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Mr. Rex and Ego?

Photo by  Vern Ooi  on  Unsplash

Photo by Vern Ooi on Unsplash

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 surprised, 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 their 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—and disadvantaging his team.

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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Two Factors in the Erosion of Relationship

Photo by Topich on Unsplash

Photo by Topich on Unsplash

A friend recently reminded me of the work of Kerry Patterson and the defining work "Crucial Conversations: Tools for talking when stakes are high," a good general introduction for those who have not been accustomed to working in environments where high emotion and the need for good communication commingle.

This is the environment however that you work in every day if you have engaged with individuals and groups as a human systems consultant. Whether it is a family-based business, a non-profit, or a conflict resolution situation the emotion can make having productive communication very difficult. People "walk on egg shells," avoid conversations, or try and use external controls to prevent further damage. Seldom does it work.

At its core, there is often one of two factors at play. One is a paralyzation due to the fear of losing the relationship. The other is an attempt to control the situation to prevent further damage. Neither one helps the core relationship to grow and strengthen. 

A classic example of the fear motivation is the old story of the "emperor's new clothes." You know the story, the emperor is bamboozled into walking around naked having been "sold" and invisible suit. everyone praises the suit, afraid to tell the emperor the truth until, a child, states the obvious and ends the embarrassing charade.

Many people walk in fear of being truthful. 

The second, is attempting to control a situation to prevent harm. I am always reminded on the executive who refused to leave the room when the executive council wanted to talk about his job performance or wages stating, "Nothing good ever happens when I am out of the room!" His attempt to control a situation which had caused a lot of hurt only exacerbated the problem. Frequently people in relationships struggles ask me--often in subtle ways--"How can I get in control of  this situation?" Often the truthful answer is simply, "You can't."

In my example, the goal was clear, the attempt was to control the team to enable trust and prevent further conflict. It wasn't working. I pointed out that the behavior was sending a strong message of his lack of trust for his team and one that may have been a strong indicator that his influence was already heavily damaged.

There is a "siren's call" to give into fear and control. They both, in their own ways, seem like a path to safety. In reality, they have a negative effect on relationships. Fear breeds mistrust, impulsive, reactionary responses to perceived threats. Control breeds resentment, suspicion, rebellion, antagonism, and conflict.

Honest, relationship building, conversations only happen in a safe environment where one or both parties can maintain a non-anxious presence and humbly work toward a solution or mutual respect in disagreement. Anything less is likely to be a bandaid on a festering wound.




Leaders: Experts at "What" confused about "Why."

Photo Credit: Unsplash

Photo Credit: Unsplash

Several years ago, I was asked by a local church to give an introductory talk about the different types of "love languages" for a class that was kicking off a study of Gary Chapman's popular book. As part of the preparation, I decided to retake Chapman's quiz and re-identify my preferences. Then I decided that I should take a shot at predicting my wife love languages in ranked order fashion (I guess I was feeling particularly brave that day!). Later, I asked my wife to take the quiz. She consented, took it and I compared my rank order "guess" with her results. It wasn't bad. I switched two items in the middle of the list but otherwise was on target.

(Now, before you think I am overly-self congratulatory . . . I should have done pretty well. I am a trained marriage and family therapist. I worked for years with couples in a clinical setting. No new territory here.)

What was surprising was when I asked my wife what she thought my primary love language was. "Gifts," she said confidently. Nope. Not even close. Now, I'm not trying to be hard on my wife. She is not a marriage and family therapist. She has not studied, spent hour upon hour thinking about, and struggling, to understand couples. But her answer did raise my curiosity, so I asked, "Why did you think it was gifts?" "I remember," she said, "when your brother and sister-in-law gave you a gift and how moved you were by it!" She's right. I was.

What she didn't know, because I never told her, was why I was so moved.

More about this in a moment. However, this basic misunderstanding of confusing what with why is a primary problem, not only with couples, but with leaders as well.

When interviewing employees I often find it common for them to have a naive belief that the managers/supervisors really don't know "what is going on." They are usually wrong. Even when the environment is hostile, closed, secretive, or even "toxic" the managers typically have a pretty good understanding of what has happened and what is currently happening that contribute to the issues they face.

If those employees could sit in on the discussions with those leaders they would find that the description of what has, and is, happening is usually pretty close to what the employees themselves tell us in interviews we have with them.

But, leaders are less adept and telling me "why" things are the way they are. Why is this you wonder? It can be for numerous reasons . . . fear, projection, past history, generational shifts . . . you name it. So when leaders have the wrong idea about "why" there attempts to fix "what" often fails.

These leaders need a process where employees can safely and confidentially tell them 'why" things are the way they are. Leaders need a radical commitment to hearing this so that they do not operate of a false premise and waste time, effort, and lose the good will of them employees--who will see it as one more example of how leadership doesn't know "what" is going on.

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What the expert doesn't do . . . CAN hurt you!

The old MS 260 on bottom. (See the new screw in the brake handle just above the label?) The new saw, a 251C, on top. Now, I'm good to go!

The old MS 260 on bottom. (See the new screw in the brake handle just above the label?) The new saw, a 251C, on top. Now, I'm good to go!

A "Not So Old" Saw

I had a problem. My chainsaw, a new-ish purchase in the last few years, suddenly had the anti-kickback bar (the mechanism that cuts the power to the chain if your saw recoils toward you) dangling by one end. The problem? It had lost a screw . . . or so I thought. Therefore, I dutifully quit cutting and made the trip to, let's call it, the Local Shop that sells, among other things, Stihl saws.

