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The ego is nothing more than a fragile vase that, if large enough, will fall to the ground and shatter. The moment you’ve collected your fragments and repaired your vase, life will smack it out of your hands and force you to pick up the pieces, yet again. It may not happen tomorrow. It may not happen next week or next year. But it is inevitable. And it’s best to prepare for that day by giving your ego, and the egos of those you lead, a soft landing.
“I’m good, Joe. I’m good. I don’t need you to lecture me. I know what I’m doing.”
This was the response I received from one of my restaurant employees (let’s call him “Tom”) when I confronted him.
Tom had been working for me as a server for several months. I hired him away from the restaurant down the street because I admired his attentiveness, his work ethic, and his no-nonsense style as a server. And as I anticipated, he quickly became one of my best employees.
But after a while, he began to coast. He took it for granted that he was good. And I had too. He started coming in late for his shifts. He began to cut corners in some of his most basic responsibilities. His working relationship with the kitchen staff deteriorated with more and more arguments about how the food was coming out. His presence was becoming a drag to the morale of the entire restaurant staff. I could tell that his ego was getting in the way of the good work he had been doing all along.
One day, Tom didn’t show up for work. Odd. I called him an hour after he was due to come in. No answer. I called him again an hour later. No answer. Three hours later, he called me back, apologized for oversleeping, and said he’d be right in. This was the tipping point. I knew I’d have to set him straight. And when he finally showed up for work, I greeted him with a pair of yellow cleaning gloves and told him to clean the bathrooms. I also told him that anytime he came in late, he’d have a pair of cleaning gloves waiting for him.
And sure enough, he came in 15 minutes late for each of his next two shifts. He was testing me. And each time, as promised, I met him at the door with those yellow cleaning gloves. By the third time, he was infuriated and gave me the silent treatment for the rest of the night. This was a situation I needed to fix ASAP or else it could result in any number of third-order consequences. So, after the last customers and employees left for the night, I sat him down to have a talk.
I asked him what was behind such a dramatic behavioral shift. I asked him if there was anything going on in his life that he needed to deal with. I told him that I thought his ego was a problem and that he needed to address it before the real world decided to address it for him. The conversation went nowhere. He didn’t talk much, but when he did, he responded defensively. We left without a resolution, but I told him I would not waiver from my expectations of him.
After our meeting, I was left wondering, “why couldn’t I get through to him?”, “why wasn’t he listening to me?” It was that night that I realized I made awful miscalculation. Maybe the problem was me. By playing hardball and humiliating him with cleaning gloves, I had only strengthened the wall that had been build between us. I had met his ego with my ego. And when both collided, there was no understanding, there was no seeing eye-to-eye, there was no respect. Everything shattered because I, as the leader, hadn’t given our egos a soft landing.
On Tom’s next shift, he arrived five minutes late. He came to me, expecting the gloves. Instead, I told him to meet me out back for another talk. His body language was even more shut off than our previous talk, and he even told me he felt like leaving. But this time, it was me who apologized. I admitted I had taken things too far. I admitted that my ego was the problem. I told him that I appreciate the kind of worker that I knew he truly is, and that I overreacted the way I did because I expected more from him than most employees in the restaurant.
He was stunned. His defensive posture relaxed. He admitted he was wrong to take the job for granted. He told me that he understood the consequences of his actions. The wall between us suddenly disappeared. As comic relief, I thanked him for coming in five minutes late instead of fifteen—it showed that he was making an effort. He laughed, went back inside, and got to work.
This was one of the most valuable lessons I ever learned as a leader. In any healthy organization, there is a place for everyone’s ego. But it cannot become larger than the team itself. This goes for the leader just as much as for subordinates. Anytime you encounter someone with an unusually arrogant style, you cannot meet it with arrogance and ego of your own. You cannot fight fire with fire. The harder you push back, the hard they push back.
Instead of allowing delicate egos to crash to the ground, try giving them a soft landing.
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