5 Ways to Control Your Ego
By John Millen
Having an ego is not a bad thing, but whenever ego is discussed at work, it's typically not in a positive light. It's usually about arrogance, as in "his ego is completely out of control."
Cambridge Dictionary defines ego simply as, “The idea or opinion that you have of yourself, especially the level of your ability and intelligence, and your importance as a person.”
Ego is how we understand ourselves and sometimes, unchecked, our egos fight to maintain that image and put us on a collision course with people and with trust.
Cocky and self-centered
People who are described as egotistical are seen as takers, not givers. They can be seen as cocky, self-centered and, often, bullies. We don’t want to work with people like that.
We see those manifestations of ego on display every day in our public arenas such as sports, politics and business.
In the workplace, we see it come to life as one-upmanship, infighting and passive/aggressive behavior. Our egos may spur jealousy, backstabbing and unproductive, often toxic, environments.
Fear and insecurity
It’s funny because this kind of egocentric behavior often comes from a place of insecurity and fear. The person doesn’t feel confident and lashes out to exert control.
This makes sense. Buddhists believe that most of the pain we suffer as human beings stems from our desires for love, recognition, wealth or power. That’s why they advocate killing the ego.
It’s our ego, uncontrolled, that trips us up. Perhaps you’re not ready to kill your ego yet. Maybe just try to deprive it of breath for a while.
With this in mind, here are five key mindset shifts and actions that will help you to manifest the benefits of controlling your ego in business and in life:
1. Stop and breathe, or walk away
As children, we are taught to pause and count to ten before we impulsively react to a situation. Our emotional reactions, especially negative ones, rarely result in a positive outcome.
Whatever it is, take the time to pause and regroup before you respond. When you do respond, try a positive response.
I recently had to do that myself. I rarely get angry, but I was mad about an email that I felt was unfair. It was nearly midnight and I was exhausted from preparing for a client’s program. I impulsively wrote back a harsh response.
But I never sent that email. Instead, I deleted the email addresses on the note, put it into my draft file and went to bed.
In the morning, I reopened the email with a different perspective and actually laughed about how out of control the writer (me) sounded. I deleted it and sent a very positive, rational response. It was received well and the problem was quickly resolved, saving the relationship.
2. Seek first to understand
For the third time in a month, I find myself thinking of Stephen Covey’s 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, specifically the habit, “Seek First to Understand.” When our ego drives our thinking, we tend to focus on our primitive needs and feelings: Am I being disrespected? Am I still in control? Am I losing?
Then our egos give us negative self-talk: that person hasn’t answered me, I must be in trouble. She hates me. My boss isn’t acting as friendly as usual. What’s up? Did I mess something up?
Shift your perspective and think of alternative reasons. Seek to understand. We tend to go right to the negative. Maybe she’s busy or missed your email. Maybe he has a sick child at home. There are so many explanations. Reserve judgment until you hear from the source.
3. Stop being selfish
Our egos also show up when we give presentations or talk in meetings. I say presentation anxiety is selfish because our nerves come from a focus on us, instead of on our audience – the people to whom we are supposed to bring value.
Our ego makes it about us: I’m being judged; they might reject me; I’m not performing well. The ego-less approach focuses on their needs.
4. Give up control
Try losing control, but in a good way. It’s the paradox of leadership and life. The more we try to control people, circumstances and events, the more likely we are to lose them.
What’s that old song lyric from the band 38 Special? “Hold on loosely, but don’t let go. If you hold too tightly, you’re going to lose control.”
5. Be a giver
Samuel Johnson said, in the 1700s, “The true measure of a man is how he treats someone who can do him absolutely no good.”
As I wrote in "Should You Be a Giver at Work?", research by professor Adam Grant shows that everyone knows who the givers and takers are at work and that, in the long term, takers lose and strategic givers win.
Think about how you show up and how you respond to life’s everyday situations at work, at home and elsewhere in life.
It turns out that less ego and more focus on others will ultimately give you less stress, greater personal satisfaction and more external rewards.
All of these benefits will, by the way, will also make your ego happy.