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Author's profile photo Jason Cao

Coach’s Corner – Are You The Smartest Person In the Room?

“If you’re the smartest person in the room, then you’re in the wrong room.” – Confucius

People who think they are the smartest person in the room are described by Liz Wiseman’s book Multipliers as “Diminishers.”

Unlike Multipliers who inspire and believe in the people they lead, Diminishers diminish the capabilities and motivation of others around them. When leaders believe only in themselves, that others can’t succeed without them, then ego has taken over. Ego is a misguided belief of self-importance, and shows up to others in many ways.

If you’ve ever heard of the term “man-splaining,” this is an example of the behaviour someone (e.g. men with big ego) would exhibit when they believe they know everything that a woman would not know. Here’s a bit of comical example of man-splaining:

Besides the obvious barriers this creates in relationships, ego also impacts other parts of our lives:

  • Learning – What else can you learn when you think you know everything already? This unwillingness to accept new knowledge and ideas stunts our growth. The disillusionment limits our ability to gain new skills and talent. People with big egos aren’t curious, because they are so absorbed in their belief that they know the reasons why things happened. Part of their belief (although perhaps a blind spot for them) is that curiosity is a sign of weakness.
  • Personal brand and reputation – We may be able to trace back the formation of one’s ego to insecurities (e.g. fear of being judged or looked down upon, or need to have the right answer). However, regardless of how egos develop, it is clear to us that those who think they are all-important and all-knowing are just the opposite. People with big egos may have big brands and be recognized, however, they most likely don’t have the good reputations to match, and are not thought of kindly. Unfortunately for those with big egos, that is the difference between brand and reputation.
  • Health – Being an arrogant person doesn’t result in any bodily harm (usually). Besides physical health however, we should not forget about mental and emotional health. Ego affects one’s ability to learn, and to develop strong relationships. Intelligence, in the sense of IQ and EQ, becomes stunted when there is no curiosity nor empathy, when problems are internalized or blatantly ignored. Insecurities can prevent us from learning from mistakes and/or they can cause negative feelings of guilt, anger and regret to accumulate.

So, is ego all-bad? From my perspective…”Yes!” This is my current thinking, and I’m open to other perspectives. I equate this to the question of “Is evil bad?” Some might position “confidence” and “pride” as more acceptable forms of ego. To me, self-confidence is good and fine. Although it is a short step from over-confidence to ego, it still requires stepping onto a different platform of thought. Once our confidence changes to ego, our faith in our own abilities changes into judgement of others. Pride is different from ego as well. Pride swells the heart, while ego swells the head. Pride results in humility whereas ego results in arrogance (and insecurities).

What can we do to keep our ego in check?

The obvious first-step is actually a small step – aim for true confidence and pride. Clearly distinguishing between these terms helps us clearly see our intended target.

In Ryan Holiday’s book Ego Is The Enemy, he lists different tactics to keep our ego in check, including being curious and learning to let go. My 3 favourites are ones that are creative, and that can benefit from the assistance of a coach:

  1. Adopt a beginner’s mindset – This is a reset. Regardless of how many decades of experience or how specialized our talents are, adopting the ‘fresh eyes’ of a beginner humbles us, while opening up new insights we may have blocked out in the past. When we approach each situation with a beginner’s mindset, behaviours such as curiosity naturally follow and prevents our ego from taking over.
  2. Gratitude – What do we consider as successes? And how can we express gratitude to those who contributed to our success? The intentional act of reflecting on our circumstances and identifying collaborators can yield surprises about who we depend on, as well as who influences us.
  3. Take a walk – If we could afford a trip to space, we would fully appreciate how small we are on this Earth and in the universe. Fortunately, we can take a walk in a forest to give us that perspective. It is that comparative perspective that brings us back down to Earth, while deflating our heads. I particularly like this one because I’ve felt the lure of ego over the past year living in a confined space within a limited circle. Getting out and being in the nature puts every back into perspective.

A colleague of mine jokingly says he’s made a successful living over the last 20 years not knowing anything. To me that sort of humility is a sign he loves his job! One day, I hope to not know anything as well.

Let’s start the exercise of keeping our egos in check, by sharing in the comments section below what you are proud of, or what you are grateful for.

 

Check out more blog posts in this series: Coach’s Corner.

