How Ego Inhibits Progress

Higher Education

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.


  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?

One thought on “How Ego Inhibits Progress

  1. Great insight! I have found myself with­hold­ing com­ments or sug­ges­tions in front of groups, for fear of feel­ing stu­pid or embar­rassed. Time to get over myself.

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