Is your ego getting in the way? Leadership techniques for the ego-driven project environment

Tresia Eaves PMP, MHR
EVP and Co-Owner, Variance Enterprises, LLC.

Abstract

Ego can be defined as the part of us that drives us to continually compare ourselves with others. It causes us to complete with our co-workers and to seek to have more than our neighbors. Our ego is the driving force of our personality. Ego is not actually addressed in the Human Resources chapter of A Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge, Fourth Edition. The main areas of focus are the efforts around acquiring a suitable project team, building the team, providing leadership, and managing the many stakeholders associated with the project. It may not be specifically addressed, but ego is very much embedded in the subject of human resources management, and project managers should take the time to understand how personal egos and the egos of others can shape the outcome of a project or one’s own career.

Project managers are in a unique position. They are expected to perform flawlessly as leaders in an environment where resource shortages, change requests, and stakeholders of every variety and personality are continually challenging the successful completion of a project. The ego of the project manager and the egos of the team members and other stakeholders often clash in this environment. This paper addresses the challenges of managing and leading multiple stakeholders with ego-driven agendas while attempting to meet project objectives. The focus is on the ability to influence and manage in a complex, politically charged, environment filled with strong, aggressive individuals. The skills to managing one’s ego and to dealing with the egos of others are essential for today’s project manager to survive and produce the value expected at completion of the project.

The Ego Factor

 Everyone has an ego. Our egos are, in part, a result of the influences we have experienced throughout our lives. Ego affects us in several ways, including, but not limited to:

  • Willingness to compromise
  • Willingness to listen to others
  • The sense of what is right
  • The need to be better than others
  • The importance of relationships over personal objectives
  • The need to be in control
  • The need to compare our accomplishments with those of others
  • The need for possessions

These issues drive behaviors in ourselves that are observed by others. We, ourselves, use these to judge people we work with and they will impact how relationships will be formed. Maintaining an awareness of these issues and how to make adjustments that will minimize conflict and allow us to focus more on our own needs without worrying about what others think will help us channel our energy to those things that are truly important.

When we think of the word ego, many of us think in terms of the negative aspects or descriptions that manifest what we believe egos to be. Words such as egotistical and ego maniac are often used when describing people who create conflict with ourselves or who appear to impose their will on others. It is important to understand that egos are not actually a negative component of our lives. Without an ego we would not have the ability to achieve our goals. The key is to learn to control our own egos and then learn to cope with the egos of others.

Are You Ego Driven?

According to Srinivas Rao, author of How to Manage Your Ego So You Can Reach Your Full Potential, there are six signs that indicate you may be ego driven:

  • Concern about the approval of others
  • Fear of asking for help
  • Comparing and competing
  • The constant need for more
  • Lack of presence (focusing on the past or the future but never on the present time)
  • The need to always be right

A quick look at this list and you can immediately see the connection to project managers. It almost looks like a check list for the practicing project manager. These descriptions may not be true for every project manager, but there is a strong need for work performed and results achieved by project managers to be approved, especially by key stakeholders. Many project managers are also conditioned to avoid asking for help because it may mistakenly indicate a lack of ability. Competition with other project managers for highly visible and challenging projects, comparing results with other projects, the need for higher quality at lower costs, reviewing lessons learned and then preparing for the risks yet to come and a desire to be seen as in control at all times are all parts of the project manager’s daily life. It would appear that we are, for the most part, ego driven.

Having an ego is not bad; in fact, it’s necessary. Being ego driven, on the other hand, can create problems and cause clashes with other ego-driven stakeholders. If you can learn to keep your ego in check, you will be able achieve greater results, improve your ability to establish strong working relationships, and influence people more effectively. The question to ask is, “Are you in control of your ego or is your ego in control of you?”
I’d like to think that project managers are high-performing individuals with a deep desire to succeed. Sometimes that desire can drive our egos to control our behaviors. Think of your typical daily behavior. How does your ego affect your work and who you work with?

