“There’s no way we can possibly lose this deal!” boasted my head of business development. In fact, he was so confident that the deal was in the bag, he successfully lobbied the executive team to invest in it ahead of the contract. You might be cringing, because you’ve probably already predicted the punch line, but you’d be surprised about the ultimate outcome.
My business development guy’s prediction was still ringing in my head as the client told us, “Sorry, we went with another agency.” We couldn’t believe it. We immediately started going through the five stages of grief. Denial: There was no way this was happening; our business development guy was so confident. Anger: Why did we get suckered? Bargaining: Maybe there’s still a chance, we thought, as we reached out to our contacts to see if we missed something. Depression: It’s lost forever — we’ll never get another chance. Acceptance: When we hit Stage Five, we were able to see the situation for what it was.
How many times has someone been overly confident, only to have success ripped from their grasp? It happens all too often. When we become cocky, we stop looking at both external threats and our weaknesses. We stop contingency-planning. Instead, we move on to what our reality will look like when the perceived inevitable happens. In short, we lose focus and stop doing what matters. Our hubris-driven blinders create a myopia that’s hard to get past.
So there we were, dealing with the reality that we lost this one. It stung not just due to the confidence we had, but also because of the brash decisions we allowed ourselves to make. In a moment of clarity, we sat down with the client to talk about why we lost the business. In that conversation, there was one statement that stood out: “It seemed as if you didn’t want our business.” Nothing could be further from the truth — as evidenced by our devastation. When we dove deeper, they said we spent more time talking about ourselves than we did learning about their issues. We kept using our language instead of learning their vernacular and translating our language into their speak. They felt like we were telling them what we thought they wanted to hear versus telling them what they needed to know. It was definitely a pitch focused on us, and not them.
What was so devastating for us was that a significant component of our corporate principles is “clients first.” But in that pitch, in that moment, it was “us first.” We were so confident that we were going to win that we lost sight of the other side. We were driven by ego. This lesson stayed with me. Even today, I focus on our clients’ business issues and what’s driving their need for our help. I seek to understand this need’s impact on their business. It helps me to stay grounded and focused on them — not us.
Ironically, I see a lot of negotiations break down due to ego. There are lots of ways ego can get in the way during the negotiation: big personalities, insecurities, the need to “save face.” However, most of the time when ego takes over, it’s because we stopped thinking about the needs of others and cared only about our needs. That’s certainly what happened with this deal.
Whether you’re dealing with an active negotiation or an interpersonal conflict, here are some things that you can try to keep your (or others’) ego in check:
- Be curious about what’s important to the other side. Focus on what they need. Find out what is most important to them and why. Approach the situation with childlike curiosity.
- Seek input and feedback from others. We all have blind spots. Ask others to help you find them. That may include asking the other side, “Is there anything that I’m missing?”
- Listen more than you speak. (A tough one for me, personally!) We learn more about others when we listen than we do when we feel compelled to speak.
- Be open to learning something new. When we stop learning, we stop evolving. When we stop evolving, ego takes root. Educate yourself and ask others to teach you.
- Reflection. Literally take a time-out and reflect on the situation. Try to see it from different vantage points. Imagine alternatives. Check yourself and make sure that you have a balanced perspective of the situation.
Back to the agency deal that we lost . . . After hearing the devastating feedback, we spent a lot of time contemplating both its merits and our own reality. In this case, the client was spot-on. As a way to refocus ourselves, we invited the client to a candid debrief. We shared with them our reflection on their feedback and what we learned. As an exercise in humility and deep learning, we started back at square one. Even though we weren’t under contract, we sought to better learn their business. We sent them thoughtful pieces and perspectives that we believed could help them. It was a great exercise for our agency to go through, because it led to better overall client engagements across the board. After 16 months of doing this, that same client called us and said, “We need your help.” While that wasn’t the point of the exercise, it validated that we learned the right lessons.
Need Help Taming Ego?
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