ego Archives - Senior Executive

We’ve all been there: a project you and your team collaborated on for months doesn’t yield the results you’d hoped for, or a dream client decides to sign with your competitor, or maybe the business doesn’t meet its quarterly revenue goal. It’s situations like these – the ones where no one specific person or event is to blame, but rather the team as a whole misses the mark – that can be the most difficult to solve for. 

Post-mortem meetings provide the perfect opportunity to sift through a project or initiative from start to finish and determine what went well and what could be improved upon. But in the cases where the initiative in question is deemed unsuccessful, you might find your team playing a round of the blame game rather than working to come up with tangible solutions. When everyone is busy pointing fingers, how do you get down to brass tacks so you can figure out what actually went wrong and prevent it from happening again?

I’ve written before about egos at the individual level, the opportunities and challenges they present in the workplace, and how to bring out the best in your specific ego type. But when you’re managing a team of egos – and trust me, you are – how do you ensure everyone is playing to their strengths instead of succumbing to their weaknesses, specifically in a post-mortem meeting when emotions are running high? It’s not always easy, but there are several steps you can take as a leader to quell the egos, ease the tension and move forward as a team.

Take Ownership

In the decade-plus I’ve been working with executives, I’ve found that when leaders are willing to take ownership of their part in a failed initiative, the rest of the team is much more willing to follow suit. It should go without saying but whether or not your team succeeds or fails is ultimately up to you. While you probably aren’t the one executing individual tasks, you’re responsible for delegating those tasks, setting the vision and leading the charge.

Assess your role in the outcome, and be honest – with yourself and your team – about what you could do better next time. Some might be concerned that this kind of vulnerability is a sign of weak leadership, but in my experience, this approach tends to disarm egos, encouraging the rest of the team to own their part and work collaboratively toward a solution.

Be Curious

Rather than assume you know what went wrong, approach the post-mortem meeting with an open mind. Be genuinely curious about what took place at each step by asking pointed questions and actively listening to the answers. Encourage everyone on the team to bring their own questions, for you and their colleagues, and be prepared to answer them honestly. Ask clarifying questions until you feel you’ve established a complete timeline of events. 

Do your best to frame your questions in a constructive rather than accusatory manner. In fact, it might be worth stating up front that the purpose of the post-mortem isn’t to assign blame to a single party but to establish where you are so you can map out how you can get to where you want to go. With everyone’s egos in the backseat, having already copped to their mistakes, you can have an honest discussion, identify the source(s) of the issue and decide how you might approach things going forward.

“In the decade-plus I’ve been working with executives, I’ve found that when leaders are willing to take ownership of their part in a failed initiative, the rest of the team is much more willing to follow suit.”

Christie Garcia

– Christie Garcia


Address Motivations

After these conversations, you should be ready to develop a solution for the next time you’re in this situation. But wait, you’re not done. There’s still one more discussion you’ll need to have as a team before you wrap the post-mortem.

In my work as a leadership coach and ego management expert, I’ve identified three types of egos: the compiler, the protector and the controller. Each of these ego types has different motivations and reasons for doing the work they do and we see these motivations most clearly in the questions and concerns they raise, especially in situations like these. For example, compilers want to be liked and crave approval and validation from those around them. Protectors, on the other hand, are driven by the need to be right and tend to be stubborn when it comes to adopting someone else’s way of doing things. Finally, controllers are the perfectionists of the bunch and tend to be results-oriented. 

So what does this mean for your post-mortem meeting? The compilers on your team will be concerned with the people aspects of the proposed solution: Who’s involved? What will be required of them? How will this impact the team? The protectors will want to understand the logistics: What steps need to be taken to implement this plan? Who is responsible for what? What resources are available? And the controllers will want to know what results they can expect: What would be the tangible outcome of this solution? How will you measure success? What should they be tracking along the way?

Since you likely have a mix of each ego type on your team, take the time to consider each aspect of your proposed solution – the people, the logistics, the results – and clearly lay out how the solution you’ve agreed upon will impact each of these aspects. Document your answers in any meeting notes and ensure everyone on the team has access.

You’ll save yourself time and headaches down the road by asking and answering these questions now. You’ll also increase the likelihood that the team will buy into your plan from the jump and your solution will be a success. 

Ready for Your Next Post-Mortem Meeting?

