Cedric B Johnson, Ph.D and Kristine MacKain, Ph.D
The car in front of you is wandering from lane to lane, braking unpredictably. A warning signal goes off in your head: “Back off–this person is dangerous.”
We also encounter “dangerous drivers” in the workplace — ego-driven individuals (or “egotists”) who cause “accidents” by alienating others and straining relationships. Egotists face special challenges in the workplace but they can change to become more effective leaders.
Who is Behind the Wheel?
When taken to the extreme, egotists are utterly preoccupied with themselves. They take credit for other team members’ work. In team discussions, they have a habit of returning the focus back to themselves. When attention is diverted from them, they become sulky or angry. They are not in control of themselves; rather, their ego is driving them.
How Egotists Undermine Relationships
In seeking to get their needs met, egotists use other people; they listen to and include others only insofar as they find them useful to their cause. In interactions, they’re wondering: “How do I benefit from this relationship?” “How do you make me look good?” Because egotists don’t value the opinion of others as much as their own, others may feel marginalized and expendable, making collaboration difficult.
John was a senior manager in his company’s customer service unit. He was extremely clever and used his intelligence to dominate other team members. In meetings, he minimized or dismissed others’ contributions and seemed distracted when others were talking. Frustrated, John’s reports and peers talked to his manager, saying that while his brilliant ideas were indispensible, he was not a team player.
After chronically failing to address collaboration as a development goal, John’s manager told John that although he was a high-potential leader, he was not ready for promotion to the level of Director. John expressed anger, saying his team did not respect him because he intimidated them with his extraordinary skills. He also expressed frustration because he considered himself ready to assume the prestigious position of Director. John spurned the concerns of his team while focusing on his ego-based needs for career advancement. It was at this point that he was referred for coaching.
How can John make the necessary changes to get his promotion and become an effective leader?
Four Milestones in Implementing Change
1. Wanting to Change
John’s ego needs — to be the “smartest person in the group” and stay at the center of attention — hurt his leadership effectiveness in collaboration. He wanted to change but not because of the concerns of other team members. Rather, John’s motivation to change derived from his ego-drive (i.e., getting his desired promotion).
In working with egotists, we first need to address the frustration or discomfort that results from their ego needs being thwarted, not the collateral damage that their shortcomings have on others. It is initially unproductive to try to help these individuals see the error of their ego-driven ways. Egotists have a very difficult time shifting their focus away from their ego-based needs. The primary impetus for change initially should be on improving collaboration skills in order to get promoted.
2. Changing Behaviors
John understood immediately that improving his collaboration would lead to an eventual promotion. However, he needed to learn a set of new, specific behaviors to replace the old behaviors that weren’t working for him. He needed explicit instruction on how to be more collaborative; for example, ask powerful questions, summarize others’ comments, recognize and implement others’ contributions. He also needed feedback from his group on how he was doing. Because John lacked insight into the disruptive nature of his ego drive, the focus was on changing behaviors, not raising self-awareness.
3. Making John Accountable for Change
The biggest agent for personal change in an organization comes from social and political pressure. John knew that his manager was watching for change and that this would be the condition for promotion. Having his feet held to the fire insured that the changes were implemented.
4. Discovering What Inspires John
As John improved his collaboration skills, he embarked on a deeper journey of reflection to discover what inspired him. He found that his true passion was using his strategic thinking skills to solve business problems. Because a director position afforded him that opportunity, he was further motivated to make the necessary changes to secure the Director position. Now that John was connected to what inspired him he revealed his underlying potential to find deeper meaning in his work.
The leadership journey of the egotist is difficult but not impossible. For egotists, there are two underlying drives: the drive of the ego and the drive that comes from inspiration. The catalyst for change is the pressure from the workplace to reduce egotistical behaviors and the discovery, facilitated by mentors/coaches, of inspirational sources.