“Ego kills knowledge as knowledge requires learning and learning requires humility” (unknown)
The Origin and Meaning of Ego
The term Ego has evolved since its inception. Today, ego or egotistical, describes conceited or self-absorbed behaviour. However, its original meaning – rooted in psychodynamic theory – defines the ego to be a rational mediator between our impulses and our desire to adhere to morals and ‘do the right thing’.
Thus overtime, the meaning of ego has evolved from a psychodynamic explanation of how we mediate our own behaviour, to nowadays, an observable character flaw.
Interestingly, most view egotistical behaviour as outward ‘show boating’ and the promotion of accomplished strengths. However, egotistical behaviour can manifest in more subtle ways. Consider the quiet and reserved person who is worried about what others will think should they not perform to ‘expectation’. This behaviour may still be driven by a need to be seen and validated as ‘the expert’.
Therefore, egotistical behaviour is perhaps equally representative of a willingness to showcase knowledge and expertise, as it is with avoiding mistakes and failure. This is why the ego can be so detrimental to learning – making mistakes and learning through trial and error often present the best learning opportunities.
The Ego at Work
Work is often a place where egotistical behaviour is rife.
In my opinion, work often fuels people’s ego. It starts with job titles and positions. Upon commencement of employment, we are often hired from a shortlist as the preferred expert. We are also hired on the basis of what we have done – not what we need to learn or become. We therefore promote ourselves as the ‘end product’ (as opposed to a continual work in progress) because this behaviour is rewarded from day one.
Some organisations have a culture of ‘no mistakes’ given how it may hinder quality and productivity. This is reinforced by colleagues as well as leaders. For example, I had one colleague who loved ‘shooting down’ ideas in brainstorming sessions, rather than contributing her own ideas. She likely felt that putting forward ‘half-baked’ ideas could’ve invited criticism, therefore threatening the reputation she wanted to uphold. To her, reputation was more important than the task at hand.
The same unwillingness to make mistakes can also be seen in the classroom.
Often we see exceptional students and perfectionistic tendencies prevent healthy risk taking behaviour. Students who are often told that ‘they are so smart’ become protective of that mantle, and may subsequently avoid trying new things in case of failure.
Steps for Managing your Ego
In reality, we all (to some extent) need to be vigilant that our Ego doesn’t curtail our learning. I have detailed some points for consideration.
To what extent does your Ego hinder learning? – The first step lies in self-awareness. Think carefully about your own behaviour by reflecting on the below questions.
• Have you taken any ‘risks’ lately, for example, volunteering to ‘go first’ to demonstrate a newly learned skill in front of your peers?
• Are you willing to admit when you don`t know something and/or need others’ assistance?
• Do you balance sharing your knowledge and expertise with others, with seeking learning opportunities from others?
• Do you spend more time critiquing or contributing in group discussions?
Consider what you could miss out on – As explained, avoiding situations out of the worry that others may see your failures and vulnerabilities, means that you could be robbing yourself of valuable learning experiences. So take some time to consider the type and range of situations you may avoid, and reflect on the learning opportunities they could provide. Viewing these situations as ‘opportunities’ as opposed to ‘threats’, may motivate you to reconsider your behaviour.
Commit to new thinking and action – Consider the mindset, attitude, thoughts and actions you may need to adopt to be readily more open to new learning experiences. Carol Dweck’s ‘Growth Mindset’ is an excellent starting point. Learning to pick yourself up and bounce back after setbacks is a critical component. Remaining committed to the full learning process is key to improving learning outcomes.
Set the example for others – This can be especially important in a culture where mistakes are condemned. Put yourself out there by being the first person to volunteer an opinion or answer a question. Advocate your growth mindset; openly seek learning opportunities and declare mistakes as valuable for learning. This way, your displayed strength in character will likely dwarf your perceived vulnerabilities. Others may even begin to adopt this mindset too.
I hope this gives you some useful insight into the ego and how it can be better managed to improve learning.
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