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Leaders & their egos: why we don’t always get a rational adult, & what to do about it

The Valley loves to lionize big egos through the cult of tech celebrity, which is great when you’re dealing with a grown-up leader. But as many of us can attest and as we have seen in the news, that isn’t always the case. All too often, these lions and lionesses maraud through their organizations imposing their will and undermining the need for psychological safety in others as they go. In short, there is a clear correlation between the drive and centerpiece role of the leader, and the corresponding impact of their egos on the lives of those around them.

All of us have ego — it’s a core part of our personality and we see it in action through words and behaviors, and experience it emotionally through the feelings it generates in others and ourselves. But it’s perhaps when we see an ego out of control in the workplace that we wish we face the biggest management challenge: how to bring it back within ‘normal operating limits’.

What is Ego?

Psychiatrist Sigmund Freud theorized that a dominating driver of personality is the need in all of us to satisfy our impulsive feelings and desire for survival and gratification. He called this part of the mind the ‘id’. Ego is that part of the mind that seeks to satisfy this impulsive need for pleasure by translating the reality of what happens in the outside world into thoughts, ideas, and rationalizations that make sense to, and tries to satisfy this deeper, unconscious layer. And another part of the mind, the super-ego acts to balance these two forces, by adding virtues & ethical principles to the mix, sometimes causing internal conflict as the ego tries to address the more primal needs of the id, whilst also recognizing the super-ego’s demand to think and behave in an appropriate manner.

Ego States

American psychiatrist Eric Byrne argued that we tend to operate from three ego states, which he called The Parent, The Adult and The Child. These egos reside in all of us, but how often they are visible and under what conditions they appear, will vary. The Child ego can be expressed with childlike impulses, that are demanding, petulant and uncompromising, but also energetic, playful & creative. The Parent ego unconsciously acts in ways similar to our own parenting experience, offering a secure, nurturing environment, but oftentimes also expressed through a high need for control, permission and critique. The Adult ego represents our best sense of adult self: one that lives in the present and responds to situations through rational thought, by comparing what we have been taught about the world with our own objective observations. I would argue that the adult ego is where the most productive outcomes in the interpersonal domain occur.

A simple way of understanding these different states is expressed in the Parent who lives by a mantra of: “Do as I do”, with the Child by asking: “What shall I do?”, and by the Adult by stating: “I will be frank with you”.

These ego states can each play a role in how we show up and relate with others. For instance, when you experience an Adult-to-Adult exchange, it feels authentic, productive and rational, and it’s crucial to navigating most relationships at work and in life. But if your Adult ego experiences the clash of a petulant or demanding Child ego, or the judgmental, controlling eye of the Parent Ego, then conflict may arise. To make matters worse, when an exchange is dominated only by a Parent-to-Child exchange or vice versa, things can become ugly. Nothing is more disheartening than trying to have impact under the yolk of an angry child or the cloying supervision of an over-protective parent.

What causes us to operate from unhelpful ego states is a deeper question that is not explored here, suffice it to say that there are likely payoffs, associated with positive and negative demonstrations of each ego, which in turn can lead to recurring patterns of unhelpful behaviors and interactions.

Stroking

Skillful communicators look for the tell-tale signs of the ego state and adjust their style and language to create a complimentary approach, applying ‘strokes’ to the ego that show recognition and willingness to engage. This is nothing new for humans: we started to learn how to do this early in life, by giving hugs to our parents, and later in life through behaviors such as ingratiating ourselves to others.

Strokes can also be positive or negative; positive strokes include helpful feedback, compliments, expressions of appreciation, recognition and applying praise. These strokes will also cultivate positive emotions in the other person, which can help lower stress and increase the possibility of co-operation. Negative strokes include non-constructive criticism, negative judgments and expressions of disapproval — all approaches that are bound to trigger the other person negatively and cause conflict.

