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Managing Ego

A note from the editors: This is Part 2 of the series entitled, “Defeating Workplace Drama with Emotional Intelligence”.

We’re in an industry where we regularly hear that our ideas are bad. We can get yelled at for overlooking something, even if we didn’t know about it, and we frequently encounter threats to our ego that can turn any one of us into an anxious and irrational coworker.

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Minimizing our exposure to ego-damaging situations can be valuable in preventing anxiety, but that’s sometimes beyond our control. Unfortunately, when threats can’t be controlled, confidence is the next thing to take a hit. Professional and personal self-worth may seem vulnerable, but they can also be reinforced and strengthened far in advance.

Client drama, ground zero

I shrunk in my chair as a client technical contact listed off everything he hated about the site I had just built. The list was not short, nor was it constructive. When it came time for him to make his recommendations, I went on the offensive and launched into my own opinions on how terrible and impossible his ideas were. By the end of the phone call, everyone was on edge and I was left with one desperate question: What just happened?

I found out the next day that the website I built was originally supposed to be an internal initiative, handled by the technical contact who had berated me. In short, his ego was bruised—and by the end of the phone call, my ego was bruised too. This brought out the worst in each of us. The result was a phone call full of drama that shall live on in infamy.

There were a few things wrong with that conversation. First, the technical contact clearly felt threatened by my website. But my history with this guy showed me that he felt threatened by most ideas we brought to him, so we also had to give some thought to where to draw the line with validating him on this. We should have employed a long-term strategy for strengthening that relationship by validating him at other times. Lastly, there are things I could have done to guard myself against irrationality and drama when that conversation turned south.

In short, everything went wrong in this scenario. That’s bad for me, but good for you, because it means we can learn a lot from looking at it. Let’s dig in.

Validating self esteem to prevent anxiety

Everyone responds to external feedback and affirmation—some more than others. So how do we tailor our feedback to avoid causing undue anxiety?

When you notice someone suddenly get worked up about something, go over what just happened. You probably introduced a threat. Did you propose a new idea? Did you point out a flaw in their idea? (Ideas are tied very closely to self esteem.) What was the idea? You’ve just pinpointed where their self esteem comes from.

Just like web professionals usually draw self esteem from the things that got them the job in the first place, marketing and account people do the same thing. Marketing people may prize their own creative ideas in a campaign, or their analytical skills when critiquing a campaign; account people often value their communication skills and ability to read people. When these skills are called into question, it produces anxiety, which can quickly lead to drama.

Think about that marketing person who can’t accept any creative idea as-is—who feels the need to make revisions to any idea that comes in. Creativity is the source of this person’s self esteem, so pushing back on those ideas without first validating them will introduce threat and result in anxiety.

What about that developer who won’t accept other people’s suggestions, and shoots down others’ ideas as impossible or too impractical? Problem solving and technical know-how are the sources of this person’s self esteem, and self esteem must be boosted by validating those strengths to get anywhere in a discussion of the merits of said ideas.

Ok, great, so we know where their self esteem is coming from. How do we validate these traits to prevent drama?

Consider the conversation I had with the client’s technical contact. When the technical contact began listing everything he hated about my site, I should have noticed that his own ideas were invalidated by the proposal of my ideas, which were being presented in the site I designed and built.

Rather than immediately protest (producing more threat), I should have asked questions related to his expertise with the client brand and business goals. I could have asked for help and affirmed his problem-solving ability (boosting self esteem and lowering threat) before re-asserting my own ideas. Had I taken this approach, there’s a good chance I could have learned something about the client in addition to calming down their technical contact.

Simply acknowledging others’ ideas and the thought that went into them can go a long way in validating sources of self esteem and quelling anxiety in the workplace.

When validation is not enough

There are times when there is such an emotional deficit created by a blow to the ego (possibly to an already-low self esteem) that no amount of validation will fix it. Dealing with a vulnerable or shattered self esteem can be difficult, and fixing it can be impossible. In those cases, no level of threat is tolerable and no level of self esteem boosting is sufficient.

Going back to my conversation with the client technical contact, what if he remained unsatisfied until he had the project back on his plate? Obviously, this is not a solution that’s good for either the agency, who needs the work, or the client, who determined that the agency was a better fit than their internal team.

In these situations, preventing or calming anxiety may be impossible because the problem is likely much bigger than the conversation at hand. It’s hard to apply a short-term solution to a long-term problem. In those cases, there are two things to do: minimize damage, and employ a long-term strategy to strengthen the relationship.

Minimizing damage means avoiding triggers and being as understanding as you can to the other person’s plight without sacrificing the project. If the other party feels that their ideas are being invalidated, it’s a sign that they feel that others aren’t taking their contributions seriously. (It may or may not be true in reality, but that’s how they feel.) That’s a pretty rough place to be no matter who you are. In that case, treat their contributions respectfully and be understanding when they get defensive about them.

