Ego – Friend or Foe?

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I interviewed a consultant recently on the prevalence of ego among senior-level executives and the damage it can do to a business if left unchecked. What I learned about the subject impacts everyone, regardless of their level in an organization.


Ego is often seen as a negative attribute, but the word’s frequently misunderstood meaning actually implies a certain duality that encompasses both good and bad characteristics. According to Webster, ego means the self as distinct from the world and other selves. Later entries say that ego is an exaggerated sense of self-importance and then the dictionary reveals the word means appropriate pride in oneself, self-esteem. Now, the next question is, which do you have more of: good ego or bad?


David Marcum, one of the founders of MarcumSmith LC, said that there are four signs of ego that can predict when the strengths or good side of the ego such as assertiveness or dependability transform into weaknesses such as pushiness and rigidity, and what will happen to relationships if participants allow certain patterns of communication to prevail. Seeking acceptance is the first sign of ego. A person worries excessively about what people will think of what they say, and they may not say something that needs to be said for fear of what others will think. Showcasing brilliance is the second sign. This sign is easy to spot if you can recognize grandstanding or showing off. Third is comparison, which is probably the most prevalent sign, and it usually triggers the other three. (The fourth sign of ego is defensiveness.) Those suffering from comparison constantly run a mental tally of themselves in comparison to others.


“‘Do they have more control than I do? Are they more popular with the boss? Do people like their ideas better?’ Comparison usually leads to a feeling of superiority or inferiority and a whole host of behaviors that follow that,” Marcum said. “If I feel like you’re a little superior to me, I may be prone to be more critical of you and your ideas to try and equalize the gap between us. Or, if I feel like I’m more superior as a result of my comparison mindset, I may start to demean, challenge or discredit ideas that you bring up so that I can maintain superiority.”


Alone, or taken at face value, none of these signs indicate overt problems. There’s nothing wrong with wanting to be accepted, nor is there anything wrong with being smart. It’s only when these desires become a dominant motivation of behavior that they turn into problems. Which side of the ego fence are you standing on, and how is your position affecting your career development? If your ego is out of control or even out of balance, no matter how many certifications you earn or how much training you undertake, you might remain behind the curve of your career potential. Alternatively, if you’ve made all the right career moves but can’t seem to get ahead or can only advance to a certain point and it’s not organizational infrastructure that’s holding you back, consider an ego check up as your next career move.


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