The ego is often talked about in regards to opinionated, highly ambitious or “selfish” people. The ego is not always negative, however. Like most things in life, it depends on how it’s used. Knowledge can create wonderful things. Knowledge also creates the horrific.
The ego can be a great motivator for achievement and growth; a tool for empowerment. It heavily impacts our lives at home and at work: leadership, team spirit and cultures. So what exactly is the ego and how does it effect our decision making and relationships.
Sigmund Freud divided the human psyche into three components:
THE ID: this is the instinct or primitive part of our character. It is said that babies only posses the id. The other two components only develop as we mature. The instinct is designed to keep as safe from danger. The id is impulsive void of reason and not affected by external factors. It seeks to experience pleasure and reward with no understanding as to consequence or morality (Freud’s Pleasure Principal). It just does. It resides in the unconscious realm of the human psyche.
THE EGO: One could say that the ego is the evolved and conscious version of the id. It understands morality, desire and guilt and makes decisions based on the outcomes of our desires. If reasonable, it will take consequences into consideration (empathy) preventing narcissism or selfishness but rather promoting selflessness. The irony in being selfless is that it makes the giver feel good about themselves, which we could argue is feeding the ego by bringing value or importance to the existence of that individual. It's a complex and slippery slope worth thinking about. Russian Objectivist philosopher Ayn Rand suggests that even altruism is a selfish act that feeds the ego. “We give to feel good, “ therefore it is about the ego to fuel our pleasure / reward need. There is value in this concept. I am by no means condoning narcissism or total objectivism. I believe in altruism as a foundation for a better society… the greater good.
THE SUPER EGO: this is the mediator and bridge between primitive impulse (id) and conscious reasoning (ego). It prevents the id from making impulsive decisions (craving for sex, drugs and other “immoral” pleasures). The super ego is a back up system designed to keep the ego in check, preventing it from inflated self perceptions, greed and narcissism. The super ego has empathy at its heart. It guides and drives our moral compass, protecting it from both the id and the ego.
As leaders we can leverage our ego to the benefit of the bigger picture that is the team, the culture and the organization. We can lean on it for confidence and direction. The ego helps us determine and protect that which we hold in high esteem (our values and our boundaries). With a touch of emotional intelligence we can also leverage the ego’s of those we influence. What’s their motivation? How can I optimize their input, value and overal outcome. If you find those triggers, then you have the wind at your side to inspire their sails to surf the waves of success.
The ego only becomes negative when it blinds us of the bigger and better picture of doing the right thing at the right time for the right reasons.
In regards to the oxygen mask theory (placing it on first in order to save others), the negative ego would only think about self-preservation, followed by a recognition and celebration of their established power purely for personal gain void of consideration for others. The ego is much more complex than this basic example, however.
What is simple is that the negative ego invites conflict, greed, disengagement, disappointment, resentment, envy, bullying, jealousy, and misunderstanding due to lack of empathy. It feasts on fear and control. None of these are positive traits of empowerment. The positive ego does what is right for humanity. It is concerned with a romantic bigger picture that inspires, nurtures, protects and empowers.
Find the balance and thrive. Find the balance and help others thrive too.
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