Much has been written about the value of looking beyond your limitations. But it’s important to acknowledge that in order to look beyond your limitations, you have to know they exist and know what they are. Awareness of inherent biases is the starting point to achieving excellence – whether in business or life in general.
One unfortunate problem, however, is that people are often guilty of overestimating their competence in skills that they’re actually not that good at. This phenomenon is known as the Dunning-Kruger effect. Being unaware of one’s lack of skills is a tremendously detrimental cognitive bias. So, in order to excel, you have to recognize your shortcomings. When we don’t know what we don’t know, we curtail our ability to achieve excellence.
Say you learned to swing a bat playing ball in the backyard with other kids, and developed a reasonably powerful swing. If you join a team, and the first thing the coach does is correct your hand position on the bat, you may react in a couple of different ways. If you dismiss the coach’s expertise, your swing won’t improve. But if you realize that this person knows their stuff and try what they’re suggesting, your “good swing” may soon be knocking them out of the park. In other words, don’t let your ego crowd out your true abilities.
Don’t Confuse Ego with Confidence
Ego and confidence have some commonalities, but they are not the same things. The person who is confident will listen to and follow advice. The person who is overconfident, on the other hand, may listen to advice, but is likelier to dismiss it. Here are some other behaviors that indicate a person’s ego is overinflated:
- Not looking for flaws in one’s own plans. It isn’t exactly fun to pick apart your plans looking for problems, but it’s the only way to set yourself on a path toward continuous improvement.
- Trying to do everything yourself. Independence and initiative are good. But doing everything yourself because you’re convinced no one else can is a sign of overconfidence rather than healthy confidence.
- Considering some tasks as “beneath” you. This is the flip side of trying to do everything yourself. Sometimes, particularly early in starting a business, you have to be willing to do tasks you might otherwise consider menial.
- Continuing in the wrong direction. A big ego is great at keeping a person from correcting course when it’s necessary. Likewise, it takes true confidence to admit you’ve made a wrong turn and fix things.
- Alienating people inexplicably. Leaders who have ego problems ultimately alienate people because they don’t take feedback, refuse to learn new approaches, or dismiss valid viewpoints.
The Detrimental Effects of an Oversized Ego on Business
The egomaniac who associates having to learn something with weakness isn’t going to sustain their business over the long term. Like it or not, the world changes, and leaders who insist on going one way when the market is clearly going another will run into problems. Egotistical thinking can lead a person to reject innovation due to risks, but it can also lead a person to pursue innovations that are ill-advised.
Another crippling effect of overconfidence is excessive reliance on the past. While experience has tremendous value, relying entirely on what worked in the past is short-sighted, blinding you to new technology, new attitudes, and new information.
Finally, overconfidence can lead people to react to setbacks in an overly personal way. Paradoxically, this can stem from having a definition of success that is based on other people or other companies’ definitions of success. Having your own definition of success and understanding that sometimes business setbacks are not personal is a sign of healthy confidence.
Negative Behaviors That Result from an Overinflated Ego
Have you ever spent time with someone who confused ego with confidence? If so, you probably noticed some of these negative behaviors:
- Not listening – or residing in a “bubble,” unable or unwilling to listen to others’ concerns or arguments
- Always assuming credit – even when it’s not warranted. This is an excellent foundation for the building of resentments.
- Inability to admit mistakes – because the ego is vulnerable and insecure, while true confidence has the ability to accept mistakes and move forward
- Preoccupation with status – rather than prioritizing service and meeting needs
- Underestimating challenges – because the ego doesn’t always take harsh realities into account
Best Practices to Cultivate
Fortunately, it’s not only possible but better for the business (and a leader’s status) in the long run to phase out ego-driven behavior and decisions in favor of those that indicate real, earned confidence. Here are some simple best practices to adopt to help this happen:
- Practice giving credit where credit is due.
- Seek wisdom from mentors, and choose mentors you can trust to tell you the truth. Commit to listening to them with an open mind.
- Ask team members to teach you things. How did that engineer funnel output from the fluid dynamics model straight into a spreadsheet? How does your intern schedule social media posts in advance? This practice gets you more comfortable with collaboration.
- Own your mistakes.
- Work with your team to create a shared vision that everyone can rally around.
Don’t Stifle Curiosity and Never Stop Learning
Have you ever noticed how young children (and sometimes eager new hires) display curiosity about the things going on around them? This is a quality that nobody is too old or too experienced to dispense with. We’re surrounded by information online, and as a leader, you’re probably surrounded by people who have expertise that you can benefit from.
Some leaders indeed have exhaustive expertise on a particular subject, and that’s great. But the world changes continually, and there’s always more to learn that can make you a better leader. Don’t let your own ego stand between you and the excellence of which you’re capable. I encourage you to have a look at my books that will be relevant if you’re interested in maximizing leadership potential, as well as my speaking and coaching services. Leadership is a wonderful opportunity. Learning to shrink your ego means there’s that much more space for your leadership qualities to grow.