Reading Time: 4 minutes

I have worked with a number of project teams and the ones that often struggle the hardest are the ones with people with big egos. I also work with a lot of smart people. And smart people often have big egos. Regardless of what you might have read, it’s almost impossible to make someone else ditch his or her large ego until they are ready.

To a large extent, what you do will depend on the role that the ego-head has on the project. Good project managers have learned how to leave their egos at home, so hopefully that’s not your problem. If it is, someone else on the team may need to step up and informally push some of the suggestions that I’ll discuss in this blog.

When the ego-head is the client or someone on the management team, some of these suggestions may help. But you may have to accept the fact that the ego-head is paying for the project. And money talks….

When the ego-head is someone on the team or key stakeholder on the periphery, try these suggestions. To a large extent, accepting the premise that people are doing the best they can, given the circumstances, will help.

Just in case, you have recognized that you are the ego-head, congratulations. That’s the first step. Rarely are large egos good for teams. When the ego is speaking, it is often negative and self-centered. Try taking five deep breathes before you begin speaking. Ask yourself if what you are proposing is best for the customer and/or the team. If not, listen to what others are saying.

So, what can project teams and project managers do when there is a large ego in the room?

Encourage everyone’s participation in meetings.

When there is someone with a large ego on the team, one frequent result is that others become more reticent and deferential. That’s not a good thing. Everyone on your team has value (or they should) and the different perspectives are helpful and will result in better work products. So, the project manager, noting a large ego in the room, should call on others frequently and ask their views. 

If having meetings where people openly share without interruptions is difficult, there are some tricks that you can try, such as the talking stick. In this meeting technique, the “leader” brings an object that functions like a “talking stick.” Whoever has the talking stick has the floor and no one else can talk. The problem with this approach is that it is not time efficient. You would never see a court proceeding function like that. The judges often interrupt. But, it might be worth trying the technique for a while until you build the confidence of the people on the team.

Focus conversations on what is best for the customer.

This technique may work when the ego-head is a member of the team. By simply moving the focus to what is best for the customer, it can temporarily remove attention from the ego-head. It may be a temporary fix, but focusing on what the customer wants is usually helpful.

Have a change management process and use it.

The beauty of an effective change management process is that it doesn’t play favorites. One problem that we see when a client (or the company) has a lot of money and an ego to boot, is that teams are bouncing around from idea to idea with no focus. The next work to be done is the latest edict from the “boss.” It’s easy to think that pleasing the boss is a good thing, but all to often it can simply create chaos.

One of the jobs of a good scrum master is to keep management at bay. This allows the team to work undistracted and to actually produce something of value in each sprint. This can work quite well in a scrum technology project where the client/product owner/management team has the opportunity to re-prioritize the work every two weeks or so.

When we are talking about non-technology projects, it can get a little more complicated. As hard as you might try to break your project into independent activities, sometimes they really aren’t totally independent.

For example, suppose you are working on a major project to open a new mental health facility. You have the construction part of the project (which is likely an entire project on its own), but you also have projects to define the operating processes, such as hiring, procurement, nursing operations, etc. These operating processes are all, to some extent, inter-related. And to further complicate matters, you likely have some technology projects. Someone has to be thinking about how all of these different projects relate to one another.

This is where using a change management process can be a lifesaver. It offers a defined structure so that anyone, who sees an improvement opportunity or a problem requiring a scope change, can submit a change request. The defined process should include an approval committee, which can take the pressure off of any one person.

When you operate in a culture of rapid change with a rich ego-head calling the shots, you have to protect the team from the constant chaos. A change management process will help.

Create a ‘Culture of Courage.’

Margie Warrell, noted author and speaker coined the term ‘Culture of Courage’ to describe an empowering environment where teams act boldly, without fear of reprisals. In a 2014 Forbes article, she describes three aspects to this engagement model:

  • Smart leaders begin by building connections and engaging authentically.
  • Inspiring leaders broaden perspectives to help teams focus on the bigger ‘why’.
  • Effective leaders counter the natural tendency that people have to play it safe by nurturing courage.

As Warrell notes, “when leaders are committed and actively working to engage, inspire and embolden – they unleash untapped potential and raise the bar not just on productivity, but on the value their organization contributes to all its’ stakeholders.” The key here is to build courage with everyone on the team. Rarely does the ego-head need more courage.

If you want more suggestions on how to effectively run project teams, check out our weekly newsletter.