Contracting for Ego Management

We all have egos. To a greater or lesser degree, we all have needs to maintain and/or protect our sense of identity and self-esteem. The admonishment to leave egos at the door is fruitless. Therefore, the following three can be useful in using our egos constructively rather than trying to avoid them. Doing so supports a greater level of buy-in to the system and helps avoid hidden agendas that occur when ego-related goals are explicitly or tacitly forbidden. We all have egos, so why pretend otherwise?

  1. All members agree to share their own ego-related goals and support those of others.
  2. All members agree to accept feedback when one is insisting on denigrating the ideas of others in order to document the righteousness of one’s own ideas.
  3. All members agree to accept feedback regarding our egos’ desire to avoid responsibility for systemic behavior that distracts from achieving our goals. Speaking up to curtail off-target behavior is important in any human system.

Most of us probably agree that contracting for agreements in the three areas of Intention, Connection and Ego Management would be very useful. Yet, we’re reluctant to request such agreements, particularly for connection and ego management. Some of us may offer the idea of contracting for ego support. But, if the idea is not accepted immediately or if there is any sense of rejection, we back away pretty quickly, if we even bring the issues up at all. This is a Conscious Use of Self issue wherein different choices would be useful. Do you avoid requesting these agreements because it would be uncomfortable? Do you avoid requesting these agreements because you believe you are wasting everyone’s time? Do you have Sound and Current Data that your proposals will be rejected? If you answered “yes” to the first two questions and “no” to the third, consider not doing it alone, but with a support system of colleagues that are likely to have the same concerns that you do.

Whatever action or inaction you choose has its consequences. Do you choose the personal safety of avoiding making such agreements? The risk is the potentially disastrous consequences of the upsets that too often occur when our expectations are not met, and our intentions are thwarted because there was no mutual understanding about them. Or do you choose the discomfort (which won’t kill you) of participating in conversations that are uncomfortable? Enduring the discomfort is likely to result in agreements that will support sustainably healthy, productive, and satisfying human systems at home and at work. Which do you typically choose: comfort or action? Now that you are conscious, which will you choose?

Each human system and member is likely to have a different take on the day-to-day practice of each of the suggested agreements. We need explicit discussion and clarity on each item in the lists above. As already discussed, a system that is doing well may not need to spend a lot of time on these agreements. Regardless, periodic assessments of how well the agreements are being kept would be great preventive maintenance. We don’t allow our automobiles to go without regular maintenance check-ups. We should provide the same maintenance to our important human systems so that recontracting can occur when needed. Of course, a human system that is not doing well would be well served to build such a set of agreements.

Here is an example of disastrous results from failing to make such agreements. Years ago, I was working with the general manager of a Lynchville television station to help to build a more effective executive team. After what I thought was a very successful all-day meeting of the team, the general manager let me know how furious and frustrated he was with how the day went. He told me emphatically that I should have called the “bullsh-t” that was going on. I said that there was no way for me to recognize whatever “bullsh-t” he was referring to and asked why he hadn’t spoken up about it. His response was that he thought he was supposed to be quiet so that others wouldn’t feel inhibited from expressing themselves. Wow! This was a contracting failure on two levels! First, I had failed to contract with him sufficiently about his role in the meeting, and about being candid with me when he first noticed that there was a problem. Second, I failed to coach him on how to contract with his executives so that he would not feel inhibited from speaking, and others wouldn’t feel inhibited about speaking. A morass of assumptions led to the termination of my tenure as a consultant to that organization!

I assumed he would feel perfectly free to speak up to the group and to me. He didn’t really know that his speaking would inhibit others. Why didn’t I notice was him being unusually quiet? I could have avoided such a mess if I had simply contracted with him for candor between us, including how he might tell me or otherwise signal me during the meeting that something wasn’t working for him. In my personal life, I have had other examples of failure to contract effectively; however, I’m avoiding sharing those. Use your own examples instead!

Contracting and recontracting are important. However, they are not always easy to accomplish. Misunderstandings, disagreements, and conflict can derail the best intentions to create explicit contracts. Just as important, is monitoring how well our agreements are being so that recontracting can be done when necessary. We also need to know how to ensure contracts are being honored through feedback, accountability and consequences. We cover conflict feedback and consequences thoroughly in future articles.