I believe the biggest addiction problem in the workplace today is the human ego. When people operate from their ego, their behavior tends to be based on fear rather than trust. When people behave out of fear, they have a high need to control others and their environment and they have a win-lose orientation toward everything. Even when discussing the weather they want to make sure you know that they know more about weather than you do. They broadcast a philosophy about life that states “I’m okay, you’re not.”
I discovered this addiction many years ago when my wife Margie was writing a book with Dr. Mark J. Tager entitled Working Well and studying what made a healthy work environment. One of the questions they asked people in their research was, “Can a bad boss make you sick?” A lot of people said, “Yes.” They cited examples such as migraine headaches, ulcers, sleepless nights—even heart attacks and cancer.
I became fascinated by people’s perceptions of bad bosses, so I started asking people around the country to describe the worst boss they had ever worked for. The primary description I heard was that of a high ego-driven person. The worst managers were described as poor listeners who were reluctant to share credit and always wanted to be in the limelight. While a lot of people would think people with a big ego had high self-esteem, I found the opposite to be true: Individuals who operate from their ego are usually covering up “not okay” feelings about themselves. They try to compensate for feelings of inadequacy by overpowering others and controlling their environment.
Why do I feel ego addiction is so harmful to the business community? Because it is holding back progress in organizations. Companies all over the country are having difficulties moving toward being the kind of organization they need to be to make it in this economy. Companies today need to be customer driven, cost effective, fast and flexible, and continually improving. To do this we need high-trust environments. And yet, throughout the work world managers are hesitant to empower others and give them a chance to have more responsibility and take initiative to make decisions. The people who are fearful and holding back support of these changes in business are those who are operating from their ego. They fear loss of power and control.
People who are hung up on their egos and who operate out of fear really need love. Yet it’s hard to love these people because they don’t seem very lovable. Instead, folks with big egos seem to be demanding, self-centered, and unsatisfied. They feel better about themselves when they can make others feel inferior. Fortunately, their attempts don’t have to be successful. As Eleanor Roosevelt once said, “No one can make you feel inferior without your permission.”
Just because someone has power doesn’t mean he doesn’t have a need to feel appreciated. When was the last time you caught your boss doing something right? When was the last time you gave your boss a hug? I’m not necessarily talking about a physical hug—even a psychological hug can help. Thank her for her support or for doing a good job on a certain task. In my sessions I ask people who are parents whether their love for their kids depends on their kids’ achievements. Rarely does a hand go up. We love our children without any contingencies—it’s called unconditional love. I think the same approach is needed in the workplace today. We need to learn to trust and respect others, even if we sometimes have a problem with their behavior. If we can help everyone in the workforce feel good about themselves and raise their self-esteem, we’ll have more people willing to share power by permitting others to take initiative, make decisions, and let work teams be the main vehicle for decision making. To overcome ego addiction, people have to get in touch with their own worthiness. If it’s hard for them, others can help.
Everyone in organizations should set a goal to maintain or enhance the self-esteem of the people with whom they interact, for the benefit of all. Big egos can be tamed with the right amount of tender loving care.