We all have an opinion on ego in the workplace, don’t we?  Most people can recount times where they have been negatively impacted by the ego of others.

 

Rather than a purely psychological definition of ego: “the part of a person’s mind that tries to match the hidden desires (= wishes) of the id (= part of the unconscious mind) with the demands of the real world” – (Cambridge English Dictionary), we will refer to ego simply as one’s sense of self-importance and worth.

We do all have an ego, and it’s probably not practical or desirable to deny it completely.  When I talk about “Igo” as the opposite of “Ego”, I’m talking about management rather than eradication.  It might not be possible to master the “I”, but for most people it’s beneficial to try.

For our purposes here, we’re interested in what happens when the ego is problematic in a leadership context – when egos go rogue, get big, become excessive and aggressive.  Usually these ego monsters become the source of Toxic cultures.

 

The overgrown ego.

As a leadership tutor I must tread carefully when talking about ego in the classroom, because people are easily triggered around the subject. Maybe they know they have an oversized ego but feel it has worked for them and are therefore unapologetic about it.  They may be unwilling to address it for a variety of good reasons. If they have wrapped their identity up into some “highlights reel” to make themselves feel good about themselves, it’s a powerful construct and will be protected with vigour.

There is a huge media focus on ego too – it is seductive to get caught up in the materialistic bandwagon of those trying to sell, whether that’s a car or a political ideology.  We hear and see so much from the egotistical.

If there is any ego addressing to be done, as with most self-development, the impetus really must come from the owner.   For this reason, it’s probably best dealt with either in self-reflection, coaching or counselling.  The idea of “taking someone down a peg or two” can sound seductive, but I have never seen it work in practice.

 

As it is difficult (pointless) to address someone else’s ego, let’s redirect this back to – you.

Maybe your own ego is causing problems for those around you.  In fact I’ll go another step further: it almost certainly is.  Maybe the same causes which present challenging behaviours to others, are also problematic for you personally.

The usual symptoms of a rampant rhino ego are:

  • Arrogance
  • Unwillingness to listen
  • Assertion of self and own achievements over others
  • A lack of leadership (although those with overactive egos often do gain positions of authority)
  • Occasional waves of overwhelming self-doubt

Now, if we accept that we do all have some ego, it follows that we can all be guilty of these symptoms from time to time.

It might come as no surprise that our ego balloons can be inflated to bursting point through the trappings of success. However, the tighter that surface becomes, the closer it comes to bursting as the reality and the fantasy conflict.

 

So where might our ego come from?
  • Fear
  • Insecurity
  • Intellectual laziness

Firstly fear, anyone who’s been on one of my courses will know I’m a fan of fear as a behavioural driver.  Often an ego is the caricature we create to protect us from those fears.

Secondly, insecurity. This can often stem from early experiences or can come as a result of the “success” you have achieved.  I have seen very wealthy, senior people haunted by the notion that those around them are only there for the associated money and status (often true!).  Their lives become transactional and they end up feeling incredibly unconnected.  It becomes like a drug addiction: their success brings the people, and the success also isolates the successful.  Then of course we have the fear of loss – if the success goes, then the people will go too, and then what’s left?

Finally, laziness. If your ego is overpowering, it tells you that you already know stuff. Therefore, we have no real reason to learn new things, and we end up in something of a fixed mindset. It’s effortful to really challenge ourselves to think differently and so we take the shortcut not to try.

Another aspect of ego which can affect organisational development is what can be termed the “need to be needed” syndrome of senior leaders.  Development of new leaders and increased organisational decision making can be stunted through having key “gatekeepers” who rather enjoy the validation of having the answers.  It takes an unusual leader to be truly able to support others PAST them in an organisation and put their own needs aside against the purpose of the organisation.

 

How can we improve our Ego?

In order to improve our mastery of Ego:

  • Intrinsically, we need:
    • Self-awareness
    • Self confidence
    • Courage
    • Self sufficiency
    • Empathy
    • To embrace change in ourselves and see our path as a state of perpetual motion, rather than an achieved goal
  • Extrinsically, we need:
    • To plug in to something very important to us on a personal level (the thing that is more important than we are)
    • Perhaps a role model or two

I will finish with a lovely quote from Physicist John Wheeler, as signposted in “Ego is the Enemy”: “As our island of knowledge grows, so does the shore of our ignorance.” That is to say, the more answers we have, the more questions we uncover. I think that’s a nice concept to promote the idea of life-long learning and growth mindset.

If you would like to learn more I cover some aspects of this in my courses. I’m the lead tutor on the CMI level 7 Coaching and Mentoring programme and the Advanced Management programme here at In Professional Development.

James Willerton

Associate tutor of In Professional Development