Employing a my-way-or-the-highway authoritarian approach is the opposite of what we’re going for. This approach increases threat and can lead to a lot of ugly politics, with people going behind your back to gain support for their cause because they feel that any ideas brought to you are being invalidated. There are some situations where this is the only way forward, but those situations are few and far between—as well as rough and aggravating. Only go this route if you’ve exhausted all other options.

Read on for a long-term strategy to strengthen the relationship.

Using self esteem to build long-term relationships

As web professionals, we’re in the idea business—but so are the marketing people we often deal with. Those marketing folks will probably react poorly when their self esteem is threatened by conflicting and challenging ideas; but they usually react well when treated with deference and asked to explain their ideas and contribute their strengths. While this can be done on a case-by-case basis to prevent anxiety, it can also be done proactively to build better relationships with clients, coworkers, and others.

Once you’ve identified the source of a person’s self esteem, start deferring to them on that subject. Treat them as an expert on that subject. (In many cases, they probably are an expert on that subject.) Be open to their ideas and suggestions, and willing to integrate them into your own.

This process can take time, depending on the emotional deficit they begin with and your flexibility in welcoming their ideas. But over time, the beneficiary of your emotional toil will begin to see you as an ally and partner. This is a very good spot to be in.

They keyword here is intentionality. This process cannot happen on a happy accident—it takes work with planning and strategy. Obviously, the mental energy required for this means you won’t be able to do it for everyone you work with. Give some thought to which of your working relationships have the most strategic importance and which could most benefit from additional trust and respect. Chances are a few will pop out at you.

Being intentional about boosting the self esteem of your coworkers and clients not only makes them easier to work with, but creates relational equity that can be cashed in at a later time for deference, respect, and allegiance. Remember, the less you challenge things in a relationship, the more the other person will listen when you do. Though it takes time, it will make your job way easier in the long run.

Guarding yourself against anxiety

I wish I could say I didn’t personally need the advice in this section—but I do. There are times when we all do. Let’s be honest: we’ve all been that angry client technical contact at some point, and it certainly doesn’t help our careers. The two things we apply to others can also be applied to ourselves to prevent anxiety: we can reduce threat, and we can boost self esteem.

At first glance, it may seem impossible to reduce threat coming from others. We can’t just ask everyone to be nicer to our egos. But some perspective can go a long way in reducing perceived threat.

In the example above, I reacted poorly because the client’s technical contact got mad at me on the phone. He challenged all of my ideas and was doing all he could to dismiss them entirely. What I didn’t realize until much later was that he wasn’t mad at me, or my ideas—he was mad at an unstated problem. Maybe he had been burned by another agency’s incompetent development team in the past. Maybe he had major concerns that weren’t being heeded by his company’s marketing team. Ultimately, I don’t know what the problem was, but I realize now that he probably would have been mad no matter what or who we put in front of him.

What I find is that angry people aren’t always mad at me—many times, they’re mad at the problem. They’re challenging my ideas not because they doubt them, but because they want to make sure that they’re the best solution to the problem. When viewed this way, it’s a lot easier to avoid being defensive, because it’s not me versus you—it’s me and you versus the problem. It’s not easy to counteract that fight-or-flight response that gets triggered when people start challenging your ideas, but forcing yourself to do so usually goes a long way in helping to solve the problem without escalating into drama.

Having a healthy view of yourself and your capabilities can also guard against anxiety. It’s very important to have a self-image independent of anything else going on around you. There’s one big difference between healthy self esteem and unhealthy pride: social comparison. Healthy self esteem is knowing that you’re good at something and being content with that; unhealthy pride is knowing that you’re better than someone else.

Being better than someone else is actually a rather tenuous place to be. Comparing yourself to a moving target—which may be moving past you—usually results in you trying to hammer the target down into a place where you can move past it, either by putting the other person down or filling yourself with false confidence in your own ability. This is never a good thing.

If a discussion on how to solve a problem devolves into a binary battle of opinions with a winner and a loser, there are no winners because the original problem becomes the loser. It doesn’t matter if you beat the other guy if the solution suffers for it. Instead of seeking to be a winner, you should seek to be a problem-solver. In the web industry, ideas don’t mean anything unless they solve real-world problems. It is always worth giving up some or even all of your idea if it means improving the solution.

Recognizing the roots of anxiety

Workplace drama and the anxiety beneath its surface, far from being unpredictable and random occurrences, are often the result of deeply held fears and insecurities. Avoiding an unmitigated drama disaster means dealing with underlying issues like self esteem. It can be difficult to navigate these waters, and even more so to turn the tides and produce happier relationships—but the benefits far outweigh the costs.

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