The Best Team Players? They know It's not about them.
Those of you who participated in athletics know that, as an athlete, you get to experience a lot of real time "psychology on display through behavior" as player's egos become involved in competing. Hopefully, for most people, the need to "stroke one's ego" gets resolved by the time we reach adulthood . . . but not always.
A few yeas ago I was playing "noon basketball" with a cadre of guys at a local gym. One of the amazing things about this group was that two of the most talented players were over 70! Yes, 70! By "most talented" I don't mean that they had the most stamina, speed, or leaping ability when compared to the younger players, but boy did they have skills and the experience to be a great asset to whatever team they played for.! Both still played on traveling teams against player across the nation. Very impressive.
One of the players, I particularly liked. He was very laid back, competitive, yet encouraging to other players--a guy who was confident enough to play well himself and encourage the best out of others, both those on his team and the opponents as well, a real team-player. The other? Let's just say . . . that it didn't take a Psychologist to tell that his game was a little bit more about stroking his ego than just having fun competing--not that ego doesn't play a role for most of us at some level, some people just hide it more reliably. :) Anyway . . . let's talk about .
The Day The Ego Demanded "it's Due!"
We were playing one day, as usual, when a new player joined us. His assignment was to guard Rex. Now, a new player, especially a younger one, would have no reason to believe that this would be a difficult task. After all, this is your grandfather--someone your should be able to outmaneuver, out jump, and out hustle. But Rex was an athlete, with a capital A. He could make shots all over the floor and from "way downtown"--far distant from the basket.
His favorite shot was a hook-type delivery off a drive to his right. Those of us who had played with Rex for a long time knew that the best strategy was to overplay his right side, and force him to go left where, although still capable, he was far less dangerous and effective. It was common knowledge and everyone who defended him more than once knew this.
The new player who joined us that day, however, didn't know this. As he tried to guard Rex, this septuagenarian shark, repeatedly drove right and drained the basket . . . time after time . . . scoring easily and, I think, frustrating the younger man's increasingly strenuous attempts to stop his scoring. Finally, the younger man, once again, beaten to the delivery of the shot, exclaimed, "Rex, you are unstoppable!" Rex beamed. But, unfortunately for Rex, the moment didn't last.
Another player, let's call him Doug, who was known for his less-than-sensitive-candor, impulsively reacted. "It's not hard to stop Rex," he commented dourly. "That's easy. He can't go to his left." A statement, that over-simplified guarding this athlete, but never-the-less did communicate the best approach to stopping Rex's game. An awkward silence hung in the air, as players absorbed this Doug's "attack" on Rex's abilities and demonstrated Doug's own need to stroke his ego "against" a player, in Rex, that definitely had superior skills. Some glancing at Rex, uncomfortably, and wondering how Rex would respond.
Well, Rex wasn't one to let such blatant disrespect to pass. He said nothing, at first. I was surprise, but remained watchful. The next time Rex's team had the ball, Rex, playing point guard, took the ball, drove to his left, executed his signature hook shot, banking it into the basket off the backboard, the pointedly directed a comment to Doug, "So, I can't go left huh?"
Flashes of Junior High School
"What is this, Junior High School?" The thought flashed through my mind.
So, Rex proved he could go left. Doug was "put into his place," and Rex's ego could remain intact--although why it was threatened so much by the comment remains unknown. Or so it seemed for a moment. Doug, unfortunately, didn't have the wisdom to let it go either, and the rest of "noon ball" was marred by a general pensive, irritation punctuated with some general aggressive playing and "bad will."
The funny thing is, for all the posturing egos on display, that day . . . nothing had really changed. We all still knew that the best strategy, when guarding Rex, was to force Rex to go left. No one thought less of him as a player, since all players have strengths and weaknesses to the game. And we were all sure that Doug would continue to comment on things that others would think but definitely not say. While Doug would rush in to fill the void. We also knew that Doug, no matter how long he played--would he even be playing in another 30 years?--would never be as good as Rex.
What did change was that it was clear that Rex's ego was tied up in his ability as an athlete (and so was Doug's, but that's another story) and that Rex would get defensive, react with somewhat controlled anger, if challenged . . . and this trait, could be turned against him, by unscrupulous opponents. That Doug, or others, could easily "get under his skin" with just a comment despite the fact that he was a great player. I can imagine some competitors I have played against in competitive venues, making comments, "What's the matter, can't you go left?" and goading him into "proving them wrong" ---thereby taking him out of his best game and using his emotion against him.
Ego vs. Team
When Doug made his comment, and Rex visibly reacted, my intuition and experience told me that Rex would have to prove himself by forcing the next shot . . . going left. He did, and it worked, he made the basket. But what if that had not been in a "pick up game" but in a game that counted for something. Was that the right time and place to take the shot? Maybe. Would a defender, as I did, anticipate his need to go left and position himself to block or alter the shot. Possibly. But ego doesn't consider what is best for the team only what is demanded to keep the ego intact.
Rex, it appears, didn't trust the team. He didn't believe that that everyone already saw him as a superior player--even if they recognized that he preferred shooting going to his right. He probably was fearful that others would "believe" John's view or that perhaps it would make it harder if the young man guarding him forced him to operate going left. Some subconscious fear drove his need to respond. Ultimately, however it was driven by his own fears about himself and his ability.
Another ego and it's effect . . . a starter on one of my high school teams "lost it" when his shoe came untied and the coach didn't call a time out to let him fix the problem. He responded by kicking his shoe off, sending it flying over the bench, and starting to hack (foul) other players. He fouled out of the game in the first quarter. I have never seen such a ego-driven temper tantrum quite like it before or since. Playing the rest of the game without our number one point guard and a great shooter certainly did not help the team and we lost the game. Those whose ego strength, to continue the use the Freudian term, isn't sufficiently strong will not be able to laugh at themselves, apologize, admit mistakes, or put the team first. They may be very talent and accomplished but, in some fashion or another, they will always be a one man show.
Leaders, Employees and Ego
When consulting with organizations you inevitably will run into people whose ego is a barrier to them being the best leader they can be. Whether as an employee or a boss, their fragile self-worth will manifest itself in defensiveness, rejection of valid criticism, and a stubborn refusal to examine mistakes and learn from them. Often, these are very bright and accomplished people who has skillfully found ways to mitigate some of the negative effects--perhaps they are superficially charming, or hard working, or they maintain and aloof distance--but, like Rex, everyone knows of the ego-weakness and how it effects their work and the organization as a whole.
Attempts to point out the weakness results, again like Rex in the story, in them proving (at least to themselves) that the have a strong ego and the problem is not them but is the problem of the person pointing out the impact of their behavior.
You can spot this trait often when a person "flip-flops" on responsibility when they can no long dismiss it. So, if problems are pointed out by another colleague or employee this person may simply dismiss it, or aggressively refute it. But if the problems amplify to the point the behavior is threatening the organization and they are forced to face their behaviors . . . the "Ego-challenged" person will admit a problem, superficially take responsibility for it, perhaps even apologize (if necessary) and verbally agree to a need to change.
But watched closely, and over time, they will reverse course . . . reverting back to their baseline, ego-protecting view, that "the problem isn't me." When this happens, you can be sure that you are dealing with someone who, to reach their full potential, has a need for significant work on the ability to take constructive criticism, be self-critical, and learn to grow. In Patrick Lencioni's words They suffer a lack of humility . . . thinking, albeit somewhat subconsciously, more about themselves that the good of the organization. In those moments it is, once again, all about them.
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