Being part of a productive and efficient team is not always easy. You have to be willing to set aside your personal fears—and your ego—to allow others to shine. Ego can be a tricky beast: it makes you feel that you are the most important person on the team, that you and you alone can complete a task properly, or that you have to be everywhere at once. One egotistical team member can drastically alter engagement (and thus the effectiveness) of the team. I call these individuals “the pink elephant on the team”—hard to miss, but also difficult to address.
Being part of a team is about being honest and comfortable about who you are and your role within the organization. I frequently talk to business consultants with clients who are struggling to establish strong team dynamics, and the root of the problem is often related to ego. Here are several questions your clients could use when talking to problematic team members:
- What’s your sense of how well our team works together?
- How do you contribute to our team effectiveness?
- Are you supporting the entire team with your work/actions?
- How do you feel the importance and urgency of your work compare to others on our team?
- How do you prioritize your work to ensure you’re doing what we need you to do?
- Do you trust your teammates to do their work effectively?
Asking these questions is a great way to get to the real cause of the problem. Perhaps the employee has a bit of a Superhero complex, is uninformed about the priorities of their work, or is lacking insights that will help align them with the rest of the team.
For consultants working with clients struggling with team dynamics, it can be very useful to frame the issue as being related to ego—is a problematic team member feeling threatened or under-appreciated?
Truly productive and efficient team members set their teammates up for success by continually asking, What can I do to support you more? Is this process effective for you? Are our projects aligned with the big picture goals of the organization?
Of course, there are many profitable organizations that function with a dysfunctional team member (or several). Maybe your clients are making excuses for these team members—they are high performers, that’s just the way they work, we’re still hitting our targets. I’d turn that around and say, imagine how much more you could accomplish with a fully engaged and collaborative team. You may be hitting targets, but improved employee engagement could help you surpass them. And believe me, if there is a pink elephant on the team that everyone is tiptoeing around, engagement is suffering.
I speak from experience here, as I was once the pink elephant on the team of my own business. I wanted to control everything, and despite some initial successes, turnover and burnout rates were high, and I started to feel that we could do better. I worked on checking my ego, and sat down to reflect on the questions above. I worked on letting go of control, and started to give my team more responsibility (and got out of their way). Once we tackled the elephant in the room (me), our productivity skyrocketed, and the business started making some serious money. More importantly, work became fun again!
No matter where you are in your organization, be brave enough to call out the pink elephants. If you are waiting for someone else to bring it up, you may end up waiting a long time. Others may have become comfortable with the issue, fail to see the impact, or enjoy the ambiguity and conflict (because it appeals to their ego and makes them feel needed). In your consultant practice, when your clients are lamenting ineffective team dynamics, coach them to look out for the disruptive forces on their teams. And in your own team (if you have one), do some soul searching to make sure that you aren’t the pink elephant negatively impacting performance.
I’m reminded of the question: How do you eat an elephant? The answer, is of course, one bite at a time. The same is true of the pink elephants lurking in teams everywhere. By encouraging regular, open, and honest conversations, you can start to take bites out of the pink elephant that is disrupting team engagement.
Whether you are an individual team member, a team leader, or a consultant who works with a variety of organizations, regular conversations will help you name the pink elephant in the room, recognize when egos are getting in the way of productivity, and create aligned teams capable of achieving great results. Just take it one bite at a time.