Is Your Ego Getting in Your Way?


I was provoked yesterday by one of Ray Dalio’s principles (check out this terrific 30 min summary).  His best selling book ‘Principles: Life and Work’ outlines some of our biggest challenges and limiters.  When he described how our ego and blind spots get in our way, I knew exactly what he meant.  As a leader, 15 years into my Intel career, my ego and blind spots were my biggest barriers to success.  I didn’t know it at the time which made it even more challenging.

Knowing the answers

I believed my job was to know the answers.  My team relies on me to figure out how to succeed.  This was a big blind spot.  And my ego reinforced that view.  I was the type of leader who was smart and knew the answers.  I had been very successful, and more of the same would serve me well.  As the pressure rose, my ego and blind spots increased my negative behaviors.  It didn’t end well.  The program I led delivered a mediocre at best result and my career nose dived.  It was a humbling time and one that I now look back on with gratitude.  I learned some important lessons.

So what happened on my team and how did I screw up?  My story that I was supposed to have all the answers made the team all about me.  If ideas made sense I would encourage them and recognize the person who provided them.  If I had any doubt, I am sure it was obvious.  Those ideas were never seen again.

Creating a knife edge

Reflecting back on this time, my behavior created a knife edge for my team.  Do I risk bringing up a new idea?  If Andy likes it, I will look smart.  If he doesn’t like it, I will look dumb.  In that situation, it was easier to shut up and keep quiet.  Why take the risk?  Keep my head down, work hard, do my part.

My behavior was robbing me and my team of the collective talents of our group.  I couldn’t have more than a fraction of the good ideas, and I also didn’t recognize all ideas are born messy.  They get better and become more valuable through dialogue and critique.  Even if the idea didn’t make sense at first, what could we build on to turn it into something that did create value?

The importance of psychological safety

As a leader, I was blind to the importance of creating a psychologically safe environment.  This is the foundation of any high performing team.  It is an environment where team members feel safe to take risks and be vulnerable in front of each other.  My job as a leader was to encourage and role model the behaviors to create this environment.  Behaviors like,  showing my vulnerability and fallibility.  Admitting my mistakes and when I was wrong.  Inviting others to challenge my point of view and being truly open to it.  Maintaining a blameless mindset.

In our workshops, we talk a lot about generating psychological safety.  I’ve written about it in previous blogs.  One of my goals in coaching is to help other leaders not have to take 15 years and a big career stumble to learn the importance of psychological safety.  What sort of environment are you creating for your team?  Are they telling you what you want to hear?  Are you encouraging them to tell you what you need to hear?