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How to Get Smart People With Big Egos to Work Together

Why is it so hard to build a well-functioning team? Often it is because we’re looking in the wrong place for answers.

The most important game may be the one you aren’t even seeing.

I’ll share a critical secret for success. The primary problem lies in what you are (or are not) paying attention to. When it comes to working with smart people in shared-responsibility situations, all too often I catch myself getting caught up in the wrong game — a pointless game. I bet you do, too. When I start paying attention to the truly important game, my ability skyrockets. And yes, you can solve this problem for yourself as well.

Anyone Can Learn to Build Any Team Any Time

It’s not magic. It does require some thinking, some work, and often some rework. But you can do it. It’s mostly common sense, or uncommon sense, depending on how you look at it. Where is the real problem? When you consider the problem of smart people with big egos not working well together on your team, how do you explain that? Here are the two most frequent answers I have heard over the last 20+ years as a business consultant and international speaker on teamwork, leadership, and responsibility:

  1. They are the problem. They aren’t good team players. They never learned interpersonal skills because they are engineers (scientists, coders, etc.). They’re introverted. They’re judgmental. They’re dominating, critical, insensitive. They just want to be left alone in their cubical with their computer. They‘re wrong. Before anything can change, they must change.

  2. That’s just the way it is. The problem is the hyper-competitive working situation and the controlling management environment. Everyone is so matrixed, and no one is in charge. There are way too many management priorities, not enough clear direction, too many changes, cultural issues, or morale issues. The teams are geographically dispersed and have to operate virtually. Before anything can change, the situation must change.

Do you identify with one or both of these sentiments? Have you heard yourself think them or say them many times? And have you also joined in conversations with others complaining about these problems over and over again, sharing your own examples of how he, she, they, or it is the real problem and won’t ever change? You keep wishing something would change. And you’ve had little success with that wish. Other smart people with big egos keep showing up in your teams or the unsupportive context keeps asserting its dominion.

If you do identify with the two sentiments above, and if your mind remains occupied with solving the problem by changing either them or it, then consider this: How you define the problem frames the set of solutions.

And you may need to redefine this problem of getting smart people with big egos to work together before you can effectively solve it.

As long as you see them as the problem, they must change for things to get better.

And as long as you see the situation as the problem, you are going to be waiting for it to change for things to get better. As long as you define the problem in either of these ways, you get to keep the problem, because there is little you can do to change others or to change the circumstances.

So with this focus you get status quo.

You get to wait, complain, and be frustrated — but that’s actually not the worst by-product. The worst by-product is this: You are letting yourself off the hook for doing anything about helping smart people with big egos to work together.

Because from your point of view it’s about them. Certainly it’s not you.

What to do? Refuse to define the problem as them or it. As tempting and cathartic as it is in the moment, just don’t go there. Instead, tell yourself this: they and it are perfect just as they are. Smart people with big egos can work together amazingly well even under less than optimal conditions. The real problem is that you haven’t yet figured out how to organize the work and working relationships so that people work well together.

When you start defining the problem as internal to you rather than external, then the solution is also internal. And you can change you, if you want to, if it’s important enough to you.

How about this example: A committee comprised of five board members from short-term lenders (small town agriculture banks making operating loans to farms and ranches) and five board members from long-term lenders (small town agriculture banks making mortgage loans to farms and ranches) asked me to lead their committee. All of them were successful business owners who were member-owners in their local lenders.

The issue was that the big bank, which is owned by all of these smaller lenders and more, was operating with two sets of books because the long-term lending business and the short-term lending business experienced different business cycles, different economics — and different politics. This added expensive administrative overhead and in-fighting for the big bank. The result was that the big bank was becoming less and less competitive in the region.

This was the president’s number one strategic issue. He asked this committee to investigate and make recommendations to the stockholders at the next annual meeting. We had ten months — ten monthly one-day meetings. At the first meeting, the blood was so bad between these two groups they did not speak to each other in the hotel lobby and restaurant. Ten months later, these ten individuals operated as a high-performance team, excitedly taking their unanimous recommendations to the stockholder meeting. They stood as a team for a short presentation of their recommendations. Then they divided the large stock-holder meeting into five breakout sessions for question and answer. Each session was led by one team member from the short-term side paired with one team member from the long-term side. They had come to have great respect for one another. They figured if they stood side-by-side in front of their constituents and explained their recommendations, the stockholders would accept the recommendations. And that’s just what happened.

What happened in ten months? First, someone took ownership.

