I believe the biggest addiction problem in the workplace today is the human ego. When people operate from their ego, their behavior tends to be based on fear rather than trust. When people behave out of fear, they have a high need to control others and their environment and they have a win-lose orientation toward everything. Even when discussing the weather they want to make sure you know that they know more about weather than you do. They broadcast a philosophy about life that states “I’m okay, you’re not.”
I discovered this addiction many years ago when my wife Margie was writing a book with Dr. Mark J. Tager entitled Working Well and studying what made a healthy work environment. One of the questions they asked people in their research was, “Can a bad boss make you sick?” A lot of people said, “Yes.” They cited examples such as migraine headaches, ulcers, sleepless nights—even heart attacks and cancer.
I became fascinated by people’s perceptions of bad bosses, so I started asking people around the country to describe the worst boss they had ever worked for. The primary description I heard was that of a high ego-driven person. The worst managers were described as poor listeners who were reluctant to share credit and always wanted to be in the limelight. While a lot of people would think people with a big ego had high self-esteem, I found the opposite to be true: Individuals who operate from their ego are usually covering up “not okay” feelings about themselves. They try to compensate for feelings of inadequacy by overpowering others and controlling their environment.
Why do I feel ego addiction is so harmful to the business community? Because it is holding back progress in organizations. Companies all over the country are having difficulties moving toward being the kind of organization they need to be to make it in this economy. Companies today need to be customer driven, cost effective, fast and flexible, and continually improving. To do this we need high-trust environments. And yet, throughout the work world managers are hesitant to empower others and give them a chance to have more responsibility and take initiative to make decisions. The people who are fearful and holding back support of these changes in business are those who are operating from their ego. They fear loss of power and control.
People who are hung up on their egos and who operate out of fear really need love. Yet it’s hard to love these people because they don’t seem very lovable. Instead, folks with big egos seem to be demanding, self-centered, and unsatisfied. They feel better about themselves when they can make others feel inferior. Fortunately, their attempts don’t have to be successful. As Eleanor Roosevelt once said, “No one can make you feel inferior without your permission.”
Just because someone has power doesn’t mean he doesn’t have a need to feel appreciated. When was the last time you caught your boss doing something right? When was the last time you gave your boss a hug? I’m not necessarily talking about a physical hug—even a psychological hug can help. Thank her for her support or for doing a good job on a certain task. In my sessions I ask people who are parents whether their love for their kids depends on their kids’ achievements. Rarely does a hand go up. We love our children without any contingencies—it’s called unconditional love. I think the same approach is needed in the workplace today. We need to learn to trust and respect others, even if we sometimes have a problem with their behavior. If we can help everyone in the workforce feel good about themselves and raise their self-esteem, we’ll have more people willing to share power by permitting others to take initiative, make decisions, and let work teams be the main vehicle for decision making. To overcome ego addiction, people have to get in touch with their own worthiness. If it’s hard for them, others can help.
Everyone in organizations should set a goal to maintain or enhance the self-esteem of the people with whom they interact, for the benefit of all. Big egos can be tamed with the right amount of tender loving care.
Whenever two people quarrel, inevitably they focus on who is right and who is wrong. Playing the “I’m right, you’re not” game is a sure way for people to push away from each other even further. If there is a history of disagreements, this mindset will cause even the slightest spat to become a rehash of past conflicts.
Knowing how to handle conflict is an important skill for anyone. I find that three very simple questions can help minimize conflict.
1. “What would make the other person’s position right?”
The first question is from Mary Parker Follett, a professor of organizational behavior in the early 20th century. She was one of the first people to point out that conflict was often the result of rational, well-intentioned people who simply saw the world differently and thus focused on different problems.
To best resolve a disagreement, Follett advocated not to dwell on who was right, but rather to try to better understand why the other person sees the situation as he or she does. That is, ask yourself, “For the other person to be correct, what views would that person have to hold about the situation of life in general?” This simple technique can help you see beyond the problem at hand and focus on a more general understanding of the situation.
For instance, I once got upset when I felt that someone in my company did not treat a customer well. But by asking, “How could this person allow this to happen?” I learned that the other person simply didn’t realized the importance I have always placed on customer service. As a result, we achieved clarity about this issue.
After you have a good understanding of how the other person sees things, you can more objectively discuss with him or her the basis for the specific perception. It is easier to discuss how the person arrived at the perception and what might change his or her viewpoint than it is to force someone else to change a position he or she is locked on.
