Putting Ego to Work for Your Chorus

In his recent book egonomics: what makes ego our greatest asset (or most expensive liability), co-author Steven Smith explores the power of ego to enhance communication and organizational effectiveness. Because choruses, like many arts organizations, are comprised of community boards and often little or no staff—all led by an artistic director whose vision, talent, and charisma play a major role in galvanizing and motivating the activities of singers, board, and staff—the quality of communication among them is vital to organizational health. Smith elaborates on how ego can be harnessed to foster effective communication.

Ego is the unseen—but not unfelt—force that ultimately decides whether a team or organization is held back by performance that's "good enough," or breaks through that barrier to reach great. And because ego is subtly out of sight, that's precisely why for decades, if not centuries, we've become no better—and maybe no worse—at managing the most pervasive, powerful force inside every person in every conversation on every team in every organization.

But despite the negative reputation of ego, ego sparks the drive to invent and achieve, the nerve to try something new, and the tenacity to conquer adversities that inevitably arise. Surprising as it may sound, many people don't have enough ego, and that leads to insecurity and apathy that paralyze teams and leaders.

Invested into every team meeting, boardroom debate, performance review, client conversation, contract negotiation, or employment interview is the potential for ego to work for us or against us. If we manage ego wisely, we get the upside it delivers followed by strong returns. But when that intense, persistent force inside manages us, organizations and careers suffer real losses.

Jim Collins notes in his landmark Good to Great research that the leaders of the 11 companies that made the leap to "great performance" exhibited unique traits: 1) intense professional will and strong ego drive, and 2) extreme personal humility. Collins calls this rare combination "Level 5" leadership. In other words, having humility was not just another nice but hollow quality to talk about in leadership seminars, but rather, a competitive advantage for those striving for great performance.

If people acquire a level of humility in the way they work and lead, and know how to use it effectively, the upside of ego is just as powerful as the downside.

Understanding Humility

The first step toward making the move to Level 5 leadership in the way we work and communicate comes from understanding what humility is in the first place. For most people, tradition holds that the opposite of excessive ego is humility, when in fact having too little ego is just as dangerous and unproductive as having too much. Humility keeps us at the equilibrium; when we are on-center our talents stay true to form and communication stays open, productive, and honest. But since there's a natural tendency to deviate from the equilibrium, when we move just right- or left-of-center, we begin to lose humility. As a result, effective communication shuts down.

Humility graphic

Imagine that the spectrum of ego is magnetic, with the strongest pull coming from the two ends. At the center, the magnetic pull on either side has little effect on us. But the closer we move to the extremes, the more the magnetic pull affects us and the harder it is to make our way back. The longer we stay off-center in a meeting or a one-on-one conversation, the more comfortable we become being off-center. If we don't quickly recover, we lose our ability to advance a discussion rather than just "continue" a conversation. Being consistently off-center keeps us locked into average performance and can lead us gradually toward the extremes in the way we work as teams.

But because humility suffers from the undeserved reputation of being quiet, submissive, meek, and weak, people mistake humility for perpetual harmony on every aspect of teamwork and communication. But real harmony rarely comes without a little bit of turbulence first.

"Unless one considers alternatives, one has a closed mind," said writer and management consultant Peter Drucker. "This, above all, explains why effective decisionmakers deliberately disregard the major command of the textbooks on decisionmaking and create dissension and disagreement rather than consensus.

"Decisions of the kind the executive has to make are not made well by acclamation. They are made well only if based on the clash of conflicting views, the dialogue between different points of view, the choice between varying judgments. The first rule in decisionmaking is that one does not make a decision unless there is disagreement."

Intensity and Disagreement

In the pursuit of progress, there will be intensity and disagreement. But if we can't handle intensity, we won't get diversity of thought. When diversity goes down, research shows that the odds of success go down too. If we mislabel intensity for being egotistical, we trade progress for soft conversation and swift consensus. The intensity of debate is shaped by our intent and humility shapes our intent. As it does, humility generates genuine confidence that doesn't confuse identity (our title, tenure, status, political power) with ideas. The clear distinction between the two frees us to raise the level of intensity in the exchange of ideas without crossing the line into the early warning signs. In others words, humility makes intensity constructive, not destructive.