I made a private decision, one I did not share with the others, that I would rather work in a team than on a committee. I recommend you too make this decision. The difference is simple: in a team the members integrate interests for the good of the whole, but on a committee the members defend parochial interests at each other’s expense. I’ve never served long on a committee that I couldn’t turn into a team.

The traditional committee wastes time, money, and energy. The team delivers.

This is the precondition to collaboration, team building, and team leadership: you must be willing to take 100 percent responsibility for the productivity of the group, regardless of your role in the group.

Why? If not you, then who will ensure that you are on a great team? (see these related posts) This decision alone allowed me to face the smart people with big egos who didn’t like each other and have confidence we would deliver.

Then, we followed a proven framework

The other thing I did is follow the Team Orientation Process™ I write about in Teamwork Is An Individual Skill and teach it in Creating Results Based Teams.

Second, get in the same boat together

I successfully got the team to feel like they were in the same boat together. We did this by agreeing the top priority was that we first gain shared clarity around what we were a task force to do (yes, I started calling the committee a task force). I was looking for a single team task that was larger then each of the members, required all of them, and none of them could claim individual victory until it was done. They agreed their most important task as a team was to not fail the stockholders — that they must show up at the stockholder meeting with recommendations the stockholders will support.

Third, make the win/win/win real and personal

I asked them to each stand before the group and share what was in it for them personally to invest themselves in the work of this task force. I call this surfacing motivation, an often-missed, critical step of team building.

Forth, develop supportive norms with operating agreements

I encouraged us to make a few simple and important operating agreements around which we could begin to build trust and respect. Our most important operating agreements were about how we would make decisions. The group decided to make agenda decisions by consensus (i.e., total support) so that everyone was invested in our process. And they decided to make decisions about recommendations by super-majority (7 of 10, I did not vote) so that no one or two members could block the initiative. Along with this, they agreed to stand as one united body regardless of their vote on a recommendation. No one would say “I didn’t support that.”

You Can Get Smart People With Big Egos to Work Together

Most people don’t realize there is a proven and repeatable mindset and framework for building any team any time with anyone — even with smart people with big egos. For you to acquire this proven mindset, start by realizing your beliefs and focus may be the real problem. Only then can you be the cure. Don’t wait for people or circumstances to change — change your approach and attitude so great things can fall into place.

Get Christopher’s best team building and leadership strategies collected over two-plus decades of solving teamwork problems for smart people. Attend the acclaimed Creating Results-Based Teams workshop, or get this free executive report while it lasts: The Five Flawless Steps to Building a Strong Executive Leadership Team.


Christopher Avery, PhD, is a recognized authority on how individual and shared responsibility works in the mind and an advisor to leaders worldwide.

This entry was posted in Leadership, Responsibility, Teamwork and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

24 Responses to How to Get Smart People With Big Egos to Work Together

  1. Great example. I’m curious though – who hired you to help the committee? The fact that they knew they needed help seems like a good sign to begin with. What can people do about the companies where they already work, where people might not even realize their big egos are causing a problem?

  2. You smoked me out pretty quick here Lisa. The bank president appointed the committee, and the bank president hired me. But the people did not report to the president so he was powerless to authorize change. This was a long-term strategy on his part.

    All of that is beside the point of the blog post. You ask “What can people do about the companies where they already work, where people might not even realize their big egos are causing a problem?” What people can do is stop thinking “they” (the others) are the problem and start looking inside themselves for the intention and awareness to be the team leader in such a situation.

  3. I get it. I think a lot of people lack the confidence to think that they themselves can do something about a bad situation. I like how you ‘got in the same boat’, and made operating agreements.

    I’ve done something similar in a software team where my teammates were saying, “We can’t do ATDD because of the software architecture, and we have no control over the architecture”. In a team meeting, I asked the team if they were committed to delivering a high quality product. Of course they were, that’s like Mom and apple pie. Then I asked what that commitment means to them. If they’re really committed to quality, they’ll find some way around the obstacle. And we did: we decided to try ATDD using automated tests thru the GUI, not thinking it would really work, but it worked great.

  4. Congratulations Lisa. That’s a cool example. Most obstacles are perceived. And most of us give up way to early — we “quit” in place. When we do that we abandon our power to see new opportunities, to learn, to make changes. That’s why I think 90% of leadership is inside — self-leadership.

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  6. Chris says:

    Great examples of Lay Blame and Justify. I love the idea of never serving on a committee.

    • Thanks Chris. When I was first asked to serve on a church committee many years ago I told them I’d be a one-termer if we couldn’t work as a team. I pretty much stick to that commitment to myself — and to others.

