the ceo magazine, leadership tips,
Shayne Hughes & Brandon Black, Authors, Ego Free Leadership

A workplace without politics is as mythical as a unicorn. But when those politics undermine company morale, it’s time to take a closer look—before they cut into the bottom line.

Brandon Black was grappling with an all-too-familiar scenario in his then workplace. The erstwhile CEO of Encore Capital was struggling to grow the company given the challenging industry conditions. It didn’t help that a number of Encore’s leaders were locking horns with each other over a range of issues. Brandon himself was butting heads with one of his key executives, Dave.

No matter how hard they tried, Brandon and Dave couldn’t seem to communicate effectively with each other. To a bystander, their bickering would have recalled a married couple caught in a downward spiral—you know, conversations going nowhere, with each assuming the other was the problem, and that their communication would improve if only the other changed their behavior.

Each individual held unconscious and unspoken perceptions about the other. Brandon believed Dave was negative, stubborn, and extreme, so Brandon had a tendency to tune him out, cut him off, and dismiss his ideas. Dave believed Brandon was biased and didn’t listen to him or value his opinion. In an effort to make himself heard, Dave ratcheted up his intensity and language, which made Brandon feel even less inclined to listen. No matter how hard they tried, this subtext generated a dysfunctional loop that entangled them both.

Sound familiar?

These loops—or self-fulfilling prophecies—describe how we unknowingly invite other people to react in ways that confirm our assumptions about them, and then use those reactions to justify our initial assumptions and behaviors. Science calls this “confirmation bias.” These reactive behaviors are rooted in—surprise, surprise—our ego.

The Dollar Cost of the Ego

Think of ego as a constant preoccupation with our self-worth. In meetings, presentations, and relationships, are we viewed as competent? Respected? Intelligent? Liked? Attractive? Included? It is this preoccupation that underlies the unconscious habits that engender dysfunction and, ultimately, hijack your business.

Brandon was able to identify the destructive elements of his own ego. Like many strong leaders, he had a need to be right and a fear of failure. This made him defensive and argumentative and, unbeknownst to him, had far-reaching negative impacts on his colleagues and the company. His egosystem strangled collaboration between departments, and left performance issues with Dave and other key players to languish for too long. In a favorable business environment, this is sub-optimal; in a challenging business environment, it can be fatal.

Brandon’s ability to recognize this link between his individual dysfunction and organizational conflict was a critical step—one that many organizations miss. Too often, this also deals a blow to a company’s bottom line. Brandon saw this and took corrective action. At a time when 90 percent of Encore’s competitors went bankrupt or folded during the 2008 financial crisis, Brandon made changes to his leadership “derailers” that allowed Encore to thrive, increasing its revenues and profits by 300 percent and seeing its stock price soar 1,200 percent.

So what does this mean for you? What are these egosystem tendencies in your organization? How do they disrupt your pivotal operations and most critical strategies? What is the cost to you of underachieving in this way? What is the dollar cost of your ego?

The complete solution to these challenges is beyond the scope of this post. But what follows are a few tips for transforming dysfunctional teams into highly productive ones.

  1. Name the dynamic together rather than blame one another. There is power in describing the reinforcing communication loop you create together. When someone simply states, “This is what is playing out between us” rather than “This is what you are doing to me,” it helps everyone see that each side’s judgments are often mirror images of the other.
  2. Identify your ego threats and communicate them with vulnerability. Most of us have a major blind spot in our professional and personal relationships. Our fear of others’ judgment thwarts us from realizing that others feel just as afraid as we do. Disclosing your fears vulnerably to others shatters this façade.
  3. Acknowledge the consequences of your downward spiral relationships. When we are caught up in our self-fulfilling prophecy dynamics, our frustrations with the other person lead us to ignore the damage we are causing with our gridlock and accusations. When we acknowledge, on an emotional level, the consequences of our behavior, it inspires us to challenge our certainties about the conflict.
  4. Align on your collective goals. Seeing beyond your own priorities and articulating common goals helps heighten our awareness of what is really at stake. We all have a deep desire to be connected to a larger cause, and clarifying this with others is inspiring.

There are no quick fixes in transforming stuck relationships. It takes work and time—in Encore’s case, several years—to get at the root causes of our challenges and eliminate them. But why wait until a burning platform forces you to examine these questions, perhaps too late to avoid disaster? Doing the work when conditions are favorable builds a foundation for when they are not.

About the Author

Brandon Black retired as CEO and Director of Encore Capital Group in 2013.  He holds an MBA from the University of Richmond and a bachelor’s of business administration from The College of William and Mary.  He is co-author, with Shayne Hughes, of EGO FREE LEADERSHIPEnding The Unconscious Habits That Hijack Your Business

Shayne Hughes is President and Culture Change Partners of Learning as Leadership, a San Francisco-based management consultancy, where he specializes in creating corporate cultures of open communication and collaboration.  He is co-author, with Brandon Black, of EGO FREE LEADERSHIPEnding The Unconscious Habits That Hijack Your Business.

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