Business Team Building, Step 1: Recognizing How Ego Shows Up

So there I am in a meeting room with Fred and five members of his team. Fred had invited me to sit in on a meeting and evaluate what was happening. He said that the team was stuck; that they were completely unable to pull in the same direction. As their leader, accountable for their performance, Fred was at his wits end.

What I saw was in the next hour was something that I had seen countless times, in countless meeting rooms, literally around the globe. And, as always, it saddened me. I saw how Fred’s ego began to run the meeting. And the more he did this, the more the team members shut down and lost their winning spirit. I know that Fred does not do this deliberately – he is a great guy! He just does not understand that the enthusiastic, spirited, focused, determined, accountable behaviors he wants his team to demonstrate are the very same behaviors his ego crushes.

Fred is unaware of the demeaning language his ego uses, and of how patronizing and self-righteous he sounds. He would probably be surprised to know that the reason why his team is stuck and their meetings are a frustrating waste of time, is that his ego is switching his team off. Fred really wants to succeed and yet his ego is sabotaging him.

I thought to myself, ‘what a great opportunity Fred has here! If he would be willing to recognize when his ego shows up and learns how to manage this, he can, quickly and easily, revolutionize his leadership style and his team’s performance’.

I came out of my daydream and noticed that everyone had caught the ego bug! The more switched off the team became, the more judgmental and closed-minded and self-righteous Fred became – which then caused the team to become even more defensive. The interesting thing is that every person in the room has been hand-picked for their intelligence, their educational achievements and their technical experience. And yet, in the next sixty minutes I watched as the ego game neutralized the powerhouse of combined intelligence that existed in this team. They were wasting their time and talent on being defensive, engaging in avoidance and denial, trying to squelch the bad feelings they experienced, and working hard to hide how vulnerable they really feel. While they were doing this, they were unable to think and dialogue intelligently and innovatively. While their ego was in the driver’s seat, their genius was in the passenger seat. (See my book, Who’s in the Driver’s Seat: Using Spirit to Lead Successfully)

So let me describe what I saw. Perhaps you will recognize some of these behaviours. The scene plays out as follows. The first point on the agenda is a potentially sensitive issue. Everybody knows that there is an elephant in the room but no-one is prepared to address it. The matter is intellectualized and rationalized and distorted out of all shape. They move to the next point on the agenda to everyone’s relief, although the issue has not been dealt with and everyone knows it will return.

Not much later, someone in the room takes personal offense at something that was said and defensively and sarcastically rejects the contrasting viewpoints that have been expressed. Another team member uses the tactic of becoming territorial and playing the blame game – it’s their fault that he was unable to deliver on time!

By this time, the dynamics in the room leave each member of the team with a personal choice – either I show some spirit and challenge what is going on here, or I play it safe and withdraw. In this scenario the team members decided it is safer to withdraw. I watch as they visibly shut down, become minimally involved, participate only when absolutely necessary, go through the motions, and show little connection to the organization’s goals or to each other. The energy in the room plummets. Negative emotions hang thickly in the air.

The team has become distracted and unfocused in their thinking. Few new insights are brought into the mix. Fred either doesn’t pick up on the fact that people have withdrawn; or he does, and prefers to ignore this.

Fred and the team leave the meeting with a poorly thought-out solution, based on unquestioned fundamental assumptions and outdated perspectives. There has been no change in perceptions, attitude, behaviors, tactics or strategies. In addition they leave with unresolved differences and the mistrust that this breeds.

I knew I had to give Fred feedback and show him how to manage his ego. The trick was to be able to find a way to do this without Fred’s ego becoming defensive and resisting what I had to say. I knew that if he could remain open enough to listening to me, he could choose to make some changes to his behavior and his communications that would enhance his life and the lives of his team.

I walked to Fred’s office thinking about the fact that companies spend so much time and money recruiting top talent and then they proceed to squash their spirit and compromise their talents by allowing leaders and managers who cannot manage their own egos, to manage their people.

Just look at these incredible statistics showing the cost of organizational ego!
· 53% of businesspeople estimate that ego costs their company six to 15 percent of annual revenue.
· At 6% the annual cost of ego would impact the revenue of an average Fortune 500 company by $1.1 billion.
· 63% of businesspeople say that ego negatively impacts work performance on an hourly or daily basis

I knocked on Fred’s door. ‘Come in’ he called. As I walked in he said, ‘Did you see that! They just don’t get it! If it were not for them I could make great things happen.”


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