“If you’re the smartest person in the room, then you’re in the wrong room.” – Confucius
People who think they are the smartest person in the room are described by Liz Wiseman’s book Multipliers as “Diminishers.”
Unlike Multipliers who inspire and believe in the people they lead, Diminishers diminish the capabilities and motivation of others around them. When leaders believe only in themselves, that others can’t succeed without them, then ego has taken over. Ego is a misguided belief of self-importance, and shows up to others in many ways.
If you’ve ever heard of the term “man-splaining,” this is an example of the behaviour someone (e.g. men with big ego) would exhibit when they believe they know everything that a woman would not know. Here’s a bit of comical example of man-splaining:
Besides the obvious barriers this creates in relationships, ego also impacts other parts of our lives:
- Learning – What else can you learn when you think you know everything already? This unwillingness to accept new knowledge and ideas stunts our growth. The disillusionment limits our ability to gain new skills and talent. People with big egos aren’t curious, because they are so absorbed in their belief that they know the reasons why things happened. Part of their belief (although perhaps a blind spot for them) is that curiosity is a sign of weakness.
- Personal brand and reputation – We may be able to trace back the formation of one’s ego to insecurities (e.g. fear of being judged or looked down upon, or need to have the right answer). However, regardless of how egos develop, it is clear to us that those who think they are all-important and all-knowing are just the opposite. People with big egos may have big brands and be recognized, however, they most likely don’t have the good reputations to match, and are not thought of kindly. Unfortunately for those with big egos, that is the difference between brand and reputation.
- Health – Being an arrogant person doesn’t result in any bodily harm (usually). Besides physical health however, we should not forget about mental and emotional health. Ego affects one’s ability to learn, and to develop strong relationships. Intelligence, in the sense of IQ and EQ, becomes stunted when there is no curiosity nor empathy, when problems are internalized or blatantly ignored. Insecurities can prevent us from learning from mistakes and/or they can cause negative feelings of guilt, anger and regret to accumulate.
So, is ego all-bad? From my perspective…”Yes!” This is my current thinking, and I’m open to other perspectives. I equate this to the question of “Is evil bad?” Some might position “confidence” and “pride” as more acceptable forms of ego. To me, self-confidence is good and fine. Although it is a short step from over-confidence to ego, it still requires stepping onto a different platform of thought. Once our confidence changes to ego, our faith in our own abilities changes into judgement of others. Pride is different from ego as well. Pride swells the heart, while ego swells the head. Pride results in humility whereas ego results in arrogance (and insecurities).
What can we do to keep our ego in check?
The obvious first-step is actually a small step – aim for true confidence and pride. Clearly distinguishing between these terms helps us clearly see our intended target.
In Ryan Holiday’s book Ego Is The Enemy, he lists different tactics to keep our ego in check, including being curious and learning to let go. My 3 favourites are ones that are creative, and that can benefit from the assistance of a coach:
- Adopt a beginner’s mindset – This is a reset. Regardless of how many decades of experience or how specialized our talents are, adopting the ‘fresh eyes’ of a beginner humbles us, while opening up new insights we may have blocked out in the past. When we approach each situation with a beginner’s mindset, behaviours such as curiosity naturally follow and prevents our ego from taking over.
- Gratitude – What do we consider as successes? And how can we express gratitude to those who contributed to our success? The intentional act of reflecting on our circumstances and identifying collaborators can yield surprises about who we depend on, as well as who influences us.
- Take a walk – If we could afford a trip to space, we would fully appreciate how small we are on this Earth and in the universe. Fortunately, we can take a walk in a forest to give us that perspective. It is that comparative perspective that brings us back down to Earth, while deflating our heads. I particularly like this one because I’ve felt the lure of ego over the past year living in a confined space within a limited circle. Getting out and being in the nature puts every back into perspective.
A colleague of mine jokingly says he’s made a successful living over the last 20 years not knowing anything. To me that sort of humility is a sign he loves his job! One day, I hope to not know anything as well.
Let’s start the exercise of keeping our egos in check, by sharing in the comments section below what you are proud of, or what you are grateful for.
Check out more blog posts in this series: Coach’s Corner.