Balance of interests


A sense of self-worth keeps one going, an inflated 'I' becomes an obstruction. Now, no ego isn't good either

  • "If the only way the most productive can be successful is by suppressing the productivity of the rest, then we badly need to find a better way to work and a richer way to live" - Margaret Heffernan, chief executive turned writer

  • Kevin Pietersen’s admirers argued that a decent coach should have been able to harness his ego in the service of the team’s objectives.

  • "Women in particular can take the ideal of empathy and collaboration too far and should learn to be more self-obsessed" - Sheryl Sandberg, chief operating officer of Facebook

Ego—defined as “one’s sense of self-worth or importance”—is the subject of a new book by Steven Sylvester, a cricketer turned psychologist. He argues that inflated egos are getting in the way of our objectives. People who compete to bolster their sense of self-worth, who narrowly focus on their own interests, experience more stress, failure and frustration, he says.

However, he suggests that stress can be reduced, and our talents liberated, if we work towards bigger ideals such as family, country or moral purpose. “When we think about ‘me, me, me’ we tend to get nervous and to worry about what could go wrong,” he says. “But when we play for others, when the focus is outwards rather than inwards, we become more creative and ultimately more effective. We have to get our egos out of the way.”

37MargaretHeffernan Margaret Heffernan

Sylvester’s interest in psychology came from his experience of playing county cricket in the 1990s. His form was never consistent. He struggled with nerves. He belatedly realised that he was putting too much pressure on himself because he wanted to be the main man. Only when he learnt to turn his focus away from his ego did he discover a deeper joy in the game.

Sylvester doesn’t mention it but this tallies with the work of William Muir, a biologist at Purdue University in Indiana who wanted to increase the productivity of chickens, as measured by eggs laid. He took a group of ordinary chickens and left them alone for six generations. When he came back, he found that they were fully feathered, behaving normally and producing lots of eggs.

Then he took a group of the most productive chickens and put them together and in each generation allowed only the most productive to breed. This was a group of what might be called “super chickens”. After six generations of selective breeding, however, things had gone terribly wrong. All but three were dead. The rest had been pecked to smithereens.

Margaret Heffernan, a chief executive turned writer, who has popularised Muir’s work, says that the problem here is the chicken equivalent of ego. The super chickens want to rise above the rest. They want to be the star performers. They are driven by their aims and interests. But that is why they are not able to collaborate, to share, to coexist.

38KevinPietersen Kevin Pietersen

“For the past 50 years we have run most organisations along the super-chicken model,” Heffernan says. “If the only way the most productive can be successful is by suppressing the productivity of the rest, then we badly need to find a better way to work and a richer way to live.”

The interesting thing about this perspective is that it attacks the basic model that most of us operate with. Most of us crave additional self-worth. We want to be more assertive and to have sharper elbows. Yet the problem with building bigger egos is not just that it can have bad effects on those around you, it can also undermine your own objectives. It may sound idealistic but, according to this vision, it is only by connecting with others that we can achieve our goals.

Greg Walton, a psychologist at Stanford University, has taken this analysis to an intriguing destination. In one experiment, he took a group of maths undergraduates at Yale and gave them a test. Before taking the test, the students were asked to read a profile of a former Yale maths student called Nathan Jackson. In fact, Jackson was fictional and the profile had been written by Walton but the students didn’t know that.

In the profile, the students read that Jackson became interested in maths as a youngster and now had a teaching post at a university. In the middle was a bit of biographical information about Jackson, including his age, home town and birthday. But here’s the twist: for half the students Jackson’s birthday was altered to match that of each student; for the other half it wasn’t.

“We wanted to see whether something as arbitrary as having a shared birthday with someone who was good at maths would ignite a motivational response,” Walton said.

To Walton’s astonishment, the “matched” students persevered a full 65 per cent longer than those in the non-matched group. They also reported more positive attitudes towards maths and greater optimism about their abilities. “They were in a room by themselves taking the test,” Walton later said. “The door was shut; they were socially isolated; and yet [the birthday connection] had meaning for them. They weren’t alone. The love and interest in maths became a part of them.... Suddenly, it was us doing this, not just me.”


When people are working for themselves and are focused on their ego they are liable to run out of steam, particularly if the problem is difficult, but when they feel connected to others, they find new reservoirs of inspiration. And if this motivational effect is so strong when the connection is arbitrary (a shared birthday), think how much more powerful it would be when the connection is a shared country (patriotism), group (tribalism) or set of values.

Is ego always such a bad thing? Can it not have positive effects, too? Sheryl Sandberg, the chief operating officer of Facebook, argues that women in particular can take the ideal of empathy and collaboration too far and should learn to be more self-obsessed. At a talk to an all-female group of employees of a city institution, she asked her audience to raise their hand if they aspired to be chief executive. No arms went up. The women didn’t want to appear grasping or egotistical. But Sandberg’s point had been made. “If I had asked that question of men in this company, every single hand would have been raised,” she said.


Sandberg’s thesis is not just that men tend to have bigger egos (which they do), it is also that because men have bigger egos they put themselves forward for opportunities that women might typically shrink from. This, in turn, gives men an opportunity to stretch their limits, learn new things and build fresh confidence. Little wonder that, a few years down the line, it is the men whose egos have grown ever more robust while the women are still shrinking in the background.

Sport has long grappled with the issue of ego. The debate over Kevin Pietersen was effectively about whether a “super chicken” could be accommodated within the England team. Management apparently felt that his narcissistic attitude was corroding the team ethic, which Pietersen denies. Pietersen’s admirers argued that a decent coach should have been able to harness his ego in the service of the team’s objectives. The debate continues but, having heard stories of his disruptiveness, I find myself sympathising with the management.

Ultimately, it is about balance. What Sylvester and Walton are reacting against is the egocentric attitude that became so dominant, particularly in the city, over the past 30 years. The paradigm was one of ferocious internal competition, a kind of Darwinian free-for-all in suits. Large egos were encouraged by management under the premise that the best would rise to the top. This undoubtedly contributed to the scale of the collapse in 2008.

Yet, as with any reaction, there is always a danger of taking things too far. I know of at least one company that doesn’t conduct performance reviews for individuals but only for teams. While this may sound wonderfully collegiate, one suspects that they are undermining the fizz and thrust that can emerge from internal competition. To go back to the terminology of Sylvester, it may indeed be a good idea to detox one’s ego from time to time, but all of us wish to shine once in a while, even at the expense of our friends and colleagues.

After all, isn’t that a part of what it means to be human, too?

Five ways to get over yourself:
* Try to win not just for yourself, but for others, too.
* Respond positively to failure, working out what you can learn rather than covering up mistakes.
* Think of your work not exclusively in terms of monetary reward, but also in terms of purpose and meaning.
* Don’t always focus on what you contribute to a team effort, but also recognise what others contribute.
* Think about your connections with others rather than focusing on your differences.

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