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Check Your Ego at the Door: Build a Team-First Workplace Culture

By Carole Wehn

Thirty-five years ago, Tom Wolfe published Bonfire of the Vanities and coined the term “masters of the universe.” He was referring to the masterminds of Wall Street, the brash, cocky MBAs who made millions. They exemplified big egos in the business world.

In your company, big egos may trigger thoughts about the marketing pro who gloats because their slogans are all winners or the salesperson who brags about landing difficult clients. Unfortunately, these people never let you forget about their latest success and their value to the organization.

Conversely, employees who keep their egos in check prioritize the company’s agenda over their own. While they have a healthy confidence in their abilities, they do whatever is necessary for the team’s success.

Does the latter describe your company’s culture? If not, what can you do about it?

Redirect the Strong Ego

At the core of every dysfunctional organization is one thing: ego,” wrote author and CEO David J. Friedman in Fundamentally Different.

Having a strong ego in and of itself is not a bad thing. Leaders need to show the confidence and belief that they have the ideas and ability to effect positive change.

The problem occurs when people think they have the only ideas that will work or put their agenda ahead of the greater good. Their robust self-confidence must be directed away from making themselves shine. The organization will only prosper when all efforts and decision-making focus on serving customers and other employees.

Encourage Your People to Be Team First

People who check their egos at the door make decisions that are best for the team or organization, not for themselves.

A common example of this behavior is when an employee assumes a new role because the company needs their expertise elsewhere. They may even be moved into another position to make room for an up-and-coming leader. The new job may appear to be a demotion or less challenging or glamorous. But the selfless employee views it as a chance to help the organization succeed. They appreciate the opportunity to contribute and learn in the new position.

People who check their egos also accept company decisions that are not in their best interest without complaint. For example, they understand when their desire to add staff is denied so the company can fund new equipment. Or the IT project they requested is re-prioritized in favor of another initiative. Putting the organization’s aims first means accepting these disappointments with grace.

When you suspect an employee is putting their agenda ahead of the team’s, ask them, “Is that what’s best for you, or the team?” Asking them to step back and take an objective look at the situation may create clarity.

Checking the ego is about working together to attain the company’s goals. No one succeeds unless the team succeeds. When employees feel connected to the organization’s mission and vision, they are more inclined to put team goals ahead of their own.

Tips on implementing a team-first culture:

  • Share company objectives. Ensure employees understand how their work helps to fulfill those broader goals.
  • Stress performance against company goals rather than individual performance in recognition programs.
  • Be the example you want to see. Give credit where it’s due.

Create a Culture of Straight Talk & Careful Listening

When we check our ego at the door, we are open to asking for and receiving performance feedback. And growth is only possible when we listen to feedback and improve our performance accordingly.

Open and honest feedback thrives in a culture where employees routinely listen to understand and speak straight to one another.

Listening to understand is more than simply “not speaking.” It means giving others your undivided attention. You minimize distractions and let go of the need to agree or disagree. You suspend judgment. When listening to others, you don’t interrupt with your point of view or wait for the opportunity to dispute their point. You listen with an openness to potentially changing your perspective.

Speaking straight means speaking honestly in a way that helps to make progress. Employees say what they mean. They are willing to ask questions, share ideas, or raise issues that may cause conflict when necessary for team success. They are courageous enough to say what is required to advance company objectives.

When employees feel comfortable listening and speaking in a non-judgmental workplace, they will positively receive feedback. They know it is intended to benefit them. They understand feedback is not about putting someone else down to build the speaker up.

That being said, no one likes to hear negative feedback. Our ego may be too strongly tied to our work, and we likely thought we were doing a great job. And receiving feedback may be particularly difficult for leaders, as they are often not told the full truth because of their rank and power.

When our ego interferes with our ability to process feedback, we typically:

  • Blame others
  • Deny the problem
  • Attack the speaker
  • Invalidate the feedback
  • Make light of the issue 

When you do that, according to executive coach and author Peter Bregman in Harvard Business Review,

“There’s an almost magical added benefit to this simple, undefended response: it dramatically increases your ability to take in the feedback. When you stop defending against it externally, you actually stop defending against it internally too.”

