When ego is lost, limit is lost. You become infinite, kind, beautiful.Harbhajan Singh Yogi
When you hear the word ego, what thoughts come to your mind?
In coaching sessions, this exercise usually triggers images of raging egomaniacs who crush everyone in their path in an effort to hoard accolades. Or we think of narcissists who drift through the office unaware of anyone else but their own self.
Because the word “ego” is so emotionally charged, that makes the realities of ego in action all the more seductive and dangerous. Our minds go to extreme places, and in turn would never consider our own self to be that person – the egomaniac or the narcissist.
Ego can damage your career or personal life in far more subtle ways, though, and when you begin to challenge and reflect on your journey you’ll find that in many situations you were the last person you should have trusted.
What is Ego?
Ego is most simply defined as a person’s sense of self-esteem or self-importance. And it’s those two terms that are key to this conversation – self-esteem and self-importance.
Self-esteem is your own assessment of your skills and abilities. Self-importance is your level of recognition for your value in the different aspects of your life – career, relationships, etc.
When does ego become destructive? When you become disconnected from the world’s assessment of your skills and abilities, and/or when your perception of your value is disconnected from those around you.
Notice, I didn’t say overinflated when describing the disconnect you might possess from others. Ego is the ultimate limiting factor when it comes to success, and that limiting factor can work both ways. When we think of “negative” ego we almost always immediately picture the overinflated types, the narcissist or glory-chaser. However, underinflated egos can be just as limiting.
Ego vs. Confidence
Key in any conversation about ego is the term confidence. Yes, there is a relationship, but conflating the two is a critical misconception. Confidence is a belief in your capacity to perform at a needed level, and you can have confidence without runaway ego. Actually, confidence is critical for high performance.
Think of overinflated ego as a relentless pursuit of self-interests. It’s about an extreme form of seeking external validation, accolades, and always being right.
Meanwhile, I’ve worked with many leaders who had a strong sense of self-confidence that enabled them to actively seek out feedback in an effort to better determine progress in their own self-development journeys. Confidence allowed these leaders to do the opposite of falling in love with and operating from their own self-assessment.
An individual can believe they have the knowledge and skills to perform at a high level, while retaining the humility necessary to seek out feedback and to commit to a shared vision that’s larger than their own self. This person possesses confidence without egotism.
Ego Will Derail Your Performance
An overinflated ego can derail the very thing it receives validation from – your performance.
Makes You Vulnerable to Yourself
When you overestimate your skills or value, you’ll often find yourself incapable of objectively assessing a situation. You often see this play out in unwinnable situations, such as leaders believing they can pull their organization out of a downward spiral – all the way through the bitter end. In your ego-driven perception, you can be the savior because you have the skills necessary that no one else did.
You’ve created a situation where you are overestimating your abilities while simultaneously underestimating what’s truly necessary to succeed in the given circumstances.
Similarly, you have an ego that leads you to believe you’re always the smartest and most capable person in the room. When you pair this with a relentless desire for external affirmation you create a highly combustible situation where it becomes all too easy to make decisions at the cost of your character. You’re so clever, how could you possibly get caught if you cut a corner or two?
On the flip side, underestimating what you’re truly capable of will lead you to constantly avoid hard situations where you could have otherwise found success and moved your career or life forward. Consistently underestimating yourself will only result in committing yourself to a life of mediocrity.
Makes You Vulnerable to Others
Think to yourself for a moment, and try to picture someone you know who has an overinflated sense of ego. Think about what they’re (overly) proud of, what makes them tick.
If you had to, could you think of the perfect thing to say to them to get them to do what you wanted – to make a commitment they otherwise might not have been willing to make?
Simply put, could you manipulate them into doing something unnecessary, such as taking on an extra load at work by appealing to their “no one can do it better than me” side? Because these individuals crave accolades and external recognition, it’s all too easy to paint a picture where they receive these… if they would do one or two specific things.
But you’ve also seen the opposite play out, where someone with a weak sense of self has had an opportunity stolen from them through a peer preying on their lack of internal value. Their boss might have opened the door for them to lead a project, but a coworker goaded them into passing it up – only to later scoop it for themselves.
