Ethics and Ego

A little bit of ego isn’t a bad thing. Self-confidence and assurance can make a difference in business success. But there is a fine line between a healthy ego and egocentrism. Ethical problems become inevitable when the center of the universe resides in an individual’s ego.

Did former Enron CEO Kenneth Lay really think that magical accounting methods could go on forever? On a local level, does a sexually harassing supervisor actually think his power and irresistible charm can insulate him from consequences? Does the top sales representative honestly believe that he or she can walk on water?

It’s been said that “pride comes before a fall.” Through the ages, the precursors to an ethical collapse are similar, “I’ll never get caught,” “I’ll do what I want,” or “I’m untouchable.” Whether subconsciously or acted out directly, an attitude of arrogance and the false sense of invincibility it gives, distorts one’s moral perspective into a malaise of ethical confusion.

A person with an inflated ego has an exaggerated sense of importance and a feeling of superiority over others. It doesn’t take much to connect the dots and figure out where it leads – an ethical crisis. To avoid ethical problems, consider the following three areas where ego can control us and then take accompanying actions:

Ego and Ethics: Failing to take ethical rules seriously shows a kind of arrogance that says, “What I think is right is most important.” Playing by the rules requires a sense of respect for something greater than ourselves. To accept this, we must agree that ethical principles laid down by our employer supersedes whatever interpretation or personal exception we dream up.

Many of the guidelines and rules at work are not up for interpretation (i.e. securities laws, email etiquette, employment policies, use of company resources, etc.). The workplace functions within a normative ethical arena, that is, it primarily focuses on what is right or wrong in life. There’s little room at work for egoism, utilitarianism, or other ethical theories when the employer lays down the law. In order to succeed in business we must be humble enough to accept just laws, the authority of others, and outside structure.

Action: Don’t interpret the rules so they revolve around your own feelings or point of view. Understand why ethical rules exist, who made them, and why we all need to adhere to them.

Ego and Others: A person’s ego can be a hazard to those both in authority and under authority. By nature of the position, a supervisor is especially prone to ego dilemmas. After all, the boss is the boss. Power can corrupt. A leader with an ego blames others for mistakes to protect him or herself at all costs. He or she makes up his or her own rules, and treats others poorly or with partiality. They are a legend in their own mind and garner only superficial respect (at best) from subordinates.

Of course, ego isn’t just a problem for the big fish in the pond, it’s a problem for the rest of us as well. We too can become so wrapped up in ourselves that we won’t listen to authorities or others. It is absolutely critical that we maintain positive relationships at work.

Action: Remember you’re not alone. Look beyond yourself and see the humanity around you. Respect the feelings of others, think before you speak, and care about how you portray yourself to the world around you.

Ego and Character: Ego (or self-centeredness) is a character trait that we must constantly grapple with. If allowed to run its course, an out of control ego will dominate one’s personality. At some point even honesty, loyalty, self-control, and other character traits that comprise our value system will be affected by our ego. A lack of humility is a difficult thing to identify and change because a person with an exaggerated ego will, by nature, resist criticism. Change usually occurs by discovering the character flaw the hard way, by a crisis.

Action: Engage in self-reflection and evaluation. Be sensitive to parts of your character that need a little refining. Do right. Live right. Build something inside yourself that lasts.

Like many elements of our personality, ego can work for us or against us. Remember that the same ego and pride that builds a successful business can also contribute to its decay.