Writing for Training Magazine online, Dr. George Watts and Laurie Blazek address a difficult subject that almost no one talks about in professional development: the role ego plays in your leadership style. They don’t pull any punches.
“The ego is the psyche’s trickster”, they write. “It’s the wrong-minded attempt to perceive and project yourself as you wish to be, rather than as you are. To reinforce beliefs and overcome self-doubt, it opportunistically exploits situations to create praise for itself. The ego literally lives by comparisons. When you’re jealous, it’s your ego. When you interrupt and are a poor listener, it’s your ego. When you’re craving attention, it’s your ego. The ego always comes from a place of fear; fear of not being admired, fear of losing power, fear of not being liked, or fear of making a mistake.” Ouch.
The authors say that maturity occurs when you have deep enough self-awareness and self-knowledge that you are significantly less likely to unconsciously project your ego. Only when your ego is safely stored away can we trust you to make mature decisions that put the greater good over your own interests. Without ego, you see things clearly and make decisions based on reality. If your ego is driving the car, you’re headed for a breakdown.
Unfortunately, this kind of decision making is becoming more and more rare. I’d provide examples, but you can see them everywhere in almost any news story. Bad decisions make headlines.
When you’re making hiring decisions, it’s easy to see how your ego can get in the way. Some managers are afraid to hire people they fear are smarter or more ambitious than they are. Eventually, they find their team is filled with risk-averse people who don’t think for themselves. The manager achieves their dream of being the smartest person in the room every day, but at the cost of innovation and true achievement.
Some managers hire people they know they can dominate, winning every argument. Without diverse and constructive feedback, they can wind up making bad decisions that no one will have the courage to warn them about. If you have a company where several ego-driven leaders have power, you have a recipe for a toxic workplace filled with power plays and conflict.
The authors are careful to say that having self-confidence and aspiring to be in charge are not unhealthy. It’s when the ego drives you to decisions that protect your self-image at all costs that your confidence and drive become self-destructive.
Ego-based behavior is always driven by fear. Here are some common ways that ego’s fear comes out. Be concerned if you start feeling these things.
- You feel the need to be superior. You start editing your true self, hiding or deceiving people about the parts of yourself you think diminish your stature. Eventually, the perfect façade you show the world becomes a burden that can affect your performance, your mental health – even your physical health. Ironically, you’ll find that people like you more when they see you as a whole, imperfect being. Just like everyone else.
- You feel the need to be right all the time. In fact, sometimes, you’d rather be right than be happy. “I told you so” is a terrible way to run a marriage or business partnership. The ego-driven need to be right means you’re unwilling to change your mind, even when presented with evidence that you should. Stubborn, inflexible attitudes are almost always ego and fear-driven.
- You crave attention and admiration. Your fear of being ignored or disliked can lead you to behavior that is counter to your own wellbeing. Be aware that when you go along with something you know is wrong just so people will like you, you’re headed for trouble. It didn’t work when you were 12, and it won’t work for you now.
- You feel the need to be perfect. Perfectionism is an ego trap that’s insidious because it feels so good. Perfect is seductive and addictive. But it’s impossible to achieve or maintain, and your fear of failure will eventually become so painful you’ll be afraid to try anything new or finish anything you start.
You can recognize ego traps by the bad feeling you get in the pit of your stomach. When you’re feeling defensive or angry at something or someone who is challenging your self-image, ask yourself “What am I afraid of right now?” If you can be honest with yourself in that moment, you can begin to push aside the fear and think for yourself.
Ask yourself, “What am I responsible for right now?” If you can stay focused on that, you’ll be headed in the right direction.