Our Egos are a Problem at Work. But Not in the Way You Think.

by Jennifer Miller on September 25, 2017

in Book Review, Personal Effectiveness, Workplace Issues

no drama masksThe word “ego” carries a lot of baggage, with connotations like: Blowhard. Difficult to get along with. Egomaniac. Middle man to the Id and Superego. Rarely have three letters evoked so much emotional drama. In fact, perhaps you experienced a bit of inner turmoil prior to clicking the link to this blog post. Because, of course, you don’t have a problem with your ego, do you? No, I didn’t think you did.

But here’s the thing: it’s a whole lot easier to see someone else’s ego than it is to see ours. It’s like that little speck of green stuff leftover from lunch that’s stuck in between your two front teeth. You can go along all afternoon, not knowing it’s there. But others do. And then, when you finally see yourself in mirror, it’s like Crap! Seriously?! How long has that been there?

The thing about ego is that we all have one. And we all need one. A healthy ego is an important part of navigating our lives, both inside and outside of work. It’s when our ego gets distorted that the trouble starts. You might not like to hear it, but this distortion is not just the purview of the egomaniac. The distortion is within all of us.

Enter Cy Wakeman, a self-described “drama researcher” and New York Times bestselling author of several business books. Wakeman’s latest book, No Ego: How Leaders Can Cut the Cost of Workplace Drama, End Entitlement, and Drive Big Results  published recently. “The ego is the part of the psyche that mediates self-identity and experience. It’s instrumental in governing how we adapt to reality,” writes Wakeman. Having an ego isn’t the problem. The challenge, says Wakeman is that the ego’s main role is to generate drama, or what Wakeman calls, “emotional waste.” Wakeman and her team of researchers define emotional waste as, “mentally wasteful thought processes or unproductive behavior that keeps leaders or their teams from delivering the highest level of results.” Wakeman observes that the ego is an “unreliable narrator” of our reality, because it “delights in the drama it can create.”

Wakeman’s view of the ego is less about confidence and more about about how much you let the stories you tell yourself dictate how you see the “reality” of your situation. If your reality is highly distorted by your ego’s narration (“Why does this always happen to me?” “I can’t believe they let the XYZ department get away with that!” “Here we go again! Yet another change management initiative”) you’ll lose productivity.

So our egos are a problem at work. But maybe not the way that you were thinking about when first started reading this article. Let’s set aside the very real scenario that there are egomaniacs at work and instead examine how all of us (this blogger included) let our egos get in the way of us doing our best work.

Here’s an example from my own experience at work:

When I worked in corporate America, I was lucky enough to work for a great work team leader. My projects were interesting and my colleagues were great people. Nothing to complain about, right? Well, every so often, a dictate would come from the corporate office located thousands of miles away from our field office that would make me seethe with anger. In my view, the requests were unreasonable, the deadline was ridiculous and there was no good business reason for the task we were assigned. I confess that when these “ridiculous” assignments were doled out, I did my fair share of eye rolling. Although I’m more or less a “put on your big girl pants” kinda gal, for some reason, I couldn’t get over the “unnecessary” elements of these requests. So I wasted time each day for several days (or weeks!) in a row fretting about how stupid my assignment was. I even commiserated with others on how “dumb” and “out of touch” the corporate office was.

This, according to Wakeman, was my ego creating emotional waste—concocting all sorts of internal monologues about why the task was unreasonable . . .why it was wasteful and unfair to ask these things of us . . . and so on.

So here’s where the rubber meets the road. You might think, “well, OK Jen, that’s not really all that big of a deal. Everyone gets annoyed with their employers. Who doesn’t vent once in awhile?” And although it’s true we all need to let off a little steam, what happens if we get stuck in the drama? Consider the few minutes each day I let my annoyance get in the way of productivity. (Remember, I’m more or less a “let’s get on with it” person. I certainly wasn’t spending hours each day worrying about this stuff. But I’d bet the more drama-prone among us could rack up an hour or more each day in needless fretting.)

Not convinced? Wakeman’s research indicates that the average employee spends 2 hours and 26 minutes per day in drama and emotional waste. That’s over two hours a day, with people driving what Wakeman calls their BMW’s (Bitching, Moaning, Whining) into their manager’s or HR’s office, “engines idling, wasting fuel and polluting the atmosphere.”

The book No Ego offers Wakeman’s take for how to create an environment of accountability for both managers and employees, one that will lead to a focus on achieving business results together. She stops short of saying, “This is the prescription. Do this and all with be fine.” Her observations are certainly thought-provoking, and not always received positively. Amazon reviewers of No Ego, plus some of Wakeman’s own book club participants expressed concerns about Wakeman’s philosophy, seeing it as too cut-and-dried, or not compassionate enough.

As for me and my ego? I have a different take on the concepts in No Ego. What Wakeman proposes—true, clear-eyed accountability is tough. It’s very uncomfortable to look at ourselves in the mirror and see the green stuff in our teeth. It’s easier to make someone or something else the reason for our challenges. But, as Wakeman is fond of saying, “Your circumstances are not the reason you can’t succeed. Your circumstances the reality in which you must succeed.”

So I’ve been working harder each day to ensure that when I hear the rev of my BMW’s engine, I take a moment to consider: how much of this drama am I helping to create?


Disclosure: I participated in Cy Wakeman’s No Ego Book Club and received a complimentary book for the purposes of this book review. Some of the links in this post are affiliate links. It’s up to you to decide if you find the book reviewed in this post of value.

Image credit: Wikimedia Commons


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