Ego: The Biggest Threat to Engagement at Work

Check-Your-Ego

But enough about me, let’s talk about you… what do YOU think of me?

Bette Midler as CC Bloom in “Beaches” (1988)

I often get asked this question: what is the one thing which is most likely to prevent an organization from having an engaged workforce? I believe it is something which lurks deep in the hearts and minds of individuals: the ego. What is the ego?

We all start out in a pretty non-egoic state, but quite soon find out that “I” am apparently separate from the world; this passage of childhood  is something which everyone passes through, but where some linger.  Those who linger stay in an egoic state rather than reconciling with the broader world, in the give and take (part “me” and a bigger part “we”) which most of us experience as everday life.  The egoic personality usually comes about as a result of childhood trauma of some kind, where the child learns to dislike itself, and to push aside unliked and unwanted parts of itself into a hidden area, while building a false “ego” like a shell around the original, real person.  The ego-shell hides the unwanted self (what Debbie Ford in her excellent book”** calls the “shadow”) from the world and the person functions only from this false, egoic front.  Since the original trauma involved learning to intensely dislike parts of oneself, the ego-shell must be constructed of new objects which will project what its owner hopes will be a socially acceptable version of self, capable of being liked, admired, respected, even…loved.

In more extreme cases of ego-possession, the sense of simply (human) “being” almost disappears and is replaced by an egoic identity which focuses instead entirely on these objects (or what Eckhart Tolle*** calls “form”). In other words, we “identify” with things outside of ourselves, in the hope that this identification will improve our social standing in some way.  These things can include one’s house, the type of job or position one occupies, wealth, educational background and achievement, other status symbols such as cars and countless other “things” such as sports teams which enable the ego to pretend that it’s owner is “better” than others.  Of course, the deep down (and usually unconscious) fear inside this person is that they are far, far worse than others….but this is not what the world sees or what the ego’s host ever wants it to see. Know anyone who is not just disappointed but crushed when his or her football team loses?  They are under the grip of the ego, and when their team loses, its like a personal failure.

 The Princeton dictionary brings this into focus with a concise definition which is very aligned with how most people see and use the word “ego”:

An inflated feeling of pride in your superiority to others

So what does this have to do with engagement at work?  Plenty if you think about it.  Imagine the worst boss you ever had, was she/he loaded down with ego?  Here are some of the symptoms:

  • she takes credit for projects which you started and carried out
  • he never hires people smarter than himself
  • he “licks up” and “kicks down” in the organization structure
  • she cannot take criticism
  • he is a perfectionist and one can never “do it well enough” for him
  • she never allows anyone else to make any significant decision in her area

This is not a happy person.  The ego possession makes him/her feel extremely vulnerable because identification with all the “things” in life is like building a house on sand.  Those things have ways of going away, as all eventually do.  Money can disappear,  as can jobs, “trophy” spouses, and other status symbols.  Living on the knife edge means always having to make sure than nothing, nothing at all, upsets this fragile status-quo, which at work means always having to check up on you to make sure you will not show this person (often a boss) up in a bad light.

You can hopefully see the short step to engagement:   you are there at work to share your talents and skills and help the organization succeed.  You love your job, but your boss….oh dear, your boss is an ego-maniac!  You didn’t know that at first, your radar didn’t send out a code red alert when you had the interview, but you found out later that something was very very wrong.  All the things which I described above, started to happen.  You arrived at the job ready, willing and able to engage but now…now the thing you most want to engage in is finding a new boss there or perhaps leaving the organization for a new job.

One of the problems in the world of work is that ego-driven top management often picks those like themselves;  they call it a “nice fit”.  I call it, “extending the ego-model out into the whole organization“.  This means you are unlikely to get far by complaining about such a person, even if you describe what they do:  top management will laugh and say that that’s quite normal, healthy behavior.  From where they stand it is.

Speaking of top management, one of the most out of control aspects of CEO behavior is the arms race to get more and more compensation.  I have written at length about this because  I believe it erodes morale and engagement.  The ego loves the idea that “I” can make more than the next guy (or gal), and is horrified at the idea that I would ever make less!  The amount of ego-driven greed at the top of our organizations is staggering, with ratios of CEO pay to that of the average worker above 400:1 here in the US.  Of course the ego is canny, and needs to make sure that such excesses are guaranteed.  Heaven forbid that the ego would not receive what it is worth!  This means setting up their compensation in such a way that they are never affected by something as mundane as…performance.  Where do you think the “golden parachute” came from?   In these cases,  the ego’s ability to create real “separateness” makes it very able to totally justify this behavior and not allow its “host” to have a sense that others are affected in any way.  Only in some cases, like John Mackey of Whole Foods, or top management at BMW, have senior people transcended their egos and looked to the greater good in setting their own pay.   I love this quote from BMW’s press office, talking about how the company restrains top management bonuses in relation to what average workers receive :

“We don’t just want to build sustainable cars. We also want to have sustainable personnel politics. We think this is good for the company culture”.

As we saw with the list of management traits above, control is another sign that the ego is lurking.  Ask an ego-driven manager to give up some control, to delegate, to flatten the structure and let some teams manage themselves, for example,  and you will be met with a show of horror…..and logical justification as to why that should never happen.  But these aren’t the real reasons:  under the surface, the ego abhors loss of control because of its fragile nature and high levels of fear, and the sense that such delegation might lead to loss of status in some way.

So what can be done about this?  Certainly try and be a bit more like BMW and introduce a sense of fairness into the “personnel politics”, as they call it.  Fairness (which does not mean equality of outcome!) is a key to high morale and engagement at work.  Try to hire those with talent but less ego….interview for this trait, become acquainted with the signs, avoid it at all cost!  There is nothing wrong with self confidence and an assured manner, but that is not what I am talking about here.  As an excellent blogger Gwyn Teatro recently said, we need more humility in the workplace,  to which I say, amen, Gwyn.   Self confidence, yes by all means, but a basis of humility.  Then we can create the conditions under which our workers feel that they are part of something, that they are respected, that they are there to perform their best in the highest interest of the organization, not to feed someone’s ego!  Feeling and knowing that, they will gladly engage.

___________________________________________________________

** Debbie Ford: “The Dark Side of the Light Chasers”

***  Eckhart Tolle:  “A New Earth”

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