2. “What do we have in common?”
This question comes from Peter Drucker, one of the foremost management thinkers of our day. He believed that sometimes the best approach to deal with conflict is simply to try to make it more bearable for those involved. Instead of criticizing each other when you disagree, Drucker advocated finding what you have in common with the other person. Finding a common ground can then typically be parlayed into other areas of agreement. Although the conflict may not ever be fully resolved, focusing on areas of agreement will help minimize the conflict and make it more manageable.
To take a simple example, suppose a man who works with you is constantly late for meetings, and this bothers you. You may interpret his behavior as unprofessional and disrespectful and you are apt to get increasingly annoyed. The other person, however, is likely not to see it the same way. He may instead feel that being on time in life is simply not that important in the overall scheme of things. He may feel instead, for example, that it is more important to get the job done. He may be willing to work long and hard—maybe even staying overtime—to complete any given assignment. Both of you place a different value on timeliness for different reasons which are valid to each of you individually.
Instead of focusing on being “right” when the colleague is late, it would be much more productive for you to explore how you both see the subject of timeliness and what you each might do to minimize the potential conflict that results when he is late. You might get the person to agree to call you if he expects to be late, or you may need to emphasize in advance to him when it is crucial for you to have him be on time. These agreed upon “rules” will help to minimize potential friction in the future between you both.
3. “If we were to agree in the future, what would it look like?”
I learned this last technique from my wife, Margie, who convinced me that looking ahead to the future and imagining a harmonious relationship makes it easier to get to that point.
As an example, let’s say you are discussing the future direction of your company with your management team and there is disagreement. Instead of getting caught up in escalating emotions about some aspect of the company’s vision that you feel strongly about, just slow down and imagine what your company would ideally be like in five or ten years. This technique allows people to focus together on a positive future vision that can serve as an anchor in your interactions today. Again, areas of disagreement tend to become secondary.
Resolving conflict is not always an easy thing to do. Yet, if you take a moment to use these techniques, you may find your anger and frustration slipping away as you take a giant step toward achieving more harmonious working relationships.
Some folks wonder whether or not it’s true that a good leader can manage anyone—even someone doing a job the leader doesn’t understand or someone with skills the leader doesn’t have. And, if it’s true, how is it possible?
In fact, leaders are often responsible for individuals who perform tasks the leader may never have personally done. This is why you sometimes hear of managers and executives who successfully change jobs from one industry to a completely different one. How is this possible, you ask? First, leaders often coordinate activities of highly skilled, mature employees who are often capable of working with little supervision. Second, leadership is primarily a people activity. If a person has good people skills such as the ability to motivate, communicate, and listen, then that person has the most important attributes of being a good leader, regardless of the type of work being done by direct reports.
If an employee is working in a specialized job with which his or her manager has had little or no experience, that manager can still help that employee achieve top results by listening to find out what that person needs to successfully do the job and working to meet those needs. In addition, a good leader can be a sounding board for ideas and can help talk through problems. A leader can also represent the importance and value of the person’s work to others within the organization.
In short, an effective leader must be resourceful. Remember, a common definition of management is “getting things done through others.”
This description of a good leader differs from the popular image held by many people. The effective leader or manager is not an all-knowing, multi-talented “super worker.” I’m glad to report that this stereotype is on its way out. We don’t need leaders who are good at everything—we need leaders who are very good at a few things, such as helping workers get what they need to complete their jobs or being adept at coordination throughout an organization.
Peter Drucker, one of the top leadership gurus, claimed that the best model for tomorrow’s organization is that of a symphony orchestra. In such an organization, a single person—the conductor—coordinates the performance of hundreds of specialists. The conductor communicates directly with each musician and can tell the musician what is needed to achieve the right combination of sounds without knowing how to play the tuba or the drums.
Effective leaders must know and be able to communicate what is expected. They provide the big picture. They don’t need to know exactly what must be done by specific individuals or departments to achieve those expectations. Effective leaders set goals and then translate those goals for others using clear communication. This ensures that the number of management levels between the CEO and those doing the job will not need to increase. Many organizations today have fewer layers of management and wider spans of control for leaders than typical hierarchies in the past. Increasingly, organizations will become loose-knit clusters of specialists who are served by their leaders.
Remember: Leaders are more likely to be effective at managing anyone if they have or develop the skills that are related to people and not specifically to a job or profession.