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Do you grade yourself daily on your ego, checking to ensure that it's not steering you into trouble? Edward Hess thinks you should.

A professor of management at the University of Virginia's Darden Graduate School of Business and author of Learn or Die, he believes that in a smart machine age, our intelligence can help us advance but our ego can sink us.

So every day, your to-do list should contain items such as these:

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  • Do not interrupt others.
  • Really focus on understanding the other person.
  • Suspend judgment.
  • Do not think about your response while the other person is still talking.
  • Do not automatically advocate your views in your first response.
  • Ask questions to make sure you understand the other person.
  • Ask whether you can paraphrase what the other person said to make sure you heard them correctly.
  • Really try to understand the reasons the other person believes what they believe.

At the end of each day, you will want to evaluate how you fared. If you reflect and practise every day, he believes you will notice a difference in what he calls your humility-to-ego ratio. Start by picking two kinds of behaviour you want to change, and get some colleagues, friends or family to help hold you accountable by giving them permission to call you out when you violate your intentions.

It's a simple technique to adopt, if not easy to do. But it stems from a complicated look at our social and work environment. He has been working with companies that are either operationally excellent or terrific at innovation, understanding their management and culture. Operationally strong companies keep mistakes to a minimum. Innovative companies allow many failures – maybe 90 to 95 per cent of their ideas flop – but succeed with the few that soar. He decided that learning is crucial to both approaches.

And when he studied the science of learning, he concluded that ego is a huge liability. "Humans are suboptimal learners. We want to learn what we already know and defend what we know. We're not naturally open-minded and willing to accept new ideas," he said in an interview.

Learning – and learning to rein in our ego – will become more critical as we enter the smart machine age. One study has suggested that over the next 10 to 20 years, 66 per cent of U.S. employees have a medium-to-high risk of being displaced by smart robots and machines powered by artificial intelligence. He contends the only safe jobs are those that require a human element – creativity, innovation, complex critical thinking and engaging emotionally with other humans – so we can do them better than robots. "Artificial intelligence is a major game change," he says. "It may be the biggest invention since fire."

Ego gets in the way of empathy and listening, both of which are critical to learning. But it's not easy to turn off your ego. In setting such a goal, you are working against the natural inclination of the brain. You have to be willing to look closely at your mistakes and failures, to really listen to people who disagree with you, and to allow the best thinking and ideas to rise to the top.

He urges you to seek objective feedback on your own ego. Try a 360-degree review, getting those around you to rate your emotional intelligence and your behaviour concerning open-mindedness, listening, empathy and humility. Now you can start an improvement process.

Along with that, start to change your mental model of what "smart" looks like. We have been trained to believe it involves knowing more than the next person. So the goal is to keep accumulating knowledge. Not knowing the right answers has traditionally – and still is – a big blow to the ego. But in a search-engine era, we can look many things up. "Being smart is using our best learning, thinking and collaboration processes. To do that, we need a quiet mind. We need to tell people what we believe and check whether it's right," he says.

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In a sense, we all have to think like scientists. He says they are trained to think of themselves as ignorant, creating hypotheses and checking to see whether those are correct. If their first study suggests it is, they double-check to make sure some other factor isn't the cause. Individually, and as organizations, we need to adopt that approach, dampening our ego and learning.

Research shows that one way to become less self-absorbed and more open to the experiences of others is to actively work on being more empathetic and compassionate. Put yourself in other people's shoes and try to understand what they are thinking. He finds doing this – suspending judgment – is particularly difficult. His mind wants to jump to a conclusion instead of really considering what the other person is experiencing, thinking or feeling. Active listening has been an important tool for him in learning to set his ego aside.

Find out what you need to improve your humility-to-ego ratio, make sure it's atop your daily to-do list, and check your progress.

Harvey Schachter is a Kingston, Ont.-based writer specializing in management issues. He writes Monday Morning Manager and management book reviews for the print edition of Report on Business and an online work-life column, Balance. E-mail Harvey Schachter

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