Distracts From Priorities
When your ego has decayed your ability to objectively assess situations, you begin navigating towards opportunities based on grandeur or public appeal instead of functional value. For example, you will angle for opportunities – presentations, media interviews – with short term accolades. Meanwhile, you’ll overlook a project with low immediate visibility, but one that might have critical long-term value for a strategic goal your organization has. The former provides instant gratification and back slaps, but the latter will provide much more social capital over time with the executive team.
Ryan Holiday covered this topic phenomenally in Ego Is the Enemy. He tells the story of how the legendary fighter pilot, John Boyd, told a student of his that everyone comes the point in their life where they have to choose between being somebody or doing something. When you choose to be somebody, you’ll get promotions and chase the big career. Yet, you’re going to learn that along the way you had to compromise your character, and you’ll end up with external validation but nothing of internal worth. If you instead choose to do something, you might not get all the promotions and public accolades. But, you will stay true to your character, you’ll maintain friendships, and you’ll have a real chance at finding fulfillment in life.
Barrier to Collaboration
True collaboration is mutually beneficial and requires shared vision, and the presence of ego ruins any opportunity for these to exist. We have the earlier example where someone takes advantage of your ego to manipulate you into situations that are negative for you and beneficial for them. In a team-based environment, this could see you shouldering an inordinate amount of work after you were sold on the idea that you were the only one capable of doing it well. Also, there’s no sense of shared vision due to the ego-driven individual being concerned with external affirmation rather than a shared destination with their team members.
Additionally, excessive egos can often lead to patterns of distrust and paranoia. Simple requests from colleagues become attempts to undermine your success. Because all your resources are dedicated to seeking external forms of validation, any questions around the utilization of your time, energy, etc. become seen as threats to your reputation and future. For example, you’re working on a project with Bill from accounting, and he asks for access to the sales histories of your top ten accounts. Rather than assuming positive intent, you receive his request as questioning your success or an attempt to discover information he could share behind your back with your (imagined) inter-office rival, John.
What Can You Do?
If you’re concerned about possessing an ego problem, there are a few commitments you can make for yourself to determine if you’re right or wrong in your worry – and then take strides in correcting it.
I’ve written before about the power of gratitude, and I strongly recommend reading up on the benefits of this practice. When it comes to ego, one of the most powerful ways to stop chasing the validation of others is to begin taking account of what you already possess. And you do want to focus on your internal sense of self, and seek your own validation if you’re combatting ego (so to speak). Consider the question, “How am I enough?”
Create a Growth Plan
Never stop asking yourself the question, “How can I continue to improve?” If you can focus on continuous growth, then less of your attention will be devoted to ideas of how amazing you might already be. This is about perspective and you want to focus on the process of acquiring more skills and knowledge, rather than settling into some belief you’ve achieved a destination where you already possess more than enough skills and knowledge. Challenge yourself to come up with daily and weekly targets for continuous growth, and ask yourself everyday what you’re going to do tomorrow to be better than you were today. Make yourself the focus of your internal competition rather than someone else.
Get a Coach and Solicit Feedback
If you want to take a more drastic approach to fighting your ego, then get a coach and complete a 360 degree feedback exercise. If you’ve not done a 360, then know you will be creating an anonymous questionnaire that will be completed by your peers, managers, and others in your life. A coach is critical in this effort, as you’ll want to be highly intentional about what questions are asked and how they’re framed. You have to receive objective guidance throughout this entire process. Also, the feedback you receive from this effort will supply you and your coach with months of growth opportunities.
Self-confidence is not a bad thing. In fact, it’s a critical ingredient for professional and personal success. However, think of ego as confidence that has journeyed too far into the land of selfish interests. It has become obsessed with external forms of validation.
Negative ego is an over- or under-assessment of your own capacity and/or sense of worth. Too often we only think of ego as gloryhounds or those who are never, ever wrong – at the expense of everyone else. However, lack of ego can paralyze due to lack of self-worth.
Those with ego problems are easily manipulated by others because they’re so obsessed with external validation. Additionally, they struggle to objectively evaluate situations in order to determine what’s really a priority, and will instead just chase validation at the expense of real success. And they’re willing to sacrifice character for accolades.