Sometimes we notice behavior that leads us to believe that the behaver has a "big ego." What do we mean by this? A big ego is something that afflicts many people other than us. Usually, we're referring to behavior that we believe overvalues the behaver relative to others, often to an extreme extent. Some typical examples: always sitting in the power seat in the room, demanding control of the agenda, insisting on a specific time or place for a meeting, or dismissing the contributions of others in unnecessarily insulting ways.
The concept of big ego is itself intriguing, because the ego is an abstraction. You can't actually perform surgery on somebody (or autopsy their corpse) and locate the ego — it isn't a body part in the sense of, say, the hippocampus or the spleen. When we use the term "big ego" we're using a metaphor in which we're saying that the ego is a physical thing that can have size. It isn't physical, it can't have size, and the metaphor is therefore misleading. (See "Metaphors and Their Abuses" and "The Reification Error and Performance Management," Point Lookout for September 28, 2011, for more)
The behaviors we identify as demonstrating ego bigness are essentially assertions of relative status. The behavers are doing things that express the idea that their own status — social, financial, intellectual, etc. — exceeds the status of others.
But even in terms of the metaphor, we might be getting it wrong, as is often the case with metaphors. When people behave in the big-ego mode, they might actually be expressing a "tiny ego" perspective. That is, the need to assert superior status so exuberantly might actually result from a sense of low status — in metaphorical terms, tiny ego.
People so afflicted The behaviors we identify as
demonstrating ego bigness
are essentially assertions
of relative statusmight not be trying to express their superior status. Instead, they might be seeking shelter from their own perceived inferior status by adjusting their own view of how others see them.
When we observe big-ego behavior from this perspective, strangely, it's much less irksome. Instead of experiencing offense or anger, we can experience sympathy or pity. Instead of teetering on the edge of "losing it" we can find a sense of peacefulness and calm.
This kind of confusion — misreading tiny-ego behavior as big-ego behavior — occurs elsewhere, too. It's a result of the ambiguity of the outward manifestations of feelings, or affect. That is, when we try to interpret someone's affect, we sometimes draw incorrect conclusions. We confuse, for example, cold aloofness with temerity or shyness. Aloofness and shyness are quite distinct, but the behaviors associated with them are less so. And interpreting behavior is one place where we go so wrong so often.
Judgments about the psychic state of others based only on what they present to us voluntarily, whether they're aware of it or not, is risky business. And framing those judgments in terms of popular metaphors is riskier still. Go slow. Know before you leap. Top Next Issue
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More articles on Emotions at Work:
- Never, Ever, Kill the Messenger
- If you're a manager in a project-oriented organization, you need to know the full, unvarnished Truth.
When you kill a messenger, you deliver a message of your own: Tell me the Truth at your peril. Killing
messengers has such predictable results that you have to question any report you receive — good
news or bad.
- Think in Living Color
- Feeling trapped, with no clear way out, often leads to anger. One way to defuse your anger is to notice
false traps, particularly the false dichotomy. When you notice that you're the target of a false dichotomy,
you can control your anger more easily — and then the trap often disappears.
- Conflict Haiku
- When tempers flare, or tension fills the air, many of us contribute to the stew, often without realizing
that we do. Here are some haiku that describe some of the many stances we choose that can lead groups
into tangles, or let those tangles persist once they form.
- Decision-Making and the Straw Man
- In project work, we often make decisions with incomplete information. Sometimes we narrow the options
to a few, examine their strengths and risks, and make a choice. In our deliberations, some advocates
use a technique called the Straw Man fallacy. It threatens the soundness of the decision, and its use
is very common.
- Heart with Mind
- We say people have "heart" when they continue to pursue a goal despite obstacles that would
discourage almost everyone. We say that people are stubborn when they continue to pursue a goal that
we regard as unachievable. What are our choices when achieving the goal is difficult?
Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout
- Coming September 27: Meeting Troubles: Collaboration
- In some meetings, we collaborate not in reaching objectives, but in preventing our doing so. Here are three examples of this pattern. Available here and by RSS on September 27.
- And on October 4: Meeting Troubles: Culture
- Sometimes meetings are less effective than they might be because of cultural factors that are outside our awareness. Here are some examples. Available here and by RSS on October 4.
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- The Power Affect: How We Express Our Personal Power
- Many people who possess real organizational power have a characteristic demeanor. It's the way they project their presence. I call this the power affect. Some people — call them power pretenders — adopt the power affect well before they attain significant organizational power. Unfortunately for their colleagues, and for their organizations, power pretenders can attain organizational power out of proportion to their merit or abilities. Understanding the power affect is therefore important for anyone who aims to attain power, or anyone who works with power pretenders. Read more about this program.