Ego in Business: There Is an “M” and an “E” in Team

November 26th, 2012

By Dr. Jim Taylor

BusinessThe San Francisco Giants’ surprising World Series victory in October led to mass celebration and ticker-tape parades in the City by the Bay. It also produced the usual theorizing about how a team could go from being down 0-3 in the National League Championship Series to sweeping the favored Detroit Tigers to win the Fall Classic. And the success of the Giants caused many to ask if their “secret formula” could be learned by teams in the corporate world.

There were the usual clichés about the power of teamwork, players peaking at the right time, plain dumb luck and, of course, divine intervention. But none of these explanations really gets at how the Giants were able to overcome the longest of odds to become the World Series champs.

One particularly common conversation has brought up the mythology that winning teams win by having players who have no egos. In fact, the noted business guru Jim Collins argues that the best leaders are “egoless,” that they are humble, unselfish and have little ambition. We’re here to tell you that is simply not true.

The ego is a natural part of the human condition. Our egos are a reflection of who we are, how we perceive ourselves, our beliefs about our capabilities, and our relationships with others. Unless perhaps you are the Dali Lama or Mother Theresa (and they didn’t work in the business world), being egoless is not likely.

As it turns out, there is no ‘I’ in Team, but there is an ‘M’ and an ‘E.’ Like that of professional sports, the corporate world is defined by individuals who have largely achieved their goals through a strong sense of self and a commitment to success.

So, if you agree that there is an “ME” in Team, in other words, everyone has an ego, how then can you take a group of highly competitive individualists such as professional baseball players and turn them into a team like the Giants that did what just about all fans—and statisticians!—thought was impossible?

The answer lies not in whether people have egos or not, but rather what they invest their egos in. The beauty of the ego is that it can attach itself to anything. Most business people invest their egos in their own achievements, for example, for Major Leaguers, gaining recognition from their batting average, home runs, and saves, and, for those in the corporate world, salary, promotions, and perks. What we call “bad ego,” then, is grounded in personal successes, self-aggrandizement and placing the satisfaction of individual needs ahead of those of others.

Great teams, however, realize that few people remember individual accomplishments on teams. Instead, they remember the collective achievements of a team, whether winning the World Series, gaining market share, or taking a start-up public . What we call “good ego” is invested in relationships and the achievement of shared goals. Good ego doesn’t mean that people don’t have selfish needs and goals; we are human after all. Instead, they realize that the true satisfaction of their egos comes from fulfillment of the greater team goal, in the case of the Giants, a World Series ring.

We see this good ego at play most noticeably during periods of adversity, for example when the Giants were on the brink of elimination. In place of angry recriminations, finger pointing and dwelling on the past, there is a confidence, a focus on the present, a resolve and a “we’re going to get through this or go down fighting together.”

Admittedly, there are plenty of organizations with bad-ego members that have been very successful, for example, the New York Yankees and Alex Rodriguez and Goldman Sachs. Yet, there are some noticeable differences between good- and bad-ego teams.

Where there is often mutual dislike, conflict, and instability on bad-ego teams, there is mutual respect, cooperation, and solidarity on good-ego teams. Bad-ego teams, for all of their successes, often have a sense of emptiness and joylessness, whereas good-ego teams have a sense of fullness and joy. Quite simply, good-ego teams don’t take themselves or the situation too seriously, seem to be having a genuinely good time, and truly revel in their accomplishments. In contrast, bad-ego teams, for all their celebrations, seem to be more relieved that they didn’t fail, as if they just narrowly avoided death.

So, the $64,000 question is how to foster good ego in your organization, whether a sports team or business. Here are a few suggestions.

Building a good-ego team is like real estate; but instead of “location, location, location,” the mantra is “selection, selection, selection.” In other words, the best way to build a good-ego team is to choose people with good egos. The lesson here is to include ego in your hiring process. If you build a team around good ego, your team members will have buy-in from the start and it will be naturally woven into the fabric of your team.

Of course, it’s virtually impossible to “field” a team of competent people with only good egos; such people are a relatively rare species. So, assuming you must bring in some bad egos, you need to create a team culture in which the values, attitudes, beliefs and norms of your organization encourage good ego. When you immerse your team in a culture of good ego, you benefit your team in two important ways. First, you inspire your good-ego members to fully express themselves, thus bolstering the good-ego nature of your team. Second, bad-ego members feel an implicit and explicit pressure to eschew what we call the “dark side” and embrace the “light side” of good ego.

If you are the leader of your team, you have a profound impact on its ego orientation. If you walk the walk and talk the talk, in other words, act as a role model of good ego, the chances are good that your team will follow suit. This influence is further strengthened when you reward good-ego behavior and discourage bad ego.

The concept of ego can be particularly ethereal. Most people have a basic appreciation for what ego is, but few have a clear understanding of the distinction between good and bad ego or how different types of egos can impact team relationships, performance, and results. As a consequence, you should educate your team about good and bad ego, showing them why the former should be welcomed and the latter rejected.

Once your team has a real understanding of ego, you can strengthen the connection by fostering dialogue around ego. These discussions can increase team members’ awareness and deepen their relationship with ego, with a particular emphasis on seeing how it drives their behavior.

Finally, you can really “get them” by demonstrating how beneficial adopting a good ego is for team members. Specifically, you can show your team how good ego will actually help them satisfy their individual needs and goals.

In sum, the power of ego should not be underestimated in its impact on your corporate team, as demonstrated by the unexpected success of the San Francisco Giants. Careful consideration of the role that ego plays on your team will ensure that it is a tool that helps, rather than a weapon that undermines, your collective efforts in pursuit of your team goals.

This article was written in collaboration with Andrew J. Blum of the Trium Group.

(This article was also posted at Dr. Jim Taylor’s Blog.)

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