7 Tips for Preventing Your Ego from Killing Your Career

Published: Jul 11, 2017

 Job Search       Workplace Issues       
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In the future, a giant ego will be a giant liability. The jobs that will be “safe” from being displaced by robots will involve higher-order cognitive and emotional skills that technology can’t replicate. These include critical thinking, innovation, creativity, and the ability to emotionally engage with others. All of which have one thing in common: they’re enabled by humility. So here are seven tips that will help you hone your humility and master your ego.

1. Work against your brain’s natural inclinations. 

Cognitively, we humans are wired to selectively process only information that is confirmatory—and to selectively filter out information that contradicts what we “know” to be “right.” In addition, we’re lazy, self-serving, and emotionally defensive thinkers driven to protect our egos. The science is quite clear that high-level and innovative thinking is a team sport. We must be willing to look closely at our mistakes and failures, to really listen to people who disagree with us, and to allow the best ideas to rise to the top—which requires humility! 

2. Seek objective feedback about your ego. 

Have the courage to get people who know you well at work and in your personal life to fill out a 360-degree review about you—one that focuses on your emotional intelligence, open-mindedness, listening, empathy, humility, etc. Emphasize how appreciative you will be if people are honest and that candor will not diminish your relationship. After receiving the data, evaluate it with a trusted other. Reflect on the picture you received and decide what you want to do with that data. 

3. Change your mental model of what “smart” looks like. 

“Smartness” used to be determined by one’s body of knowledge. Today we have instant access to all the knowledge we want, largely thanks to Google and Siri. The “new smart” means knowing what you don’t know and how to learn it, asking the right questions, and examining the answers critically. We are all suboptimal thinkers. Only those of us who can graciously and humbly admit that we don’t know it all will succeed in this new world. 

4. Learn to put yourself in others’ shoes. 

Research says one way to become less self-absorbed and more open to the experiences of others is to actively work on being more empathetic and compassionate. Thinking of how others helped you and saying “thank you” on a daily basis is a positive way to begin the process. Reflecting on the people who add joy to your life helps too. For me, active listening has been an important tool, helping me learn to set my ego aside. When I remind myself to focus all of my attention on what someone else is saying instead of on formulating my own response, I find that my understanding of the situation grows—and often, so does the amount of empathy I feel. This is true even when I don’t agree with them. 

5. Quiet your mind to stay in the moment. 

Attention-focused meditation is a time-honored method of calming one’s inner self-intensity. Fully engaging with your current experience (as opposed to ruminating on the past or worrying about the future) enables you to maintain a balanced, healthy perspective. Staying in and responding to the present moment is also a powerful safeguard against ego-driven misunderstandings and misinterpretations. 

6. Stop letting fear drive your decisions. 

We often play it safe because we don’t want to look dumb, be wrong, or fail in front of our friends and colleagues. In other words, we’re afraid of making mistakes and bruising our egos. Being okay with being wrong is a necessary and important part of developing humility. (Plus, mistakes are great learning opportunities.) Fear of failure, fear of looking bad, fear of embarrassment, fear of a loss of status, fear of not being liked, and fear of losing one’s job all inhibit the kind of learning, innovation, and collaboration that are essential for your long-term job security. 

7. Grade yourself daily.

Create a checklist of reminders about the need to be humble, open-minded, empathetic, a good listener, or any other ego-mitigating quality you wish to work on. Review it before every meeting and grade yourself at the end of each meeting. For example, if you want to work on being a better listener, your list might include the following tasks: Do not interrupt others. Suspend judgment. Do not think about your response while the other person is still talking. Do not automatically advocate your views in your first response. Ask questions to make sure you understand the other person. Ask if you can paraphrase what the other person said to make sure you heard correctly. Really try to understand the reasons the other person believes what they believe. 

Becoming a more humble person takes persistent hard work and will be a lifelong endeavor. But I firmly believe that you will find the journey to be liberating and fruitful. With humility comes more meaningful relationships, better opportunities, and, of course, an increased chance of staying relevant and competitive. You will need others to help you outthink a smart machine! Work on yourself starting now, so they’ll want to engage with you tomorrow. 

Ed Hess is Professor of Business Administration and Batten Executive-in-Residence at the Darden Graduate School of Business. With Katherine Ludwig, Hess co-authored the new book Humility Is the New Smart: Rethinking Human Excellence in the Smart Machine Age (Berrett-Koehler, 2017), which puts forth a new model called NewSmart, designed to help humans thrive alongside technology in the Smart Machine Age.