Taking the “I” out of teams

A work colleague of mine had a nasty habit of starting conversations with comments like, “When I managed such and such..” or “I used to lead this..” or “When I was the CEO ….” or “When I saved the world ..”. Well not quite, but you can probably see my drift. He used the “I” word so much that I nicknamed him PP, which stood for the Perpendicular Pronoun (ie the letter “I”). This was perhaps a bit obtuse and he did not really get it, but it made a key point about his mindset. If you believed even half of what he said, you could be excused for feeling quite inferior.

The real problem however was that he was a menace in a team situation. Two problems in particular can emerge in such situations where a big ego is part of the team.

1. Big egos can drive people to distraction

A big ego in a team can be an annoyance and distraction to the task at hand. This occurs especially through unnecessary and repetitive stories about self-centred activities and experiences. People can quickly tire of such behaviour. Whilst teams should have a range of personalities, there is nevertheless a need for teams to work out and accommodate the different personalities represented. This does not mean that personalities need to be shut down, but it does mean that some protocols of the workings of a team need to be clearly understood. A big ego can provide a real challenge in this regard.

2. Team members can stop listening to a big ego

Even though a big ego can have some good ideas, people in the team can actually stop listening and ignore the suggestions or ideas presented. This can have unfortunate consequences as the team is not gaining the full value from one of its team members. In other words, the team cannot be high performing. Amongst other things, a team is about making the most of a diverse range of thinking and ideas, and a big ego can sub-optimize this aspect of teaming.

Naturally, people bring their egos to a team. That is human nature, and is part of how our confidence is conveyed. But the issue is how can the ego be positively managed in a team situation, and focused towards effective outcomes for the team.

A high performing team needs to deal with the big egos, and ensure that the outcomes of the team are not compromised. Assuming there is a need to keep the big ego on the team, three strategies can be employed:

Strategy #1 – Embrace and capitalize

As the saying goes, if you cannot beat them, then join them. This strategy is about using the big ego to energize and stimulate the team. In other words, it is about turning the ego into a positive. This would include language such “Tell us a bit more about your experience with such and such..” or “What can we learn from what you did at ..”. This strategy focuses on how to get the most from the positives, and integrating the big ego into the team in a positive and fulfilling way.

Strategy #2 – Tolerate but drive clear focus

This strategy is more about managing a collective tolerance of the big ego, but at the same time placing a strong focus on the outcomes and deliverables expected. This can be characterized by language such as “We want you to bring these specific inputs back to the team meeting, but leave other areas to different team members”. It is about using the big ego in specific areas of strength and making sure that a focused contribution occurs.

Strategy #3 – Quarantine and leverage

This is a risky strategy, but can work especially where more technical input is needed. In this case, the big ego operates somewhat outside of the team, but is tasked with providing specific deliverables to the team almost in a customer / supplier relationship. This has the effect of obtaining the material or contribution required, but at the same time avoiding some of the challenges in the normal team environment. The language here would be along the lines “We want you specific inputs in the following areas, and we will then decide how these will be discussed with the broader team”.

Teams are challenging at the best of times, and we all bring our egos to the table. But managing that big ego can provide team members with some real heartache and frustration, and can compromise the performance of the team. Film director Fred Durst gave this some perspective when he once said, “To walk around with an ego is a bad thing. To have confidence in yourself is a great thing.”



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Filed under Organisation capabilities, Strategy, Teaming

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