Big or Strong?

Steven Bornstein, a media executive, said 98% of his job consisted of managing egos and the other 2% was for thinking. That’s not my definition of how to lead others but it is worthy of reflection. The real question here could be which egos are we talking about – big or strong? Big egos are rigid and controlling; strong egos are open and flexible. Big egos crave attention; strong egos pay attention.

We can learn something from anyone, provided we listen with an inquisitive mind, can separate wheat from chaff and know how to find the critical signals within all the noise that bombards us. Sometimes that effort can be time-consuming. Invariably, it’s worth it.

We all have opinions. We might not have the right answer(s) but each of us has a point of view that’s generated reflexively whenever a question is posed. Fortunately, most of us don’t feel inclined or compelled to share every one of those thoughts with everyone else. We tend to differentiate what’s relevant, true or important and then, hopefully, convey what adds value to the conversation.

Big egos need to have a say about everything that matters to them, however inconsequential, irrelevant or inadequately researched. They spew so much noise it’s difficult to ascertain what’s pertinent, salient or germane. Even when we’re interested in what’s being said, our brains go into overdrive to figure out whether such views reflect truth or are just drivel regurgitated from the incessant social media onslaught or a chatty neighbour claiming to “know something about that.”

Big-ego people believe their opinions are unassailable. They tout stats, subjectively derived or purposely framed, as if they know all that’s necessary to convey their dominion over the subject at hand. They come across as experts when they’re just pretenders. Daniel Patrick Moynihan said it best: “You are entitled to your own opinion, but you are not entitled to your own facts.”

Big egos thrive on what is called post-truth. In the vernacular, we call it bulls#*t. (The latter became a respectable area of study when the word appeared in an essay by Henry Frankfurt, an American philosopher, over thirty years ago.) Partisan rhetoric, political spin and obfuscation, exaggerated distortions, presumed authorities who know little if anything about the real issues, and “fake news” were not the creation of Trump, he just made it more pervasive and far worse in its present incarnation.

The US election of 2016 involved two big egos and ended up being a contest between two kinds of bull: the old and the new. The fresher version won. Trump was viewed as the antidote to a political system that annoyed and even angered a lot of people. Hilary was seen as the embodiment of that system. Winning a policy debate (presumably about facts) was less important to voters than who represented real change and who was most like them. Facts were irrelevant. Trump prevailed by feeding their fears, frustrations and uncertainties about the future.

Some deceptions, like industry-sponsored research and corporate double-speak, are frequently pedaled by intelligent and normally honest people who feel it opportune to mislead whenever the benefits outweigh the costs. Recognizing the blather and twaddle of big egos does not give us immunity to its effects nor protection against the reasons why it so appeals.

Our ego is our identity. It’s how we validate our self-worth, define our capabilities and feel good about ourselves. It’s how we think the world “should” work. When we look at our circumstances through the lens of our beliefs, principles and assumptions about how things ought to be, much of what we see or hear is often perceived as false or unacceptable. Nonetheless, it’s just feedback and how we respond to it is critical to our effectiveness.

We live in a world where beliefs matter more than facts. Some beliefs are founded on truths; others are based on mere persuasion. What we think we know isn’t necessarily so. Our brains, which literally change in seconds, create beliefs that endure longer than the experiences we perceive. This is not a consequence of our media-soaked times but rather an eternal truth of human nature. Who we are is what we believe.

People rarely tell you when you’re wrong or out of touch because they don’t wish to hurt your feelings or appear arrogant. Rather, they endeavour to convince you of the errors in your thinking, hoping you might agree with them. This coyness, indirectness and innuendo in interpersonal communication are just aspects of the politics of life. But it’s still bull. It feeds on gullibility. Because it’s what people want to hear and what they want to believe. Genuine candour is never the norm; it’s the exception.

When a situation is not to our liking, objectivity becomes difficult. To protect our ego, we choose to ignore unflattering circumstances and prefer to believe we’re right. This is known as confirmation bias – the bubble of ignorance where big egos reside. It is a mindset that carries with it the risk of believing things that aren’t true. Alternatively, strong egos calibrate believability by factoring in the possibility they may not be right. Because no one is right all the time.

People who can’t change their minds about what’s right or wrong never advance. Rather, they see themselves as heroes, falsely believing that holding the wrong opinions carries a steep price. In consequence, they stop moving forward, colleagues start avoiding them and friends call less often.

Few embrace or align with big egos because they come across as prisoners of their beliefs, driven to convince others of their mastery of what’s correct, rather than free thinkers willing to engage in robust but respectful debate. Those who do decide to remain in their circle of influence are those who hold the same dogmatic but typically inaccurate views.

The beliefs we hold need to be adjusted on a regular basis through the introduction of newly discovered, contrarian, empirical-based notions. Never say “I know” … that’s your big ego talking. Say “I think.” Because knowledge is invariably a matter of interpretation. And knowing when to let others win the argument can be a useful social skill.

The easiest way to be seen as authoritative but eminently relatable, as strong egos usually are, is to be genuinely authentic. The paradox of persuasion is that the harder you try to sell yourself and your ideas, the less convincing you become. So, when in the presence of a big ego, say “I don’t have an opinion on that; please explain to me how (or why) you believe what you’re telling me. I’m always open to learning new things. And I’m grateful for your views on this.”