How Ego Stifles Improvement

Throughout my career I’ve noticed a trend that prohibits effective collaboration.

I’ll save you the anticipation: It’s ego.

There are a number of pieces warning against egos in education (Albanese, 2014; Hooks, 2013; Phillips, 2015), cautioning of collaboration issues, distractions from true responsibilities or purpose, and disruption to the learning process for students. An article on charismatic leaders echoes this concern of putting own desires ahead of role or the organization (Hall, 2008).

Sam Walker, Deputy Editor of the Wall Street Journal, noted the first of the seven most common traits of effective team leaders is humility. An effective leader is one who allows team members to be in the spotlight and willing to do the same work as front-line folks.

Humility: The first of the seven most important traits for effective leaders

A leader needs to not only be considerate and think of their team, but be intimately familiar with the roles, perspectives, and conditions in which they work. Such consideration and familiarity relies on somewhat regular interactions and communication, considering their perspectives just as relevant as other area leaders, faculty or staff.

Ego may not be the issue preventing collaboration.

After all, people are complicated, and there may be political or interpersonal factors associated with relationships and effort motivations. Whatever the reason may be, it can be unfortunate for my line of work, as assessment is intended to be collaborative (Maki, 2010). In addition to collaboration, assessment efforts should be intentional in engaging different people at multiple levels for multiple aspects of the overall process in order to be not only effective, but also inclusive.

I like to remind folks my job is to help advance other’s initiatives; my effectiveness in supporting and advancing their initiatives is largely dependent on their willingness to be collaborative. I work hard to convey my role upfront and reiterate the focus of assessment of student learning is actually about student learning, not to criticize or covertly evaluate faculty or staff. That message is best heard when I’m able to engage as a collaborative professional.

To do this, it’s imperative I build a relationship and earn their trust. I listen and seek to understand as much as I can about their role, responsibility, and environment before I look to ask anything of them. After all, who would turn down free and willing help from someone they trusted? I make it a point to outline how I can help support them with assessment work (which supports me, too), but also in general.

When I work with faculty, I have learned to respond by acknowledging their subject matter expertise and coaching for clear, focused assessment reports. Since faculty have a good idea of how their students may be learning, I work with them to find simple, meaningful, and streamlined ways to document and provide evidence of student learning, so as to quantify their passion for students in data interpretation and action plans for improvement.

When working with an area leader — who may have a higher pay grade or degree of education than me — I take a consultative approach, meaning I share thoughts and considerations, but ultimately empower the leader of the area or content subject matter expert to decide what’s most appropriate for their unit. I also make it a point to encourage administrators and area leaders to keep a finger on the pulse of those who they hope to be leading and representing.

I do my best to model these behaviors to positively influence the behavior of others. Sometimes, if someone does not view another person’s role or job as relevant to their own work, they might not care to learn more or engage with that person. Likewise, position or academic credential can prohibit interactions with employees not on the same level.

Each instance closes the door on opportunities and untapped potential.

I hope some of these strategies can be of assistance to others who may find themselves in tricky situations. While I am sure readers can identify folks behaving less than collegially, we may also be hesitant to acknowledge the ways with which we may not be the best partners to our peers.

Like assessment encourages with student learning, we all can always identify ways with which to improve and refine our practice.

In that spirit, I encourage everyone to take the time to acknowledge others’ expertise, clarify how you can be partners in supporting initiatives, working to intentionally build relationships (which aren’t just self-serving), and ultimately showing respect for one another by listening, helping, and collaborating.

Regardless of what positions we may hold, we’re all trying to make improvements, and we’re all on the same team.

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Joe Levy

About the author: Joe Levy is the Executive Director of Assessment and Accreditation at National Louis University. Joe is passionate about data-informed decision making, accountability, and promoting a student-centered approach inside and outside of the classroom. Follow him on Twitter @JoeBooksLevy! Learn how we can help get your students involved.

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