Forgo Your Ego or Forget the Promotion
by Lara Nuer
When Dan, a former two-star U.S. Navy Admiral, now COO of a $500 million company, publicly berated a VP during an executive meeting, it was the last straw. Having taken this abuse one too many times in less charged settings, the VP quit on the spot, becoming the catalyst for Dan to finally reassess his approach.
While it was clear his harshness was hurting morale and transparency in his organization, Dan’s directness was also a strength — people always knew where they stood with him. When asked to look at his harshness and take stock of its unintended impact, he resisted. “Hold on a second,” he said. “I need to be strong. If people don’t perform, I have to hold them accountable. I don’t want to become a wimp!”
Corporate leaders often attribute their success to their drive, ambition, being a “hardass” and doing whatever it takes to get the numbers. Like Dan, who believed his ego was his strength, they fear that changing this will make them lose their edge.
Here’s the scoop: They’ve been successful despite their ego, not because of it.
When someone like the VP didn’t perform to Dan’s standards, he got impatient and harsh, even bullying, which distracted from his message. People were afraid to bring him bad news or admit mistakes, so issues didn’t emerge until they became crises. With little constructive mentoring, his direct reports ended up making the same mistakes repeatedly.
What made his strength of directness become a liability?
Leggo my Ego
Stored in Dan’s unconscious was a set of insecurities — failure, judgment, ridicule — that stemmed from painful experiences in his childhood. Our brains are wired to protect us from reliving such pains, and so are on hyper-alert to those triggers, which have become unconscious “ego-threats”. When our ego feels threatened, we have a fight-or-flight, knee-jerk reaction — such as lashing out.
Dan realized a strong ego-threat for him was appearing incompetent. Each time an employee made a mistake, he was unconsciously afraid it would reflect poorly on him. Thus he’d react with a self-protecting behavior — lash out to ensure the employee corrected his mistake immediately. Only no one wanted to work for him.
So, why are harsh people successful if this behavior isn’t effective? The illusion of benefits. Directness, for example, can get things done. Add an edge to it and it becomes abrasive and can create a culture of fear. The leader misreads that he’s admired, respected and liked. He got away with harshness in previous roles as an individual contributor, maybe even as a middle manager, but not as an executive, where leaders are expected to attract and grow talent, inspire and collaborate. If you’re a bully, your people won’t want to go the extra mile for you. You’ll inhibit innovation.
Coming to understand this, Dan’s greatest insight was that he’d been successful despite his ego, not because of it. And that was the impetus for him to change.
Here’s one good reason: If you’re leaving too many dead bodies behind, you won’t get the next promotion.
Senior executives frequently discover through in-depth feedback assessments that they need to collaborate better with their peers. Most have plateaued in their careers because they rub their colleagues the wrong way. Their bosses don’t promote them because they don’t create collaborative teams or work across silos, which is what’s needed in today’s complex, matrixed global companies. Executives must learn to lead by influence, not always by direct authority.
Most reasons executives have for not working on their egos is the fear of losing their “success edge”. But Dan didn’t lose his directness, he just quit over-reacting to his ego threats and stopped belittling others in unconscious self-defense. As a leader, he was able to use his strength in a much more powerful way. Direct reports could actually hear his feedback and act on it. So everyone became more effective. If you do the work, you won’t lose what’s good about your leadership, only what’s holding you back from growth.
How to tame your ego and get out of your own way
- Stop seeing it as black and white. People tend to think, either “I’m a hardass that leaves dead bodies behind, but I deliver the numbers, so I can climb the ladder,” or “I’m a ‘wimp’ people like but I don’t deliver and won’t get promoted.” Not true. It’s just your ego justifying continuing the knee-jerk reaction.
- Have the courage to truly look in the mirror and face the impact of your habitual behaviors. Get a 360-degree feedback assessment (interview-based not online) that focuses on your behavior and impact.
- Be willing to look honestly at the costs of your behavior. With the unvarnished feedback, let yourself really feel the damage you’ve created. It feels counterintuitive at first, but push through it — it will provide a powerful motivation to change.
- Search for your particular ego-threats that lie beneath the behavior you want to change. Each time you feel that impulse to react unproductively, ask “how is my ego feeling threatened? How am I afraid to be perceived?”
- Choose your response. Once you know the ego-trigger, make a conscious choice how to respond. Be guided by what matters most to the situation and organization.
- Work with a coach on how to let go of your ego-protective patterns. It’s not easy to make the unconscious conscious or let go of old, entrenched behavior, so get some support.
- Connect with who you really want to be as a leader. Someone who can step into a deeper conversation with direct reports to grow and inspire them? Embraces learning from errors? Is an example of trust and partnership across teams? Initiates generative conversations about conflict? Wants everyone to succeed around them?
Though it was too late to bring back the VP, Dan’s shifts in perception and behavior fundamentally improved his other relationships. The CEO now can hear Dan’s differing opinions since they’re presented thoughtfully. The company’s top customer is no longer wary of him, but open and receptive. And he even decided to create a formal coaching/mentoring system inside his company; now he’s the most in-demand mentor.
To learn more about how to forgo your ego, attend one of Learning as Leadership’s Personal Mastery seminars. The next one is February 18-26, 2015. For a free needs assessment with one of our Executive Coaches, click here.