A few years ago, United Airlines and Continental Airlines merged. I traveled on both airlines frequently during that time and I will never forget an onboard video that ran before the safety video. It was led by then-CEO Jeffery Smisek, who started the video by saying how proud he was of the merger and how many things were being done to make a new, better airline. I remember him specifically mentioning how they were in the process of repainting the planes and adding routes to Africa (or somewhere very far away). I remember sitting there thinking that the only thing their merger did for me was dilute my status and reduce my route and carrier options. I could not care less about the color of the airplane I was sitting in or flights to Africa.
I kept thinking, “This video is all about you.” As a frequent flyer, I care much more about access to Wi-Fi, having reasonable change fees, and being able to count on reliable schedules. What about those things, Jeffery?
Whether it’s marketing or management, too often we get in our own way, seeing the world from our narrow viewpoint. It requires a constant diligence to avoid— all about us—messaging, which comes across as ego. The antidote to ego is EQ or emotional intelligence.
EQ refers to a competency that includes an ability to recognize one’s own impulses and moods (self-awareness), the ability to read situations and audiences accurately (empathy), and the capacity to respond appropriately depending on the situation (self-control). The EQ competency includes a wide range of learnable skills, but focusing on three that can be effectively practiced on a daily basis—self-awareness, empathy, and self-control—is all you may need.
Although we like to see people and organizations with confidence, there is a fine balance between confidence and arrogance. Knowing where that balance is requires self and social awareness. When ego trumps EQ, it can translate into business failures and costly corporate missteps. In large companies, leaders often find out too late when they’ve landed in an ego trap, as they’ve unwittingly sabotaged a new program or as a financial scandal goes public. How can successful organizations— well-intentioned as they often are—be so out of touch with reality? The disconnect can create major problems such as employee turnover, falling sales, negative social media, and disgruntled customers— all of which stunt business growth. Setting blame aside, being aware of the delicate balance between ego and EQ provides positive solutions. Cultivating and practicing EQ offers the most effective path to staying in touch and in tune, creating a path to sustainable success.
So what are the most common ego traps? Here are two:
Ignoring Feedback You Don’t Like
It may come in the form of a focus group or a client satisfaction survey. Or it may come in the form of a performance review or comment from a peer. It is easy to justify our behaviors or decisions because it is hard to accept things we don’t like or don’t want to believe about ourselves. We also often get caught up in our own intentions and don’t realize the depth of our impact. We aren’t intentionally trying to look egotistical so we think that’s enough, but it's not. Perception, as they say, is reality.
So, how do you avoid this ego trap?
- Utilize additional, objective feedback sources to collect data to see if the initial results are duplicated.
- Hire a professional coach who can help you identify themes in feedback. You probably don’t need to take action on everything, but an expert can help you know what to pay attention to.
- Make self-evaluation a habit. See yourself from the perspective of others, considering your impact, not your intent.
Surrounding Yourself With More of You
When it comes to the challenges of building a strong team, many of you may shortcut a thorough interview process and surround yourselves with people or agencies you click with because they share your same strengths, values, and ways of thinking—ending up with exactly the people least likely to challenge your approach or decisions. That’s a risky game to play in a competitive marketplace. This approach sets 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.
How do you avoid this ego trap?
- Intentionally seek out people who think differently than you and don’t avoid conflict.
- Encourage others to question or challenge you, assign angels and devil’s advocates in meetings to objectively weigh both sides to any approach.
- Utilize a structured interviewing and selection process to avoid hiring clones.
In business, you are always subject to factors that you can’t control, whether it’s the supply of your raw materials, competitive moves, regulatory requirements, or any number of other unwelcome surprises. What you can control is how you interact with your team— whether you lead from an unconscious place driven by ego or instead lead with EQ at the fore, consciously exercising your self-awareness, empathy, and self-control. It takes some effort to be an emotionally intelligent business leader, but it doesn’t have to be all-consuming. What’s more, you don’t have to change who you are. The goal really is to retain your strengths while being aware of the few areas where ego may tend to trip you up. Once you have heightened this awareness, you can shift your sail ever so slightly when needed—doing the small things when they matter—and then watch as the individuals around you begin to respond more positively and the organization shifts into a powerful new direction. By opening your eyes to some of your blind spots and being courageous enough to make a few small— but incredibly powerful—changes, simple course corrections can put you and your organization on even stronger footing.