I am a director-level leader in a national insurance organization. The culture here is that things get done slowly, and only when everyone agrees with the change.
I have been tasked with spearheading a ton of change, which is desperately needed. I have not made any friends with my approach and my boss has told me that my “brand” is suffering.
Apparently, I am seen as arrogant—and I am arrogant, I guess. I am an expert in my field and I just don’t understand why people can’t just take my word for it when I explain what needs to be done.
My fiancée has pointed out that I get combative and defensive when my expertise is challenged. She thinks my ego is getting in my way. I concede that that might be true, but I have no idea what to do about it.
Would appreciate any ideas.
Ego is Getting in My Way
Dear Ego is Getting in My Way,
You wouldn’t be the first to deal with this particular issue. The good news is that you are aware of how you have contributed to creating this situation, which is maybe the biggest hurdle. I worked with a speaking coach many years ago who said something I will never forget: “They won’t buy the message if they don’t buy the messenger.” It is just about as true an adage as I have ever heard.
Your first step is to adopt a little humility. Your ego might well be your problem, and it might be combined with a strong need for expediency or for being right. Probably both. That’s okay. Your needs won’t tank your career, but trying to get them met in a way that repels people will. Notice when your need is driving your behavior—and, if you have to, put your hand over your mouth to keep yourself from saying something that won’t get you the results you want. Ken Blanchard says, “Humility isn’t thinking less of yourself, it is thinking of yourself less.” Another brilliant adage. So instead of reflexively getting your own needs met, think about the needs of the people you have to influence. Almost everyone needs to be considered, heard, and respected. People often use the word arrogant about someone when they feel devalued by that person. So stop sending the message that you feel you are surrounded by idiots.
Now either create or nurture your relationships with every single person you need on your side. “Oh wow,” you might be thinking, “who has time for that?” You do. Because it is the only way you are going to be successful. Make a map of every single person you need and make it your mission to get to know them and to let them get to know you. In these days of social distancing it is harder than ever, but it must be done. If there are some folks located near you, set up breakfast, coffee or drinks meetings. Keep the focus off of work and simply get to know people. Years ago the NYTimes published a wonderful article called The 36 Questions That Lead to Love. (If you need a subscription to see that, here is another way to get to them.) You may think “What? What does this have to do with love?” Everything—because you actually really need to know the people you work with and they need to know you. Once people really know each other, they tend to give each other the benefit of the doubt. If you can’t get together in person, do some “getting to know you” calls over Zoom. It will feel really weird and uncomfortable, but you just have to do it.
You will still be yourself. You may even continue to be arrogant. But it won’t bother people as much because they’ll see all the other stuff about you that makes you great.
People will assume you are an expert. You wouldn’t be in the job otherwise. So stop trying to prove it all the time. When you are challenged, listen carefully to the challenges, repeat them back so the person challenging you knows you have heard them. Show respect by taking concerns seriously and showing that you care about the person even as you might be thinking they have no idea what they are talking about.
One of the hardest things for leaders who are ascending quickly to understand is that being the smartest person in the room and being a champion problem solver is the ante to get into the game. The thing that keeps you in the game, and winning it, is relationships.
I’ll bet this is not what you wanted to hear. But I guarantee this approach will go a long way toward rehabilitating your brand.
Madeleine Homan Blanchard is a master certified coach, author, speaker, and cofounder of Blanchard Coaching Services. Madeleine’s Advice for the Well Intentioned Manager is a regular Saturday feature for a very select group: well intentioned managers. Leadership is hard—and the more you care, the harder it gets. Join us here each week for insight, resources, and conversation.
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