 

You know your ego is not in control when:

  • You see others, especially other project managers, as rivals and attempt to find ways to show your superior abilities
  • You become competitive over the smallest issue or detail
  • You take on additional assignments just to show you can handle more work than others
  • You deliberately find fault in another person’s ideas
  • You must establish and maintain control of all meetings
  • You insist on approving almost all communication generated during the project life cycle

Do any of these seem familiar? Are you displaying any of these behaviors, even just slightly? Your ego may be beginning to create challenges before you actually see evidence of a problem. Think about your work environment and the people you work with. How would you classify your work relationships? Think about your project stakeholders. How would you describe them in terms of their egos? Can you identify the people who are driven by their egos? How do they affect the way you work?

Ego Is Not Bad

Now that we have seen some of the more negative characteristics of ego, what are the positives? Our egos are responsible for going to the gym to maintain our weight and physical condition. Egos drive us to go to school, to learn new skills, and to find ways to help others. Our egos are involved in our need to receive acknowledgment and to seek promotions and more challenging work. Most of the world’s successful leaders have used their egos to achieve their personal goals. It becomes a matter of balance and self awareness. Typically, when leadership characteristics are defined, you will see a list similar to this one:

Visionary

Knowledge Champion

Holistic Perspective

Use of systematic processes and frameworks (the power of visualization)

Effective communicator

Effective interaction

Openness

Innovator

Encourage personal self development

Strong Beliefs

Optimism

Courage

Teamwork

Prepared

Confident

Passion

Has Values

Creativity

Humility

Planning/organizing

Business Savvy

Considering this list, it is clear that ego is a factor in the development of a strong leader. Of course, many leaders use the negative side of ego to achieve their goals of power, dominance, and to be feared. In the project environment an ego that is controlled and channeled in a positive direction will contribute not only to the success of the project but to the well-being of the team. The positive ego creates a desire among team members to collaborate and to look for ways to work better together while managing their own egos.

The Ego-Driven Environment

Egos exist in every organization and at every level. Like change, it is something we have to deal with and manage as effectively as possible. We can’t change personalities and we can’t force people (with any great success) to do what we want them to do, but we can work on our ability to influence people. Consider the list of leader characteristics. Identify your strong points and continue to use them and strengthen them. Identify characteristics, which you will need to develop and create a plan for improvement.

In the project environment, the challenges associated with ego will come from several directions. Project sponsors have a specific agenda and, in most cases, an ego to match. Customers also have their own agendas and will use a combination of tactics to achieve their goals. Their egos may be driven by internal organizational requirements for advancement or that desire to make the boss look good, which usually translates into a promotion or some type of reward. The multitudes of stakeholders who are usually associated with any given project also carry with them their own unique personalities and egos. Basically, we are surrounded!

Developing an Influential Attitude

Leaders who have established themselves within their organizations, as well as aspiring leaders, have usually identified at least one “good” role model or mentor to help them with their goals. It is true that the definition of “good leadership” is not universal. Cultural differences, social norms, politics, personal values, organizational values, and many other factors contribute to what people may define as leadership. Regardless of the perception of good leadership, observe those you believe are good leaders and analyze their behaviors and the interactions with their followers.

You will find that many leaders use an approach similar to the following:

  • Develop clearly defined and high expectations of yourself and others (avoid the unreasonable and unrealistic)
  • Communicate what you believe to be important and why
  • Set short-term, intermediate-, and long-term goals
  • Create a sense of cohesiveness within your organization. Encourage a harmonious environment. This does not mean attempting to eliminate conflict, but to work together to find solutions when there is disagreement
  • Listen to the ideas of others
  • Build on the strengths of others
  • Cultivate leadership
  • Balance the work that must be accomplished with the need to establish and maintain positive relationships

