EGO IS A CONSTANT preoccupation with our self-worth.
Each of us has beliefs and fears about our value, and they cause defensive and/or self-promotional behaviors when under stress. Whether in a meeting, a presentation, or a relationship, part of our attention—sometimes all of it—is preoccupied by our view of our self. Are we competent? Respected? Intelligent? Liked? Attractive? Included? Each of us has a set of criteria we unconsciously judge ourselves against. When we measure up, we feel pride, even superiority. When we don’t, we feel uncomfortable, stressed, often afraid.
Ego Free Leadership is co-written by executive coach Shayne Hughes, president of Learning as Leadership and Brandon Black the retired CEO of Encore Capital Group. The book tracks Black’s journey from acknowledging to changing the destructive elements of his ego. Once he committed to change, the transformation began in his team and throughout the culture of the Encore organization. Quite effectively, Hughes and Black go back and forth sharing their perspectives on the unfolding transformation. Naturally, it’s not a step-by-step prescription, but it is instructive to see the process because we all share similar issues and thinking.
They begin by debunking the “ego is good” myth. Our egos limit us as we try to protect it in various ways. “Our ego can’t stand failure, incompetence, or weakness, so it avoids what is truly challenging us.
When we feel at the mercy of what is happening around us we react often distorting reality. “We read criticism, abandonment, judgment, competitiveness, and aggression into a situation where it may not exist.” We seek to fix what we believe is causing our distress resorting to learned behaviors that really don’t serve us well.
“Anytime we know intellectually what to do, but our actual behavior is inconsistent or in contradiction, it is a sign we are being short-circuited by our egosystem. These behavioral derailers come in many forms: conflict avoidance, procrastination, defensiveness, people pleasing, shutting down, being argumentative, just to name a few. Upon examination, these ingrained knee-jerk reactions invariably prove to be predictable and recurrent.” It’s not just the way we are, it’s the way we have learned to be. In order to defuse our reactive behaviors we need to identify the underlying triggers that created our behaviors in the first place.
Here are some insights from Ego Free Leadership:
Intellectually it’s easy to decide that learning, growing, or creating authentic relationships is more important than not appearing incompetent, failing, or being hurt. Unfortunately, this is not how we feel at a visceral level, or we wouldn’t be continuously repeating these dysfunctional behaviors. Transformation comes when we consciously connect with goals not tied to our self-worth and use this emotional clarity to inspire action in the present moment.
The theoretical importance of having authentic, transparent conversations isn’t in question: it’s rather the practical difficulty of doing so when there isn’t emotional safety in the relationship.
For our ego, the sensation of being right is like electricity to a lightbulb. It fuels us with energy and vigor. We sit straighter, our voice sharpens, and our language hardens. We face an issue or a conflict, and we see the answer clearly. With this certainty comes a feeling of power and righteousness, as captivating as a drug rush. This is the way it is. Being right sweeps us so automatically into an aggressive mental stance that any collateral damage seems just a necessary evil.
Our egosystem and brain can convince us of anything, regardless of its veracity. We can make—I myself have done it countless times—any number of important decisions with profound conviction, only to realize later it wasn’t really what we wanted or was based on incorrect perceptions. (“…clearly distinguishing between the facts I had collected and my conclusions about them.”)
In each case, people experienced their frustration as true, when in fact they were unconsciously focusing on the negative in others. Worse when we do this, our mindset and behaviors actually influence others to be less than their best selves, either because they don’t feel safe or because we simply don’t allow them to participate. We limit their potential.
As the authors admit no organization (or individual) can be completely ego-free, but we can manage it better. In every situation we have a choice. We can either give in to our ego or break free of the limits it imposes on us. They recommend:
- Notice the moments in your life when you experience a pinch. It might be an event or something someone says or does.
- Instead of reacting, search for what is triggered in you. What is that visceral discomfort you’re trying to numb or you’re blaming others for? How is your sense of self-worth threatened?
- Look outward and consider what vulnerabilities other might be feeling behind the veneer of strength or indifference. Empathize with how they feel in danger.
- Take the risk of disclosing how you feel vulnerable. Share your ego threat, not your mind chatter. Model a context of safety.
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