Photo by Orkun Azap on Unsplash

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      Author's profile photo Manfred Klein
      Manfred Klein

      While exaggerated pride is one of the results of Dunning-Kruger-Effect, it's not bad to allow yourself the little moments of joy when things went straight(accidentally). If everything went fine this is seldom the result of superior intellect alone. Mostly you should be grateful that disaster didn't strike. The universe allowed you the little successes. Don't forget that.

      So I'm grateful for all the things that went right in my life. Most grateful I'm for my wife and son.

      Ego? What is that?

      Met lot's of people showing that mostly ego is indirect proportional to skill. People that truly belief that niveau only looks like arrogance from below ;-).

      Author's profile photo Jason Cao
      Jason Cao
      Blog Post Author

      Hi Manfred,

      Thank you for those additional insights and perspectives on pride, and for sharing what you are grateful for! Family is such an important part of our lives, and such an anchor in these changing times. 🙂

      Author's profile photo Antonella Filipuzzi-Barcelona
      Antonella Filipuzzi-Barcelona

      Loved "Pride swells the heart, while ego swells the head" - very powerful.

      Author's profile photo Jason Cao
      Jason Cao
      Blog Post Author

      Thank you Antonella! It's important we all distinguish these two terms and use them in the right ways. 😀

      Author's profile photo Arpit Goyal
      Arpit Goyal

      A wonderful article and what a fun video. I always wonder about this thing...it is fun to watch two of such people in a meeting going head to head too 🙂 especially in zoom call 🙂

      Author's profile photo Jason Cao
      Jason Cao
      Blog Post Author

      Thanks for reading the post, Arpit! Yes, it is comical sometimes to see the behaviours of people with really big egos. There are some very public examples in global news.

      Author's profile photo Michelle Crapo
      Michelle Crapo

      Loved the video!  I got a great laugh.  But I saw a comedian talking about his baby being born.

      Branding:

      Those people with big brands probably are the ones that get the jobs.  I hate to write this, but at times it is very true.  It also stops people from writing anything on the internet that might make them appear less knowledgeable, less intelligent, just less.

      I'd love to hear/read someone disagreeing with this.  Because I hate thinking this way.  But I am a hiring manager.  I know nothing about the topic.  I go and google the person I'm going to interview.  I see a lot of information that appears correct, so I bring them in.  Ego gets in the way only after they are in the interview and I decide they won't fit with the team.  But they got the interview because of branding.

      Ego, self-confidence, and pride.

      Wow - you picked an interesting thing to think about.  Is it real or is it perspective?

      I always true for self-confidence.  A friend once said to me "Fake it until you make it".   That was something I took away and ran with.

      Ego

      If I watch someone in giving a speech or in a meeting.  From my perspective, it could be self-confidence.  They know their subject and can effectively debate their reasoning.  But the person next to me mutters about the ego that guy/lady has.   Or the person who debates them and fails to make a great point leaves the meeting talking about the person's Ego.

      Self-Confidence:

      Switch it.  I'm giving a speech or in a meeting.  I disagree with someone else.  I love a healthy debate.  But I debate each and every point the other person makes.  Or I can defend my speech because I've researched it really well.  I walk away feeling that everything went well.  But see above.

      Pride:

      I think we all have to have that.  Pride in a job well done comes to mind.  Pride about our children's successes or even how they handle "failure".  And yes, pride because I successfully defended my position.   Proud that I wrote that first blog.

      Self-Confidence and "Fake it until you make it"

      I may not be 100% sure.  In fact I'm not a lot of the time.  I might give a speech and later find out I was way off base.  Then I try to follow up with something.   I may not debate my points effectively.  Or even try to debate them.   Why?  Because of many different things.  One is I'm worried about other people perception of me.  This didn't happen as bad until one of my bosses nicely told me perception is reality.   Nice of him.  It wasn't true. At least I don't think it was.

      When I write this comment - it comes from my heart.  And I have to realize that people may disagree.  That's good because NOW I love to hear and read difference of opinion.  I learn so much from that.  When I first started, I was so nervous that one "bad" comment would "make" me feel bad about what I wrote.  First of all there really isn't a bad comment unless you are saying something that doesn't help the person later.   Second of all no one can "make" you have feelings.  You choose to have them.  Still doesn't stop you from feeling that way.  So I had to take her comment with me everywhere.  "Fake it until I make it".  Have I "made" it.  Not hardly.

      I take a different approach now.  I write something with the hope that I have some comments.  Sometimes it helps me understand a different way of approaching a problem.  I also have found that I really like speaking.  I wouldn't have found that out unless I was "faking" it.  Pretending that I knew what I was doing up there.  However, I still get nervous.  My hands shake and I don't always feel 100%.  It helps if I don't know anyone in the audience.