  7. Fred Miller says:

    I’d like to see this blog written without all the references to other blogs (i.e. simply summarize the other blogs here) it would make for much easier reading. As it stands, I find it hard to read and get much out of it… Also you write a lot about “I” – it would be cool to see a team of people who solved the issue, not sure what the answer is though…..not sure there are cookie cutter solutions…great it worked here..doesn’t mean it will work in other places

  8. Patrick says:

    Good blog post. Taking ownership is key for making change happen. However, to be able to take ownership, you need to be really eager to establish change. You must be eager, almost craving for certain results. I experience that in a lot of cases, people just don’t care enough to take that first step of taking ownership. It’s more easy for an external consultant, so in certain cases hiring someone could bak the status quo. Otherwise it’s just gambling when it will happen. In my company urgency was high, commitment was low, so half our staff got another job outside the company. Problem solved, but not the way anyone expected 😉

    • Hi Patrick, thanks for adding your thoughts and experiences. Your company’s experience is always sad but not unique.

      I could not agree more with your observation “people just don’t care enough to take that first step of taking ownership.” That’s why I do what I do teaching the responsibility process so smart people can see how easily we operate from shame, obligation, and quit — and call it professional and a career.

      I’m all for developing environments to be much more healthy. That said, we’re each responsible for our own experience — and for changing it.

  9. Patrick says:

    Hi Christopher. Thanks for your reply. After a night of reflection, I think it was wrong to mention the observation that “people just don’t care enough” and the situation at my company in one context. In our case, most people actually cared a lot, but possibly other things held them back to start leading or made them decide to take the shortcut and step out.

    Fear and plain incompetence are also factors that prevent people from taking the lead. Often excuses are used like “I am too busy” or “somebody else is a lot better at doing that than me”.

    Once someone actually takes the lead, the magic still doesn’t happen until a sense of urgency or opportunity arises _and_ initial positive results are shown. Only then some people will notice and hop on that boat you mention in step 2.

    Bridging the gap between step 1 and 2 is a major leadership challenge. Even when smart people are abundant.

    But then again…if it would all work out without a fight and a tear, would it be as much fun? 😉

  10. Patrick — thanks for your note about reconsidering. It is hard to say that people don’t care enough to take ownership for the change that they want. I think we mistake a lot of dysfunction for caring, things like co-dependence and enabling behavior. I’m going to stick by my words that we have to actually care more about our own power and integrity in order to take ownership of the change we want to see.

    I’ve gone on record numerous times in the last year or so saying that I don’t work for crazy’s anymore. What if all of us did that? It means we would choose our employers and our leaders with much more care, and we would let the crazy’s work with each other — or lose power.

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  12. Paul – many thanks. I read your kind post and appreciate your recommending this blog post to your audience.

  13. Great blog post – thank you so much. Every person who’s been on a team would benefit from reading this.

  14. Christopher was lucky to have a group of smart people with big egos. These characteristics make the solution much easier.

    I have found that smart people want to continue to appear smart. This can be used to shape the desired team behavior.

    A group that includes mostly dumb individuals (those not savvy regarding the particular domain of interest), wouldn’t appreciate the intricacies of the problem. At least Christopher did not indicate that team member were not capable of adding value.

    Individuals with big egos are passionate about specific items. This can be used to shape the desired team behavior.

    A group that includes many apathetic individuals would have presented a more difficult challenge. It takes a lot of effort to motivate individuals regarding a particular cause when they are not passionate about their own agenda. It requires a lot of effort to motivate an individual to evolve their lack of interest.

  15. This is the BEST article in the market place WITH THE GREATEST INSIGHT I have EVER READ.
    It’s always us that needs to make the shift, it’s always the internal shift rather than waiting for an external change that has the great effect.
    Thank you for formalising a framework for me to talk about to people with out looking like a weirdo. I’ve known it for years but never seen it written about like this so high five to you.
    These are the only other outfit I know that talk about self-responsibility for change.
    Thank you and I will pass on this link for others to see.
    Ariana Ray, Wales UK

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  17. Luia Neto says:

    I inherited a large team of 35 very experienced employees in a legacy application. They did not see them as a team but formed competing “glee” groups based on common individual interest instead of common goals. My first task was to create teams of four or five based on common areas of expertise in the application and let each team choose a leader. The team leads created their own team which was focused on the overall goals. This approached slowly broke up the glee groups, created a positive environment bringing team mentality toward a common goal. We took precedence over I and individual goal turned to common goal.

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