Ego, and 10 ways to keep it in check.
An overactive self-identify: what it looks like in product management, how it affects you, and 10 ways to keep yours in check.
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“It is impossible for a man to learn that, which he thinks he already knows.” – Epictetus
Ego is essentially self-identity. It's how you see and think about yourself, from self-confidence to self-importance.
Having a healthy dose of it is definitely effective and necessary — you need to believe in yourself and be confident in what you do. Too much though, and you become fixed-minded, egotistical, and the big-headed jerk nobody wants to work with. A big ego gets in the way of being a great product manager, and once your manager and people on the team start to think of you that way – it's a hard impression to shake. And one that has consequences.
So, before jumping into some ways to manage and put your ego aside — first, what does an ego on the rise, or an ego in control, look like?
First, how do you see yourself in comparison to others on your team — do you think you're the best? Do you think your ideas are always better, and fail to fully consider other good ideas because they're not yours? Do you think hitting goals and good launches is because of you? Do you think certain things (like getting into the weeds of project management) are a waste of your time, or below you? Do you feel intense jealousy when others on the team succeed (i.e another PM getting promoted or getting lots of praise)? Do you dismiss critique and feel defensive over healthy performance feedback? The list could go on — but you get the idea of what to look out for.
Most people with a rising ego, one one in control, don't even notice it, because that's part of how the ego protects itself. Nobody wants to say “yes, I've got a massive ego”, and because of that, your self-identity preserves itself. But when you're getting promoted, seeing nice bonuses, getting good feedback from execs, getting more responsibility, being let in on confidential information, or seeing successful launches — we feel good, we feel confident, and ego can sneakily rise up and start affecting the work we do. It's a natural tendency, but with awareness and the right systems in place from the beginning, it can definitely be managed and kept in check.
So, what are those systems?
1. Hone your beginners mindset. 🧑🎓
You never will know everything – ever. You goal should be to always see yourself, and be, a student at work and in life. That means you aim to keep learning, questioning, practicing, and importantly, seeing the value in what others have to teach you. Practice getting excited about not knowing stuff. One of my favorite things I learned from my co-founder, uncle, and close friend, Dani Zelezniak, was a saying in Hebrew, that loosely translates too: The smartest person is the person that knows they have something to learn from everybody. That's a beginners mindset, and it not only helps you keep improving, but it keeps you modest.
2. Practice intellectual humility. 🤔
This follows nicely off the idea above of being a perpetual student. In short, having intellectual humility means always being open to the idea that you might be wrong. This keeps you open (and growth) minded, gets you questioning and critiquing your own thinking, and allows for really good collaboration with your team towards the best ideas, decisions, and results.
There are times were this might seem easier said than done – what if you truly do believe you're right and you just want to move on? Well, even if that's how you really see it (and of course, you may very well be right) – make an effort to practice it. You can do this by entertaining the idea you could be wrong. Ask questions, listen, ask more questions, hear out alternatives, discuss. You might end up with an unexpected improvement, and even if you land where you thought you would initially, you've (1) developed your skills, and (2) shown others you're open minded. This approach might seem inauthentic, and it is – but it's better than being shut off, and the more you do it, overtime that humility may well become more real.
3. Share work. Be a team player. 👬
You want to avoid hogging work and trying to have a hand in as much as you can. The more you do that, the less trust and confidence it looks like you have in others.
4. Listen before chiming in. 🤫
When your ego is in control, you're more inclined to feel your opinion is more valuable and you're more right than others – and you can be quicker to jump in and take over a conversation. You should avoid interrupting at all costs as this shuts others down. Also, focus on actively listening and hearing other ideas without just waiting for your turn to respond. Ask questions, and be open minded in your responses.
5. Shine the light on others. 👏
We all love credit to some degree – but when the ego is in control, we want more of it and feel we're owed more of it. Product Management is a team sport where the best results come from bouncing things around with others – and the more you bring up others and give them credit, the better that collaboration will be. Shining the light on others contributions and ideas over your own is a hallmark leadership trait, and while you might think giving others credit means you get less of it – a good manager will end up crediting you for both.
6. Reflect honestly on your performance when you get surprising results. 🙇♂️
When your ego is in control, you're (1) more inclined to think success is because of what you did, and (2) more inclined to think failure is because of something else. In reality, success and failure are a combination of both. When you get results, spend some time thinking about different contributing factors, like:
- What did others on the team contribute?
(i.e great UX/UI design that led to discovery and adoption, by Jeff)
- What external factors contributed
(i.e launched during peak season for the product)
- What internal factors contributed
(i.e larger marketing budget recently approved for SEM )
- What did I contribute
(i.e market research, solution space guidance, getting buy in, )
By thinking about success and failure this way – you'll realize all the factors that led to the outcome, i.e – it wasn't only because of you.
7. Welcome feedback and criticism. 🧑🔬
When your ego is in control, you'll feel your body and mind respond defensively when people don't go straight to clapping for your work. Feedback and healthy critique is a core part of the job and your career growth – and it would be crazy to think you'd just deliver work nobody had any thoughts on. You should make a concerted effort to ask for feedback, and welcome it when you get it.
This goes hand-in-hand with being coachable, and the ideas above of having a beginners mindset and intellectually humble. When you do those things, things, this will come as a by-product.
8. Take ownership. ✋
This point specifically relates to when things don't go well – but overall, you're in a leadership position and you need to take ownership for the success of a project. This isn't the same as taking credit – it means taking responsibility. Push away the desire to get defensive, and lean into your responsibility – where you fell short, and how you plan to change things from there.
9. Use retrospectives to see value in “failure". 🔬
When the ego is in control – we want to distance failure from us. Retrospectives are meetings that happen after something happens, like a product release. The purpose of a retro is to review what worked well, what didn't, and to figure out the right changes to make. This process helps you lean into shortfalls and discuss it honestly with your team – and the learnings from that are super valuable. The more you train yourself to see these misses (and they will happen) as growth opportunities, the more you become “ego-less.”
10. Practice meditation. 🧘♂️
The most valuable practice I ever picked up was that of meditation. No doubt about it. It's impacted every part of my life. It's shaped and improved my perspective on things, my mindfulness about my thoughts, feelings, actions, and ego – and how I see and respond to them. And so many other things. I started meditating in about 2017 when lots of things stressed me out. I've since made it part of my morning ritual everyday. It's a small time commitment – and made very accessible with the myriad of apps out there.
I like Waking Up, by Sam Harris. If you can't afford a membership – just email them and ask for a free one (it's part of their ethos).
I could (and would love to) write a ton about why, but there is so much available info out there. If you don't have a form of meditation in your life yet, I could not recommend picking it up. It will impact your relationships, work, life, and so much in between.
A very low commitment way to start – (1) download Waking Up, (2) use the 7 day free trial, (3) take the introductory course.
So, to sum that up — the 10 practices are:
Hone your beginners mindset
Practice intellectual humility
Share work. Be a team player
Listen before chiming in.
Shine the light on others.
Reflect honestly on your performance when you get surprising results.
Welcome feedback and criticism.
Use retrospectives to see value in “failure".
If you have any additional advice or thoughts around this, I’d love to hear in the comments below!
I hope you enjoy the rest of your week, and thanks for reading! 🙏
The Product Slice is the free weekly newsletter for PMs and founders about product and startups.
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