Dale Weigel was a middle-aged, gentle but straight-shooting man with glasses, thinning hair, perennially gray suits and a doctorate in Economics from Stanford. He - and his alter ego, an ebullient mensch named Joel Bergsman - had hired me right out of graduate school to work with them at the World Bank.
I was to be in the department which helped developing countries attract foreign direct investment (FDI) to (theoretically) grow out of poverty. It was a dream chance to change the world and learn from some of the most brilliant people I had ever encountered. For the first six months at weekly staff meetings, I couldn’t open my mouth I was so intimidated by how smart everyone else seemed.
One of my first assignments was to help Dale research and write a book on the lessons of experience that had been learned by the World Bank and its private sector arm, the International Finance Corporation, with FDI.
For a poor kid raised by immigrants who never even went to high school, it was an incredible opportunity.
It would also lead to one of the most painful, private moments of my professional career.
I had researched and drafted a part of the book on the Brazilian petrochemicals industry and had gone into my boss’ office to discuss it with him. He sat in his chair and I sat, as is convention in such things, across from him. In his hands, he held the draft I had written.
My body tensed when I saw the red marks he had scribbled on the paper from across the desk.
He asked me about a word I had chosen to use buried in something like the sixth paragraph of the piece. I had been a great student and teachers always loved my papers, even photocopying them and handing them out to others as a great example. My ego had gotten lots of strokes then. But now I was in the big leagues where it really counted: I had rent to pay and a reputation to create.
I could not tolerate the possibility of being wrong.
He thought that a word I had used was exaggerated and not entirely accurate (and the truth is, years later, I still don’t remember the word we argued about. But boy do I remember the emotional sting of that professional conversation.)
After all, when you write for the World Bank, attention is paid to the nuance and subtleties of every word: the reputation and economy of an entire nation can rest on a subtle difference in language, as anyone who listens to the Fed’s announcements can attest.
But I was young and headstrong and fought him tooth and nail on this one word which seemed so incredibly important and that I cannot recall for the life of me today. After what seemed like ages, but was probably just a few minutes, of him calmly and logically talking to me about what words to use and my blustering ego continuing to insist I was right, I had to concede defeat. With my tail deep between my legs, I went back to my desk, inevitably stopping to pick up a couple of powdered donuts from the breakroom to soothe my pain and shame.
It took many, many more professional and personal experiences, and some serious graduate work in the school of hard knocks, for me to finally understand what had happened that day long ago: my ego got in the way.
I was so attached to being right and my word being the correct one, that I had completely lost sight of the greater good: the project we were working on, trying to help people who were poor, being of service and, of course, keeping my job.
One of the great things about the global economy today is that anyone with a laptop and an idea can start their own company.
How many small businesses and entrepreneurs get their start, after all, because someone didn’t resonate with the mainstream corporate culture available to them and wanted to go out and do their own thing? Too many to count is the answer.
But getting wrapped up in ego - and being attached to being right or having things done a certain way - isn’t something that only negatively affects performance in big companies, institutions and organizations.
It can make things hard for small business owners who have a great idea but are attached to doing it a certain way, or to salespeople who go for the hard sell and alienate their co-workers because they want to “be the best”. It can affect managers who refuse to delegate and insist on things being done their own way and those who work for them.
Emotional intelligence in the workplace comes from knowing yourself, what your strengths and weaknesses are, what your blind spots are and being open to feedback from others. Accurate self-assessment, which comes from greater self-awareness, has been widely demonstrated to be a critical component of success at work.
One of the most transformative ways of building emotional intelligence at work is through the practice of mindfulness.
No, you don’t have to quit your job, move to Tibet and go on a silent retreat for a year to learn how to do this (although that can certainly be beneficial).
Perhaps the most important thing you can do is to create the intention to learn more about this powerful practice that can help you have better concentration at work, be more relaxed and get along better with everyone you work with, whether your boss, your colleagues or your clients.
It doesn’t mean you will kowtow to authority or always agree with everyone either, by the way. But when you do disagree, you can do it from a place of groundedness and deep knowing rather than the small ego (which tends to lead us to powdered donuts to take the edge off).
There are literally thousands of books, classes and talks on this topic and are too many for me to list here now (although I will suggest the classic written by Google's Chade-Meng Tan with Emotional Intelligence Expert Daniel Goleman and world-renowned Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction founder Jon Kabat Zinn called Search Inside Yourself as well as this blog post on it, too).
But by creating the intention to learn more about mindfulness and starting small (like with these free downloadable audio meditations), talking to a friend who has a meditation practice, going to a class or workshop (like these coming up in Palm Springs) or reaching out to a meditation teacher or coach, you will go a long way towards beginning to change your mind and to get happier at work.
(By the way, you might be asking, am I free from ego after practicing meditation all these years? The answer is a resounding, heck no.
But there is so much more freedom in just being able to say that today - and no need for powdered donuts).