Egos at Work
Managing a Co-Worker's Superiority Complex
Egos – we all have them! They're part of what makes us want authority and status, and what gives us confidence. Egos drive our need to be recognized for our accomplishments. This is perfectly normal. But what happens when someone's ego goes too far?
You know the type: the colleague who will do just about anything to claim credit or gain power; the person who takes over every discussion and tries to grab the spotlight; or the team member who continually criticizes other people's ideas. These people are undermining the team's mission with their behavior.
Ego is at the root of many workplace issues. From poor communication to failed negotiation, to faulty decision making, ego can lay a dangerous path of destruction. The obnoxious and overbearing behavior that comes with it can damage creativity, undermine effective problem solving, cause stress, and adversely impact morale.
Many of us know how hard it is to work with – or for – egotistic people. Unfortunately, there's a good chance you'll encounter this trait in a colleague, boss, or customer at some point in your career. After all, the competitive nature of the workplace can naturally cause people to look out for themselves. To protect yourself, you need to manage and contain these larger-than-life personalities.
But first, how do you know you're dealing with an oversized ego and not just a healthy dose of confidence and assertiveness? Watch for some of these common egotistical behaviors:
- Wanting or demanding credit for every idea.
- Using "I" and "me" (instead of "we" and "us") almost exclusively.
- Dominating conversations and meetings.
- Reminding others of their superiority or excellence (real or perceived).
- Stopping others from expressing their ideas.
- Rewarding those who support them (and perhaps punishing those who don't).
- Bullying, or trying to exert power they don't really have.
Do you recognize yourself in any of these behaviors? Do you feel you need to prove your worth all the time? A healthy ego is part of healthy self-esteem. But egotism can emerge when you feel your accomplishments don't measure up. If you have a habit of seeking outside approval and recognition, or if you try to control everything, this can be a sign that you don't believe you can control very much. For tips on building self-esteem and confidence, see our article on Building Self-Confidence.
Be careful not to "kill the goose that lays the golden egg." You wouldn't be surprised if your star salesperson was just a bit egotistical. And your CEO may have a strong sense of the wisdom or his or her own views!
Do what you sensibly can to minimize the impact of egotism, but make sure that your actions are aligned with the interests of your organization.
OK, now you know how to recognize the signs of a big ego – but the people with out-of-control egos probably don't, so you're not likely to get them to change their behavior. Instead, focus on changing your reactions and communication style, and changing the work environment. Remember, the only one who can change the situation is you!
Changing Your Reactions and Communication Style
Try these strategies for communicating with people who have big egos.
Don't Let Them Bait You
It's tempting to fight back with an even bigger ego of your own. But you probably won't win that battle, and you can look bad in the process. If people insist on always being right, let them express themselves. In fact, let them exhaust themselves and run out of steam. Then, when they're finished puffing their feathers, state your points calmly and confidently.
This can be especially effective if the egotist is your boss or in a position of authority. You want to ease the situation, not make things worse. By remaining calm and listening to what the person has to say, you can avoid further conflict. Then you can come back to discuss the issue, later in the meeting or at another time.
Use Their Names
This is a subtle tactic that can really work. When you address people by their names, you take control and command their attention. When you speak to an egotist, use the person's first name as often as you sensibly can.
Assert Your Needs
Egotistic people can be bullies, but don't allow them to walk all over you. Establish your boundaries, and define what is and is not acceptable. Then make sure you follow up. Don't give an egocentric person any room to manipulate or dominate you.
If the egotist is your boss, this is critical. Clearly communicate what you need (support, resources, direction, feedback) to get the job done. When you make requests, talk about wanting to do your best and creating a great working relationship.
If bullying is an issue, see our article on handling bullying in the workplace.
Speak Your Mind
People with big egos may not expect to be challenged. They can be so full of their self-importance that they don't think anyone could possibly oppose them. If you clearly state why you object to something, or if you make a solid counter-argument, you'll weaken the egotist's armor. However, don't go in for the kill or embarrass the person. Just reveal the weakness in the argument, and clear the way for your ideas to be heard.
Depending on your relationship with the egotist, you may be able to offer constructive feedback to help the person understand the impact of his or her behavior. Be sensitive and compassionate, and remember that a big ego can be a sign of deeper personal insecurity.
Focus on the Team's Mission
Where the egotist's behavior is negatively affecting the team's mission, bring everyone's focus back onto the mission, and – subtly or otherwise – challenge the behavior in this context.
Change the Work Environment
If you don't get results by changing your reactions and communication style, try to change the workplace itself. If you're a manager or supervisor, you may have this authority. Otherwise, you'll need your manager's support to make the necessary changes to promote workplace harmony.
Reduce the Emphasis on Workplace Competition
Ego tends to surface when someone's reward and recognition are tied to being better than the rest of the team. If you reward teamwork instead individual performance, you may reduce the incentive for egotistic behavior.
Put the egotist in situations where he or she must rely on a colleague's input and direction to perform successfully. The nature of working together tends to foster respect and understanding. It may force the egotistic person to realize the value of other people's contributions. Remember to provide adequate support to the people who are working with the egotist, since doing so may not be easy.
Minimize Team Involvement
This is a last resort, but if the egotistic behavior continues to cause problems, you may need to keep the person away from the team as much as possible. Delegate specific tasks that can be accomplished separately, and then include the egotist in team discussions only when necessary.
Egotism in the workplace is common, and it can be very challenging for everyone involved. Whether the egotist is your team member or your boss, the person's arrogance and know-it-all attitude can harm morale and team spirit.
To protect yourself and the team, you need to first recognize the egotistic behavior for what it is. You then have two choices: to change the way you relate to the person, or to change the work environment. With either approach, use gentle reminders of what is and is not appropriate behavior; this can effectively plant the seeds of change. Eventually, the egotist should get the message.