Fear, Ego, and Control

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NaBloPoMo 2018:  What I’m Learning

In this post I will attempt to describe some exciting connections between readings from the Harvard Business Review, Dr. Anthony Suchman and colleagues, and Carol Dweck.

An HBR article landed in my inbox this week, catching my inner Imposter’s attention.  The title, “Ego is the Enemy of Good Leadership,” triggered my ‘Is that me?’ reflex.  Because much of the time, I think I’m a pretty good leader (“I’m awesome”).  But I’m forever fearful that my ego will get the best of me and make me exactly the kind of leader I loathe (“I suck”).  I saved the article to read later.

Meanwhile, I continued to Chapter 3 of Leading Change in Healthcare: Authentic, Affirmative, and Courageous Presence.  Basically this chapter deals with earning and building trust.  Chapter subsections include self-awareness, reflection, emotional self-management, clarifying one’s core beliefs, and accepting oneself and others.  In the part on core beliefs, the authors reference Dr. Suchman’s 2006 paper, “Control and relation: two foundational values and their consequences.”  In it, he differentiates between these two ‘foundational world views’:

Control

The beliefs, thoughts and behaviors of the control paradigm are organized around a single core value: that the ultimate state to which one can aspire is one of perfect willfulness and predictability. What one desires happens, with no surprises; all outcomes are intended. For the clinician, the control paradigm is expressed in the questions, ‘‘What do I want to happen here?’’ and ‘‘What’s wrong and how do I fix it?’’  Personal success or failure is judged by the clinical outcome, the extent to which one’s intended outcome was realized.

Relation

In the relation paradigm, the most valued state to which one aspires is one of connection and belonging. In this state, one has a feeling of being part of a larger whole – a team, a learning group, a dance troupe, a community, even the world itself. One’s individual actions seem spontaneously integrated with those of others to a remarkable degree, contributing to the evolution of a higher order process, i.e. one at a higher system level than that of the individuals of which it is comprised…  One asks the question, ‘‘What’s trying to happen here?’’ and, according to one’s best approximation of an answer, seeks to shape others and the world while also remaining open to being shaped oneself. This balance between control and receptivity puts one in the best possible position to recognize and make use of serendipitous events.

In Leading Change the authors write about control, “…This is a fear-based paradigm in which one trusts oneself more than others and holds tightly to power…  It predisposes leaders toward dominance, distracts them from cultivating relationships and leads them to set unrealistic expectations of control.”  And about relation, “This is a trust-based paradigm, anchored in the belief that the sources of order, goodness and meaning lie beyond one’s own creation…  It predisposes leaders to do their best in partnership with others, to attend to the process of relating and to personal experience (their own and others’) and to remain open to possibility.”

When I finally read the HBR article, the message about ego reflected the control paradigm:

Because our ego craves positive attention… when we’re a victim of our own need to be seen as great, we end up being led into making decisions that may be detrimental to ourselves, our people, and our organization.

When we believe we’re the sole architects of our success, we tend to be ruder, more selfish, and more likely to interrupt others. This is especially true in the face of setbacks and criticism. In this way, an inflated ego prevents us from learning from our mistakes and creates a defensive wall that makes it difficult to appreciate the rich lessons we glean from failure.

The ego always looks for information that confirms what it wants to believe [confirmation bias].  Because of this, we lose perspective and end up in a leadership bubble where we only see and hear what we want to. As a result, we lose touch with the people we lead, the culture we are a part of, and ultimately our clients and stakeholders.

Going to bed last night, I wondered, “Is Fear actually driving when we see Ego I charge?”  I think the answer is undoubtedly yes, but it’s more complex than that.  It’s not a fear that we feel consciously, or that we are even aware of.  It’s not sweaty palm, palpitative, panic attack fear.  Rather it’s a deep, visceral, existential fear—of being found out, of not being enough—akin to imposter syndrome, if not exactly that.  Control, Fear, Ego—they all seem lump-able with/in the Fixed mindset, as described by Carol Dweck.  The simplest example of this mindset is when we tell kids how smart they are, they then develop a need to appear smart, lest they lose their identifying label.  So they stop taking risks, trying new things, risking failure.  Their experiences narrow as they, often inadvertently, learn that control of outcome and outward appearance of competence is the primary objective of any endeavor.

Back in August I listened to Dweck’s book, having heard about it and already embraced its theory in the last few years.  I had already started making the connection between fear and fixed mindset, but this day I saw a sudden, reciprocal relationship between fixed mindset, confirmation bias, and imposter syndrome.  I love when these lightning bolt moments happen—I was in my car on the way to work, and this triad came to me.  As soon as I parked and turned off the car engine I tore into my bag for the journal I carry with me everywhere and scrawled the diagram as fast as I could.  It was as if the idea would evaporate if I didn’t get it down in ink.  Later I added the comparison to Growth mindset—holding space for learning, integration, and possibility.  I held it in mind for a while, and then forgot it (which is okay—that’s why I wrote it down!).  Then today, putting together this post in my head, I remembered it with excitement.

8-31 triad update

The point of it all is that we are at our best, both individually and as groups, when we are in right relationship with ourselves and one another.  It all starts with relationship with self.  If I live in fear of being found out as flawed or imperfect, then I project that fear onto others.  I act out in an effort to control how others perceive me—when in reality I have no control over that whatsoever.  The negative perception of my ‘Ego’ by others then provokes myriad responses including fear, insecurity, false deference, resentment, disloyalty, and subversion, and the team falls into disarray.  If, on the other hand, I cultivate self-love and connection with others, I never feel that I am going it alone.  I am an integral member of a high-functioning, mutually respectful team, one in which I can admit my weaknesses and maximize my strengths.  We all feel confident that we can handle whatever adversity comes our way, and we rise to each and every occasion.

I’m still putting it all together, working out how it translates into daily behaviors, actions, and decisions.  For now I’m definitely paying closer attention to my feelings, especially in conflict, and taking a lot more deep breaths before speaking or replying to triggering emails.  I ask a lot more clarifying questions.  I try to make the most generous assumptions about people’s intentions, and remember always that we are on the same team—Team Humanity.

More learning happening around the clock, I say!  Hoping to articulate better in the sharing hereafter…

What do you think about all of this, does it make any sense at all??

2 thoughts on “Fear, Ego, and Control

  1. It makes a great deal of sense, whether one is a leader or coworker or in some non-work-related role. You have once again given me something to think about, something that could make a profound difference if I’m able and willing to apply it.

    Liked by 1 person

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