The ridiculous myth that ego can ever be left at the door

The ridiculous myth that ego can ever be left at the door

The ego that throws its weight around is the most tiresome. But the silent ego is most dangerous.

Lucy Kellaway

 

Every chairman will say his board is ego-free. Photograph: Getty Images

Every chairman will say his board is ego-free. Photograph: Getty Images

 

Last week I received an email inviting me to join a panel of self-important people talking about something I do not know much about. I said no. It wasn’t my sort of thing.

I know you hate egos, the woman emailed back, but this is an ego-free panel – no grandstanding, just a really great discussion.

In this, she was wrong. I do not hate egos. It would be hypocritical to hate them, given the size and fragility of my own. What I do hate is the increasingly common pretence that egos are absent – or the more ludicrous idea that they have somehow been left at the door.

Every chairman will say his board is ego-free. Every CEO will claim ego is not tolerated on the top team. Earlier this month there was Josef Ackermann declaring that on the Investor board “no one is playing an ego game” – which I don’t believe for a minute.

I’ve never heard a CEO, no matter how puffed up, admit to having one. Sir Martin Sorrell’s rivals will happily tell you that his ego will be his downfall, yet I am not aware of the man himself ever having discussed it at all.

Our ego-denial is not only ridiculous but makes us behave stupidly at work. Real life tells us that at work almost everything is ego – and science tells us the same. There are two studies that present two very basic truths.

Estimates

The first shows how everyone routinely overestimates their own role. Psychologists from Harvard and the University of Chicago asked academics who co-wrote papers to estimate what percentage of the work each was responsible for; added together the estimates came to an average of 140 per cent. A similar study with MBAs produced a similar result. Our egos make us think we are more important than we are, or, as the academics put it, there is an “egocentric bias in responsibility allocation”.

I have long noticed this egocentric bias at play in my kitchen. Ask the members of my household what percentage of the weekly washing up they carry out, and a total of 250 per cent would be arrived at with no difficulty at all.

Such “overclaiming” not only applies to good work but to our failures too. The studies show that when we screw something up, we also inflate our own role. Understanding this is vaguely comforting. I may not be ready to start toning down my estimation of how often I wash up, but next time I mess something up, I will console myself with the thought that my failure is smaller than my ego is telling me it is.

The second study, carried out by psychologists at Harvard, proves another truth: everyone adores talking about themselves. In the experiment people were given a choice: they could either answer questions about their own opinions for a small financial reward, or, for a larger reward, could answer questions about someone else, like Barack Obama. Most people were happy to forgo extra money, so long as they could hold forth on their favourite subject: themselves.

Nicholas Epley, of the University of Chicago Booth School of Business, was one of the authors of the study cited above on how people tend to overclaim credit. Watch his three FT video lectures: on unbiased decision-making, mind-reading at work and motivating staff

Last week I spent two hours on a train with someone I know professionally. I don’t know her terribly well, but by the end of the journey, I had decided she was a truly splendid person. Sympathetic. Intelligent. Trustworthy.

Ego game Now, having reflected on it, I am mortified to realise that she had mastered my lesson before I’ve mastered it myself. She recognised the surest way to win in the ego game was to allow me to go on about my life and opinions, while she laughed and asked questions as appropriate.

 

There are two laws about egos. The first is that they inevitably get bigger as people get more successful and more senior. The second is that not all egos are the same. Some you can see, and some you can’t.

The visible sort of ego, the kind that throws its weight around, is the most tiresome.

But the silent sort, that tricks you into thinking it isn’t there, is the most dangerous.

I know this because I possess both varieties. I have my own column and I show off. I often write about myself. The word I has already appeared 26 times in this column, and I haven’t finished yet.

But I also have the suppressed sort. Because I know egregious displays of ego are horrible and bad manners, I try not to make them. But when people can’t see the ego and step on it, it hurts just as much and you hold it against them more because you can’t protest.

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2015

 

Previously published in The Irish Times.

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