Managing Ego

In managing challenging egos consider these approaches as possible managing strategies that might be a useful place to start:

A. Put Your Own Oxygen Mask on First

Be aware of your own ego state before you start trying to manage others. If you’re not being completely open to being a scientist of your own behavior and honest about your preferred ego state, you can’t begin to adequately understand and manage someone else’s:

  1. What stance is typical for you and what words and behaviors do you typically use?

  2. What typical triggers can lead to an unhelpful ego showing up?

  3. What possible payoffs may motivate this ego to have control?

B. Consider the Other Person

Next, try to determine the ego state of the person you are interacting with to see how this connects with the typical behaviors and responses you experience. This will show up in their language as well as around defensive postures. Notice the body language and typical behaviors that reinforce where they might be.

  1. What recurring patterns does this person typically display, both in normal situations and when under pressure?

  2. What things typically trigger a particular ego state, or dimension of that ego (like shifting from nurturing to judgmental parent)?

  3. What kind of strokes have you noticed create a helpful shift at difficult moments between you?

C. Stay in Adult Yourself

Since you’ll be at your most productive and collaborative in an Adult ego, it’s an obvious goal to try operating from here as much as you can, and especially when you are experiencing the conflict of a mismatch with a Parent or Child ego, which may take some offline practice. After all, choosing to respond as a child to the leader’s parent ego is really a suckers choice, even if it sometimes feels like the path of least resistance in a difficult situation.

  1. What exchanges are easier for you than others? — does the person, the environment or time of day make a difference?

  2. What adult language and behaviors can you try to help you during times of disagreement, conflict or misunderstanding?

D. Notice the Games You Both Play

Let’s be honest, when it comes to interpersonal dynamics, we all play games with each other: we posture, we join the dance (or not), we spin our meaning. Notice the games that you and this person typically play, in the language and behaviors you use to try to get your own way, and seek to re-engage that person’s Adult ego when you are encountering an unhelpful Parent or Child.

Focusing your language and behavior to keep the adult ego in play is really useful here, even sometimes when the other person’s own behavior tugs at one of your other ego states, just waiting in the wings to take over.

  1. Begin to notice how your interactions with this person typically begin, what language and intonation do they use?

  2. Are there patterns in their game, such as visual & verbal cues to help you determine what is going on for the other person?

  3. What specifically was it about the more accepting, productive exchanges that you can replicate?

E. Apply Helpful Strokes

Developing ways to help demonstrate that you recognize and want to co-operate with the ego state you’re interacting with does not mean just giving in to the demands of the other ego, or having to compromise your values and what you believe in. Rather, it can be a nod, a look, a smile, a spoken word, a touch. It’s about implicitly signaling: I see you, I hear you. In an ideal world, these strokes should always be positive and affirmative, but sadly they’re often not, and behavior that leads to negative strokes (such as a reprimanding parent to a demanding child) is often still sought, since receiving negative strokes is better than receiving no strokes at all.

Implications for Work

Ego states in leaders that lead them into conflict, often arise because of the presence of an unmanaged Parent or Child ego coupled with a weak or undeveloped Adult. From my own observations, this is especially true when an individual is negatively triggered.

In excessive moments, this behavior can lead to complaints and sanctions, although things rarely get this far, as our super-egos have learned to know where ‘the line’ exists, helping us to step back from disaster in most cases. This can still leave you with the challenge of managing a hyperactive or sulking child, or an unrepentant parent.

The Tech industry has a huge opportunity to help its leaders understand and take steps to proactively manage their egos: tough feedback, leader development and coaching programs are useful ways to help here. But that can feel like ‘closing the stable door after the horse has bolted’, since in my experience, many performance problems are the consequence of a bad hiring decision.

What really builds a productive culture inside an organization, is the courage to turn away from people whose unmanaged egos run amok inside their teams. This means paying attention to these dynamics in hiring interviews, in promotion decisions, and in new roles, and having the courage to take action on them, instead of pretending not to notice them, which can be a common response to unproductive behavior.

Sadly, cultures are shaped in part, by the fear and blocking effect these ego states can engender in others, which when coupled by a weakness or unwillingness to really address them slows an organization down, stifles innovation and hurts its employment brand. Given this, pretending not to notice is a terrible choice.

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