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Navigating the Road to Success: The Three Letter Word that Can Derail Your Career

by Susanne Krivanek on

Navigating the road to success – or staying on it – requires managing a lot of different factors. One that can be easily overlooked is the importance of ego.  A healthy sense of ego results in a projection of confidence and capability. But when our ego becomes inflated, we run the risk of being seen as arrogant (or worse). While confidence is necessary to staying on track, crossing that line into arrogance can have dire consequences.

For some leaders with an abundance of ego, their failure starts when they don’t consider relationships as part of their equation for success. For others, it begins with having an unrealistic view of their power and abilities, which in turn leads to faulty decision-making.

It’s a fine line between a well-adjusted ego (necessary for success) and an inflated  one (which is a derailer). Let’s face it, inflated egos are relatively wide-spread in many companies, and it’s easy enough to turn a blind eye to the deleterious impact that they can have. But being commonplace doesn’t mean the consequences aren’t staggering. A research study by PDI Ninth House found that derailment was 629% more likely in leaders who fail to see their limitations and are out-of-touch with their teams than leaders who were willing to see and address their limitations.

The good news is that each of us has a choice – we don’t need to let our ego get the best of us. Increasing our awareness – by means of leveraging our emotional intelligence – can help us avoid crossing the line and hindering our ability to get (or stay) on the road to success.

Here are a few of the common ego ‘potholes’ we see in our coaching, as well as some tips on how to get out of them if you get tripped up.

1. Thinking the Business You Support Revolves Around You

Think the purpose of your team is to simply execute your orders? Well, then you may run the risk of falling victim to this ego pothole.

One major sign is using terms such as “I want” or “I need” versus “What we need to achieve is…” Although serving our own needs may seem like it’s producing results in the short-term, it can create some strong dependencies on the leader that will ultimately limit your success.

For example, I once supported a director (we’ll call him Rob) who was launching a new business location. He controlled every decision from the machinery layout to what janitorial service would be used. His direct reports referred to the site as the “Robiverse,” and Rob was definitely the sun in this solar system — everything revolved around his decisions! The site launch was a success, but when Rob left to pursue bigger and better things in the company, the team was left completely frozen and unable to make decisions without him. Within weeks the site began to fail. Rob was then forced to return to the site to help properly transition responsibility and coach leaders to lead in a way that didn’t revolve around him.

To avoid this pothole, we can evaluate how we see our role. Ask yourself: “Are there times I create a bottleneck because people are waiting for my decisions that they are capable of making themselves?” “Do I tend to use the word ‘I’ much more than ‘we’?” Falling into this trap is almost inevitable if we think our employees are there to serve the leader instead of realizing the leader is there to enable and support employees to achieve results. Our research, as well as others, has proven that the latter leads to better results long-term.

2. Becoming Disconnected From the Operation You Lead

You don’t need to literally have an office at the top floor of a high-rise to be perceived as “leading from an ivory tower.” As your available time decreases, it’s important to stay connected to your team and not fall victim to thinking that position alone will result in quality decisions – especially if they will have organization-wide impact. Even worse is making decisions in a vacuum, without concern for potential negative effects on the front-line operation.

While this might not seem like you’re acting with an inflated ego, the perception you create as you become disconnected may very well be one of arrogance – that you don’t need to see what’s going on outside your office because you have such immense insight you know without even looking. To steer clear of this pothole, look for opportunities to spend a couple of minutes with front-line employees whenever possible and actively seek out moments of connection with your business. For example, are there locations you have not been to in a long time? Schedule a short trip. While there are other data points that can be useful – such as town hall discussions and employee engagement surveys – the insights gained from face-to-face interaction are hard to beat.

3. A Lack of Openness to Feedback

This pothole appears in different forms – from dismissing feedback to not admitting our mistakes – and is one of the biggest ones to avoid in navigating that road to success.

We may say to ourselves “No feedback is good feedback!” or “They have no idea what they are talking about – I don’t do that!”  But avoiding, dismissing, or ignoring feedback means we’re actively steering clear of the chance to improve and remaining complacent with our limitations.

Sure, it’s possible that no feedback means everything is going well, but it would be a mistake to assume this is true. No matter how far we’ve come in our careers, there is always room for further growth. Ensuring we obtain consistent feedback and remain aware of how others perceive us is a core component to continuous improvement, and central to avoiding all the ego potholes. Tools such as a 360 feedback survey and coaching can aid in this process – or just asking your colleagues. All can result in some useful insights, not to mention the added benefit of leading by example to promote development in others.

By increasing our awareness and taking action to prevent relapsing into old habits, we can stay on the right side of our ego and make the impact we need to as confident, credible leaders.

Was there a time your ego got the better of you? How did you navigate the situation, and what did you learn? Tell us in the comments below!

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