Collateral damage of big egos in the workplace
EGO is a dirty word in the world of business and boardrooms and can be highly destructive if left unchecked, a leading executive coach warns.
Karen Barker, the director of coaching firm Transitional Executive for the past four years, is also a former senior executive. She has seen the damage overinflated egos can wreak in otherwise healthy businesses.
"I've never walked into a boardroom and not encountered egos there," she says. "In my opinion, there is no place for an inflated ego in the corporate world.
"There's a difference between assertiveness and confidence and being a leader who is able to have critical conversations, versus someone who has a swagger, an ego who dominates and because of that is very self-absorbed."
Barker says some managers choose to adopt a strongly confrontational or competitive approach in a bid to usurp a rival, or stamp their authority across the workplace.
"The collateral damage is either the project, or the teams that are trying to drive the project. The objective is to drive the business forward, so if you've got project leaders who are not working collaboratively together, and there is ego at play, then projects and progressive thinking can't move forward."
She says such behaviour is often rooted in fear.
"The fear part of it is based on 'best that I find the chink in your armour first, otherwise you'll find mine, and if you find mine then maybe that will be the end of me'."
Greed and a desire for power or control can also corrupt the decision-making of even those who arrive in a management position with the purest of intent.
"Positional power can be quite addictive, they get the big office and the telephone number salary," Barker says. "The thought of giving that up is quite scary, so that ego can absolutely make for poor judgment in some cases."
However, the managing director of Carlson Wagonlit Travel, Peter Brady, argues there is a place for "healthy" egos in his boardroom.
"A healthy ego is about confidence and ambition and unless you actually have some kind of ego, it's very difficult to fake that," he says.
"In my role, one of the things I have to do is be compelling as a leader, and as a compelling leader one of the things I have to do is create vision and to help motivate people around that vision. If I didn't have some sort of ego, I doubt I would be able to do that. I expect that of all of the leaders in my business."
Different businesses also demand different leadership styles, with what may be considered an over-inflated ego in one industry translating to business-building confidence in another.
"If you look at [coalmining magnate] Nathan Tinkler as an example, you would say he probably has a fairly big ego. In that environment I would say ego is a good thing to drive results in that environment," Brady says. "In my industry that type of ego would create issues around your long-term prospects, and the further up the chain you go it would magnify the effect of that ego on the organisation."
Brady says although the travel industry in which he works does not tend to breed oversized egos - "it seems to be more about people" - he has at times witnessed the influence of overinflated egos.
"I have seen it and it's very difficult to work for, you spend a lot of time upward-managing as opposed to actually managing across the business and managing for success," he says. "People with large egos also tend to micromanage, and spend a lot of time focused on the internal instead of the customer. And that obviously is a detriment to the business over the long term."
Barker warns that ego-driven behaviour is "the path to nowhere".
"You might have the corner office and the big salary now, but it's not sustainable and it will be your undoing at some point," she says.
"If it's perceived that the ego is taking over and creating an environment that is unhealthy and unproductive, and people feel as if they're being bullied, there's no place for that any more in the workplace."
Barker uses 360-degree feedback and team-development models to uncover the more destructive elements of workplace culture, and says some managers she has coached have been genuinely shocked to discover how unfavourably other people perceive them.
"Some people do have a level of self-awareness coming into that forum, but often they don't make the connection between the fact they don't care what people think, to the point of how it affects the person who is experiencing it," she says.
Brady says it can be difficult for managers to see and assess themselves as their subordinates do.
"The best thing you can do is to listen. I surround myself with the right people with the right skills in the right jobs, and then you need to listen.
"You need to allow people make their own mistakes, to have their own achievements and to be recognised for that success. If you can be comfortable in sharing in your team members' success, then your ego is probably in check."