8 Ego Traps
It can be hard to hear honest feedback—especially when the feedback is not what we think or want to believe about ourselves. But the consequences of ignoring that feedback can be even more damaging (including a 629% risk of derailment) than facing down some potentially unpleasant realizations about your work style. This chapter shows readers how practicing the three primary EQ skills—self-awareness, empathy, and self-control—can open the door to free-flowing communication and ensure they receive the timely feedback they need to lead effectively.
At the top, brilliant intellect and strong technical expertise mean very little if the senior executive cannot collaborate with others to leverage that knowledge to move the organization forward. Research shows that technical expertise is not a core indicator of success in the highest ranks of an organization. At the top of the hierarchy, technical expertise becomes negligible while leadership skills become all-important—especially those rooted in Emotional Intelligence. Self-awareness, self-control, and empathy: research has shown us that these skills matter more to success than the qualities we have long believed were the definitive predictors of success—personal qualities like determination or toughness, or IQ.
When it comes to the challenges of building an executive team, leaders who shortcut a thorough interview and hire someone they “click with” because they share their same strengths, values, and ways of thinking—end up with exactly the people least likely to challenge their decisions. That’s a risky game to play in a competitive marketplace. When you surround yourself with more of “you,” you set up blind spots that can prevent you from seeing oncoming challenges because your team sees the world much like you do rather than being able to challenge, question, or offer a different perspective.
At the heart of micromanagement is an ego-based failure to let go of control. Ironically, in some cases, micromanaging leaders may see themselves as low-ego, ultimate “servant leaders.” They may think: “Look at me, I am rolling up my sleeves and working side-by-side with the troops.” In reality, what may look like helping, though, isn’t helping at all since the group doesn’t often need another operator. They need a leader. In most cases the leader’s need to be involved often slows down the work of the group, as other things sit and wait for him to review or approve them. The principles of Emotional Intelligence say it’s not an executive or founder’s job to stay in the weeds and micromanage every challenge the company faces in each and every department but instead to lead people in the strategic direction they envision.
It’s easy for leaders across organizations to have a blind spot regarding their downstream impact: They may not have any advisors to give them feedback, and their direct reports may silently defer to them. Chances are that they will never let on, at least directly, to the disruptive effects of decisions, initiatives, requests, and behavior. For the manager who regularly communicates the belief that “my needs take priority over everyone else’s” problems may occur. Employees can start to feel disrespected and become disgruntled. The leader may become the butt of a few jokes around the office or, worse, set himself up to be undermined by others as they disengage and fail to alert the leader to possible trouble or even set the leader up for failure. No one wants to work for a dictator, even a benevolent one.
Everyone watches what the leader does. That isn’t an ego trip; it’s a fact. As leader of the organization, their behavior—for good or for ill—is the primary example by which everyone else acts. People will follow the leader’s manners, conduct, even writing or presentation style. That’s not a bad thing, necessarily. But it’s a bad thing to underestimate it. Whether it’s the time he arrives at work, the way he signs off emails, or the accolades he gives or neglects to give to team members at the year-end party, employees are watching the leader. While many leaders know in a general sense that others are observing and reacting to them, they are often surprised at the degree of detail to which employees zero in. Simple statements and actions often take on great weight when it’s the leader who’s making them. Why? Individuals want to please the leader, out of deference and respect, and because their jobs depend on it.
As a senior executive, it is all too easy to become disconnected from the troops. The contrast between the frontline environment and the physical surroundings of the average executive—mahogany offices, dining-room-sized conference tables, and private gyms or private jets—is one reason. Then consider the contrast in the nature, complexity, and seriousness of the work, such as conversations with peer executives, and, if you are part of a publicly traded company, shareholder meetings and appointments with analysts—and it makes it easy to forget what’s going on below. The demands on a senior executive to be focused on investors, analysts, the Board, or quarterly profits makes it easy to take their eyes off the organizational culture and lose empathy for those who have to execute their plans.
Unfortunately, there is only one “sin” greater than falling into any of the Ego Traps — it’s called an ego relapse—the damaging descent from newfound emotional intelligence skills, right back into an ego pitfall. Ego Trap 8 is triggered when a leader shifts from high-ego to high-EQ behavior—demonstrating the potential to be self-aware, empathic, and self-disciplined—only to slip back into the same high-ego behavior exhibited in the past. Others see that the leader is capable of change when she is focused and motivated to do so; the leader proves herself capable of acting sensitively and using self-control and situational awareness. Until she doesn’t. This sends a message to others that the leader is choosing to act with low EQ. This in turn leads to a credibility breech so deep that team members no longer trust and believe in the leader. If perception and loyalty were on the line before changing, there are even more important things at stake for sustaining it.