      Lately, I haven't been writing technical blogs.  I say writer's block, but it really is lack of self-confidence in a whole new area.  Those blogs that I didn't write may have helped me learn.  Those are blogs that might of helped another person learn.  Those are blogs that have never written.  That may or may not be a good thing.  I will NEVER know everything.  It's not possible you have had different experience than me.

      I honestly have not met anyone in the technical world who says they know everything.  We are always changing and learning.

      So back around in a circle is it ego or is it self-confidence?  You decide.

      Author's profile photo Jason Cao
      Jason Cao
      Blog Post Author

      Hi Michelle, thanks for your comments. I can tell you've thought about these topics quite a bit.

      The video from Seth Meyer's stand-up act was to share an example of mansplaining - him telling his wife how child birth works, and is an example of how ego manifests itself into know-it-all behaviours.

      About branding and reputation - I agree with you that strong branding gets folks interviews. However, it may not get them the job. If branding gets them the job, it may not help them keep it. To get the job and to keep it long term they need to build a reputation. Branding is setting up the expectation, and reputation is the legitimization or delivery of that promise.

      Thank you for sharing your insights and your learning journey on developing confidence! I've had the privilege of seeing your speak at TechEd in person and although I didn't understand all of the technical bits, I loved your energy and storytelling style of sharing your knowledge. From my perspective, "Fake it until you make it!" is meant to boost self-confidence and self-doubt (ie. erase thoughts of imposter-syndrome). If this mantra gives you the confidence you need to overcome self-limiting beliefs, then that is a positive thing. Ego is totally different than confidence. Confidence is thinking to yourself "I can do this!" Ego is thinking to yourself "I'm better than all of you!"

      I'm glad you mentioned changing and learning! When I "fake it until I make it," I feel like I can try new things, and get closer to my goal day-by-day. When I think "I know everything," there's no reason to try. We can only control what we do and how we feel (and only influence how others think of us). Do we choose confidence or ego?

      Author's profile photo Michelle Crapo
      Michelle Crapo

      OK - Ego - I never think I'm the smartest person in the room.  But I may think I'm the subject expert.  I still usually remember to take the time to have someone explain why they think the way they do.

      "Because I said so..." that would me as a Mom being frustrated after the millionth "why".  I do think I'm smarted than my child when he was little.   Now, I'm the one asking why.  He's got a lot going on in that mind of his.

      Thank you for your kind comments.  I still loved the video.  I really do think I'd chuck something at his head.

      Yes, I loved the blog too.  Anything that makes me think is excellent to read.

      Author's profile photo Jason Cao
      Jason Cao
      Blog Post Author

      Thank you Michelle! It's such a thrill to be reading and responding to your comments in the community! Happy! 🙂

      Author's profile photo Svea Becker
      Svea Becker

      Great video. It made my Monday morning 🙂
      In regards to the question, if ego is all bad I would say no - at least it's helpful to recognize that:

      • ego is speaking right now
      • ego is handling right now
      • ego is rebelling right now

      That gives you the opportunity to notice and step out of the "ego-situation". 😉

      Thanks for sharing, Jason Cao and thanks to Michelle Crapo for sharing your thoughts on this. I completely get it that you first were nervous about posting your comments. When I start commenting I take a minute and ask myself: do I really think and believe that? If I can say "yes" it's worth posting that comment. So for me, it's that I only post, say, write anything, I am really committed to.

      Author's profile photo Jason Cao
      Jason Cao
      Blog Post Author

      Thanks for sharing your thoughts Svea! I love hearing and seeing the commitment you're showing by taking this action to post your comment.

      I hope the topic and discussion around ego, confidence and pride will develop, and with community members sharing more thoughts on these. With greater awareness on what each of these mean, we can take proactive steps to either increase or decrease their effect on our self-management and relationship management with each other. 🙂

      Author's profile photo Vance Morosi
      Vance Morosi

      Jason, I appreciate everything about this blog. Thank you! Above all, I resonated with, "...A colleague of mine jokingly says he’s made a successful living over the last 20 years not knowing anything...One day, I hope to not know anything as well." What a fun journey to be on 🙂

      Author's profile photo Jason Cao
      Jason Cao
      Blog Post Author

      Thank you for commenting to this post, Vance! It certainly would be a fun journey to go on. 😀