility, curiosity and veracity.”
Marcum said that perhaps the most important competitive advantage a senior learning executive could have is not to continue to increase the amount of competence or training that people get, but to give people access to what they already have by keeping egos in check. “One of my favorite questions to ask people is, ‘Would you agree that ego is costing your company money?’ The almost immediate response is, ‘Oh, yeah.’ That’s probably a 99-percent response. Then I ask, ‘How many meetings go on longer than they should? How many bad ideas are still thriving because of someone’s ego? How many stupid projects haven’t been killed? How much political maneuvering goes on?’ The list goes on and on. People start to realize, wow, it is pervasive.
“Then we usually ask, ‘How much is that costing your company as a percent of revenue?’ It’s tough to put a number on it, yet when people do, on average they say it’s costing between 11 and 15 percent,” Marcum said. “I believe that’s actually a conservative number when you consider how pervasive the imbalanced ego is in a company.”
Part of the challenge in keeping egos under control is that people don’t understand what ego is. The concept is often seen as negative, but Marcum said if you ask people, ‘Should we completely remove ego?’ they would fight to keep it because ego is both a good thing and a bad thing. “A healthy amount of ego propels your strengths, propels the competencies that you have,” Marcum explained. “It changes the nature of how you have conversations. Our belief is that humility would make a lot of what you ought to be doing in business much more effective. It would help you discover what strengths you have that are turning into weaknesses.”
Marcum said it’s fairly easy to recognize the moment when strengths morph into weaknesses. There are four signs that may predict where that learning and development project update or innovation meeting will end up, and what will happen to the relationships contained within if participants allow certain patterns of communication to prevail in conversations. “A [stands for], ‘I seek acceptance,’ which is to say, ‘I’m more worried about what people will think of what I say, and so I may not say something that needs to be said for fear of what others would think,’” Marcum said. “B would stand for showcasing brilliance. This is probably the more popular sign. We know what it looks like when people are grandstanding. C would be comparison. This is probably the most prevalent sign, and it usually triggers the other three. Comparison is constantly comparing our thoughts with others. ‘Do they have more control than I do? Are they more popular with the boss? Do people like their ideas better?’ Comparison usually leads to a feeling of superiority or inferiority and a whole host of behaviors that follow that,” Marcum said. “If I feel like you’re a little superior to me, I may be prone to be more critical of you and your ideas to try and equalize the gap between us. Or, if I feel like I’m more superior as a result of my comparison mind set, I may start to demean, challenge or discredit ideas that you bring up so that I can maintain superiority. D would be defensiveness, which is a commonly understood sign of ego.”
There’s nothing overtly wrong with wanting to be accepted, nor is there anything wrong with being smart. It’s only when these desires become a dominant motivation of behavior that they turn into problems. Marcum said the counter balance to the four signs is the anti-oxidants humility, curiosity and veracity. “Part of the challenge with this topic is number one, it’s an extremely personal, sensitive area. Just because we know and recognize the signs, it’s not always the most helpful thing to say, ‘I noticed your ego getting a little bit out of control.’ That’s just going to produce a predictable reaction. But we do need feedback because we all tend to see ourselves through the proverbial rose-colored glass. The instant thought when people read or hear about this is, ‘I know just who needs to read this.’ The answer is ‘Yeah, look in the mirror.’
“Two, awareness is a lot of the cure,” Marcum explained. “If you’re aware of behaviors when they show up in conversation, at least you’ll recognize it. Then the question is, ‘What can I do about it?’ This doesn’t require that other people change in order for you to work more effectively with people who have egos that are out of control. It allows you to hold up the mirror and say, ‘How am I doing?’ Self assessment, as objective as we try to make it, can still be subjective. We need other awareness, other feedback. It gives us tools to keep our own egos in check that affect those that we work with, for example, language. There’s nothing wrong with stating your points directly, clearly, articulately, but sometimes how we make those statements provoke ego in other people.”
Clear, unbiased and unfiltered language is one of the touch stones of effective learning and development. It’s also helpful in diffusing the negative effects of ego. Marcum illustrated this point with the example of a verbal shot issued during a meeting. Someone says, ‘I don’t think that will ever work. Nobody likes the idea. That’s why we’ve always killed this in the past.’ You could go on the defensive or aggressively put the idea out again. “Versus what if we said, ‘Hang on. First of all, it’s not easy to hear that kind of criticism. It’s not what I was hoping for. I want to understand it. Would you be willing to share with me what you don’t like about our proposal? Instead of being defensive or aggressive we’re trying to suggest, ‘Let’s stay open to this discussion rather than get into an egotistical shoving match to try to prove or disprove it.’ It doesn’t take much for your ego to get out of balance,” Marcum explained. “As soon as that happens, information exchange in a conversation starts to be tainted. If we’re defensive we’ll exaggerate information beyond its meaning or intent just to defend ourselves or to make our point, or we’ll conveniently filter and leave other information out.”
One might think that the opposite of being egotistical is being humble. Marcum said not. “We’re finding that you can have too much ego, and the opposite would be too little ego. If you notice the four signs, usually showcasing brilliance and defensiveness are too much ego. Often seeking acceptance and comparison is a function of too little ego. What’s in the middle, the thing that balances all of it is this notion of humility. Humility is a scary word because it conjures up these images of weak, meek, and in business it seems like that’s a concept that won’t fly. In order to bring balance to ego we need to understand humility more. It is a strength, not a weakness. Humility is a very strong characteristic. It’s not meekness. It seems to be misunderstood. Humility is about pairing. Humble people are extremely confident and ambitious. They’re not weak. They’re not subservient, and they’re not shy, quiet and afraid to speak up.”