When people speak casually about the ego, we often hear things like ‘he’s got such a big ego’, or ‘she has to keep her ego in check’. We equate having an ego with being arrogant or obnoxious. But in psychology, the traditional (and Freudian) definition of ego is one part of your psyche, the other two being the id and the superego. Ever seen those cartoons where the person has the devil version of themselves on one shoulder and the angel on the other? The id is traditionally that devilish side – but really it just means where we tend to rely on instinct. It’s a little less thoughtful and measured. On the other hand, the superego is our moral compass that pushes us to be more cautious and “do the right thing”. So where does that leave the ego? Right in the middle, trying to balance the id and the superego that are often giving us conflicting messages. By the way, I am hugely simplifying the definition of ego for these purposes, mostly to spare you (because I can keep my own ego in check).
In our professional lives, we can risk building an egocentric world, starring. . .ourselves.
In our professional lives, our ego plays this role again and again. One part of you wants to take credit for a team member’s idea, the other side of you knows the right thing to do is let them present directly to the boss instead of you. And then your ego has to fight it out: maybe the colleague attends the meeting with you and does part of the presentation. But when we talk about building an egocentric world, what we mean is not a balance of your id and superego, but a world in which everything that happens is seen through a lens of how it relates to yourself. Egocentricity is common among young children. Ever seen a child cover their eyes because they think that if they can’t see you, then you can’t see them? That’s egocentric thinking. Just because their world has gone dark, then everyone’s has. It doesn’t have to be selfish thinking. Children often will offer a hurt sibling their own favourite toy – because it’s what they would crave if they were hurting.
In adults, of course, egocentric thinking is more problematic. We have to learn to see a world that isn’t revolving around our needs and ideas. But when we have a long career run, we can begin to feel that our professional life – all goals and objectives of our team, even the whole organisation – is dependent on us. Everyone knows the person who can’t stop checking work email: whether at a dinner party or on vacation, or at their child’s football game, they can’t resist ‘keeping an eye on work’. There is always an occasional valid need to check work at the weekend or late at night, of course. But many of us do it because we have reached a point in our career where we feel vital to the role. And the truth is, none of us are irreplaceable. That’s difficult to hear. And if you lose your job, it can be downright devastating.
So how do you protect yourself from building an egocentric universe starring yourself? And if it’s too late, how do you deal with that reality when you are exiting a role? For one, your mindset must shift so that the team members who are left can continue to perform their jobs without feeling ill-equipped. For yourself, frankly, you must accept the emotional hit. You’ve just learned (painfully) that the world does not revolve around you. Letting go will initially impact not only your own psyche but your interpersonal relationships: imagine the conversations you must have with colleagues who weren’t let go. Why did you get hit and not them? And of course, you are simultaneously dealing with other realities like the financial and practical impact on your life.
When possible, use this transition as a time to absorb the shock of what happened and process through the stages of grief that are not unlike processing the death of a person. But you can also use this time to reinvent yourself: ‘hey, I’m replaceable, and that’s horrid. But that doesn’t mean I’m worthless, and I can go add value somewhere else’. But that will take time.
Living in an egocentric world is a fragile way to operate. Luckily, we can unlearn our thinking.
The good news is that a resignation or redundancy that ends your role in a specific organisation helps you see the risk of such thinking and you can become more empathetic. Most children learn to help others through pain by giving the person what they need, not what would soothe themselves. And perhaps more importantly, the downside of egocentric thinking is that it also puts unnecessary pressure oneself to think all the negative outcomes are also on their shoulders. The truth is, you are but one person and neither the good nor the bad is entirely within your control. Even superheroes need friends – you can give yourself the gift of freedom from what some refer to as ‘magical thinking’ and approach your next career opportunity with better, clearer expectations.
In terms of my background and expertise, I have spent my entire career working as a trusted advisor to senior leaders wanting to improve the effectiveness of themselves, their teams and their companies. Prior to starting my own consulting firm, I led the global executive assessment and development team for Cisco. Earlier in my career I held leadership roles with RHR International, PepsiCo, Ashridge Executive Education, Hult International Business School and the Central European University, Budapest, Hungary.