Don’t Let Overactive Egos Ruin Your Senior Leadership Team’s Effectiveness

July 13, 2023 David Witt

A lack of self-awareness combined with overactive egos can trip up even the best executive team.

When leaders get caught up in their ego, it erodes their effectiveness. The combination of false pride and self-doubt created by an overactive ego gives them a distorted image of their own importance.

Ken Blanchard, coauthor of Simple Truths of Leadership and Servant Leadership in Action, explains that when leaders are addicted to either type of ego affliction, their effectiveness is negatively impacted.

“There are two sides of the human ego that can cause trouble. One is false pride—when you think more of yourself than you should. When this occurs, you spend most of your time looking for ways to promote yourself. The other is fear—when you think less of yourself than you should. In this case, you spend time constantly trying to protect yourself.”

“To keep your ego in check, I recommend that you ask yourself a couple of questions. First, ask ‘Am I here to serve or to be served?’ If you believe leadership is all about you—where you want to go and what you want to attain—your ego is probably causing problems in leadership situations. But if your leadership revolves around meeting the needs of the organization and the people working for it, you are acting as a servant leader.

“Next, ask ‘What am I doing on a daily basis to recalibrate who I want to be as a leader?’ This could include how you enter your day, what you read, what you study—everything that contributes positively to who you are. Consider your daily habits and their impact on your life. Take time to explore who you are, who you want to be, and what steps you can take on a daily basis to get closer to becoming your best self.

“We need to continually monitor our behaviors so that we can make improvements. Your leadership journey begins on the inside—but ultimately, it has a tremendous impact on the people around you.”

Four Ego Warning Signs

In their book Egonomics, authors David Marcum and Steven Smith identify four warning signs that an overactive ego might be undermining an executive’s performance.

  • Seeking acceptance: These leaders become overly concerned with what others think. This keeps them from being true to themselves. They tend to play it safe, swim with the current, and restate others’ ideas instead of putting forth their own.
  • Showcasing brilliance: These leaders go beyond sharing good ideas to making their brilliance the center of attention. When showcasing is allowed or encouraged, the casualty is collective wisdom. Paradoxically, the more a leader showcases their brilliance, the less likely people are to listen.
  • Being comparative: Instead of focusing on being their own personal best, these leaders find themselves fixated on comparing themselves to others. Excessive comparison turns colleagues into competitors—and competitors are not effective collaborators. Comparing strengths to weaknesses can lead to excessive self-confidence or feelings of inadequacy.
  • Being defensive: Instead of defending an idea, these leaders find themselves defending their positions as if they were defending themselves personally. They focus on proving their cases and deflecting alternative points of view. These leaders resist feedback and brush off mistakes—and discussions become superficial.

It’s important to be on the lookout for these subtle signs, say the book’s authors. Overblown egos can seriously impact a senior team’s performance.

8 Telltale Signs a Team Is On Its Way Down

In his book How the Mighty Fall, author Jim Collins shares eight ways ego can negatively impact team performance.

  • People shield those in power from grim facts, fearful of penalty and criticism for shining light on the harsh realities.
  • People assert strong opinions without providing data, evidence, or a solid argument.
  • The team leader has a very low questions-to-statements ratio, avoiding critical input and/or allowing sloppy reasoning and unsupported opinions.
  • Team members acquiesce to a decision, yet do not unify to make the decision successful—or worse, they undermine the decision after the fact.
  • Team members seek as much credit as possible for themselves, yet do not enjoy the confidence and admiration of their peers.
  • Team members argue to look smart or to improve their own interests rather than arguing to find the best answers to support the overall cause.
  • The team conducts “autopsies with blame,” seeking culprits rather than wisdom.
  • Team members often fail to deliver exceptional results, and blame other people or outside factors for setbacks, mistakes, and failures.

Improve Your Conversational Capacity

If any of these behaviors sound familiar, consider increasing your team’s conversational capacity. That’s the term best-selling business author Craig Weber uses in his book by the same name to describe the ability to engage in important conversations in the sweet spot—where candor and courage are balanced with curiosity and humility.

“The ability to stay in this sweet spot is a pivotal competence when it comes to having an impact on the world around us,” says Weber. “When our conversational capacity is high, we’re able to remain learning-focused and purpose-driven under pressure. When it’s low, our fear-based, ego-driven reactions knock us off balance and hijack our good intentions.”

In an article titled “10 Behaviors to Strengthen Your Team Communication,” Weber shares sweet-spot best practices to improve team performance.

