In the workplace, noisy, unruly egos give rise to team dysfunction, disengagement and conflict. Leaders with unquiet egos reduce the level of psychological safety in their teams.
There is emerging evidence (1) that teams and organisations where psychological safety is low have correspondingly lower levels of staff retention. They are less likely to generate or capture the power of diverse and innovative thought and they bring in less revenue per head.
In these complex, uncertain and disrupted times, when innovation and collaboration are key, leaders with quieter egos will manage others more effectively.
The term ‘Quiet Ego’ was coined by Wayment & Bauer in 2008 (2). For them, the quiet ego is not to be confused with the fragile, squashed or unwillingly silenced ego. The quiet ego is deeply resilient. It is a sense of self that has no need to assert itself but emerges from an attunement to the rhythms of one’s own and others’ inner dynamics. Noisier egos, by contrast, feed on the world of external appearances on which they depend for reassurance.
The quiet ego recognises its strengths and weaknesses in ways that enable personal growth. It is marked by a sense of compassion for others and for itself. It is not in thrall to social image. Instead, it realizes that the self is ultimately a construction – a story that enables a sense of unity and purpose in life but also casts the shadow of illusions that may be constructive or destructive. Noisier egos expend considerable energy in identifying and defending their constructed selves as if they were not a construction – asserting themselves into the world.
As the ego quietens it becomes more self-aware and less defensive. Recognising the interdependent nature of self and others, the quiet ego becomes naturally more compassionate. This interdependent self is not a lost self. It is strong, resilient, and self-assured.
A quietened ego is a highly desirable leadership attribute. But how does one achieve it? There are ideas and practices which can spark, support and enable a transformative journey – a lifetime’s work that nonetheless can show rapid and early beneficial outcomes.
Drawing with modification on Wayment and Bauer, I suggest there are four factors which can be fostered as crucial elements of leadership development. Mindfulness; a sense of the interdependence of all things; compassion; and a commitment to continuous personal growth.
Mindfulness is a quality of present moment attention that is marked by three intertwined characteristics: Allowing, Inquiry and Meta-awareness (AIM) (3).
Allowing consists in a deep reality-oriented willingness to allow what is the case to be the case. It is the non-judgemental acceptance of things as they are and it is the basis upon which one can freely choose to act or not on what one perceives.
Inquiry stands for a vivid and open-hearted engagement with the ever-changing content of present moment experience.
Meta-awareness is the ability at times to choose simply to observe what you are thinking, feeling, and sensing. Like stepping out of a fast-flowing, sometimes turbulent, stream onto the riverbank, you see what’s actually going on in the moment. You see your thoughts, feelings, sensations and impulses for what they are – and you do not mistake thoughts about things for things as actually they are.
As a means of quietening the ego these three capacities ignite a curiosity and willingness to accept what one discovers about oneself or others and to hold that lightly. The reduced levels of defensiveness that follow from this enable deeper understandings, better decision-making, greater resilience, richer and more generative conversations.
A sense of the interdependence of all things
Interdependence is the capacity to understand other people’s perspectives in a way that allows one to identify with them. It is the ability to see past differences to the more unifying aspects of our common humanity.
More than that – interdependence points to a sense that each of us interdepends not only on others but with the whole of nature. The quieter ego intuitively senses this interconnectedness. It feels itself embedded in a vital flow of life all around and it values its connection with others.
The quietened ego seeks naturally to act in ways that are ecologically, socially and ethically responsible.
Compassion is the accepting, empathic wish to foster the wellbeing of a person or group. It is the deep impulse to act that gives rise to compassionate action (4). It can be directed to oneself as much as to others. The compassionate balancing of one’s own and other’s needs is an attribute of the quiet ego.
Compassion and interdependence are strongly co-related.
Quiet ego leaders seek to maximise the wellbeing of their people, teams, organisations, customers and other stakeholders. They do not shrink from the inevitable complexity and apparent contradictions that such impulses give rise to.
Personal growth and development
In an unfolding process of personal development, as the ego grows so it quietens. Self-preoccupation diminishes. But that does not mean the quietened ego is crowded out by the needs and demands of others. Instead, this process of growth enables the ego to be progressively transformed from selfish, to group focused, to interdependent.
Quiet ego development leads people to experience their sense of identity and happiness as grounded not only in satisfaction or pleasure but also in long-term psychosocial growth, social responsibility and virtue, and the pleasure of connection with other people and humanity (5).
Leaders whose egos are quieter and who genuinely exhibit these characteristics will inspire a wholehearted followership. They will play a skilful part in enabling higher levels of psychological safety, creativity and wellbeing in their teams and organisations, subsequently increasing team and organisational performance.
Quiet ego leadership is a teachable skill. Evidence from a variety of sources suggest that both mindfulness and compassion can readily be increased by training (6).
A sense of the interdependence of things can emerge from conceptual conviction and the impulse to grow and further develop can be sparked and sustained by mentors, coaches and teachers.
In the face of the current climate emergency and with diminishing trust in our leaders, the world needs quiet ego leadership as never before. Now is the time to begin.
- For example, Google’s Project Aristotle: https://rework.withgoogle.com/print/guides/5721312655835136/ and https://hbr.org/2018/04/the-two-traits-of-the-best-problem-solving-teams
- Heidi A. Wayment and Jack J. Bauer, (2008) Transcending Self-Interest: Psychological Explorations of the Quiet Ego, American Psychological Association (APA): Washington DC.
- https://hbr.org/2016/12/how-to-bring-mindfulness-to-your-companys-leadership and Chaskalson M & Reitz M (2018) Mind Time: How ten mindful minutes can enhance your work, health and happiness, HarperNonFiction: London.
- See Bradley, A. (2019) The Human Moment: The Positive Power of Compassion in the Workplace, LID Publishing: London.
- This aligns with the Aristotelean idea of Eudaemonic Wellbeing. See Reynolds, A., Houlder, D., Goddard, J. & Lewis, D., ( 2020) ‘Reason and Passion in the Humanised Workplace’ in What Philosophy Can Teach You About Being a Better Leader, Kogan Page: London.
- Goleman, D & Davidson, RJ (2018) The Science of Meditation: How to Change Your Brain, Mind and Body, Penguin Life: London.