Ego is a dirty word

Ego IS a dirty word, fellas.

Skyhooks sang “ego is not a dirty word” but they were wrong.  For the young whipper-snappers out there, Skyhooks were a glam rock band in the seventies, pictured. Do they look like they know anything?

Talking to Michael Pollan about his new book on the therapeutic potential of psychedelics in mental health care, Stephen Colbert said “ego should be a controlled substance”.

Ego gets in the way a lot at work, and it’s something  people talk about without clear understanding of what it is. One definition is that aspect of the self that has the incessant need to see itself in a positive light (Scott Barry Kaufman).  Katie Spero says “The ego lives life through you by making you believe you are the ego.  That you are not safe, that your existence is precarious.  It makes you believe others’ perceptions of you, along with objects and thoughts, validate your being”.

Brené Brown calls it her ‘hustler’: “My ego says to me, ‘You have no inherent worth. You’ve got to hustle for it, baby. How fast you gonna run? How high you gonna jump? How many likes do you have on Facebook?”.  Both Brown and Eckhart Tolle talk about the ego being used as a shield: it’s the voice in our head telling us we are better than other people because we fear the opposite is true.

The ego likes to emphasize the “otherness” of others. This sense of separation is an intrinsic part of the ego. The ego loves to strengthen itself by complaining—either in thoughts or words—about other people, the situation you find yourself in, something that is happening right now but “shouldn’t be,” and even about yourself. For example, when you’re in a long line at the supermarket, your mind might start complaining how slow the checkout person is, how he should be doing this or doing that, or he failed to do anything at all—including packing the bag of the person ahead of you correctly.

When this happens, the ego has you in its grip. You don’t have thoughts; the thoughts have you—and if you want to be free, you have to understand that the voice in your head has created them and irritation and upset you feel is the emotional response to that voice. (Eckhart Tolle)

If there’s a voice in your head telling you this can’t be true, that’s probably your ego talking. We generally believe our emotions to be objective reactions to what’s going on around us, but neuroscience knows better: emotions are created in our brain in response to the stories we make up about what’s happening.

The good news is that means we have more control than we think. Michael Pollan talks about experiencing total ego dissolution under the influence of psychedelic drugs: we don’t have to go that far. But we can QUIET the ego: turn the volume of the ego down “so that it might listen to others as well as the self in an effort to approach life more humanely and compassionately.”

Mindfulness can help us recognise when we are in the grip of ego, and give us the tools to release its grip. Simple techniques like compassionate enquiry into your emotional reactions help us to get out of our fear brain, and put our cognition to work.

We often forgive arrogant or prideful people who have accomplished something for their ego, as though an inflated ego is part and parcel of success. This is not true: indeed, ego attachment prevents us achieving goals. We need to make ego a dirty word in the workplace, and expect people to learn to regulate their emotions and be constructive. Letting over-sized egos toxify the culture is bad for everyone.

Read more:

The pressing need for everyone to quiet their egos (Scientific American)

You aren’t at the mercy of your emotions, your brain creates them (Neuroscience and News Research)

Free yourself from your ego armor (


Why employers should promote calm

My passion for reducing stress in my workplace is partly selfish: I don’t want to work in a stressful environment because I want to protect my brain from damage.

Learning the damage stress does to the brain gave me great motivation to change my environment for myself, but I’ve also had a number colleagues go off on stress leave, including much younger colleagues who should be in the prime of their lives. I observe the toll stress is already taking on some of them, and I worry about how they’ll be at my age.  As a leader, I feel an obligation to take care of them, and from a pragmatic point of view, businesses cannot afford stress-related ill-health. But the work still needs to get done, right? And no employer can control for the stress their employees are experiencing outside work.

Most people understand that stress can lead to depression and anxiety, and that it causes ulcers and heart attacks, but the damage to the brain is much less discussed. The hormones the body releases to enable us to deal with stress are great in small doses, but when we are constantly ‘stressed’, it is harmful. It breaks down connections in the brain – hence symptoms like memory loss and brain fog – and if you’re stressed long enough, it will actually shrink your brain.

The system designed to help us flee a woolly mammoth from time to time is being deployed moment to moment in modern life, day after day. That’s what anxiety is: being in a state of constant stress, We’re simply not built to be running from a woolly mammoth day-in and day-out for months at a time. Having your stress response constantly triggered causes all sorts of health problems.

The good news is that the impact of stress can be reversed. The amazing plasticity of the brain means we can grow new neurons, and re-wire to heal the damage. Simple things like regular exercise, meditation and laughter help generate brain healing. But you can’t heal the brain while you are stressed.

Employers can help their employees reduce stress in a number of ways. Top of the list in my book is recognising that no one can perform at 100% all of the time. We need to plan for peak periods, plan for rest, help keep them in condition.

Practises to promote calm, and to promote ease and joy in the workplace can not only reduce stress, but will ultimately lead to greater productivity and creativity. People produce best when their synapses are firing all over the place, making new connections, opening up new horizons, not withdrawing to the amygdala for a siege. For employers to get the best out of their employees, they need to enable their employees’ to look after their brain health.


