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Ducks in a Row: Avoiding Ego-merge

by Miki Saxon


Sunday I quoted Colin Powell on this subject and it reminded me of this article. I don’t remember where it was originally used, but it dates back to the dot-bomb recession.

It’s “And” Not “Because”

Last week I attended a quasi-social business function and found myself in conversation with a very knowledgeable and polished executive. When I asked him what he did he said, “I’m not working, I’m looking for my next opportunity.” His answer floored me and I asked again. His initial reaction was to repeat himself, assuming that I hadn’t heard him (it was noisy), but my continued look of inquiry finally brought a second answer, “I’m a CFO.”

It’s sad enough that people choose to define themselves based upon how they earn a living, and very bad when, as in the conversation mentioned above, employment becomes the career validation without which the career ceases to exist. However it’s much worse when people take another step and subconsciously merge their identity with that of their company—I call it ego-merge.

I coined the term in the eighties to describe a state of mind that is not only unhealthy for individuals, but also damaging to the companies for which they work.

Ego-merge is the result of melding “me” and “my company” in the mind of the employee, whether worker or manager. It’s most obvious in tough times and most noticeable in conversation when people use “because” instead of “and,” thereby crediting the company or manager for their skills: “I’m great because my company/manager is great.” instead of, “I’m great and my company/manager is great.”

At first glance ego-merge might actually seem to be a positive for companies, but it’s not. When employees’ egos merge with their company’s, they often blame themselves for the company’s problems even when they have little power and may not have any line responsibility. Worse, it can be a major productivity sapper when times are tough—employees with ego-merge have a difficult time believing that they are good enough to help turn the company around, since in their minds their skills are good because of the company.

Ego-merge is often the by-product of the best companies/managers, where people are very involved, have high esprit de corps, and are passionate about their mission and success. It also happens with more Machiavellian managers who try and foster this attitude within their organization as a retention tool. Ego-merge does, in fact, encourage people to stay, but it also cripples them and reduces their long term value to the company.

It’s every company’s/manager’s responsibility to help their people grow and become stronger, not to subtly cripple them in the hopes that they won’t leave. Better, it’s in both the manager’s and the company’s best interest to become people-builders.

Why? Because reputation, both the manager’s and the company’s, is everything when hiring, and being known for your great G&S (grow and strengthen) policies will help you attract, develop and keep the best and brightest. Sure, you’ll lose them now and then when they’re ready for the next challenge and you can’t provide it, but the benefits resulting from their ultra-high productivity and creativeness during the time they’re with you will far outweigh the loss when they do leave.

How? Through some simple actions. G&S isn’t rocket science, nor does it have to be costly.

  1. Treat everyone on your team and in your company with the same level of respect you want.
  2. Listen to your people. Encourage and assist them as much as possible in developing the skills they need to take their next step—even when it makes your life a bit more difficult.
  3. Always remind them that for all their successes, challenges, and failures it’s “and” not “because.”

But what if you’re a manager pushing G&S down while your own manager is either blind to it or the type who sees ego-merge as a plus? What can you do as just a worker with no control or leverage?

Awareness is the best protection against ego-merge. Recognize that it exists, understand what it is, know its symptoms and whether you’re prone to it, then monitor yourself, always remembering that the opposite of ego-merge is not arrogance.

  1. Post a watch for the first symptom of ego-merge: when your glow of accomplishment for an exemplary project you did is quickly quenched by negative internal news or media coverage. The greater the offset the greater the ego-merge.
  2. Listen to yourself. When describing a project (successful or not) or coup (large or small), listen to how you describe it and where and how you attribute its success or failure. Adjust accordingly.
  3. Offset and reduce ego-merge in others by publicly giving full credit to those around you at all levels up and down for their contributions.

Flickr photo credit to: Svadilfari on flickr

2 Responses to “Ducks in a Row: Avoiding Ego-merge”
  1. Peter GluckNo Gravatar Says:

    Dear Mike,

    I am an admirer of you nad your writings. Have translated many of them in my newsletter Info Kappa (in Romanian)
    EGO-MERGE inspires me to ask you to think about “EGO-OUT”
    a word/concept created by me. And perhaps if you like it, to write some mini-essay. You can find it on the Web.
    For an old man like me, reducing my ego-out is an essential
    human duty,

    Best wishes

  2. Miki SaxonNo Gravatar Says:

    Hi Peter, I’ll be happy to write on your ego-out suggestion for this Friday; I hope you appreciate my take on it.

    I also want to tell you that I am honored that you like my thoughts/writing enough to translate it. That is too cool!

    Thanks for the great ego boost:)

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