Pride, defensiveness, and ego stand in the way of Learning.

Pride, defensiveness, and ego stand in the way of Learning.

by | 11 Jun 2021 | Coaching, Leadership, Mentoring

When I think back on my life one of the most valuable lessons I learned was to swallow my pride, get over my ego and look to understand how I could do better.

Even today, I have to admit that I still find it hard to acknowledge when I am wrong. It came as some consolation in later life to find out that I was not alone in my defensiveness.

Evolution, human beings are instinctively defensive.

Of course, as human beings we are instinctively defensive, for good reason. Our ancestors survived physically by being defensive. We all have an in-built ‘Fight or Flight’ instinct that has got us this far. They realised that they could not outrun many of our would-be predators, so alternative defences had to be found.

From an evolutionary perspective, we also developed defensive tendencies as a mental health survival mechanism. We want to be accepted socially and to belong. We want to feel socially secure, just as our ancestors did.

Defensive thoughts and actions help us pick ourselves up after an embarrassment or mistake. It allows us to maintain a sense of optimism when faced with a tough situation.

Learning follows when we get over our pride.

Translated to the modern day, we still find it hard to accept that we may be wrong, that we made a mistake or there was a better way. But once we get over that natural defensiveness or pride, we allow ourselves to learn.

Researchers have found that defensive behaviours routinely stand in the way of innovation, logical decision-making, identifying problems, and formulating solutions. Tuckman in his 1965 paper came up with the memorable phrase that defined the sequence of behaviour, Forming, Storming, Norming and Performing. Teams typically don’t perform to their full potential until they’ve gone through the previous three phases. With ego, pride and defensiveness comes Storming. As we enter a summer of sport no doubt we will witness yet more stories of victorious people who have learned from previous failures. Many will acknowledge the help of a coach who helped them get there.

Effective people ask questions, Listen and Act.

When I reflect on my own career, the most effective people I have worked with had a common trait. They asked questions, listened and adapted to the answers! They are not embarrassed to do so, to acknowledge that they don’t know everything. They are happy to leave their “Ego at the Door” (Sharma) and to seek “First to Understand” (Stephen Covey).

The wisdom of the world’s greatest thinkers

It is no wonder then that so many of the world’s greatest thinkers have coined phrases that address this human behaviour.

How many more can you think of?

  • Pride asks who is right, humility asks what is right (Cloud)
  • Pride comes before a fall (the Bible).
  • Two ears one mouth so that we can listen twice as much as we speak (Epictetus)
  • When you talk, you are only repeating what you already know. But if you listen, you may learn something new (Dalai Lama)
  • No man is an island entire of itself (John Donne)
  • More the knowledge lesser the ego, lesser the knowledge, more the ego (Einstein)

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