Erica, the head of a product team at a mid-sized tech company, was dreading her upcoming presentation to the executive team. James, a senior leader with a reputation as an egomaniac, would be there. James was very intelligent, but he also seemed to enjoy employing his intellect to ensure everyone else knew how smart he was. Erica had been grilled before and was dreading another round.
Egomaniacs are just one form of toxic co-worker. They like to make themselves look better by making those around them look worse. So they’ll highlight something in your presentation that they know more about than you. Or act like a dog on a bone about a tangential point. Or hold court about a topic they feel illuminates their brilliance, whether relevant or not.
You’ve likely walked away from past presentations to people like this feeling frustrated and possibly self-critical. And naturally, you dread a repeat of the same. While it can sometimes be effective to stand up to an egomaniacal bully like this, this can also backfire badly.
The best way to handle presenting to an egomaniac is to get in the right frame of mind beforehand. Follow these four strategies that clients of ours, like Erica have used, and avoid getting thrown off your game by an egomaniac’s inevitable stunts.
Approach from a place of curiosity
If you focus on trying to get everything right and be bullet-proof, you’ve lost before your presentation even starts. We are not saying you don’t prepare.
When dealing with an egomaniac trying to prove how smart, they are going to find something to pick apart, regardless. What to do instead? Focus on what you might learn. When you’re focused on being perfect, you tighten up to avoid making a mistake. But when learning is your focus, you open up. And being open to learning shows confidence.
One former client perfectly embodied this mindset. Despite having to frequently present to the late Jack Welch, reputed for wicked smarts and nose for BS, he never felt nervous. Asked why he explained, “I know what I think about my business. I’m interested in learning what Welch thinks about my business.”
This mindset shifts your focus from delivering a “perfect” presentation to entering a dialogue about current reality and finding the best solution. It shifts the conversation away from who is right and who is wrong to a comparison of mental models and an opportunity for everyone to get smarter. By focusing on what you can learn, you change the game to one you can win.
Articulate your weaknesses better
Before you present to someone who you’re worried will try to expose your weaknesses, uncover them yourself. Start by listing all the possible vulnerabilities with a particular strategy, organizational function, or business case. What are some areas you can feel less confident about and may have doubts about? Now, sketch out some possible countermeasures to close those gaps.
No strategy or business situation is perfect. But prepping in this way will make it hard for them to point out something you haven’t already faced. If they shine a light on some weakness, reply, “That’s my view of the situation and our options for addressing it. What do you think? Is there something else I should be considering?”
No competent leader expects anyone to be perfect; they just understand their business and the situation and have a plan to accelerate progress or close gaps.
Plan ahead for retorts
Egomaniacs will find something to pick at or dig some detail out of your charts to pound on. It’s what they do. When they dredge up something you haven’t considered, say: “Great point. I don’t have the level of detail you’re looking for right now. I’ll research that and get back to you with my assessment and recommendations.”
If they don’t let it go, reiterate: “I acknowledge it’s an important issue. I suggested that I research the matter and close the loop with you. Is there something more you are looking for from me right now? If not, what would be the most productive use of the time remaining for you?”
The “most productive use of time” question tends to break the spell and stop their preseveration. Typically, others are also weary of “the show” and will jump in to advocate for moving on.
Unfortunately, sometimes even this call-out doesn’t work, and the egomaniac won’t let it go. From there, it’s clear there is some other agenda present, and your best option is probably to let them finish showboating. Afterward, if it feels like lines of respect and human decency were crossed, you may want to consider whether your role and the company are the right place for you to contribute and grow.
Stop the negative self-talk
After presenting to egomaniacs in the past, you may have walked out feeling self-critical and questioning your overall adequacy. Odds are they never said you were dumb or that you flubbed your presentation. If you heard those words, it was probably your critical inner voice.
You may think that being tough on yourself will compel you to stay sharp and perform. However, self-criticism can create the opposite effect; instead, it can reduce motivation, worsens self-control, and inhibits you from taking action to reach your goal.
When you recognize your inner critic rearing its ugly head, quiet it by writing down the criticisms, such as “you always mess things up,” and then three believable rebuttals. Alternately, ask a trusted colleague for feedback. These steps typically illuminate the fact that you have overblown and overgeneralized a small mistake.
And when you’re presenting to a tough audience, getting yourself into the right frame of mind is critical to your preparation. Focus on learning, anticipate weaknesses and develop countermeasures, and offer to close the loop on any challenges you can’t directly answer. With these measures, don’t be surprised if you start looking forward to these challenging presentations.
Dina Smith is the owner of Cognitas, an executive coaching and consulting firm in the San Francisco Bay Area.