Read more about the impact of stress on the brain in Harvard Health

Read Seven ways to reverse the damage in Forbes

Read Tips for workplace behaviours to reduce work stress

Friday Thanks


I tend to do my gratitude practice at the end of the day, and I’ve structured it that way for the practice at work, but perhaps I’ve been going at it backwards.

The part is the Stress Less program that seems to have the least traction is the gratitude practice, especially the Friday Thanks. As I’ve said before here, it is the part of the program that is most exposing and requires the most vulnerability, so I understand the discomfit. To be honest, I feel the discomfit. It is awkward and counter to usual workplace culture and I feel self-conscious and worry that I am perceived as fake and.or a flake.

The reason I persist is that I also feel the benefit. I genuinely do feel more grateful and I believe I have more empathy for others, because I have developed more compassion for myself. What can I do to encourage people to give this a go?

Buddhist Thich Nhat Hanh talks about starting each day with gratitude:

“Waking up this morning, I smile. Twenty-four brand new hours are before me. I vow to live fully in each moment and to look at all beings with eyes of compassion.”

Gratitude for being alive can be a hard emotion to reach in the workplace, it requires an open-heart and we tend to have our defences up at work. Often for good reason. Gratitude practice might help change that culture but how can I persuade people to trust their colleagues in this way?

Are you listening?

From what I can gather, the key to mindful leadership is listening. As a talker, it’s a skill I’ve had to acquire, and the specific type of listening that makes for effective leadership is definitely one I am still working on. There’s a certain irony to the fact that we listen long before we learn to speak, but most of us are still pretty bad at it. Working in communications, you learn that people only remember a small amount of what they hear: as little as 10% and perhaps not more than 50%. I’ve spent years honing skills that enable me to manage what people remember from a talk I am giving, but I am slightly embarrassed to admit that I’ve spent very little time until fairly recently on worrying about how much I am taking in when I am listening.

Still, in the workplace, most people are reasonably skilled at the basics of active listening. They know to make eye contact, to nod and otherwise signal their attention, even to remove distractions like other sources of noise, and to pause before responding. The trouble is, too often we are only listening to find fault or to get our turn to speak. Most people listen with the intent to reply Stephen Covey quote

Now, I have known about this for years, it’s my job to understand communications but it was only when I learned about mindfulness that I fully understood what it means to truly listen to someone. I’ve often joked that there is no hope for world peace because after more than 2 decades together and with great goodwill my partner and I still struggle to communicate. Often when we argue (and we argue often, about everything: we are both from families in which arguing is a sport) he complains I am ‘defending a position’. This has always baffled me, as in my mind I was merely clarifying my position: correcting his misperceptions about my argument so he can counter correctly.

I was concerned with being heard, not hearing. During my treatment I took to listening to audiobooks on mindfulness. In The Art of Communicating,, Thic Nhat Hanh could not have been more plain: when you listen to someone, you focus entirely on them, and on what they are saying. If they have ‘wrong perceptions’, he says, you do not correct them. I realised my partner is right (dammit!) I am being defensive.

I listen very attentively to what he says – to find fault. In what he says, how he says it, facts, exaggerations…all lots of fun if we are having a sporting argument about something inconsequential maybe, but pretty unhelpful when we are discussing something important. This little video from Brené Brown explains it perfectly.

Link to short video about defensiveness

I realise we do this in the workplace all the time. We are wired for defensiveness, and the workplace involves constant judgement. It’s only natural we engage in defensive behaviours, but it’s as unhelpful at work as it is at home.

The point of the ‘pause before responding’ technique in listening is to actually digest what the speaker is saying. The art of mindful listening is to give your full attention to someone as they are speaking, to suppress any emotional reaction you have to the content of their speech, and to consider your response before speaking. That middle bit is the tricky part: if someone says something that you perceive as a threat, your brain and body going into full self-defend mode, pumping adrenalin and speeding up your heart. It’s hard to keep calm in the face of a threat.

The secret, I am reliably informed, is to focus on your breath. From Buddhist tradition and modern leadership practice the advice is the same. Pay attention with intention to the speaker, and regulate your own emotions by controlling your breathing. Take a few long breaths before responding to allow your cognitive brain to get back in control.

By practicing Mindful Mondays and Daily Breath I hope my team and I are developing the muscles that will allow us to be better listeners, and that in turn will improve the quality of our communications, and the overall mood.

One great tip is a variation of the Golden Rule: Listen as passionately to others as you would be heard. If you’ve ever bounded in with news only to have your audience wander off while you are talking or interrupt you with a question, or look at their phone while you’re speaking, you’ll know how crushing inattention can be. A simple way to make others around you feel valued is to treat them the way you want to be treated: stop all other activities, let them finish speaking, be interested in them and what they are saying.

Not saying I am good at it, but I am giving it a go!

Understanding emotional intelligence

For me, the learning process that led me here started on leadership program where we looked at emotional intelligence, about 4 years ago now. I’d heard of it, and on the basis of my vague understanding, thought that I was pretty good at it. I can read others’ emotions well, and in many scenarios I can use my insights into others’ emotions to inform my response to them. What the course taught me is that I was wrong, both in my understanding, and in my assessment of my own abilities!

