May: The Big Ego at Work
“You’re so vain you probably think this song is about you”, – sang Carly Simon in 1973 about a self-centered lover.
Movies, literature and the press are replete with Big Egos. Remember Gordon Gekko’s “Greed is good” speech in the 1987 movie Wall Street? Or Sherman McCoy, the self-titled “Master of the Universe” in Tom Wolfe’s 1987 book, The Bonfire of the Vanities? How about Enron and Lehman Brothers? Michael Beard, the protagonist in the 2010 book Solar by Ian McEwan, is a hateful character of unmitigated narcissism. He steals the intellectual property of a young colleague and cheats on his five wives. These fictional characters all believe that they are special and not limited to having to follow the “rules” the rest of us do.
Big Egos or narcissism exist on a spectrum from healthy to unhealthy. Healthy narcissism can be highly functional. This article looks at the unhealthy aspects of narcissism.
Have you ever had a self-centered or narcissistic co-worker? These people can be charming, articulate and motivated, but as you get to know them, you notice behaviors that cause you concern. The Big Ego sees himself or herself as superior to others. He seeks attention and admiration, becoming angry if he does not get what he thinks he deserves. He can be entitled. He may use others by taking advantage of them or taking the credit for their work. Reciprocity is minimal. He is without guilt, loyalty or compassion when it comes to the needs of his ego, unleashing relentless ambition and self-promotion. Relationships are exploitive, serving his personal goals. He seeks people who provide what he wants whether it be work, admiration or promotion.
Big Egos can lie or embellish the reality of their accomplishments, often with the aid of modern technology. One employee was pleased when a colleague complimented him on his supervisee’s credentials based on the supervisee’s website. When the employee visited the website, he was shocked to find that the supervisee had grossly exaggerated her professional roles in the company.
These individuals do not prioritize organizational needs. They want to know what they can get from the job, e.g. money, status or power. Many Big Egos are poor team players unless their supervisors set up strong incentives for them to play well with others. Some Big Egos don’t follow the “rules” or take responsibility for errors. They prefer to blame others. They may not listen well, particularly to negative or critical feedback that threatens self or social esteem. The annual performance review can be a nightmare for Big Ego’s supervisor, who may point out that Big Ego “met expectations” but did not do much more. Big Ego may react with defensiveness and rage rather than focusing on how he might improve with his supervisor’s input.
How do you know you are working with a Big Ego? You may first find yourself confused or angry at Big Ego’s behaviors. You will move on to frustration and stress. You may feel that your competence or credibility is being undermined to others. At worst, you may not want to come to work.
Why are Big Egos more common today compared with the past? In 1979, Christopher Lasch wrote The Culture of Narcissism . In 2009 Jean M. Twenge wrote The Narcissism Epidemic: Living in the Age of Entitlement. She traces the roots to the Baby Boomers in the 1960s, through the 1970s and 80s when Tom Wolfe noted that “good economic times lead to excesses of narcissism”. Followed by the Me Decade, the growth of self-interest, self-expression and self-admiration, along with materialism and child-centered parenting contributed to the growth of narcissism. The Wall Street Journal of April 2, 2011 described an experiment in social media that found a high percentage of self-promoting in British undergrads which correlated with “mild social deviance”. (Lies We Tell and What They Say About Us)
What should you do if you find yourself with a Big Ego at work? Well, here are several strategies:
- Constructive confrontation. Your Big Ego may not look at himself or see how his behavior is affecting you. You can approach Big Ego, describe his behavior and see how he responds. Confrontation can be diagnostic. If Big Ego takes your concerns seriously and works with you, the prognosis is promising. If he dismisses or trivializes or turns your concerns around, you know it’s a Big Ego.
- Talk to someone you trust for confidentiality and good advice. At BU, the Faculty Staff Assistance Office or the Office of the Ombuds are good places to start. Get some validation and advice for how to cope.
- Set limits. Don’t interact or work more than necessary with Big Ego. Limit your praise, support and expertise to the minimum.
- Don’t let him get under your skin. Practice emotional detachment, mindfulness or other cognitive behavioral strategies to protect yourself from renting too much space to him.
by Bonnie Teitleman