Warning: Ego at Work! Do You Have People Like This Where You Work?


My recent blog post on ego and morale/engagement in the workplace generated a lot of e-mails to me from people who identified with the situations I described. One reader wrote and told me that she found it quite stressful just reading about the stereotypical ego-driven manager and how (s)he operates, having had exactly such a person as boss in a previous job.  My argument in the previous blog was that ego is the biggest destroyer of morale and engagement at work, because in so many organizations, there are ego-driven managers.  But there are also, of course, ego driven employees, who may not have much power over others but are a pain to work with, and manage.  They drain the energy of the group and occupy too much time of the manager.  As host of an occupying force, their energy is not going to be focused on your organization and its goals, nearly as much as someone who does not have this trait.  Instead the ego-driven employee will spend inordinate amounts of time on other things, to satisfy the insatiable needs of this force which has them in its grip.

As we saw last time the ego is a false self, built up over time, and usually in childhood, to replace the “real” you, which you decided…unconsciously of course…was not “enough”.  Its like an inner conversation in which you said to yourself, “well I’m not making it with who I am now, so I am going to build a new “me” which will have the characteristics or exhibit the behaviors that I am sure will work with <fill in the blank>”.  At an early age, this blank is often filled with one or both parents.  At a later age, that role is often played by, guess who?  People at work.

This is a normal condition, only the famed spiritual writer Eckhart Tolle claims to have no ego, but the rest of us are stuck with one, to a greater or lesser extent.  The key is how much this false self stays unconscious and drives behavior; in some cases it will remain totally unknown to its host (the ego loves that, it is a stealthy creature) and even completely control its host.  If that is you, you simply have no idea what drives your life and would be amazed to find out.  The ego won’t easily let you, though, and will make you fight like crazy before any light is shone on itself.

We humans think we know ourselves as we get older, but often we do not; instead, we continue to do things which the ego demands in order for it to continue to exist.  Let’s look at some of these behaviors which might show up in your current or prospective employees or yes even….you:

–Sheila has a compulsive drive to up her personal Twitter and Facebook connections, even asking people she knows almost nothing about to become “friends” and competing with others who seem to have “made it” on these platforms.  As a result social networking takes up a significant part of her work day, even though much of it may not be business related.  (How’s that for a productive day?  You added 20 “friends” but got nothing done at work!)  Like many good activities and things in life, Facebook or Twitter can also become an addiction, and although Sheila does not think she is addicted to anything, she nonetheless feels a compulsion to act out this behavior. Unconsciously, Sheila has a deep belief that if she has 5000 Facebook friends she will have certain worth or value which was lacking when the count was 5.  When she reaches that number however, after a painfully short celebration, she finds that it does not “work” and she is no happier; unfortunately she is not allowed more than 5000 friends by Facebook, so is “stuck” there.  Sheila will look for another temporary and fragile solution, or if she is lucky and finds herself pushed by an inner drive or a good friend, be forced inwards for the journey which will lead her to a real and solid sense of self-esteem not based on external events, “friend” counts or material goods.

–Fred treats his bosses like parents, even gravitating to a boss whose style most (unconsciously) reminds him of a parent with whom he had problems.  This same mechanism is at work with the woman who marries a man who treats her like her father did, of course.  Its familiar, its what she is used to, what she thinks she deserves (good or bad, I am not saying this is always a bad thing, its just a common thing).  In the organization, we see this all the time.  We also see a more extreme version, where a mild mannered boss can be seen as a tyrant by an ego-possessed worker, whose bad childhood experience of “authority” makes anyone in an authority position ”bad” like the parent. This is of course a failure of perception, a projection of the parent onto someone who may not deserve it at all.  Of course, in Fred’s case, since Fred always seems to gravitate to people who are actually like his Dad, the perception could be close to reality!  Fred sees himself as a victim of these types of people, but of course he is not: he continually chooses them.  Until he understands his choices and why he makes them, he will continue to do this, and his organization will get less of his talent and energy and more of his childhood struggles.

–Mike expects to be rewarded for just showing up.  His ego has given him its inflated sense of “worth” which it transfers to its host. This is not to be confused with self-confidence or real self-esteem. The ego version is unrealistic and unearned; but if this is pointed out the ego will react harshly, to say the least!  Unfortunately Mike does not have a solid sense of himself as a good or capable person, so external signs are constantly solicited and he pressures his manager in ways that she finds very irritating.  In Mike’s case his problem was exacerbated by growing up at a time when his peer group of “Trophy Kids” was given awards for placing 4th in a race, for example. Constant positive feedback, which his ego demanded, was actually provided by a (temporary) cultural phenomenon, the expectations of which organizations still struggle with today.

–Johnny makes a confrontation of everything and plays to win at all times, even when this is not at all appropriate.  This drives other team members crazy; why can’t he relax and have fun sometimes, or let someone else shine?  Because his ego will not allow it, it requires constant proof that he, Johnny, is the best! Johnny’s ego scoffs at the idea of making room for, or celebrating the success of others, seeing such apparent generosity as “weakness”.

–Christine cannot receive anything but an “exceeds expectations” rating on the dreaded annual performance review.  Unlike the normal disappointment which might come to those who are rated “average” (although never using that word, always euphemistically called “meets expectations”), Christine goes into a major funk each time and gets into a verbal fight with her manager.  She also gets seriously discouraged, instead of being able to bounce back and excel based on what she has learned. This in turn reduces her chances of genuinely deserving a hike in the rating next time.

In each and every case here, the ego has taken over an individual.  In one way or another, and there are several ways in which this happens, a false and very fragile self has been created and maintained, sometimes for decades, and ends up causing havoc everywhere this person lives….including at work.  The amount of time and energy which goes into managing the hosts and the egos themselves is uncountable, because it is so widespread.  The customer satisfaction consequences of such ego-driven (and often disgruntled) employees are off the charts.  But there is hope, if we can identify early some of these cases and avoid them.  If not, then we have to look at ways to manage people we have hired (and did not know what was in store for us).  We will look at some of these strategies next time, as well as talk about what to do if these cases remind you of…YOU!

Photo:  http://www.highintelligenceoffice.com.

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