Post-mortem meetings are an invaluable exercise but they can be tricky to navigate when results are less than stellar. By following these steps, you’ll avoid assigning blame to any one person or party, keeping everyone in the “we’re a team” mindset, which is exactly what you need to conquer the next challenge.

The ego has gotten a bad rap as of late, especially when it comes to business. You’ve probably heard a boss or a manager say some variation of the phrase “check your ego at the door,” and there are some who have even gone so far as to say that “ego is the enemy of good leadership.” These days, empathy has taken center stage, and with good reason. As organizations are still reeling from the effects of the Great Reshuffle and many workers call for their employers to be more human, empathy is having a moment.

As an organizational psychologist and empathy researcher, I don’t disagree with the heart of these arguments. It should be every leader’s worst nightmare to be described as an “egomaniac” who is unable or uninterested in hearing constructive feedback. But does that mean ego has no place in your business? Based on the years I’ve spent designing and developing leadership programs for global brands, I would argue that some ego is necessary to be the best leader you can be and run a successful business. Let me explain.

What Is the ‘Ego’ Anyway?

In the simplest terms, “ego” means “I” or “the self.” When we say someone “has a big ego,” we mean that they think too highly of themselves, or they’re too focused on themselves and not enough on those around them. But the ego isn’t necessarily a villain.

I often tell my clients to think of the ego like a bouncer at a club. If the ego had a job description its No. 1 responsibility would be to protect us from pain and embarrassment, which is a good thing, but it’s also the source of the ego’s bad reputation. Important leadership traits like self-awareness and being open to constructive criticism can be uncomfortable, painful and embarrassing. In these scenarios, it’s important that you’re able to recognize your ego and tell it to take lunch so you can actually absorb this feedback and grow as an individual and as a business leader.

But let’s consider an example of how our egos work to protect us can ultimately be a good thing. Take Jennifer Lopez’s recent documentary, Halftime. In the film, JLo discusses the onslaught of criticism she’s faced throughout her career, about her looks, her voice, her personality and so much more. Had she internalized all that feedback and given all of it the same weight, she wouldn’t be the actor, singer or performer she is today. Thanks to the ego, JLo was able to cut through the noise and apply the feedback that could actually help her grow—and ignore the rest.

The ego helps us draw those necessary boundaries so that we don’t take on every opinion or emotion as if they were our own, which can be a good thing. Your ego encourages you to trust yourself, your experiences and your instincts, even when others disagree. Your ego ensures that the empathy you show others is balanced with compassion for yourself because you’re worthy of care and respect, too. The ego isn’t empathy’s archnemesis, it’s empathy’s powerful sidekick.

“Finding the balance between empathy and ego is the key to exceptional leadership.”

Payal Beri

– Payal Beri


Compassion for Self, Empathy for Others

Finding the balance between empathy and ego is the key to exceptional leadership. It can’t be all ego all the time, just like it can’t be all empathy all the time. Striking the right balance will look different for each leader, each organization and each situation, but let’s consider an example of what this balance looks like in action.

In May 2020, Airbnb made the difficult decision to lay off a significant portion of its workforce as the company struggled in the early days of the pandemic. Ego is inherent in any decision to cut ties with workers: You, the leader, are making a decision to move the company forward, despite the negative impact that decision may have on the livelihood of many colleagues.

But rather than make the announcement over a Zoom call and wash his hands of it (all ego), Airbnb’s CEO Brian Chesky wrote an open letter that clearly walked employees through the decision-making process before he outlined the generous severance package each employee will receive (ego and empathy). Chesky and the Airbnb team had to make a tough call, but by balancing that call with empathy, I would bet that Airbnb was able to maintain positive relationships with those employees—and potentially gained some loyal customers in the process.

Empathy Is a Superpower

In order to achieve your goals, both for your business and your career, you’ll have to strike the right balance of empathy and ego. Don’t think so highly of yourself that you can never be wrong. But don’t become so invested in other people’s emotions that you compromise your values and lose your purpose.

I truly believe that empathy is a superpower. Being able to tap into how others are feeling, consider other points of view and give them weight aren’t the skills of an average leader. But if you allow empathy to overpower you at every turn, you’ll quickly find you aren’t the one running your business anymore. Empathy is a superpower, but don’t let it become your kryptonite.