The influential attitude you create is actually contributing to the positive aspects of your ego. Instead of looking for ways to show you are better than everyone else, you are looking for ways to create a better environment for everyone; this, in itself, provides a reward for you and nurtures that positive ego. The feeling of accomplishment is well deserved and you also will experience the appreciation of those around you. One of the challenges of managing one’s ego is that we seem to always be looking at someone else and their problems rather than focusing on ourselves and dealing with our own issues. Taking care of ourselves and understanding who we are is the first step toward developing an ego that will actually create new opportunity. One method of learning more about how we relate to other people and how our behaviors affect our relationships is a 360-degree self assessment. These assessments provide the candidate with very candid and often surprising feedback from those they work with, including customers, subordinates, peers, and managers. The feedback often touches on many of the factors that have developed a person’s ego over time. When done properly, and in a caring manner, the 360-degree feedback process can help the candidate identify issues and personality traits that were not obvious or not communicated effectively and that may have had an impact on relationships with others. A plan for developing problem areas can be established without damaging one’s ego and, in many cases, will provide the candidate with a feeling of greater purpose and value. If the 360-degree process is not managed effectively, the results could cause some severe problems especially with internal relationships, which could take years to recover from.

Conclusions and Summary

Our ego can divert us from achieving our personal and professional goals. If we maintain a focus on how to be better than everyone else, to compete with everyone, and to attempt to always have the best ideas, we will eventually suffer the consequences. We all have an ego and that ego can be controlled or it can control us. Failure to understand ourselves and why we behave the way we do when subjected to certain situations can have a significantly negative effect on relationships, personal goals, and professional ambitions. The most effective leaders understand their behaviors, where their strengths are, when to ask for advice and, most importantly, when to recognize the contributions of others. A controlled ego is one that allows other people to offer ideas without criticism, to share the spotlight (or to give up the spotlight entirely). Ego can create obstacles or it can open new doors; it is a form of energy that requires some control. Egos feed us a constant stream of information. If that information is not managed, our ego will overshadow the real person inside. Our egos can drive us to think about how we can be better than someone else, how to compete, how to discredit others, and how to find ways to convince others that we are always right. These are not generally considered the traits of a good leader. The positive side of our egos can motivate employees, peers, and team members. Consider avoiding negative statements when work has not been completed to your expectations. When there is room for improvement, first talk about what has been achieved and then suggest ways to achieve other specified objectives. Provide employees or team members with information about how they have contributed to organizational goals. Ask for advice. Being a part of the decision-making process is a boost for the egos of many team members and employees. Listen carefully when there is resistance, and ask questions when there appears to be a concern or a conflict brewing.

You will be dealing with the egos of many people. To do that effectively you need to know yourself. Consider how you react when you see a certain person or are required to meet with a certain group. Why do you react in that manner? Is there a more beneficial and mutually agreeable approach that will minimize conflict and actually develop solutions faster? Think about a time when you had an encounter with another person and walked away saying to yourself “that could have gone better!” Chances are that your ego was in control.

The project environment is basically ego driven. No one is doing anything for nothing. People have goals and they have their own sets of values that influence how those goals are achieved. We can’t change others, but we can become aware of our own behaviors and how our personalities affect others. That awareness becomes the primary factor in controlling our egos and helping us on a journey to mastering ourselves and becoming more effective leaders.

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Gaddis, S. (2011). Ego boosters vs. ego busters. Retrieved from http://www.communicationsdoctor.com

Johnson, R., & Eaton, J. (2002). Influencing people. New York, NY: DK Publishing Inc.

Rao, S. (2011). How to manage your ego so you can reach your full potential. Retrieved from http://www.thekoollife.com

Scholz, C. (2011). How to manage your ego. Retrieved from www.chipscholz.com/2011/04/07/how-to-manage-your-ego

This material has been reproduced with the permission of the copyright owner. Unauthorized reproduction of this material is strictly prohibited. For permission to reproduce this material, please contact PMI or any listed author.

© 2011, Frank P. Saladis PMP, Tresia Eaves PMP
Originally published as a part of 2011 PMI Global Congress Proceedings – Dallas, TX

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