Ego Paralysis

I’ve rarely seen anyone honestly admit to being controlled by their egos at work. I’m sure you never partake in irrational thought, it’s just everyone else around you, right? The fact of the matter is that often, when I’m working with executives about issues, they already have a hunch about the right way to address things, and it’s ego that’s standing in the way. You can and should create a culture that’s less driven by ego and supposedly harming someone’s public image if you want to have a team worth leading.

Mea Culpa

First, there are surely areas where you are letting your own ego stand in the way. Whenever that happens, you’re like that person still trying to hang on to a barely functioning BlackBerry because you used to tell everyone, “This thing will beat iPhones” (if this seems oddly specific, it is).

Here are typical cases where we let our egos get the best of us for you to consider whether you’re going through something similar:

Stubbornness: You’ve made a decision in the past that you’re needlessly sticking to even though it’s now clear it wasn’t the right approach. Perhaps fighting an old fight just so you wouldn’t “lose face.” Strong opinions, weakly held. Make it easy for yourself and everyone around you to change their minds by cultivating an atmosphere that doesn’t keep going back to past mistakes.

Micromanagement: Not necessarily in the most straightforward manner, but generally believing that you’re needed because you’re a great technical expert, you were there from the start, you know all the old systems, etc. And due to that, you cannot and should not genuinely disengage from many day-to-day operations. That’s how we get stuck with hero executives who the team learns to rely on as a crutch. Stop believing your ego telling you you’re irreplaceable. Instead, take more vacations, shut off most Slack push notifications, and when you do help, do it via a proxy-typist (someone else has to perform what you say).

Pigeon-holing: Similarly, I sometimes work with tech executives who seem to believe that getting involved in other areas of the business implies something negative about their technical mastery. It is as if one has to be disconnected from what happens in the sales department to be a good CTO. I can understand others pigeonholing you (and even then, we work together to overcome it when necessary), but you should never believe having more knowledge of anything or an interest in it will harm you.

Possessiveness: Many technical cofounders come to a point where their organizations run pretty well without their day-to-day involvement. Frequently, it’s due to them bringing in or promoting someone else to be in charge of things, such as a VP Engineering. What happens then is that they become afraid to get “lost” without any specific role or impact lever. Some of the best CTOs I’ve worked with accepted wandering is necessary from time to time.

Enabling Ego Cultivation

Now, let’s look at your organization in general. For some people, the avoidance of harming anyone else’s ego is even greater than the care for their own egos. That’s a very kind intention, but it hurts organizations long-term.

Career conditioning: There are leaders whose greatest fear is asking their people what they aspire to do. In some companies, it’s as if the majority of the ICs are just waiting to get into management. That’s often an indication of conditioning to think that the only way to grow and succeed is by taking a specific path. It might be an issue in how your company helps people progress their careers, and it might be a belief they held earlier. However, trying to avoid those conversations or letting people have the impression that they’re on that track when you don’t think they’re a good fit is wrong. You are trying to coddle their egos and just waiting for things to explode later, often after they’ve had enough.

Martyrdom: Early employees are generally considered priceless by startups. They have the ability to move things, they understand many issues, and they’re often less spoiled. However, what often goes unspoken is that many of these have gotten used to doing things they don’t really enjoy just because they feel like “that’s what early employees do.” This is again how our “image” harms us. I don’t think everyone must follow the same track. And many people who like early startups do not like more mature ones and end up staying on due to inertia. Help them realize that even if this won’t be easy for the company, they shouldn’t stay where they are growing and being fulfilled. It’s a long-term win for all involved.

Peter principle: I kept the most well-known case for last, and that is when we have someone who’s going through the Peter principle: being promoted to the level at which one is no longer competent. Many startups are riddled with poor-fit managers who should be moved aside or coached better. When you fail to do the latter, you owe it to your team to do the former. A bruised ego is not as bad as handicapping an entire team.

Leadership is about courageous actions. When we let too many of these situations linger, they accumulate and become one of the main reasons larger organizations are slow, political, and sometimes not very fun.