When you keep the ego out of the way, you allow yourself to process the feedback without judgment.

Tips on implementing a careful listening, straight-talking culture:

  • Teach employees to replicate—how to rephrase what they’ve said to ensure they listened correctly. This can be done after meetings to ensure the next steps are clear.
  • Encourage employees to have difficult conversations with their co-workers. Don’t do it for them by talking to their boss. But coach them along the way.
  • Provide employees with concrete examples when providing feedback. Then have them say thank you and process the input without further comment.
  • Be the example you want to see. Ask for and accept feedback, including from customers and subordinates. Remember, that’s a difficult conversation for them. Say thank you.

Don’t Take This Personally

Signs of ego getting in the way are:

  • Taking things personally
  • Feelings of jealousy when others are praised
  • Feeling sorry for yourself
  • Needing to be right
  • Believing that your ideas are the only good ones.

Have you ever felt that an idea generated in a meeting and the person who suggested it were indistinguishable? The employee who contributed the idea may have been committed to their pitch, insistent upon its success, usually to make themselves look good. As Friedman wrote in Fundamentally Different,

“Imagine if we all check our ego at the door and recognize that we are not our ideas. We are separate and distinct from our ideas. The idea is nothing more than an intellectual thought put on the table to be discussed, tweaked, massaged, or even tossed out, and it has no bearing whatsoever on our worth.”

Think of how freeing and productive meetings would be if ideas were evaluated solely on merit, regardless of who came up with them.  No more continually circling a less-than-ideal suggestion because its contributor won’t let go of it.

Doing this helps employees understand that if someone else’s idea is chosen, it doesn’t mean the person is preferred. It’s not about them. It’s about what’s best to help the organization make progress.

Separating people from their ideas also opens up the opportunity to change direction and admit mistakes. This ability to pivot is a good indication of an ego held in check.

Tips on helping people separate their ideas from their self-worth:

  • In meetings, recognize the idea, not the contributor.
  • Take a brainstorming approach in problem-solving, where “there are no bad ideas.”
  • Be the example you want to see. As the leader, your idea doesn’t have to be the best answer.

It’s Okay to Admit Mistakes

As a leader, checking your ego and being confident enough to admit mistakes and change direction pays big benefits. Author Karen Firestone wrote in the Harvard Business Review,

“Developing a culture where people feel comfortable admitting mistakes needs to start at the top because employees watch their leaders for clues on acceptable behavior and etiquette.

One of the most valuable things that a manager can teach her staff is the ability (no matter how embarrassing) to show fallibility, admit wrongdoing, listen to tough feedback, and persevere through the corrective action toward the next challenge.”

This sentiment was echoed by Red Hat CEO Jim Whitehurst. As CEO, he decided to go to market with a product and later had to reverse direction, setting the company’s strategy back a year. He said,

“I’ve learned that nothing builds engagement more than being accountable to the people in your organization. You simply have to have the confidence to own your mistakes and admit when you’re wrong.”

Whitehurst continued,” I’ve found that leaders who show their vulnerability, and admit they are human, foster greater engagement among their associates.” And employee engagement is the key to satisfaction and retention.

During the COVID pandemic, leaders in all arenas showed that they didn’t have all the answers to the varied issues created by the health crisis. Your team probably witnessed your vulnerability as you responded to workplace and workforce challenges. Maintain that sense of willingness to change direction if needed.

Tips on helping employees admit mistakes:

  • Implement a culture of blameless problem-solving. When mistakes occur, separate the issue from the person. Ask, “how did this happen?” instead of “who messed this up?”
  • Keep the focus on moving forward. Learn from the mistake and move on.
  • As a leader, demonstrate humility and admit your missteps. Be willing to change direction when necessary.

Culture Change is Possible

You can change your company culture to one where employees keep their egos in check and think team first. The CultureWise website contains many resources on developing and maintaining a strong culture.  Request to speak with one of our consultants to learn more the CultureWise system can impact your company. And be sure to subscribe to the complimentary Culture Matters blog to get the latest workplace culture-related articles, webinars, and podcasts.