How Ego Inhibits Progress

Are your meetings stale and one-directional?  Are you having problems getting the right people on the bus to solve a problem?  It may be that someone’s ego is getting in the way of progress.  In this article we explore the Ego Wall, which is when a leader’s egotism becomes an obstacle to positive forward progress.  In doing so, we’ll discover ways to deal with our own ego as a possible progress inhibitor to good leadership.

Ask yourself how your last meeting went.  Was it just as successful as it could have been, or was it as successful as it should have been?

Often times when bringing people around a table we have an expectation of mutual partnership.  It makes sense as social creatures; when we bring together people in a meeting of the minds, we expect a hearty and thoughtful back-and-forth of talking points.  If you’ve worked anywhere besides under a rock, though, you know that meetings are often 80% silence and 20% minority attendee opinion. They say leadership is not an ego game, but then we get into a meeting and see that ego prevails. Why is this?

People are afraid of their own opinions

In Quantico I attended a counter-intelligence training program where we learned about how people interact and provide information differently in groups than when by themselves.  One particular psychological aspect of group behavior that stood out was the Bystander Effect.  Popularized by Stanley Milgram, the Bystander Effect is when people disregard good samaritanism when others are present.  In other words: “I won’t help or pitch in because there are other people around me who are seeing this happening and they are probably going to help so I don’t have to.”

While the Bystander Effect is technically used to describe situations of mortality and/or safety, we can use it to frame how people interact in groups in our meetings as well.  If people are less likely to participate in a situation when they perceive it as dangerous, we can translate this to social situations and postulate that people are less likely to participate in a meeting when they might feel vulnerable.

Social vulnerability is nothing new;  peoples’ insecurities are a constant reminder of how important social acceptance is in how we express ourselves.  For leaders, though, expression is not as paramount as self-reflection.  Instead of worrying about acceptance, we should concern ourselves with ensuring the opinions and talking points of those around us are well-received, respected, and appreciated.

I have watched military leaders command a discussion that is supposed to be participatory and take a prospective dialogue and turn it into a one-way soapbox lecture.  Likewise, I’ve seen higher education administrators chair a committee and only receive bits and pieces of sentences as feedback to their ideas or agenda items.1  Why is this?

People don’t like to talk in meetings because people are afraid of their own opinions.  More specifically, people are afraid of what other people will think about them if they express their opinions.  Not me, I’m sure you’ve heard someone say before, I always speak my mind!  There’s a difference between complaining and critiquing, and in the case of productive forward progress I’m talking about the latter and not the former.  Anyone and everyone is an expert at complaining, but rarely do I see people putting forward positive ideas for change.  Why?  Because complaining is negative, and implies that someone else must balance it with a positive proposal.  Can you think of which one makes us more vulnerable?

By and large, people are afraid of what people will think of them and their ideas, so they refuse to put themselves out there.  This is not new;  any management 101 class will teach you these things.  But why do they continue to happen?

People find false authority in other Egos

People see good leaders as a vessel, not just a symbol.  If you have a leader who asks questions, who is openly self-reflecting, and encourages others to give their opinions, other people will start to feel like leaders themselves.  People see themselves in the leaders they choose to follow and how we lead affects how others around us work together.  Own your influence over others!

So what happens when a leader is not openly self-reflecting, does not encourage others to give their opinions, and does not honestly consider input from others?  Their ego becomes the focal point.  Ego creates a false authority in the room, and others see this as proof that they do not need to participate.  This is what I call the Ego Wall — a huge, thirty foot barrier between your team and your team’s mission.  Occasionally someone will climb the Ego Wall to peek over the other side, but anyone who makes it completely over is no longer in the Circle of Trust.  The wall is constructed with a permit from the Bystander Effect

Ego Walls are built by self-serving leaders, and you may have even built some ego walls yourself.  We’re all guilty of it at some point in our lives.  The best we can hope for going forward is identifying those Ego Walls we may be defending and taking steps to bring them down.  Ego Walls are the product of a self-serving leader, and left erected they promote a culture of toxic leadership.

When times are good, the self-serving leader praises the mirror; when times are bad, they’re critical of everyone else.  Great leaders do just the opposite.  When times are good, the great leader praises others;  when times are bad, they’re critical of themselves.  Great Leadership is not about expression, it’s about self-reflection.  Take steps to reduce the potential for egotism to turn into toxic leadership by being open and honest with your colleagues and those around you, self-reflective with everyone — no matter where they are in your organization’s food chain — and encouraging people at all levels and positions to offer their input on critical organizational decisions.

When we put our ego aside and focus on how collegiality and teamwork strengthen forward progress, we remove the false authority that suffocates open discussions and stifles innovative thinking.  The next time you’re in a room with other people, find the person who you think feels the least valuable and ask them for their advice.  Tell them that their thoughts are vital to the team, and take the time to appreciate their contributions by seriously considering them.  Our egos should be set aside to make room for others to learn how to lead from the best — you!

People will be what they are enabled to become

The act of being a leader is not some royal affair.  The ultimate sign of good leadership is when a team succeeds and they have only themselves to credit.  The greatest leaders are those who step aside and allow their products to shine.  Don’t make those around you navigate an Ego Wall, give then an open, honest path right through it.

Leadership is not a game of action, it is a game of motivation — a complex balance of leading from the front and a commitment to making others better than yourself.  The best leaders throughout history are the product of those around them.  Surround yourself with people who are also keeping down their Ego Wall.

When I see people throwing out ideas and working hard to develop the new this or the latest and greatest that, I always ask them, “who else can I talk to about this?”  If the answer is “Just me,” then I know we have a problem.  Good leadership is not about producing good things, it’s about producing good people.  You lead effectively when those around you are collaborating and coming up with solutions — and taking credit for them.  As the Lau Tzu quote goes:  A leader is best when people barely know she exists. Her work is done, her aim fulfilled, they will say:  we did this.

Footnotes

  1. Over the past four years I have noticed that the more structured committees are (i.e., the ones that conform rigorously to Robert’s Rules of Order) tend to be either really good at promoting dialogue or extremely bad at it.  A mushy, gray middle ground is the semi-structured committee, which sets itself up like a meeting but pretends that there are people in charge who are leading from the front.  Where are your meetings in all of this?