Let's first clarify what we mean by intensity. "You need executives...who argue and debate—sometimes violently—in pursuit of the best answers," says Jim Collins. The particular words Collins and Drucker use are interesting choices when describing what it takes to make good decisions: clash, conflict, disagreement, dissent.

But violent? When's the last time any of us read a book on communication and the opening line stated, "The first rule of effective communication is to embrace violence"? If there is a place for violence in communication, then effective debate depends on what kind of violence you're talking about. The first words that surface in connection with the word violence are: aggression, fighting, hostility, brutal, cruel, and vicious—definitely not words that smooth the exchange of ideas, the worst of which cause many people to avoid debates altogether because of the emotional hangover they leave.

A client told a story about a friend who was appointed the lead negotiator for management in a labor dispute with union leaders in California. As the negotiation began, her opponent took an aggressive approach: he frequently interrupted her, made unreasonable demands, and hurled personal attacks. She fought back the temptation to spar with him and remained committed to a debate of the issues and understanding his views. But it wasn't easy.

Finally, realizing his attacks were going nowhere, he slammed his fist on the table and demanded, "What are you doing? Aren't you going to come back with something?"

"No, I'm not. Before we started, I committed myself to understanding your point of view," she replied. "I'm trying to do the best I can, even though it's difficult with some of the things you're saying."

"Well..." he responded, now more calmly, "I guess we'll need to talk then."

That's the point—talk.

Vigorous Debate

In producing talk—especially intense debate—don't make it personal and don't take it personally. In the pursuit of intense debate the opposites of violence (e.g. peace, gentleness, and passiveness) are necessary, but not enough by themselves to produce real talk.

Upon further investigation of the word violence, a second set of words describe a productive violence: fierce, passionate, hard, powerful, strong, and intense. To distinguish the two kinds of violence, we'll refer to good violence as vigorous—as in "vigorous debate." Not every debate needs vigor, but when it is needed the words just listed should characterize those debates. Vigorous debates require a heavy investment of humility to keep intensity productive, vigor from becoming violence, and when necessary, to keep us from being lulled into courteous but meaningless exchanges that continue discussions, but don't advance them.

On too many teams, the pendulum of argument swings to one side (violence) or the other (niceness), both of which trade intellectual diversity for isolating, egotistical clashes or tranquil, pseudo-harmonious agreement. It doesn't have to mean less civility or understanding, but rather encouraging the right kind of argument. The willingness and ability to listen has its place, and a crucial one at that. But progress requires more than listening. It requires us to passionately push ourselves to explore every angle and go to intellectual extremes that test our assumptions before we make a decision. But too often, intensity and debate become personal and we care more about who's right than what's right.

When we take challenges to our ideas as challenges to our identity we feel threatened, and in the space between two normal beats of our heart, our response to a threat becomes physiological. Dr. John Gottman calls this escalation of emotion "Diffuse Physiological Arousal (DPA)." Dr. Daniel Goleman calls it the "neural tripwire." Whatever it's called, here's what happens: We start secreting adrenalin, chemicals cause our heart to race (up to 30 beats per minute faster), our heart contracts harder, arteries constrict, blood is drawn away from the periphery into the center of our body, blood supply shuts down to our gut and kidneys, and perspiration increases. None of this would be a problem if we were trying to run away from a predator, but we're not. We're in a conversation. But that's not what our brain is telling us.

When we're in DPA on the inside—and acting like we're not on the outside—things happen in the brain that create tunnel vision and we can't hear all of what's being said. This isn't just figurative deafness; at its peak, DPA literally interrupts our hearing. At that moment, as much as we would wish otherwise, we can't think as clearly as we normally do. For example, have you been in an argument and much later, perhaps on the drive home, thought of the perfect comeback to something someone said? That's because you've had a chance to calm down and your brain is working again. But in those fight-or-flight moments, we don't have access to our best thinking. Or the best thinking of others.

Good leaders keep their minds open. But great leaders open the minds of others in the most intense circumstances, even against the odds of prejudice, politics, and habit. Humility is like a two-way surge protector: It keeps us from making it personal or taking it personally. That keeps the energy of our effort and energy focused on the debate and exchange of ideas instead of protecting turf. And that focus shifts the momentum of everything—a conversation, a career, a community, and even a country.

This article is adapted from The Voice, Summer 2008.