I once worked with a guy named Carl who built his career by relentlessly trying to outshine his teammates. He was very bright, but in meetings he would constantly restate and even take credit for his teammates’ good ideas. When his teammate Jose said, “We need to focus more on implementation and less on strategy,” Carl jumped in with, “For weeks I’ve been saying we’ve got to stop looking at the forest and start chopping down trees.” The whole team rolled their eyes and shook their heads. Needless to say, Carl’s teammates weren’t fond of him.
A Common Leadership Mistake
Unfortunately, the company’s executives thought Carl was a superstar and kept promoting him. He clearly stood out from the crowd as smart, articulate, and aggressive. Leaders usually promote the people who appear to have the best skills and traits, but they often pay too little attention to the influence they have on the rest of the team. When Carl’s unchecked ego prompted him to constantly prove he was better than his teammates, the team suffered.
Nothing can diminish a team’s bond and energy level as quickly as ego-based separation, where a gulf grows between an egotistical coworker and everyone else on the team. This is especially true when the egocentric member is promoted above the others.
Egotism & Decision Making
In the highest-performing teams, every member values and heeds the input of others. In contrast, egocentric people tend to ignore the input of other people, which impedes team performance. If you have any doubt about this, check out the research performed by James Driskell and Eduardo Salas, which was published in 1992 in Human Factors: The Journal of the Human Factors and Ergonomics Society. The authors found that teams containing highly egocentric people make poor decisions five times more frequently than teams consisting of people with more restrained egos.
Influence of Rewards
Carl was a peer of mine, and one day I tried to coach him to become a better team player. During our discussion, he said something I’ll never forget. “If I know my performance will be judged based on whether I’m a good team player, I’ll become one. I’ve never bothered in the past because playing nice never got me big raises or a single promotion.” In other words, “If you reward me for individual performance only, why should I become a better team player?” Good question.
Promotion Criteria to Stimulate High-Performing Teams
It’s a bit of a paradox. You promote people with great individual track records, but you expect them to turn in superior team performance. If you need a strong, cooperative team, then find the people who:
- Regularly seek and carefully consider the input of others
- Add important improvements to the team’s processes and techniques
- Focus on helping everyone do their best rather than looking like a superstar
I think the best leaders are humble enough to draw their organizational chart upside down, with their position shown at the very bottom. This makes it clear that leadership belongs not to the one who dominates or outshines the group but to the person who best supports it. This in no way diminishes the role of leadership in an organization. It’s a tough job to listen to all team members and guide them to get the work done effectively. You have to know when to give people a long rope and when to put them on a short leash. This style of leadership takes far more effort than just barking orders but is rewarded with the highest level of success.
For more leadership expertise from Jackie Barretta, check out her book Primal Teams (AMACOM 2015).
As a leader, it is your responsibility to promote the right people. Learn all the leadership tools you need with these AMA resources and seminars: