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:
- The Triangulation Zone
- When somebody complains to you about someone else's performance, you're entering into another dimension
— a dimension of three minds. That's the signpost up ahead — your next stop, the Triangulation
- Cellf Esteem
- When a cell phone goes off in a movie theater, some of us get irritated or even angry. Why has the cell
phone become so prominent in public? And why do we have such strong reactions to its use?
- The Injured Teammate: I
- You're a team lead, and one of the team members is very ill or has been severely injured. How do you
handle it? How do you break the news? What does the team need? What do you need?
- Fill in the Blanks
- When we conceal information about ourselves and our areas of responsibility, we make room for others
to speculate. Speculation is rarely helpful. It's wise to fill in the blanks.
- Preventing Toxic Conflict: I
- Conflict resolution skills are certainly useful. Even more advantageous are toxic conflict prevention
skills, and skills that keep constructive conflict from turning toxic.
Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout
- Coming July 25: Exploiting Functional Fixedness: II
- A cognitive bias called functional fixedness causes difficulty in recognizing new uses for familiar things. It also makes for difficulty in recognizing devious uses of everyday behaviors. Here's Part II of a catalog of deviousness based on functional fixedness. Available here and by RSS on July 25.
- And on August 1: Strategies of Verbal Abusers
- Verbal abuse at work has special properties, because it takes place in an environment in which verbal abuse is supposedly proscribed. Yet verbal abuse does happen at work. Here are three strategies abusers rely on to avoid disciplinary action. Available here and by RSS on August 1.
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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.