Ego–sorry to break it to you–we all have one. Whether it’s your own, a family member’s, or a colleague’s, a poorly managed ego can wreak havoc on your work and relationships. When we ask clients for ego-driven behaviour examples, they list overconfidence, boasting about achievements, aggression, and brash actions. While these responses are accurate, our egos are more than bad behaviour; the ego serves an essential function in how we understand ourselves and relate to others.
We define ego as the part of us that we experience as the ‘self’ or ‘I’ and connects us to the external world through our perceptions. Our egos are the part of us that remembers, evaluates, plans, and is responsive to our physical and social world. We can describe the ego as the framework that steers our beliefs, standards, choices, how we understand a situation, and how we perceive others.
‘The part of us that we experience as the self or I and connects us to the external world through our perceptions.’
Our egos are neither good nor bad, but they can be well-managed or poorly managed. A well-managed ego allows us to have objectivity when evaluating situations and other people’s motivations, self-reflect and gain insight into ourselves, organise our activities over more extended periods, resist environmental and social pressures, and choose decisively. On the other hand, a poorly managed ego distorts our sense of reality and our sense of self, causes unpredictable swings in emotions, can lead to excessive vulnerability or aggressiveness, will impact our productivity and the quality of our work, and erodes our relationships. Therefore, ego-driven behaviours range from the potentially ineffective (overconfidence, being combative, withdrawing from discussion) to the potentially effective (being driven, expressing pride in your work, determination).
The ego is constantly navigating our current situation and our goals. Humans aspire to be seen as many different things, and it is not enough to convince ourselves we are those things; other people must also come to see us that way. This is the grander task of our ego, matching our aspirational identity to how other people, and situations, are interacting with us–not easy when there are so many things to trip us up! Our egos are doing a tough job in infinitely complex circumstances.
The important thing is that the benefits of a well-managed ego can be profound:
- Better personal relationships.
- Fewer unintentional conflicts at work.
- The ability to rebound from setbacks faster.
- Improved productivity and company performance.
- Greater well-being and mental health.
Catriona Smith at Acas outlines the alarming impact of conflict in her article ‘workplace conflict: estimating the cost to employers’.
“We estimate that the cost of workplace conflict to UK organisations is in the region of £28.5 billion, which is the equivalent of more than £1,000 for each employee. Close to 10 million people experience conflict at work each year, with more than half reporting stress, anxiety or depression as a result. It is also estimated just under 900,000 took time off work, nearly half a million resigned and over 300,000 employees were dismissed.”
What creates an ego reaction?
As shown in the model below, a negative emotional response may arise when we feel dissonance or lack harmony with our self-identity. In turn, we may choose behaviour that impacts ourselves and others poorly. Conversely, when we feel resonance, or alignment, with our self-identity, the opposite is more likely to be true–positive emotion. Affirming thoughts and choices will drive effective behaviours and impacts.
Receiving positive feedback
Boss receives poor sales results
Resonance with Self Identity
I am being recognised – I’m moving towards my aspirational self identity
I may look less competent in the eyes of others – I’m getting closer to a negative self identity
I feel positivity, warmth and thanks
I am feeling anger and frustration
I want to thank the manager for taking the time to recognise me
I want to shout or blame the team
I show appreciation and higher levels of engagement
I shout at the team and start an argument with an employee
Frank Kinslow – Beyond Happiness
Let’s explore an example of a sales manager not hitting the sales results they have promised. What might they be feeling?
- A loss of standing in the business, or from their boss
- Being seen as less capable by the team, or a team member
- A reduction in their future prospects (and potentially income)
- Feeling like they have failed their partner, their family, themselves
Watch out–the walls are closing in on the ego! The pressure is increasing. The potential to move closer to that negative self-identity is rising. The emotions rise. “What has my team been doing?!” Thoughts turn negative–I want to shout! Ego-driven behaviour from a poorly-managed ego is unleashed, and the sales manager directs abuse at the team for the poor performance.
Remember, the ego is trying to reconcile the sales manager’s sense of self and how they are potentially being perceived in the real world. It is the ego’s interpretation of events that creates fear and increases the potential for ineffective behaviour. As a result, the team members respond in a variety of ways: Some team members argue aggressively (more ego). Some stay quiet and disengage (also ego behaviour). A few use constructive questions to try and move the conversation forward (well-managed egos).
Variations on this pattern play out at home and work millions of times every day.
How do we know a poorly-managed ego is in play?
Have you ever thought that’s a bit out of character for someone? Or they don’t seem quite themselves? These observations are often a sign someone is moving either towards the image of themselves they wish to embrace or the one they want to avoid.
Consider an individual receiving positive, reinforcing feedback. We may see them physically celebrate and become more effusive and energetic with colleagues. If their normal behaviours are more subdued, more outgoing behaviours may indicate that they are on the road to their aspirational self-identity and are secure in expressing vulnerability.
Our previous example of a sales manager with poor sales results shows different forms of ego-driven behaviour: a heightened propensity to fight. In addition, we observed other forms of ego-driven behaviour from the sales manager’s team: withdrawal and disengagement (a mix of fight and retreat).
Let’s explore fight and retreat in more detail.
- Raised voice e.g., shouting
- Verbal aggression e.g., putting someone on the spot, or in a difficult situation
- Physical aggression e.g., being too close, staring
- Being argumentative
- Not accepting the outcome
- Reduced input in a conversation e.g., short answers
- Body language e.g., not making eye contact, looking away
- Quick to leave the situation e.g., meeting
- Overly accepting or gives way too easily e.g., “Ok, let’s do it that way.”
Remember, these behaviours appear when our ego perceives that things are not moving in the right direction. Whilst the actions and words of a poorly-managed ego may be directed at us, it is essential to realise that these behaviours are rarely about us. As we saw with the sales manager, it was the meaning their ego attached to the sales results that drove their reaction. This awareness is critical in developing our perspective about a situation. The other person may be feeling discomfort, pain or even threat. I find that remembering this helps me access the empathy to be constructive in a difficult moment.
Understanding someone’s baseline behaviour and spotting their movement away from it is the first flag that enables us to make our own healthy, conscious choices.
So how can we manage these situations?
There are no quick fixes and no 100% solutions. That ego is here to stay in one form or another, and accepting that ego is part of all humans–including you–is the first step to navigating it effectively.
The Resonance > Emotion > Choice > Pause > Behaviour model points us towards several ways forward, and we’ve included a few suggestions below for managing your ego well.
Understand your Values
Spend time understanding your values and why they matter. Regularly remind yourself of them. This will help you stay tethered to what is important and give you insight into the things that may trigger you when they are not present.
Reflect and process
Regularly reflect on your day or week (up to 15m will be enough). Process where your ego came into play and why.
Listen to your ego
Allow your ego a voice. Give it space to get tired and calmer thoughts take over. If it needs a listener, choose carefully – someone outside a potential area of conflict.
Notice the warning signals
Get familiar with how it feels when your ego is triggered e.g. rising heart beat, butterflies in the stomach. This will provide you with an early warning radar to extend the ‘pause’ and give you more time to react appropriately.
Adopt a positive mindset and physicality to divert potentially negative thoughts. Neuroscience shows us that our physicality e.g. smiling, frowning can impact our mindset.
Actively design your personal, team and company relationships. Get specific on how you will communicate, celebrate and navigate the bumps in the road. Constantly check and ask “how are we doing with our design?”
McLeod, S. A. (2019, September 25). Id, ego and superego. Simply Psychology.
Catriona Smith (2021, May). Workplace Conflict: Estimating the cost to employers
Dr Steve Peters (2011). The Chimp Paradox