Ego and Low Morale

Negative self-talk plays a large role in the cognitive impact of low-morale experiences. Within all of my low-morale research projects, respondents shared  inner-mind tapes of perfectionism (read: shame) or imposter syndrome (read; reduced professional confidence). Another way self-talk may show up is via self-aggrandizement, and it’s usually couched in the context of emotional conflict or integrated as a self-defense mechanism. For instance, when you realized you were being abused or neglected, did you say to yourself any variation of the following:

  • “I’m not going to let [co-workers/organization] run me off/ out of my job”
  • “But I’m finally making a good salary.”
  • “It’s my dream job –  is something wrong with me for wanting to leave what I thought I wanted?”
  • “If I leave now, who will do [task/project/service]/help [customer/student/stakeholder/co-worker]?”
  • “I’m not going to let [co-workers/organization] win!” (If you leave, you lose)

Or perhaps someone said these things to you if you mentioned your toxic workplace situation:

  • “You’re not going to let them run you off, are you?”
  • “You worked so hard to get a position like this. You should stay so it doesn’t look bad on your resume.”
  • “That job is so cushy! I’d suck it up and enjoy the check!”
  • “But you’re so great at [thing you can do]! / “If you leave, how would X get done?”
  • “I’d stay and make them miserable so they leave!”

The voice in your head (and the mental tape that’s recording the external judgement for future playback) – the ego –  sets up your workplace abuse within the idea of comfort, and you may begin positing such treatment as a prize – something that validates you, and at the very minimum, keeps you comfortable – even safe. You begin competing for the abuse as a prize or competition to “win” or “survive.” You may begin perceiving the “wins” and “survival” as a mark of resilience, or as I learned from my public librarian low-morale study, gaining on-the-ground training as evidence to future employers that you’re good at handling burnout, integrating workplace dysfunction, or weathering unkindness or violence from co-workers or the public (also known as “earning stripes” to show you’re a “real” member of the profession).

In his book Ego is the Enemy, Ryan Holiday discusses how our egos keep us in places that aren’t so great for us, even when we know better.  In a London Real interview, Holiday defines ego as “a collection of traits: arrogance, entitlement, delusion, greed, selfishness…there’s a difference between ego and confidence – you earn confidence – ego…is unearned.” In another discussion, he delves into how ego intersects with our identity and adds static to perspective, making it harder for us to take action:

“We spend a lot of time labeling things, which often prevents from solving things, and it adds an extra burden on top of just dealing with this thing that’s in front of you…I think what ego often does is…it adds a bit of our own identity to a given situation. It looks at how this makes us look in front of other people. It’s concerned with appearances more than reality.” 

When you re-read those opening statements, we can see how what other people  (including workplace abusers)  may think of you leaving an abusive workplace creeps into these thoughts. Additionally, these thoughts allow narrow perceptions to flourish; which in turn encourage deflection of what’s really happening in the workplace (e.g., if you think about the good salary, you can talk yourself out of the actual increases in abuse that are going on).

Considering the long-term impacts of low morale, which include myriad negative mental and physical health impacts – along with sustained negative impacts on subsequent career performance in new workplaces – the data clearly show that workplace abuse and neglect are no prizes to compete for.  The next time your ego talks you into staying at an abusive workplace or engaging with toxic/dysfunctional co-workers or (in)direct reports, ask yourself:

  • “What am I competing for?/ What is the prize?”
  • “How exactly will staying or engaging with this group help me (physically? mentally? economically? emotionally?)”
  • “Do these prizes/outcomes reflect my values?”

To counteract the natural goal(s) of your ego, Holiday promotes principles that promote temperance of ego through consideration of perception, action, and will. Self-preservation tools like assertive communication, creativity, and more can help people who are dealing with workplace abuse gain and maintain perspective, determine next steps, and increase capacity to deal with the daily fight again this phenomenon – contact me to learn more about my impactful group trainings or personal transformative coaching opportunities.

In the meantime, what has your ego told you during your low-morale experience? How are you combating the story you didn’t earn?


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