Ego gets in the way of empathy and listening, both of which are critical to learning. But it's not easy to turn off your ego. In setting such a goal, you are working against the natural inclination of the brain. You have to be willing to look closely at your mistakes and failures, to really listen to people who disagree with you, and to allow the best thinking and ideas to rise to the top.
In the past, our culture really admired people with big egos. We called them our fearless leaders, MVPs, visionaries, and go-getters. We respected these confident and successful folks for appearing to having all the answers. They were all too happy to stand their ground and argue their point, and we saw this as a sign of strength and leadership.
Today, I've learned from taking leadership training at the Graduate School USA in Washington, DC that having a larger-than-life ego are fast becoming liabilities. The ego is the mortal enemy and humility is one of the traits most likely to guarantee success in the 21st-century workplace.
Don't believe me? Ask yourself this: Have you ever met someone with a big ego who was really good at being open-minded? Really good at reflectively listening? At putting himself in another’s shoes? At playing well with others? At blowing you off because they think they are more important than you are? At saying, “I don’t know,” “Your idea is better than mine,” or, “You’re right”? Didn’t think so.
I believe if you want to be an effective leader, you are going to have to rein in your ego and become more team-oriented, despite the challenge of our ego-based thinking. It is our brain’s default position when we naturally seek to reinforce what we already think we know. Also, we have to overcome a lifetime of cultural and behavioral big-ego conditioning.
Here are a few suggestions I am in the process of learning to help me hone my humility:
First, know that you’ll have to work against your brain’s natural inclinations. Quieting our egos actually goes against our very natures! Instead, use high-level and innovative thinking as a team. In order to learn, adapt, and succeed, we have to be willing to look closely at our mistakes and failures, to really listen to people who disagree with us, and to allow the best thinking and best ideas to rise to the top—which requires humility!
Seek objective feedback about your ego. You can’t troubleshoot your ego if you don’t have an accurate picture of what it looks like. Since this isn’t an area in which you can trust your own judgment, have the courage to get people who know you well at work and in your personal life to fill out a 360-degree review about you—one that focuses on your emotional intelligence and your behaviors concerning open-mindedness, listening, empathy, humility, etc.
Change your mental model of what “smart” looks like. In the past, “smartness” has been determined by the size of one’s body of knowledge. Not knowing the “right” answer was—and often still is—a big blow to the ego. But today we already have instant access to all the knowledge we want, thanks to “companions” like Google and Siri. The “new smart” means knowing what you don’t know and knowing how to learn it, being able to ask the right questions, and being able to examine the answers critically.
Learn to put yourself in others’ shoes. I recall my former boss, Commissioner Joshua Laird, National Parks of New York Harbor saying to me that I need to work on being a little more empathetic and compassionate. It would totally irritate me when a couple of our employees would drop the ball on particular projects we would be working on or always having an excuse of why it was delayed. He said we all have levels of competencies and things going on in their personal life that I may not be privy to. Think of a time how someone may have helped you. Suspending judgment so that you can put yourself in another person’s shoes and try to feel, think and experience what they are going through. I thanked Commissioner Laird for the reminder and promised to do better. Reflecting on the people who add joy to your life and saying "thank you" daily helps too. I have come to realize that I don’t have to fully agree with someone’s opinion or actions to still treat them with compassion. Disagreeing with humility still leaves the lines of communication open and allows teamwork to happen in the future.
Quiet your mind to stay in the moment. Focused meditation as a time-honored method of calming one’s inner self-intensity. Fully engaging with your current experience (as opposed to focusing on the past or worrying about the future) enables you to maintain a balanced, healthy perspective. Staying in and responding to the present moment is also a powerful safeguard against ego-driven misunderstandings and misinterpretations.
Stop letting fear drive your decisions. We often play it safe because we don’t want to look dumb, be wrong, or fail spectacularly in front of our friends and colleagues. In other words, we’re afraid of making mistakes and bruising our egos. I'm learning to be okay with being wrong is a necessary and important part of developing humility.
Grade yourself daily. There’s a reason why to-do lists are so popular: They work! Create a checklist of reminders about the need to be humble, open-minded, empathetic, a good listener, or any other ego-mitigating quality you wish to work on. Make the list as detailed as possible. Review it before every meeting and grade yourself at the end of each meeting. For example, if you want to work on being a better listener, your list might include the following tasks:
Do not interrupt others.
Really focus on understanding the other person.
Do not think about your response while the other person is still talking.
Do not automatically advocate your views in your first response.
Ask questions to make sure you understand the other person.
Ask if you can paraphrase what the other person said to make sure you heard them correctly.
Really try to understand the reasons the other person believes what they believe.
If you reflect and work on managing yourself every day, you will notice a difference in your humility-to-ego ratio. To start, pick two behaviors you want to change. Seek the help of trusted others in creating your checklist and ask for their help in holding you accountable. Give them permission to call you out when they see you acting in opposition to your desired new behaviors.”
The journey to becoming a more humble person will not be short, but you will find the journey to be liberating and fruitful. With humility comes more meaningful relationships, collaborating and better opportunities.
"It's all about being in a natural state of mind"
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