You know who we’re talking about. Employees who aren’t afraid to trumpet their own accomplishments, but who seem to be oblivious to the contributions others make. In general, these are the employees who don’t have a clue about how others perceive them.
Left unchecked, distorted egos can stoke resentment and cause morale problems among co-workers. Ego can derail priority projects and kill team spirit. Unfortunately, an out-of-control ego is a lot like a car alarm: it’s loud, incessant and in most instances, no one is quite sure how to turn it off.
With stakes like that, you would think that organizations would move quickly to defuse out-of-control ego. But the truth is far too many egomaniacs are left to run rampant, leaving a trail of hard feelings behind them. Why would any organization allow something so dangerous to prosper? The reasons are complex.
In some instances, an unchecked ego may be considered the price an organization has to pay to keep a top producer happy. As long as someone’s results are good, no matter what they say or do, a big ego is rewarded and complimented. In essence, the underlying message is that the organization is willing to tolerate bad behavior to achieve results, which drives disengagement and possibly more bad behavior.
In other organizations, conflict-adverse managers are reluctant to confront robust egos because they are concerned it will affect the employee’s level of engagement. In fact, some managers are so geared to provide nothing but complimentary language that they do not know how to offer constructive feedback.
A person’s reputation is a difficult topic to broach. Confronting and defusing an out-of-control ego can be a deeply personal matter, and handled awkwardly, it can have devastating effects on the individual involved. Still, it’s a conversation that leaders must have with their employees.
Every employee has a reputation or personal brand. Leaders have a responsibility to create awareness about how each employee is viewed within an organization.
The egos in your midst
Who are the most likely candidates to demonstrate ego problems in your organization? Roughly speaking, you can find egos in two distinct constituencies:
The Cowboys: These are top-producing employees who are only too aware they stand out among their co-workers. They may be described as lone wolves or secretive, and as a result they don’t necessarily work well in teams. Not only do the cowboys tend to swagger, they often imply that they are above those who don’t post the same results. They also typically demand, and often receive, preferential treatment and benefits.
The Clueless: These are employees who do not have the accomplishments of a top performer but may nonetheless carry the same swagger and bravado as they lack awareness regarding their performance. In this instance, ego is a facade behind which the employee is oblivious to their contributions in the organization. For these employees, self-confidence trumps self-awareness.
Although both of these employees come by their unchecked egos for different reasons, the solution is pretty much the same.
The antidote for an unbridled ego: the reality check
There is no way to get around the fact that unbridled egos must be confronted. The challenge is how to do that without crushing the spirit of an employee, or potentially driving a top producer from your organization.
Great managers know how and when to pump up an employee’s ego. They also know how and when to release some of the pressure from an ego for a safe landing. Effective managers will, most times, accomplish this through a coaching conversation to create awareness about an individual’s personal brand, and how he or she is perceived in the organization.
The big trick is to confront the issue of ego without necessarily calling it an ego problem. By their very nature, unbridled egos will be defensive, even incredulous about being confronted. Simply put, you cannot pound an ego into submission.
That means the coaching conversation needs to focus on the employee’s behaviors and how they are negatively impacting co-workers and the business. Instead of emotionally charged language, focus on specific situations. Acknowledge the positive contributions an employee is making, but also caution them about how negative behavior can undo all that good work.
The best coaching conversations are built around a mutual respect and desire to learn. They focus on equality, not superiority. They voice observations rather than judgement.
Constructive feedback must always end with an assurance from managers that they are really looking out for the best interests of the employee. This “I-have-your-back” message is a critical element in building trust, the most effective way of bringing an over-charged ego back into reality.
Best practices: create a culture of ongoing accountability
Confronting egos will be more difficult in an organization that does not already promote a culture of accountability, create awareness through 360 assessments, or mandate its managers and leaders to have regular performance and career conversations.
A culture of accountability means that you are giving all employees, including those with unchecked egos, a consistent message that they must be responsible for how their behavior affects others. Career conversations are an opportunity to connect with employees, to show that an organization cares about what the employee values and truly understands what motivates them.
Perhaps most importantly, a constant, open career management dialogue makes the prospect of raising any sensitive issue a lot less daunting. In other words, if you’re meeting and talking regularly with all your employees, it’s likely that no topics will be taboo.
Unchecked egos do not have to be the undoing of your organization. Confronted head on, in a respectful manner, ego can be brought under control without demoralizing the individual.
And the best news of all is that the strategies most effective in deflating an unchecked ego, if they are built into the DNA of the organization, will pay off in many other ways as well.
About the Author
Kim Spurgeon is a Vice President of Career Solutions at Lee Hecht Harrison Knightsbridge. Kim has over 20 years of experience in human capital consulting and is a certified coach specializing in career management, career coaching, and career transition.More Content by Kim Spurgeon