tame your ego
Photo: Thinkstock

The Feedback Trap

The ego issue: How do most of us react when someone criticizes us, even constructively? "By denying, rejecting or transforming the threat to preserve self-worth," explains Michael Inzlicht, PhD, a psychologist at the University of Toronto, and his colleagues, in their study on performance threat. The price: A distorted sense of reality and a failure to learn from mistakes.

The fix: If you can spare five minutes before your next performance review, marital spat or the like, use it to identify something you value immensely (creativity, travel, family, comedy, for instance), and then jot down a few thoughts about why it matters. This exercise—clinicians call it "value affirmation"—makes us less prickly and more open-minded when hearing about our mistakes and flaws, concluded multiple studies. It works because it protects our broader sense of self-worth, while disabling the "ego protective" alarms that drain mental energy. Bonus: Value affirmers also have better self-control and make fewer errors on subsequent tasks, found Dr. Inzlicht.

The Confusion Trap

The ego issue: Imagine there's something that you're fairly clueless about—spreadsheets, perhaps. Long ago, you tried to crack the code, but felt out of your depth. Now you're too proud to go back to square (or cell) oneā€”and, so, you'd rather just not know what you don't know.

The fix: Don't avoid confusion, embrace it. Missteps become assets when you practice "productive failure," a learning technique described in a study at the Learning Sciences Lab at the National Institute of Education in Singapore. There, math students were faced with seemingly impossible problems, then asked to come up with solutions on their own. The students were encouraged to get lost and confused and to make up wild theories. They failed, of course. But later, after they were taught the solutions, they performed better on subsequent tests than those who received straight-out instruction. Failing—thoughtfully and without shame—helped them to learn more deeply.

Next: Why presuming the upper hand hurts your success