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How To Check Your Ego When You're Under Fire At Work

Getting defensive when someone criticizes your work shows that you care, but it can block forward progress. Do this instead.

How To Check Your Ego When You're Under Fire At Work
[Photo: Everett Collection via Shutterstock]

Whatever your profession, chances are your ego gets in the way sometimes. I’ve led design firms and coached creative professionals on how to bargain for better pay. And I've repeatedly seen people's egos swing from one extreme to the next—getting inflated in one moment and deflated in another.

Both extremes can become real obstacles to getting or doing what’s best for you and your colleagues (whether they’re clients or coworkers), and it's often when we're under fire in the workplace when our egos can slip out of control.

Cooling Off An Overheated Ego

Sometimes high-pressure work situations inflate our egos. We get frustrated and imagine that everyone we're working with is a moron. This tends to happen when we’re presenting our work and emotions run high. You get defensive. You start feeling indignant. These are normal responses, but you need to pay attention to them. When these feelings begin rising, do this right away:

  • Ask yourself, "Can I handle this right now? Or do I need to take a quick time out?"
  • When you’re ready to engage, pose an open-ended question that begins with something like, "Help me understand . . ."—as in, "Help me understand how this will change our project."

I find this line of questioning useful because the truth is that most of the time, the situation that feels like an ambush to you is really an indicator that you missed something along the way. All work is iterative. By the time you’re presenting it, you might feel like you’ve gone through all the possible versions and this is the best or only solution. But when someone voices criticism, they could be indicating they’re still in process.

Egotism For The Right Reasons

Diego is a talented designer I’ve coached in private practice and as a part of my biweekly Mentor Mornings group in Seattle. He recently came to the group saying how thrilled he'd been to start working on a rebranding project. The client was an elite consumer products company that was employee-owned. Diego had successfully ushered the company’s leadership through to the final process of picking a logo.

"We’re in the homestretch now," he thought to himself as he showed the new designs to the executive team. "I’ll be popping this whole rebrand into my portfolio and showing it off to new client prospects next week." Then, suddenly, the head of sales announced, "All right—let’s bring in the employee-owners and see what they think."

A very loud voice Diego's head shrieked, "What idiots!" He'd known all along that the company’s rank-and-file employees played a role in the rebrand, but Diego hadn't counted on them having voting rights on such an important decision. He thought the project was doomed.

"They don’t know the first thing about design, much less reaching an affluent customer," he worried silently to himself. "They work in manufacturing and distribution!"

Diego's ego, of course, was getting in the way—but it was hard to blame him. He'd put in a lot of work and really cared about the result. Now he was worried all that work was threatened. His ego may have jumped to the fore for the right reasons, but it wasn't going to help him get out of this.

Working together with Diego, our roundtable was able to come up with a plan for him to better connect with his client’s many stakeholders, explain his approach, and incorporate their perspective into the final work.

It’s very much to Diego’s credit that he openly admitted his ego was the stumbling block, alongside his eagerness to wrap up his first rebranding project. And ultimately, he was able to create an even better logo—and he strengthened the client relationship.

How To Listen To Your Ego While Keeping It In Check

No doubt there’s been some point in your career when your work was under consideration, or a client or coworker seemed to be steering the project in a way that undervalued your contribution. You can be forgiven for a momentary flash of, "What an idiot!"

The two quick steps above can help you put the brakes on fast and regain your footing. But there are ways to probe a little further—listening to what your ego is telling you without letting it derail everything in the process. Here's what you should remind yourself:

1. You aren't the only person with expertise. Sure, you have a set of skills and understandings, just like Diego has a design degree and years of experience. But the other party has expertise and wisdom, too. It just isn't the same as yours. Think about how to incorporate their perspective and use it to serve the greater good that you have a shared interest in.

2. Great ideas can come from anywhere. You don’t know who might end up offering the most valuable insights—but it may not be you. It’s just as likely that someone in the C-suite has a great (or terrible!) idea as it is that someone in the mailroom or on the factory floor does. If you're worried there are too many cooks in the kitchen, keep in mind that they all do know how to cook—even if their tastes and specialities are different than yours.

3. You may know a lot, but you don't know everything. Having expertise is a good thing, but having a closed mind is not. Be ready to learn. Practice what’s referred to in Buddhism as a "beginner’s mind." Approach things not from the perspective of what you already know but by actively seeking out what you don't.

4. You might be focusing on the wrong things. Many people get more focused on outcomes—and how an outcome will reflect on them—than on process, when process is just as important.

Sometimes your ego can get in the way of what’s best. I know that from experience—having often poured my very being into my work, investing every design I crafted with my sense of self. Although I often felt like my work could be better, man, could I get on a high horse if I felt its quality was under attack! And I’ve seen many others react this way, too, across many job titles and professions.

Learning to check that ego and keep it balanced was a huge challenge for me, but it was well worth it. It's helped me dive deeper into process and take more perspectives into account than I ever did before. I learned to produce better work—and became a much better guy to work with.

Ted Leonhardt is a designer and illustrator, and former global creative director of FITCH Worldwide. His specialized approach to negotiation helps creative workers build on their strengths and own their value in the marketplace. Follow Ted on Twitter at @tedleonhardt.

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