I go to this Local Shop because it is convenient--it takes 10 minutes to get there. It's in a moderate-sized town and they have sold me oil, chains, and other chain-saw essentials. I didn't buy my saw from them but had noticed that they sell Stihl saws and do have a shop.  (A few years ago I took my first Stihl saw to them for a repair and they pronounced it "dead"-now I'm wondering about that diagnosis . . . based on the experience in the rest of this story!)

The store where I bought the current Stihl, Nick's Farm Store, is a one-and-a-half hour round trip. It's in a very small town (which may disguise their true expertise . . . or expose my bias toward larger town repair shops), since they have always seemed very knowledgeable, very service-oriented, and their shop looks like a serious shop--for instance I noticed this time that they have a wall full of 55-gallon drums filled with various weights of oil and a large sign that reads, "Notice: Do NOT leave while filling!" (I immediately looked at the floor for signs of a past deluge of oil but if there was one there is no evidence. The shop floor looks clean and dry.)

I arrived at the local shop and tell them about my problem. The helpful clerk immediately consulted the computer, located the needed screw, secured the part and we attempted to install it. No go. He got a flashlight and we investigated further, "It looks like the screw broke off down in there," he said. I groaned inwardly. "This isn't good," I said to myself. He began to take apart the housing . . .  .

I will spare you the details of the process, however, the result was that he called the "shop-guy" who looked it over and tried a few things while making a few comments such as, "I thought we might be able to get to it, but it's broken off down in the aluminum block.." later, "I guess a guy could try to use a reverse drill-bit and see if they could get it out of there," then, "I not sure it's going to be easy to find a small enough bit and getting it centered so that it might back out could be tricky." His final solution? To suggest that I could try to drill it out myself or they could repair it but they might have to get a new block and the labor would be expensive enough that "you might as well buy a new saw."

It didn't seem right to me. They are after all  . . . the experts. it seemed reasonable to assume that they, unlike me, who has only dealt with this kind of problem once before, would have some experience with "broken-off screws" and a few "tricks up their sleeve" on how to approach the problem.

They didn't seem to be very interested in finding a solution or, perhaps, they were not confident that their solution would avoid spending a lot of time for which they would want to be paid (no argument there).

So, with great trepidation (I am not overly-optimistic about my mechanical skills) i went home, found some 1/16th inch left-handed drill-bits (not an easy find) on Amazon and ordered them.  When they came, I began, aided by my wife, to try and get the drill-bit centered and to drill out the offending screw. Ringing in my head were comments made by the expert . . . "It would be easy to ruin the aluminum block," and "it's not going to be easy to get a small-enough bit or to get it centered," and "you might get lucky!" 

After an hour, or more, we had made no real progress.  There were two holes in the screw stud. One, a bit off-center, and deeper. The second, more central, but shallow. I got the feeling we were going to keep slipping into the deeper hole which was getting dangerously close to the threads I feared. The screw had not moved at all.

My wife, no more confident in my skills than I have in myself (having a father with Svengali-like knowledge, skills, and tools in all handy-man areas), said, "Maybe you should just take it back to where you bought it and see what they say." That was all I needed. It is what I had been thinking but I had not wanted to admit defeat, or make the time-consuming and potentially costly trip--remember it was going to cost as much as a new saw according to the expert! But the lack of success and my wife's encouragement ended the doubt. I packed it up and left immediately.

I'll spare you the rest of the painful journey, except to say that at Nick's I bought a back-up saw so now I have two in case one breaks down again, and I'll jump to the end of the story.  They looked at the broken screw, said "Yep, we''ll have to drill that out of there." Kept the saw for a week. Called that it was finished and I went down to fetch it.  The bill? $43. Yes, $43!  To replace the saw I had would have been almost $700. The "back up saw I purchased was only $400 plus change.

Moral of the story? Not all experts are the same. Nick's Farm Store have experts in repairing Stihl saws. My local guys? Not so much.  Undoubtably they are experts in other things but I won't consult them on my saws again. In fact, the next time I make the trip to Nick's I may take that old broken saw (I've kept it out of nostalgia . . . it was my first!) and see what they think of it. Maybe it's not dead. 

A Business Parallel

A parallel? In the consulting work I do, it is always interesting to me who leaders rely upon to help them with "people issues." Usually, it is a business consultant from a one-man shop or a large corporate consulting business. What expertise do they really have in understanding human systems?  Often, based on the recommended solutions, they remind me of the "local guys" they propose generic solutions that leaders themselves could implement, they warn that the solutions might be "too costly," they are content with-or limited to-proposing a solution that requires the leader to do the work and they leave them with a solution that may or may not work.

Leaders, if your problem is a business problem then by all means find a real expert who knows business.  But if your problem is a people problem then don't trust the "local" expert who knows about business, finances, legalities . . . and works with people . . . find someone who knows about people.  You see I need an expert in chain-saw repairs not in chain-saw sales. Get over the fear. Finding the right expert may NOT cost you more time and money.  A real expert knows how to solve the problem. They have the tools, knowledge, and skills to work efficiently which helps the bottom line. In the end, a $43 repair to salvage a good saw is better than "junking it" and making a $700 purchase-especially when it leaves you with only one good saw..


By the way, I mentioned that I bought a back-up saw at Nick's. Since they knew how to repair my MS 260, I knew my "second saw" did not need to be a professional grade saw. So I bought a "step down" from my original saw--a savings of over $240. For less than $500 I now have two quality saws.

The Local Store didn't totally lose out entirely. They sold me the screw for the handle and some oil. But they could have sold me a new saw and a repair. While I'll continue to buy my emergency bar oil and 2-cycle oil at the Local Store, I will continue to make the trip to Nick's Farm Store for any "important" purchases!

The day I finished this blog post I got a postcard in the mail.  Here it is . . .

Postmark . . .

Postmark . . .

Message . . . what a great store!

Message . . . what a great store!