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Effective, Successful, Happy Academic

Why your stealth ego is your worst enemy, and what to do about it

Your ego makes you too certain about everything – but this is most harmful when least obvious.

BY ALEXANDER CLARK & BAILEY SOUSA | APR 13 2022

We all know colleagues with way too much ego. The person bragging to junior faculty about their H-index. Who label themselves “the” leader. Who fabricates their own fancier job title. Who looks down on anyone without a PhD. Whose very pores bristle with indignation at any criticism. No one ever wants to be that person.

Your ego, according to author of Sh#t Your Ego Says, James McCrae, is your reactive attached mind: it is personal, pre-emptive, all knowing, and enmeshed in your perception and judgement. For good or bad, your ego always puts you at the centre.

There are good and understandable elements of ego in academia. Without a sense that we each can make a difference to students or our field, few of us would be in our current careers or seek to make a difference. Moreover, who doesn’t love the glow of recognition flowing from a thoughtful compliment or prominent award?

Yet, it’s far easier to recognize the damage wrought by others’ egos than the harms of your own ego. The ego, as author Ryan Holiday cautions, is often the enemy.

Indeed, one of the ego’s most meddlesome characteristics is the less we recognize it being at play in situations, the more power it has. And the more corrosive it can be. We call this: the stealth ego. It’s when your ego is everywhere and nowhere in a situation — hidden in plain sight.

When stealthy, your ego pulls the trick of signaling with total certainty that it is not and never about you, but actually and always about something or someone else. Other people, the work, or the workplace. Indeed, the four most common manifestations of the stealth ego in most academic workplaces are superficially different, but deeply the same:

‘Us versus Them’

In which “we” cast ourselves as wholesome and correct, whilst “they” are misplaced and wrong. Whether around peers, students, or administration, this usually invokes many moral imperatives, more than a dash of dichotomous polarizations, and a lack of empathetic effort to perspective-take. The stealth ego suffocates your capacity to listen with curiosity and paints an overly simplistic, often inaccurate, and certainly very partial picture of what is really going on. We stay grounded in the certitude and merits of our own rightness.

‘They have it in for me’

We have all been maligned, passed-over, or even harassed by other people in academia — sometimes repeatedly. However, when we tell ourselves that other people are obsessed with hurting us, we overestimate the time others spend scheming about us and imbue them with more power over us than we should. Our stealth ego fosters feelings of self-pity and even paranoia because everything is about “us” — we paint ourselves into the centre of the world as “taking the fall” in situations which likely are not about us at all.

‘I must be perfect’

While we believe almost everyone comes to work to do well, many of us seek perfection. We cut ourselves up when initiatives or projects do not immediately soar. We feel shame when bad things happen, let alone about our own mistakes. But, paradoxically, perfectionism is about the stealth ego too. In making us appear enough in the eyes of others, the stealth ego tells us situations are all about our own high standards — but it’s actually about masking our vulnerability and precarious self-esteem.

‘There’s nothing I can do’

Perhaps the most destructive of all. In academic settings, we have more autonomy over our work than other professional groups. Yet, faced with work challenges, demands, and expectations, we lament that things can only be better if external factors change. We conclude to ourselves and others that there’s nothing we can do to improve — and cast the work or workplace as the only problem. Our capacity to learn is non-existent. The stealth ego fosters passivity by removing any sense we contributed to any of the past or ongoing work difficulties, and denies us any capacity to improve.

And geez doesn’t our stealth ego imprison us with an endless circle of confirmatory thoughts and emotions. Our ego, as author Ryan Holiday reminds, renounces feedback, learning, relationships, and wise reflection — while allowing your biases to flourish. The stealth ego vindicates us but simultaneously leaves us both harmed yet oblivious to its enduring presence and damage. So, with this realization, what can academics do to tame our stealth ego?

1. Reframe certainty as a red flag

A sense of certainty — whether intellectual, emotional, or physical — should raise the red flag of the stealth ego. Next time you feel absolute and total in your rightness, step back, and recognize your ego is at play. Check yourself and your ego. Remember, virtually everyone in a situation is also thinking they are right. Try not to see situations about you being right but others wrong, and recognize that while your ego may be certain, the world seldom is.

2. Get and stay curious, repeat

Once that red flag is up: get curious. Deliberately hold back. Ask more questions. Seek and explore a different premise and consider where a different perspective could take you. What story are others telling themselves? What story are you telling yourself? How are you showing up in this situation in others’ eyes? After getting curious: repeat, because your stealth ego is hard-wired to scream you were “right all along.” Even if it’s small, crystallize what new things you learned to challenge your ego and remember for the future: while certainty constitutes an ego warning — learning almost always brings a new, more helpful dawning.

3. Develop emotional literacy with an ego-lens

In so many situations, the self is both the problem and the solution. Don’t seek to extinguish your ego from situations, but instead force your stealth ego into your awareness and analysis. By folding ego deliberately into perceptions and explanations of ourselves, others, and situations, we develop higher emotional literacy to see what is really at play. How our ego is blurring our thoughts, emotions, and sensations. Recognizing when and how our ego is at play is a vital step to not only moving beyond it but also harnessing its potential contribution to make a positive difference.

Finished reading now? Reassuring yourself, in the quiet of your silence, thinking this will be more useful for “them” rather than you? Know this: that is your stealth ego talking.

ABOUT ALEXANDER CLARK & BAILEY SOUSA
Alexander Clark & Bailey Sousa
Alex is the dean of health disciplines at Athabasca University. Bailey is on secondment to the ministry of advanced education for the government of Alberta, from the University of Alberta. They are both founders of The Effective, Successful, Happy Academic, and the authors of "How to Be a Happy Academic" (Sage: London, 2018), they share a passion for effectiveness and aspiration in academic work.
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  1. Jon Driver / April 27, 2022 at 15:42

    I don’t often submit comments, but I have to say there is a lot of wisdom here. I have 40 years experience as faculty member, Senator, faculty association president, dean and provost. In my experience we get things done when we check our egos at the door, listen to each other, and try to understand and accommodate other peoples’ interests and points of view. It’s hard to do this when we characterize differences (in experience, responsibilities, ideology, age, ambitions, priorities, field of study etc) in simplistic “us/them” language. I’ve seen this done by senior administrators, union executive members, faculty senators, deeply divided academic units, and student leaders – none of us are immune from this unproductive practice. It also deeply concerns me that individuals who try to find common ground and a workable way forward are vilified by their colleagues. Most of us worry about the growing trend towards us/them politics and the dangers of extremism — but we need to examine how we behave towards each other in our own institutions.