Point Lookout: a free weekly publication of Chaco Canyon Consulting
Volume 14, Issue 3;   January 15, 2014: Big Egos and Other Misconceptions

Big Egos and Other Misconceptions

by

Last updated: August 8, 2018

We often describe someone who arrogantly breezes through life with swagger and evident disregard for others as having a "big ego." Maybe so. And maybe not. Let's have a closer look.
A Canada Goose nesting

A Canada Goose (branta canadensis) on the nest, engaged in a threat display. Possibly she regards the photographer as having approached a little too close. Animals engage in threat displays for many reasons, but in cases such as this, it's to make themselves seem more powerful, so as to warn their targets to back off. Because the animal feels threatened and fearful, it tries to communicate its power to harm the target. In other words, it projects power because it feels it might be at a disadvantage. Humans who behave as if they have "big egos" might be doing something similar. Photo courtesy U.S. Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory Office of Science.

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 status
might 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. Go to top Top  Next issue: Human Limitations and Meeting Agendas  Next Issue

303 Secrets of Workplace PoliticsIs every other day a tense, anxious, angry misery as you watch people around you, who couldn't even think their way through a game of Jacks, win at workplace politics and steal the credit and glory for just about everyone's best work including yours? Read 303 Secrets of Workplace Politics, filled with tips and techniques for succeeding in workplace politics. More info

Your comments are welcome

Would you like to see your comments posted here? rbrenipyKTtETclwPvfCwner@ChacTQQHQpNdpuWCbcUYoCanyon.comSend me your comments by email, or by Web form.

About Point Lookout

Thank you for reading this article. I hope you enjoyed it and found it useful, and that you'll consider recommending it to a friend.

Point Lookout is a free weekly email newsletter. Browse the archive of past issues. Subscribe for free.

Support Point Lookout by joining the Friends of Point Lookout, as an individual or as an organization.

Do you face a complex interpersonal situation? Send it in, anonymously if you like, and I'll give you my two cents.

Related articles

More articles on Emotions at Work:

Something to worry aboutWorking Out on Your Dreadmill
Many of us are experts in risk analysis and risk management. Even the non-specialists among us have developed considerable skill in anticipating troubles and preparing plans for dealing with them. When these habits of thought leak into our personal lives, we pay a high price.
The USS Doyle as DMS-34, when she played The CaineReverse Micromanagement
Micromanagement is too familiar to too many of us. Less familiar is inappropriate interference in the reverse direction — in the work of our supervisors or even higher in the chain. Disciplinary action isn't always helpful, especially when some of the causes of reverse micromanagement are organizational.
A wild turkeyIt's a Wonderful Day!
Most knowledge workers are problem solvers. We work towards goals. We anticipate problems as best we can, and when problems appear, we solve them. But our focus on anticipating problems can become a problem in itself — at work and in Life.
A Protestant church in Tuttlingen, GermanyBlind Agendas
Effective meetings have agendas. But even if a meeting has an agenda, the hidden agendas of participants can cause trouble. Another source of trouble, less frequently recognized, is the blind agenda.
A tensile failure of a bottom chord in a covered bridgeThe Problem of Work Life Balance
When we consider the problem of work life balance, we're at a disadvantage from the start. The term itself is part of the problem.

See also Emotions at Work and Workplace Politics for more related articles.

Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout

A pair discussion in a speedstormComing February 27: Brainstorming and Speedstorming: II
Recent research into the effectiveness of brainstorming has raised some questions. Motivated to examine alternatives, I ran into speedstorming. Here's Part II of an exploration of the properties of speedstorming. Available here and by RSS on February 27.
A meeting that's probably a bit too largeAnd on March 6: A Pain Scale for Meetings
Most meetings could be shorter, less frequent, and more productive than they are. Part of the problem is that we don't realize how much we do to get in our own way. If we track the incidents of dysfunctional activity, we can use the data to spot trends and take corrective action. Available here and by RSS on March 6.

Coaching services

I offer email and telephone coaching at both corporate and individual rates. Contact Rick for details at rbrenyKOtAsCGwTHHwUedner@ChacUQflqlrlPZLPOYhQoCanyon.com or (650) 787-6475, or toll-free in the continental US at (866) 378-5470.

Get the ebook!

Past issues of Point Lookout are available in six ebooks:

Reprinting this article

Are you a writer, editor or publisher on deadline? Are you looking for an article that will get people talking and get compliments flying your way? You can have 500 words in your inbox in one hour. License any article from this Web site. More info

Public seminars

The Power Affect: How We Express Our Personal Power
Many The Power Affect: How We Express Personal Powerpeople 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.

Follow Rick

Send email or subscribe to one of my newsletters Follow me at LinkedIn Follow me at Twitter, or share a tweet Subscribe to RSS feeds Subscribe to RSS feeds
The message of Point Lookout is unique. Help get the message out. Please donate to help keep Point Lookout available for free to everyone.
Technical Debt for Policymakers BlogMy blog, Technical Debt for Policymakers, offers resources, insights, and conversations of interest to policymakers who are concerned with managing technical debt within their organizations. Get the millstone of technical debt off the neck of your organization!
Go For It: Sometimes It's Easier If You RunBad boss, long commute, troubling ethical questions, hateful colleague? Learn what we can do when we love the work but not the job.
303 Tips for Virtual and Global TeamsLearn how to make your virtual global team sing.
101 Tips for Managing ChangeAre you managing a change effort that faces rampant cynicism, passive non-cooperation, or maybe even outright revolt?
101 Tips for Effective MeetingsLearn how to make meetings more productive — and more rare.
Exchange your "personal trade secrets" — the tips, tricks and techniques that make you an ace — with other aces, anonymously. Visit the Library of Personal Trade Secrets.