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FastCompany.com - The Ego That Binds
by Kaihan KrippendorffJanuary 13, 2010
Every couple of months I gather in New York a group of heads of strategy at large, non-competing firms for an open, confidential discussion about challenges and opportunities. Yesterday we invited Professor Srikumar Rao  to facilitate our discussion. Given the personal nature of the session, and our agreement to keep it confidential, I cannot share the specific content of participants’ dialogue. However, I want to share a few tidbits of Dr. Rao’s talk. Because, as you will see, he belongs to a growing group of business gurus who are making tangible the link between being good and corporate success.
First, here is a quick overview on Dr. Rao. He earned his Ph.D. from Columbia University and has been featured in The New York Times , BusinessWeek , the Financial Times, and other leading business publications. He is the author of two books, Are You Ready to Succeed ? and the soon-to-be-launched Happiness at Work. He taught one of the most popular courses at Columbia’s MBA program and now teaches this same course at London Business School and Haas. He also offers it in a public format. See www.areyoureadytosucceed.com  for more information.
Dr. Rao has a following of executives who span the globe. And getting a glimpse of his message tells you why. This summary surely doesn’t do Dr. Rao’s work justice, but here it goes nonetheless.
At the center of Rao’s approach is the belief that we think we live in a real world, but we are actually living in a self-constructed, imaginary one.
No, I’m not saying we live in the "matrix" or that you need to choose between the red and blue pills. But instead, this means that many of our beliefs about how the world works are mental constructs that help us simplify things. But these constructions are not necessarily true. This links to my theory that breakthrough companies beat their competition because they challenge accepted, false beliefs that larger firms and industry experts have settled on as truth.
This "false reality" is a function of our "mental chatter" - the internal monologue you have going on in your heads all the time. This mental chatter has become so much a part of your normal state that you don't notice it anymore. And not recognizing it is a big mistake because you start making assumptions and acting on those assumptions without thinking.
At a higher level, we build "mental models" - notions we have that "this is the way the world works." These are like the strategic patterns that I teach to my clients and my readers. These models work well, and they save us time and help us understand complexity. By not recognizing these models or patterns, we are destined to make mistakes and miss opportunities.
Next, Rao spoke about the "self-centered universe" most of us live in. We interpret everything that happens around us in terms of "what is its impact on me?"
For instance, if my boss was in a bad mood this morning, it must be because I did something wrong or because he doesn’t respect me. Our ego steps in and immediately tries to twist the world around itself. It says, "This is me; I am important; make me feel good!" The result of making it always about you is that you are more likely to feel frustration, anger, disappointment.
These issues cause tangible problems for organizations. They lead to ineffective teams that are unable to see new approaches, and unsatisfied workers who aren’t being fully productive.
The key to rising out of these issues - the inner dialogue, limited mental models, and the self-centered universe - is to find a cause bigger than you. This is where ethonomics comes into play. By finding a mission that motivates people beyond themselves, a company can get past individual egos and stale strategic thinking.
This lesson came out during our session. One participant - a senior manager responsible for strategy and innovation of a large corporation - realized that when he set aside his ego, when he focused on helping his colleagues rather than worrying about his career, his frustration suddenly disappeared.
Dr. Rao walked us through a small exercise that taught the group how to have a similarly cathartic moment. Try it for yourself:
- 1. Find a few friends you trust
- 2. Share with them a frustration or complaint you have
- 3. Complain to them
- 4. Then ask them to offer an alternative interpretation to what is going on. This interpretation must meet two conditions: it must (a) be better than your current explanation and (b) be one you see as plausible
Immediately people realized that the only thing that limits their ability to see new options is their own ego or already defined mental models. By asking for another point of view, the individual is given a new perspective. By using that new outlook to his or her advantage, the person can stifle that internal chatter and develop strategies that they originally couldn’t see.
This problem plagues big and small companies alike. For example, today I'm heading to Redmond, WA to work with Microsoft on what I now recognize as a quite similar issue: how can we help emerging leaders recognize and step outside of their mental models to see new, innovative ways of doing things?
Ask yourself the questions below to see if you can set aside your ego to build a business beyond your competitors' grasp and limited vision.
- 1. What are my biggest concerns?
- 2. What do I see as our company’s largest obstacles?
- 3. Why do we see these as obstacles?
- 4. By removing egos from the equation, can we come up with approaches to tear down these obstacles?
- 5. How can I use the exercise above to develop better explanations and approaches?
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