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Ego-system Management

Earlier this week I had the pleasure of catching up with my friend Felicia Marcus, Chair of the California Water Resources Control Board. Among several gems from our conversation was her characterization of one of her top responsibilities in overseeing a complex organization with a staff in excess of 2000: ego-system management.

water efficiency

The water world is one fraught with age-old turf battles, deeply entrenched interests and complicated disputes over

Water World

access to and ownership of our most fundamental resource. It is also in the midst of a major transformation, with career opportunities ranging from leak-sensing robotics to precision irrigation to smart water metering payment systems (check out ImagineH20’s innovation accelerator). Chair Marcus has risen to her position in no small part due to her ability to disarm clashing constituents and to navigate, assuage and otherwise manage the sometimes-bloated egos at the heart of these water wars.

There is something useful for all of us in Marcus’ concept of ego-system management, cheeky though it may be. In my first start-up I learned the importance of managing vertically. Of course I had to learn how to effectively motivate and lead my staff, but I also had to learn the critical skill of “managing upward,” directing the talents, actions and expectations of board members and investors. This meant calibrating alignment with people often more experienced than I was so that we were all rowing in the same direction. This alignment was harmonious when times were good, but as soon as the business started to face existential challenges, egos became exaggerated and conflicts arose.

Many jobs require this sort of vertical management. Managing upward requires skill and emotional intelligence, whether aligning expectations, soliciting support for projects or securing more responsibility and compensation for your work. Managing a team also requires an array of skills in order to effectively drive growth and engender buy-in and productivity from staff. And nearly all jobs require horizontal management—working within and across teams to create mutually beneficial and productive relationships. Together these modalities of management constitute the four-directional management we must all engage in as we conduct our work and navigate our careers.

Four-directional Management

In whatever direction you are required to manage, ego-system management is key to your success. And egos are tricky buggers, rearing their heads at surprising times in sometimes grotesque and harmful ways. We’ll leave understanding the human ego to Carl Jung , who saw it as the wellspring of our sense of identity and existence. It is often issues of identity—how we see ourselves in relation to others—that are the origin of interpersonal conflict in the workplace, as in life.

Skillful ego-system management begins with understanding how one’s own sense of identity affects our relationship with others. Stone, Patton and Heen’s seminal book, “Difficult Conversations,” elucidates how tough conversations can threaten our identity to the core, raising three somewhat terrifying questions:

  • Am I competent?

  • Am I a good person?

  • Am I worthy of love?

To successfully manage workplace relationships, you must first identify your own identity sensitivities by observing when

oh, fragile ego

and why these sensitivities are piqued. Next, you should accept that you will make mistakes, that your intentions are complex and that you may be a contributor to problems that arise. This idea of contribution—understanding that all parties have responsibility in a fraught situation, rather than seeking a single source of blame, is critical to solving workplace conflicts.

Finally, in moving into these difficult conversations, which are at the heart of successful ego-system management, you should keep the following in mind, both prior to and during the conversation:

  • Let go of trying to control the other person’s reaction

  • Prepare in advance for their response and how what sort of ego/identity reactions it might evoke

  • Imagine the future to gain perspective

  • Take a break in the conversation if needed

Of course four-directional management is not only about facing the tough stuff. Leading or contributing to a strong work culture can be fun, and being part of a mission-driven team that is accomplishing great things is highly rewarding. But in any environment, challenges arise. Effective ego-system management first requires an inquiry into one’s own sense of identity, and an understanding that issues of ego and identity underlie all human relationships. People who are willing to engage in and work through the inevitable challenges of the workplace will gain the respect of their managers and peers and will eventually be rewarded with career advancement and, even more importantly, healthier relationships.

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