Office egos uncovered

Oct 19 2006 by Susan Debnam Print This Article

Every office has one. But does every office need one? Egos aren't intrinsically bad. Used appropriately, they can be highly productive. But when they reside in individuals or organisations that lack awareness of their impact they can wreak personal and corporate havoc.

What is it with egos? They have an inordinate capacity to make us laugh and cry, tear our hair out and collapse with exhaustion. People with big egos are there in our minds even when we're not with them. We can't ignore them. We think about them all the time. We wake up thinking about them. We talk about them after they've left. We tell stories about them in the pub. They put down markers, like a cat leaving a scent.

Remember David Brent? Many of us will have laughed. Some will have cringed and even more identified with the scenes played out in the BBC's The Office. Ricky Gervais, in creating the Brent character, exquisitely described some of the uncertainty, the anger, the demotivation and loss of productivity that can ensue when an unchecked ego is on the rampage.

Brent, the office manager at Wernham Hoggs, lacked any self awareness or sensitivity to the needs of those around him, or indeed any obvious leadership qualities. We, the viewers, watched with awe and horror as the character unfolded as a deluded, self-centred individual who was quite unable to see any situation other than in relation to himself.

He was the centre of his own universe. His craving for power, status and recognition played out in every scene, every interaction with his staff. At no point did he set his own needs aside for the greater good of the business or any individual within it.

Wherever we look we see egos at work. In business (most boardroom battles are about ego), politics, the media, the church, the armed forces or the local voluntary group. There will always be those who ask primarily "what's in it for me? How will I look? How will this action affect my career, my status, my credibility?"

So what? You could say organisations have been living with the garrulous, demanding, calculating behavioural manifestations of ego-driven individuals for decades. Some might even argue that corporate life would be the poorer without the energy and charge that egos deliver.

Egos aren't intrinsically bad. They have drive and energy that can be infectious and, if used appropriately, can be highly productive. But they don't come with a user manual. When they reside in individuals or organisations that lack awareness of their impact they can wreak personal and corporate havoc.

What we're seeing in the Brent character is an exaggerated portrayal of an ego driven individual relying heavily on what Freud describes as ego defence mechanisms; the unconscious means we all occasionally rely on to reduce our anxiety and make our perception of reality more palatable.

We deny that someone is getting to us. We rationalise being turned down for promotion by saying we didn't really want it anyway. We blame someone else for being incompetent when what's really bugging us is our own incompetence. We all do it and it works well to get us through a bad day. Problems arise though when we keep on doing it and we don't know we're doing it.

Egotism comes in many guises and is not always easy to spot. The egotist can be charismatic and sophisticated, good at saying the right words to entice you into thinking he (and ego is by no means gender specific) really does have your concerns at heart, really is interested in what you have to say. But the bottom line is it's always about him.

A familiar example: put a group of mature, professionally able people around a board table and watch what happens when the person with the biggest ego starts acting up. Sometimes the behaviour is so subtle you hardly notice it. Withholding information, blocking decision making, quietly but effectively sabotaging consensus on a key issue. Only allowing supporters into their inner sanctum. The list could go on.

The ego becomes the grit in the system that gets in the way of authentic communication

Ultimately it's about an individual making a decision, usually at a subconscious level, to withhold power and get their own needs met. They are putting their own agenda ahead of the business agenda. The ego becomes the grit in the system that gets in the way of authentic communication, stifles good leadership, creates a toxic culture and hampers productivity.

Ego driven or ego free? Everyone has an ego and everyone needs one. Without it we wouldn't get out of bed in the morning. Whatever our job and wherever we sit in the corporate hierarchy, our own ego needs, for power, status and recognition, will play out at some time. The challenge is to get our ego needs met appropriately, without damaging others, or the business?

Jamie Oliver stands out amongst his peers in the world of the celebrity chef. Without shouting, ranting or criticism he has commanded the attention of the Prime Minister and the UK education system in his quest to put children's nutrition on the government's agenda. He has nurtured and developed numerous under-privileged would-be chefs and enabled them to run a business. He is a man with a passion for something beyond himself, and he communicates that passion in a way that says "I know I am right but I don't have to take away your dignity to prove it". His legacy will outlast his fame.

What does ego-free leadership look like? If you're ego free you will:

Business Focus

  1. Put the business agenda ahead of your own agenda
  2. Recruit the best person for the role not just personal supporters
  3. Discourage empires and cliques
  4. Encourage people to challenge the status quo and question existing methods and strategies
  5. Encourage leadership to flourish at all levels of the organisation
  6. Respond to change initiatives according to business need vs personal need
  7. Leave a legacy of ongoing excellence

Personal Focus

  1. Lead with humility and authenticity
  2. Listen more than you talk
  3. Hear what people say
  4. Promote creativity and autonomy
  5. Listen to another person's view without feeling threatened
  6. Give people control over their environment
  7. Celebrate someone else's success
  8. Share power and glory
  9. Let people get on with their jobs because you have recruited capable people, not yes-men
  10. Not having to be the expert

Some of the most powerful leaders emerging globally are those who can answer the question 'what's in it forme?' but who are not just in it for themselves. They will leave a legacy of success because they are big enough to nurture the strengths and acknowledge the needs of those around them.


Mine's Bigger than yoursSusan Debnam's book, Mine's Bigger Than Yours, explores a world where large egos are rampant - even encouraged - and workers everywhere and at all levels seem concerned with maintaining their image and reputation. [more]

The ego-free leader is confident enough to promote the idea that glory is for everyone and doesn't have to die out when he moves on. He is not ego-less, but he is free from the tyranny of his own ego. He knows when his ego is playing up so he can exercise a degree of choice over whether he lets it take over.

The ripple effect of ego-free leadership is to create a culture in which people are free to take risks, to learn from mistakes and deliver in a way that's less stressful and more creative than in an ego-driven environment.

So can businesses really afford to hang on to their egos?


About The Author

Susan Debnam
Susan Debnam

Susan Debnam coaches leaders at the top of private, public and voluntary sector organisations. Currently working with the Cabinet Office and high profile private sector bodies, she has access to some of the biggest egos in the business.