|Home - Articles by Sterling-Hoffman - Apr 04 Issue
Want to Win? Forget YOU Exist.
By Mark Fitzpatrick, Partner, Sterling-Hoffman Executive Search
“An inflated consciousness is always egocentric and conscious of nothing but its own existence. It is incapable of learning from the past, incapable of understanding contemporary events, and incapable of drawing right conclusions about the future. It is hypnotized by itself and therefore cannot be argued with. It inevitably dooms itself to calamities that must strike it dead.”
Carl Jung - ‘Psychology and Alchemy’
What if we could boil down ALL expressions of executive dysfunction to one root factor? It has been my experience that every wrong turn an executive can make can be attributed to what Dr. Jung referred to as ‘inflated consciousness’, or, in more familiar terms, ego.
This isn’t a ground breaking revelation of course, however, I don’t believe that many truly understand Dr. Jung was not using the term ego here in the traditional definition - a magnified feeling of pride or superiority to others. What I think he was actually getting at is ANY self-concept qualifies as ego. In other words, all personal labels that one carries around eventually prove disastrous.
I have personally found the implications of this to be truly immense, although it does seem to fly in the face of conventional wisdom - that executives with a well-defined self-concept are prone to success as they are confident and sure of themselves, their ideas and decisions.
There is something I should get out of the way so as to avoid a mass influx of critical correspondence about this article. I do not have a doctorate in psychology nor do I have any formal educational basis for discussing the destructive role of ego as it manifests in the world of executive team dynamics. Every perspective offered here is purely based on the fact that I am an expert in being human (I was one the last time I checked) and an expert in human frailties (I have a habit of uncovering new ones in myself on a daily basis).
What is meant by Self-Concept?
Consider the following:
Both the CEO and Vice President of Sales in the above diagram have a certain self-image that they subconsciously carry into every interaction. This self-concept is the frame through which information and ideas are filtered, it determines how they will respond and react to their environment. The more well defined a self-concept is, the more ‘categories’ it is made up of in other words, the harder it becomes for the executive to gain a true read on the situation at hand. It is like looking through a blurred window and trying to gain an accurate read on the landscape outside. Each category creates another layer of film that makes it increasingly difficult to discern the precise shape and details of the view. So, when two executives meet to discuss an issue the process is not a true exchange of ideas and unbiased solutions, it is an interacting of two ‘self-concepts’ that filter the surrounding environment and inputs of the other party. This produces significantly skewed actions that are far from the ideal and most appropriate path, much like a ship that begins it’s voyage one degree off course will inevitably end up hundreds of miles away from the target destination.
The Pitfall of Attachment
The downfall of the self-concept phenomenon in relation to executive team communication is that it creates a layer of complexity around every issue as personal attachment to a specific outcome is produced that validates one’s current categories.
For example, if one executive sees themselves as a quick, intelligent decision maker, at some point a decision will get rushed in a circumstance where patience and prudence is the ideal path. While this may be disastrous enough, depending on the circumstances, it becomes increasingly problematic when the person responsible for executing the decision carries a conflicting category and subsequently disagrees with the mandate. Frames are personal, such is their nature, so to perceive a ‘category disruption’ is to perceive a personal attack. Back to the example, if the executive responsible for executing the snap decision says “Look, we should think more about this, it feels like we need more information”, the first executive will subconsciously, and automatically, seek to defend their original decision. This will occur in varying degrees depending on the level of attachment each executive has to the respective self-concept. Although the conversation will seem very impersonal and cordial, management teams debate all the time and don’t carry visible residue afterwards, the reality remains that filters are framing the dialogue, thus they are framing the reactions and consequent actions taken.
In the above example, not only does the executive react to the ‘category violation’ as if it was a personal attack (although may not show it outwardly), he/she goes on to add a label to the other (i.e. ‘not goal oriented’ or ‘not a team player’) for failing to go along with the program, again, depending on how attached they are to the particular category under assault. In other words, we do not only carry our own self-concept around, we have a self-concept for EVERY single person we interact with, depending on what they do or don’t do to validate our categories. Instead of our boat starting one degree off course, it is pointed backwards and steadily taking on water. Also, depending on the situation, executives with like categories (i.e. both see themselves as ‘technically astute’) can create just as many problems.
If this wasn’t difficult enough, we don’t even know its happening!!
If it was so obvious as in the example above it wouldn’t be an issue, we would recognize our patterns quickly, attribute them to the correct category and not repeat the error, thus dissolving that particular filter. As a wise investor once told me ‘things are easier to dissect when you look at their extremes’, hence the innate ease with which we condemn the extremes of conflict and passivity. It is the subtle mushy middle, the categories we carry with us that are not so obvious, that are ultimately dangerous and lead down the wrong path. They are harder to call out thus become self reinforcing, their staying power increases every time used as does their ability to do cumulative damage. The challenge then is to cross the bridge from unconscious framing to conscious awareness of the frame, ultimately enabling us to deal with people, moments and situations without the burden of pre-defined responses and positions. This concept is well stated by Dr. John Grinder, credited as co-originator of Neuro Linguistic Programming:
“The practice of impeccable personal change as a way of life implies a personal discipline to ferret out the repetitive portions of our own behavior…the art of living impeccably is in part the art of continuously extending your competency to detect patterns. The ones you don't detect are the ones that will get you.”
Bruce Lee says ‘Be like water’
So, now that we are conscious of the filter phenomenon, how to go about getting rid of them? I am sure there are a few out there saying to themselves, ‘I have worked hard to acquire the frames I use to guide my actions, I have many years of experience that have led me to understand the right way and wrong way to handle people and situations, you’re telling me to go ahead and drop them?’
Yes…and no. The value of experience is that it pushes us to understand there is no one-size-fits-all solution to a challenge. It seems to me that those who truly learn from experience are those that are perpetually learning and instinctively question the applicability and relevance of past methods. Bruce Lee put it another way:
“Empty your mind, be formless, shapeless…like water. You put water into a cup it becomes the cup, put it into a teapot, it becomes the teapot.”
Being free of personal filters allows for an unbiased view of every situation and will keep all potential options available. One is able to flow with what comes vs. using an old, predefined solution to deal with a new problem. In other words, filters unknowingly funnel our actions and reactions towards a specific m.o. that may or not be correct for the circumstance. This is repeated again and again, with subtle surface variances but fundamentally similar concepts, until it ultimately fails.
During a search a couple of years ago we had to walk away from an otherwise terrific candidate as he had instituted the exact same sales model in his most recent three companies and seemed bound to use it again, come hell or high water. Not that we had an issue with the model per se, it was the fact that he was tied to instituting a past mode before doing proper diligence on the specifics of our client’s market and circumstance. One of the venture capitalists involved put it this way, ‘He was ready to hire a sales team before meeting a single customer.’ A scary proposition for an early stage software venture with limited capital and a tight window of opportunity, we just couldn’t take the chance.
I’ll give another example. During an interview I asked a VP of Sales for his formula for hiring A player sales reps. Please keep in mind that this gentleman had been a successful CEO, had taken numerous young companies through IPOs and lucrative M&A activity and had run a $500m+ business for one of the toughest ISVs on the planet…his answer? “I still haven't found the right formula.” As successful as this executive has been, he retained the objectiveness to know that there isn’t a general “rows and columns” method for building a high performance team. He intrinsically understood that generalizing would limit his options. Instead of going from company to company with the same ‘checklist of sales skills’ interview tool, he gave each situation it’s due and looked at it in it’s own light.