Ego in the Workplace

December 2nd, 2013 | 71 Comments

Last week I had one of the darkest work days in my recent memory. In many ways it was just the usual roster of meetings with clients and their managers. It started with one who was envious of an employee’s talents and treated her with disdain.  I then went on to my next, a manager who spent most of the meeting tooting his own horn by telling me how important and busy he was.  This was followed by a manager whose focus was primarily on his reputation and how he was perceived by others.

To relax, I came home and turned on the TV and found myself drawn in to a documentary describing Lee Harvey Oswald’s motive for shooting JFK, which was, it turned out, his desire to be important.  Somehow this didn’t lift my mood a bit.

It seemed like there was a common thread, a pattern to all these people who caused so much pain. They were all trying very hard to prove that they were worthy. Some did it by keeping others down; others, by puffing themselves up. And, of course, one did it by being involved in a high visibility assassination. They all seemed to be acting out of a fear of not being good enough. The root cause of all this damage appeared to be their desire to feel important.

Many psychologists and philosophers refer to this desire to look good as ego. According to Eckhart Tolle, the ego wants to nourish itself with the food of power, superiority, specialness (being better than others), material gain, or gratification of physical needs. This hunger causes them to focus exclusively on their own thoughts and feelings to the exclusion of their connection with others and to the wholeness of the world.

This loss of connection leads to a vicious cycle in which intense self-focus stimulates anger and resentment about not getting these ego-needs met. The anger strengthens their ego by increasing the sense of separateness, leading to more anger and so on. This is why when people are enveloped in their ego they perceive others as being the source of dissatisfaction and the problems with their life. Without connection, their ability to empathize is lessened. They can’t appreciate the pleasures in the present moment because, in their attempts to feed their ego, they become impatient, irritated, and nervous. They can also become paranoid, making it easier to hurt others.

People who act out of ego-gratification become over-identified with their own thoughts. Since they see their thoughts as their whole identity, they can claim to be in sole possession of the truth, seeing themselves as right and others as wrong. In arguments, ego-driven people become so identified with the thoughts that make up their opinion that these become hardened positions. Once this happens, they vigorously defend these opinions because it feels like they are defending their identities, like it’s a fight for survival.

We are all, to some extent, ego-driven. Tolle, in A New Earth, says that reducing ego is the key to happiness. This means that people who work or relate without ego can be very successful because they don’t take difficulties personally. They can act in the moment and without needing to defend their imagined selves.

But is ego-reduction just a utopian dream?  Our current world is one that is rife with individualism and ego-centeredness. In American society, and especially in the workplace, ego is important. (Cultural surveys rank the United States as #1 in individualism, with other cultures ranking lower on individualism and higher on collectivism.) This focus is especially evident in the workplace with its emphasis on individual performance, individual reward and continual self-marketing. (I just read a career management book describing the keys of to getting ahead in one’s career as: maintaining high visibility —on being seen; brandingon being seen as different, standing out from the crowd; and influence—getting other people to follow you.)

I believe it is possible to gain recognition and respect without resorting to crude ego displays. The key to ego-reduction is awareness. Once we become aware of our desire to make ourselves look good, its power over us diminishes. Once we become aware of our ego, we feel less compelled to do those things that make us feel important, less liable to hurt others, and more able to connect with others and enjoy the present.

71 Responses to “Ego in the Workplace”

  1. Bettina Seidman wrote:

    I enjoyed reading your article very much. It just so happens that I am currently reading “This Town” — about DC, and yesterday, I finished the chapter including a piece about Richard Holbrooke.

    Sometimes all the dots connect !

    Best wishes for the new year Dan.


  2. Gloria wrote:

    Thanks Dan for sharing this post. Our society puts such a strong emphasis on horn tooting, it’s refreshing to read this perspective, as well as how to keep it balanced.

  3. Don Sutaria wrote:

    Hi Dan,

    Great observations! It is so hard in our modern society to be a HUMBLE SERVANT-LEADER at high levels of management.

    No wonder the GOOD BOOK (!) says:
    “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for their’s is the kingdom in heaven.”


  4. Debbie wrote:

    This is terrific. A real delight to read.

  5. Jeff wrote:

    Thanks Dan,
    I really enjoyed your insights on ego. I hope you are well and wish you the best in the new year.

  6. Monique wrote:

    Great piece, Dan. I might make copies and leave it around the office. 🙂

  7. Dorothy Goodman wrote:

    Hi Dan,
    Thanks for sharing your insightful and aware thinking with us..On a positive note, there is tikva (hope)that this thinking is imperative for the health and well being of our leaders…Visit the web site of the Einhorn Family Foundation and I hope their efforts will interest you…supporting the values of emapathy, kindness, and compassion are the beginning of developing this awareness….a very positive place..I hope you are well…Happy New YEAR,Dorothy

  8. Paul Harmon wrote:

    Dan, Do you Really believe that its possible for someone working in a large corporation to succeed as a manager without quite a bit of ego. I agree that it makes for problems, but it seems like the system is so rigged to require managers to depend on salary and advancement to measure their worth that it would be very hard to be an ego-less successful manager.
    It’s easy to imagine that it would be possible for a senior technical person, but its hard to imagine a successful manager without a bit of ego.

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