Unperspective: You’re Not All That

Some advice in life seems quite contradictory. In my book, Never Iron When You Are Naked, I have two pages next to each other titled (1) Eliminate Omphaloskepsis and (2) Indulge in Omphaloskepsis. This fascinating word simply means “navel gazing.” On one hand, I suggest you should stop gazing at your navel and get up and do something. On the other, I encourage you to find moments of quiet and solitude where you can balance and contemplate. In this column, I have another double-sided perspective to offer.

In other columns, I have talked about self-centeredness. It’s a human trait that is rooted in fear, and often a defense mechanism for keeping our sense of who we are. There are moments when ego keeps us grounded and believing we can, and moments when ego makes us unbearable.

I recently read a LinkedIn profile for someone I worked with on a project in times past. Their profile was astounding marketing. They are represented as being, not only expert at many things, genius. Their recorded experience in multiple technologies was vast and guru level. The one glaring disconnect was their experience was multiple month- to year-long contracts, and their list of industries they had worked in was extensive. Other than representing their expertise as wide when it was a series of narrow engagements, the profile read like you must hire this person on the spot.

My recollection of this contractor did not match that profile. They were, in person, belligerent, ignorant, a braggart, and more than often, incompetent. In balance, I had discovered that the amount of time the rest of the team had to work to repair their mistakes was costing the company a boatload of money. Their claims to knowledge far exceeded their actual skills, and they were in a position where their required tasks were above their talents. Yet, they never stopped making claims that they knew so much, and even attempted to take on tasks based on some of those claims.

In one case, they spent some gossip time talking with a fellow team member and hatched a plan to change one of the project functions. They both went to the CIO and requested, and were granted, two days to do a proof of concept. After their two days, they were told to stop – since the proof was not made – yet continued to take more time over the next week in an, ultimately failed, attempt to prove the solution. As a contractor, every hour they billed to the customer without permission was, in fact, criminal.

Team meetings were difficult, because as a member of the team, they did not behave as such. They were aggressively opposed to modern approaches they did not understand. They would interrupt, argue, be contrary, and generally cause problems with other team members. Unfortunately, as a consultant myself, my efforts to improve the team with stronger developers and better programmers were for naught.

In the end, our “friend” left one meeting in a major huff because they felt they had not been heard – on something unrelated to the actual project – and reported me to the company team management. In an effort to understand, we had a meeting to “clear the air.” The result was that I suggested ways to communicate better with the team and with myself, and I added “get over yourself, you’re not all that.” I wanted to finish with “and a bag of chips” but realized his singular focus on being angry with me was not the time for humor, even to lighten the mood.

This contractor was, simply, wallowing in an ego that covered up all their insecurities about not knowing what they were doing. Never once did they admit their failings, in an effort to prevent anyone from thinking they were weak. This led to an inability to be flexible, to learn and grow, and to get the job done as required by their current employer.

We’ve all encountered this person in our work career. They exist in all roles in all companies and are often getting by on the appearance of getting their tasks done. Certainly, in today’s leaner company environments of “more with less,” this person stands out quickly. In larger companies with less governance, they may survive longer.

It’s my suggestion to have their employers recognize them. From experience, the direct “get over yourself” approach will cause more difficulty for you, and frankly, is not worth the effort. Talking to the employer with care and consideration, without malice or emotion, can often have a more powerful impact and positive result.

Not all of my project experiences have been as tainted. A more recent project has been a fabulous adventure and productivity is high. It started with a product manager and project leader who was stretched for time on all their projects, and although supportive, not always communicative. I was given a lot of freedom to do what I deemed necessary, and that felt like I was not getting much done. A new product manager was appointed, who dived into this project with gusto and energy. Communication improved and work progressed at a pace that had not been seen previously. They would often run interference for me, in a positive manner, when I was being asked to go beyond my required tasks.

Surprisingly, they have learned unbelievable amounts in a short time. Nothing seems impossible, and when they don’t know something they’ll ask. Their enthusiasm and curiosity are clear, and their confidence is unquestionable and infectious. They are definitely worlds apart from the ego-in-my-way consultant.

I am now just understanding the difference between these two stories. One ego represents fear and insecurity and expresses itself in braggadocio – it is egotistical and self-centered. The other ego is manifest in confidence and curiosity. For one I suggested they step back from their ego and “get over yourself” and the other I encouraged to step forward with their confidence (ego) and “stand up for yourself.”

Most people fall somewhere in between these two ends of the ego spectrum. Certainly, the advice to “get over yourself” should be taken by many of us. There are times when our behavior – driven by ego, insecurity, and fear – mean we behave belligerently and contrarian. A difficult task is to recognize those moments and step out of them. It requires observation of our own behavior, which is not an easy task. It requires understanding our feelings and emotions and recognizing the signs that we are causing conflict and grief to others. And it requires positive action on your behalf.

A more difficult task is to have the fortitude to step up with our ego. Some people are worried about being too pushy or causing conflict, and to avoid that, will step down. Backing off when we have a contribution to make devalues ourself and our skills, but is often the easy road to take. Understanding the right time to step up can change our careers and our lives.

It does, however, take some interpersonal skills to leverage the confidence of one’s ego. Communication, leadership, negotiation, and even presentation stagecraft are skills to allow us to make the maximum contribution, if we are willing to be open and learn them. Humility and ego may seem at odds, but a true understanding of your skills and how they can be applied to the task at hand require self-reflection and individual growth.

The main skill is, without doubt, listening. Active listening means we need to put down the normal human reaction of hearing noise while we construct our next response. Active listening truly requires us to be engaged in the moment, to truly hear what is being said, to understand the context, and ask more questions than offer solutions.

We humans love to problem solve, and we’re more often sure that we know how to “fix” something, even when we do not have the skills and abilities to do so. Learning how our ego manifests itself is required – both egotistical and confidence-wise. Understanding when we should step back from our ego is required. More often than we could imagine, understanding when we should leverage our ego to step up with confidence is necessary.

In either case, we need to push through our own barriers, our own ignorance, our own fear, our own insecurities. We can all make a difference in the world that is our sphere of influence when we realize our limits and realize we are not all that and a bag of chips.

Simply put, this is the best advice I have given myself.

I offer it to you – for both sides of this story.


Originally published in IT Jungle.

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Trevor Perry