When Higher Ed Becomes Higher Ego

Jobs in higher education can feel like noble callings. They give staff the opportunity to work with students as they refine their skills and pursue their ambitions. The “product” these institutions peddle is intellectual depth and rigor and the resulting professional culture tends to be human-centered and mission-driven. But this idealism can also foster a dark side. Colleges and universities often espouse traditional hierarchies. These can foster a climate of privilege in which some employees’ bad behavior is coddled rather than challenged.

Many professionals who work in higher education have found themselves navigating around these challenging colleagues: the department chair who won’t sign off on a graduate student’s thesis because she has an intellectual and professional conflict with his advisor, the university president who has a knack for chasing away talented staff members he finds threatening, or the dean who’s been increasingly retreating into her cushy office until it becomes anyone’s guess as to whether or not she will actually show up to meetings.

How can you devise a strategy for success if your path is impeded by a colleague whose inflated ego wastes resources and interferes with the flow of business?

What Do We Mean by Ego?
You may have experienced that colleague who has a stellar academic reputation framed by a problematic interpersonal one: she doesn’t compromise. He will verbally tear work apart in the company of the team that prepared it. She will monitor everything her team does on a project, and God forbid they have a comma out of place.

It’s impossible to feel like an equal when working alongside these colleagues. Instead, you feel almost like a partner in an abusive relationship, nervously waiting to learn if your part is “correct.”

The work and its “correctness” is not the only thing that’s important in a professional scenario. Strategically communicating a message to one’s colleagues is important as is building community. These communication initiatives are a key part of every professional’s role. They become exponentially more important if the employees in question have leadership roles. They have an obligation to be deft collaborators and communicators. Both are core components of leaders’ roles.

Reid Hoffman, cofounder and chairman of Linkedin, co-authored “The Start-Up of You” with Ben Casnocha. The authors explain, “Despite the fact that nothing important gets done alone, we live in a hero-obsessed culture. . . Business schools rarely teach relationship-building skills. It’s all about me, me, me, me.”

Perhaps it’s this individualistic mode of thinking that creates the misconception in the minds of these challenging professionals that their academic accomplishments make them a singular authority or absolve them of other professional responsibilities. But in fact, acting this way in the workplace shows a lack of professionalism and maturity. It also leads to costly consequences like loss of productivity and high turnover rates.

In his timeless book on management, Dr. Abraham H. Maslow notes that those who function in a psychologically appropriate way limit the way they exert their power and only do so when their leadership is needed. Maslow writes, “Healthy people have no need for power over other people; they don’t enjoy it, they don’t want it, and they will use it only when there is some factual need in the situation for it.”

Control Your Emotions
If you have a difficult colleague trying to dump his or her baggage into your career path, step one is to recognize that this is not about you. Yes, you have to deal with it because it’s in your way, but try to put your feelings on hold as you learn about this person and his or her history.

If you learn, for example, that this person exhibits similar behavior routinely, then you know that you’re not being targeted as much as this individual is demonstrating his or her pattern. If that’s the case, there’s no reason to emotionally engage. Doing so is a waste of your energy.

Depending on how your position relates to his or hers, there may not be much you can do to disrupt this pattern. When you recognize that you are working with someone who is operating in an emotionally illogical way, it’s a good strategy to try to take your own emotions off the table. Your self-control is your asset here. Don’t lose that advantage. Hold tightly to your self-control. It’s your path out of this messy situation.

Be Professional
Misery loves company and chaos loves chaos. Don’t let someone who is behaving unprofessionally erode your professionalism. It’s not worth it. It’s silly and wasteful for an adult to act like this at work. Behave better. Set your sights on the goal of behaving well in the company of an immature coworker. Every time he or she does something outlandish, challenge yourself: “Okay, how am I going to deal with this new development?”

Every position you assume on your career trajectory teaches you something about yourself. Undoubtedly, you were hoping for a different lesson here. But this is the one with which you are presented and exhibiting calm under this kind of pressure is a valuable skill to master. Make that your goal.

This isn’t fair, which is frustrating. But try to put that feeling into prospective. Stewing in outrage won’t make this better for you. So try to move past that emotion, it will only trip you up. You may not be the one who gets to dole out the justice here, but bad behavior has a way of catching up with people.

Documents and Reports
In his brilliant book “Work Rules!” Senior vice president of people operations for Google, Laszlo Bock, writes “One of the core principles of Google has always been ‘Don’t politick. Use data.'” Apply this sound philosophy to your project. Refrain from elevating emotion by fueling the gossip mill. Instead garner data. Note missed meetings. Amass emails that are unprofessional. Note rude comments. No one gets to abuse or belittle you at work, no matter what his or her level of academic or professional achievement.

Then devise a plan to share your feedback. Even if this person seems untouchable, HR will still listen to you, document your conversations, and respect your confidentiality. So talk to your HR colleagues.

If this bad behavior is causing staff to leave their positions, then there is a cost associated with it. It’s in your HR colleagues’ hands to do the cost benefit analysis on the value this person adds versus the staff members he or she chases away.

Create an Exit Strategy
If you’re working with a high-level professional who creates a workflow bottleneck because he or she overvalues ​​his or her own skill set and won’t collaborate with others, that’s not a battle that you can easily win. You deserve a job where you can be happy, not one where you have to fight a battle every day.

Talent is a precious commodity. Apply yours in an environment where it can flourish.

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