Emotional intelligence is better understood as the ability to recognise and regulate your own emotions, and the emotions of others. Daniel Goleman, one of the leading researchers on the topic, says it has 4 dimensions: self awareness, self management, social awareness and relationship management. He’s found that high EQ is a greater predictor of success than high IQ.

We’re generally not socialised to think to much about emotions, and in the workplace they are often regarded as a Bad Thing. Calling someone “emotional” is usually derogatory, and there’s a gender bias that comes along with that: a man who vents anger in the workplace will suffer fewer consequences than a woman, even though both may have lost emotional control. As a result, we tend not to talk about emotions at work…which some researchers believe enables sociopaths to gain power. And, because emotion has this negative perception in the workplace, we can even feel negative emotions like shame and guilt about the fact we are having emotional reactions. Anyone who has ever cried at work will know the awful cocktail of emotions that leaves you with. But if we pretend emotions aren’t affecting us, we’re kidding ourselves. All day, very day, we are responding emotionally to what is happening around us, even if we’ve numbed ourselves to our own reactions.

Brené Brown, another researcher who looks at the role of emotional intelligence, discovered that we need to be able to recognise at least 30 emotions. She also found that most adults can only identify three: angry, happy, sad. I don’t mean just listing words for emotions: we can all do that. I mean recognising how they affect you mentally and physiologically.

How many of these can you recognise in yourself? 

The first step to cultivating emotional intelligence is developing self-awareness around your emotions, and that means spending time alone with them. It means taking time to breathe when your body is reacting to a stressor, and being curious about what is happening, and digging beneath the surface to understand what’s really going on. Speaking from personal experience, it can be deeply uncomfortable!

Harnessing positive emotions is just as important as managing negative ones: that’s what enables high performance. To really succeed at work, and elsewhere, we need to develop our EQ, along with our other skills. And we start that process by using mindful breathing practice like the Daily Breath to start investigating and understanding our own emotional reactions.



Practice, practice, practice

At the core of the Stress Less Take 5 is the concept of ‘practice’*.

I used to misunderstand the word: I thought it meant ‘do something you are bad at until you are good at it’. That’s one meaning, or at least part of one, but the other meanings are equally important.

Another meaning of the noun is ‘the application of an idea or method, as opposed to theories’. Too often in workplaces we talk about positive team culture, about listening better, using email less etc etc but then we go back to our desks and fall back into the same routines. It was important to me that we apply the ideas, not just talk about them.

Another meaning relates to habit: noun ‘the customary, habitual, or expected procedure or way of doing of something’ and verb ‘carry out or perform (a particular activity, method, or custom) habitually or regularly’. what we call ‘team culture’ is really a collection of habits…many of which are informal or unwritten. To really impact a team culture, managers need to be conscious of what habits the team have developed, and steer them towards habits that will generate the desired culture. If you say you want people to manage work/life balance but enable a culture where people are expected to respond to emails any time of the day or night, you’re never going to get the team culture you want.

I set the pilot at 3 months in the hope that time will help people can get past the initial awkwardness, and allow them to feel some benefits of practising behaviours that are known to reduce stress and improve well-being. I’m conscious that it took me longer than that to grasp some of these ideas and put them into action though.

I hope to build on the gratitude practice over time to encourage reflective practice that is more nuanced. Reflection can be a luxury in a modern office: we are very busy learning new technologies, juggling competing priorities and ‘doing more with less’, so we leap from task to task, ever forward, never a backward glance…which means the same issues arise, again and again, because we’ve failed to learn along the way.


*For the purposes of this post I’m going to use the US form, where noun and verb are spelled the same.

Friday Thanks

Possibly the most challenging item on the Stress Less Take 5.

On Fridays, rather than internal reflection of gratitude, I am encouraging people to write or speak to their line manager to tell them what they are grateful for in the week past. By Friday, they will have 4 days of Daily Gratitude recorded somewhere, so content should take no time at all. Again, I specifically instruct them to be grateful for something they’ve achieved.

I adapted this from a popular lifehack that advises you to email your boss every Friday to tell him or her what you accomplished that week. Part of the logic of the original is that no matter how attentive your boss is, they only see part of your performance: this is very true. It will benefit all team members for the line manager to have clearer picture of what’s going on. I’m convinced it will also counter negativity: no one is immune to the warmth you feel on hearing good news. If members of the team are in the habit of sharing with one another what they are grateful for, and acknowledging each other for their contributions, I believe they will approach each other more kindly when the pressure is on.

This task is challenging in a couple of ways:

  • it’s not ‘normal’ workplace behaviour
  • everyone hates commenting on their own performance
  • there’s a certain amount of emotional vulnerability required
  • many people struggle to see their boss as whole person.

The last two make the argument for doing this. We can’t compartmentalise ourselves: we bring our whole selves to the workplace, then try to be pretend we only bring our brains, and the bit of our bodies necessary for doing our job.

To help people along, I share what I send to my boss with the participants. One of my direct reports is doing it, and at least one other person is doing it too. Can we make it catch on?