  1. Hold your views and perspectives like hypotheses rather than truths.
  2. Put forward a clear position and explain the thinking behind it so that others can see, explore, and evaluate how you’re making sense of an issue.
  3. Test your perspective by asking people who see things differently to share how they see the issue differently.
  4. Inquire into the thinking of others in a genuinely curious way—especially when their views differ from your own.
  5. Inquire into the ideas of others—with an authentic focus on learning—when they are not sharing their views. What are they thinking? How are they seeing the issue?
  6. Earnestly strive to balance candor with curiosity under pressure.
  7. Be courageous about bringing up the issues that need to be addressed, but temper your courage with humility.
  8. Temper your passion for tackling tough issues with compassion for how difficult it may be for you and others to do so.
  9. Lean into difference with the intent to learn. (There’s nothing very interesting about agreement.)
  10. Do everything possible to encourage others to do all of the above.

Weber explains that encouraging team members to share their insights and offer constructive criticism demonstrates that you truly value the input and feedback of others. “That kind of humility and patience goes a long way toward fostering a supportive and fruitful team environment in which even the most difficult obstacles can be faced with optimism and a willingness to learn from them.”

Egos Anonymous

Ken Blanchard suggests a novel way to make ego a topic of conversation for an executive team: start meetings with an Egos Anonymous session.

“It’s a simple but powerful opening activity with a format similar to one used in many 12-step programs. Individuals stand up, introduce themselves, and then share an example of how they have let their ego get in the way of being their best. For example, I would say, “Hi, I’m Ken, and I’m an egomaniac. The last time my ego got in the way was…” and then I might talk about when I took too long to apologize or when I was impatient with someone I care about.

“When you make this kind of admission in front of others, it is an act of vulnerability that enables people to see you as you truly are, which builds trust and improves relationships. Try it yourself. Reflect on a recent situation where you reacted improperly or in a way that was inconsistent with the person you want to be. If you are like most people, you’ll realize that your ego-driven episode was a result of either false pride or fear. You may have felt a need to win at the expense of others, or to be seen as smart, or to be accepted as part of a group. Both false pride and fear are damaging and can limit your effectiveness as a leader. The first step to changing your behavior is to identify the issue. Only when you realize you are operating out of false pride or fear will you be able to change.”

Providing Feedback to Senior Leaders

Blanchard team effectiveness consultants Lael Good and Diana Urbina explain that it is especially important to look at how your senior leadership teams are working together.

In an article for Blanchard’s Ignite newsletter promoting an upcoming webinar, they identify the special challenges senior leaders face when working together toward a common goal.

“Surprisingly, even though senior leaders are highly experienced, they often operate as a group of individuals rather than a team of people working toward a common purpose. There are a lot of reasons for this,” says Good. “First, you have senior executives coming in representing the individual divisions or departments they lead. Second, you have leaders who are used to running their parts of the operation and doing it independently of one another. And third is the lack of feedback. At this stage in a leader’s career, it’s highly unlikely they are receiving the kind of feedback that would help them be more effective.”

To address this, the two consultants look at the system—the way the team is operating.

“There's a lot of observation of what Lael and I love to call ‘the system at play,’” Urbina continues. “We look at team dynamics through the lens of the Blanchard Team Leadership model. You could think of the model as a 360-degree assessment for how the team is behaving and what the leader needs to do to enable team members to reach high performance.

“Part of the process is teaching communication strategies for dealing with people who are too candid and out for a win in their communication style, compared with those who minimize their opinions to maintain harmony. It’s finding the right balance for the team so that everybody has a chance to be heard.”

The two Blanchard consultants use a combination of facilitation, consulting, and coaching approaches. They use team observation methods to provide feedback to support team members in changing their behavior. They often do this by sitting in on a team’s regularly scheduled staff meetings, where time is reserved at the end of the meeting for the Blanchard consultants to give feedback and hold the team accountable.

“Sensitive feedback can be a little uncomfortable, so we are careful to do this one-on-one after the meeting until a level of comfort is reached—and we always get permission before we give it live in real time,” says Urbina.

“Gaining permission and trust accelerates a team toward being accountable and behaving better. It also creates an environment where it is psychologically safe for team members to work on their issues with each other.”

Good and Urbina will be sharing more in their webinar Helping Teams Succeed. It’s critical that senior leadership teams operate effectively in today’s organizations. So much is riding on the performance of these teams. Consider a quick review to learn how ego-influenced behaviors might be holding back the effectiveness of your executive teams.

About the Author

David  Witt

David Witt is a Program Director for Blanchard®. He is an award-winning researcher and host of the companies’ monthly webinar series. David has also authored or coauthored articles in Fast Company, Human Resource Development Review, Chief Learning Officer and US Business Review.

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