Given the confusion and stress that employees, colleagues, leadership, and ourselves are likely to feel (for ourselves and others at work—everywhere!), we need to be especially aware of the right balance of uncertainty surrounding us right now. .
Why do I write about ego and why should any of us in business care about it?
To understand the impact of our own ego at work, first get a working definition of what ego is. Oxford Languages defines the ego as, among other things, ‘the part of the mind responsible for the examination of reality’.
So, what does reality testing look like on the ground? How do we implement reality testing at work for ourselves?
Our internal rule book
By the rule book. Our own internal rule book. A set of personal rules we each keep in our heads for how we interact with the world, including work.
Everyone has their own internal rule book. It’s your job to ensure that your internal rule book continues to support and serve the interests of everyone, including your stakeholders, your colleagues, your team, your company, and yourself at work.
We all have this inner rule book for all parts of our lives. So, our internal rulebook spans our waking moments, including work.
Almost from birth we acquire, adopt, and develop our own rules, which guide what we expect and thereby impose on others and ourselves as a way of determining what will happen—that is, we are reality testing.
For example, if you pay a baker for a bread roll, the general rules you expect to receive a bread roll are learned through experience. If they don’t hand over a bread roll, you start a reality check. In this example, when the baker does not deliver the bread roll as expected (the rule about exchange) you can immediately test the situation by asking ‘Did I hand the baker the money’ or ‘Did he hear my order’? Right?’
You’ll see how the rule book works—it’s testing what you expect. After handing over the money you expect a bread roll (a rule about exchange), yet the baker does not hand over a bread roll. So, you try to make sense of what happened by explaining what your rule ‘should have been’. You can call this sort of rule a ‘standard rule’ because most people follow it. In this scenario, the conversion rule is a standard rule because it is widely followed and understood.
So, applying the rule book to work, if you delegate to someone and they don’t meet your expectations… this is where things get interesting. Remember that our internal rulebook guides our expectations.
Your rule book is active in your subconscious 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, whether you’re at work or not, whether you’re aware of it all the time. Application of our rules often occurs on ‘autopilot’. Remembering how you apply your rules increases the likelihood of successful interactions and activities at work and in general.
Because being mindful means that you are in the moment, alive, and that you are adjusting to the actual, live situation and interaction or person in that moment. Rather than applying the rule when it first occurs to you.
Remember, right now, people are stressed for reasons other than immediate interaction with you. So make sure your regime is the best fit for the situation and the people at this time.
This mindful assessment of your rule’s ‘best fit’ at this point will lead to better, healthier, more successful interactions, and the more you can do it.
Remember: A negative emotion you feel during the day at work, with others, or during an activity you’re doing—eg, reading work email, for example (anger, frustration, irritation)—is a good indicator of someone or something. One of your rules is overridden.
It’s a split-second opportunity to catch how you’re feeling, and then recognize that it’s because of a rule you’re playing. You have an immediate opportunity to do something different from how you ‘normally’ react.
This will lead to a different (and possibly) better outcome for you and the person or situation.
Let’s continue with the mentioned example of delegating work to someone. In this second example scenario of delegating someone with a more complex task than the simple transaction of buying a bread roll, you have more options—not obvious?
It may seem less clear that you and your delegate simply don’t have standard rules (ie, widely followed and understood expectations). We all have non-standard or personal internal rules as well. In other words, everyone has a set of standard rules that are widely followed and understood by others, and non-standard rules about which expectations vary between people.
It’s also worth thinking about how you apply your rulebook in difficult work situations, such as distressed projects and teams (see “A 6-point checklist for taking over a ‘distressed’ project or team” for more information on this).
Let’s say in our delegation example that you keep your co-worker in the communication loop on the progress of a task you’ve assigned. Let’s say she doesn’t copy you in an update email and you find out from a colleague instead how things are going.
This is the second time you find out indirectly, not directly from the person you entrusted. Do you apply the rule that says this co-worker is not to be trusted or is lazy or thoughtless? Or your rule may interpret their behavior instead as your colleague intentionally leaving you out of the loop.
What if her behavior that leaves you out of the update email is actually overworked and doing her best and sometimes slips because of how busy she is?
Make your choice how you react in this scenario.
Your response is driven by your inner rule about what you expect—in this case, what you expect when you delegate a task to someone. So, when your expectation isn’t met, your internal rule book kicks in (to the reality test) and responds by judging the situation (and the person).
Remember that our rule book is built over time and evolves through observation, our own experiences, as well as our beliefs—a topic for another (many!) blog series.
The extent to which you check, question, and validate your own internal rules that you use and apply to a specific situation, such as the example above, can affect your attitude and behavior toward this person as well as similar scenarios in the future.
The last word
I haven’t mentioned ego throughout this blog, and yet we’re just getting started. We can spend much more than my 1200-word limit allows. So instead, I focused on a practical example that runs through our ego-internal rule book.
At its most basic, our internal rule book exists to protect us and to determine what happens around us at work (and beyond) and to reassure us that we are in control when we act.
Especially in today’s uncertain work environment, it’s important to do what you can to ensure that the application of your rule book (ie, in situations with stakeholders such as colleagues, employees, or leadership) is balanced and passionate. Possible, no matter what’s going on for you and your stress levels. It’s not easy for me to ask—but I know you can do it!
The tips I’ve provided will help you identify and understand your own internal rule book, especially the one you apply at work and ensure it’s helpful rather than driving unhelpful behaviors that can make things worse for you and those around you. .
Remember that the ultimate goal of our internal rules is to help, not hinder.
I’d love to hear about your internal rule books and how you regularly review your rules to make sure they’re serving you or that they continue to support you.