Facilitating a group with strong egos is a lot like eating sushi. In some cases, strong egos form a healthy basis for a meeting, giving you the right nutrients for building the group and the organization. In other cases, you question the safety of these raw elements on everyone involved. Will you get a parasite and become ill? Whether you like sushi or not, it exists and it’s an option for the palate. Whether you like people with strong egos in your meetings or not, it’s something you’ll need to learn to work with. The question becomes, how do you work effectively with people with large egos in a group, so that the situation doesn’t become unhealthy?
Is it safe? Freud believed the ego’s task was to find a balance between primitive drives, morals, and reality. This theory also asserts that the ego is concerned with a person’s safety and often creates defense mechanisms to care for the id and superego.
What you see is what you get? The ego is the part of your personality that you show the world. Many of the differences that show up in individual behaviors result from the fact that the ego develops with experience. The ego helps to inflate a person’s sense of self-worth and therefore for some, it’s considered a necessity. The ego also has a deeply ingrained, compulsive need to remain separate and superior at all times, in all places, and under all circumstances.
But what about me? Those whose egos have a huge appetite often find it difficult when the discussion strays from the topic of themselves. Ego grows increasingly hungry whenever the group’s attention shifts away from him or her. Therefore, he or she will often provoke conflict to reestablish him or herself as the main subject at hand. Ego is one the fiercest of all the opponents and the ego will fight to the death when attacked.
Like sushi, egos come in different types and are made of different ingredients. Some might be more appetizing than others. As a facilitator, you may encounter the following three types of egos in your groups.
Taught Ego. This is a set of feelings, thoughts and behaviors that we learned and copied from our families and significant others. Individuals develop these communication styles and behaviors over time and select their approach based on the situation. People using this ego type might be strict, judgmental or quick to form opinions because of the beliefs and morals they have learned and have now come to value. Somewhere in their head, they have a manual dictating how life should work. Taught ego is like a tape recorder replaying old “facts” and strongly held beliefs.
Logical Ego. This ego responds to the here and now, taking the best information from the past and applying it to the present moment. It sees people as they are, rather than through projections of values and beliefs. People with this ego type learn the value of being sensible, logical, detached and calm. They search for factual information on which to make decisions and formulate actions. They might listen patiently and gather data to create a rational decision on the data they’ve collected. The logical ego is like a human computer, referencing data and experiences to make decisions in the current reality.
Instinctive Ego. This is a set of feelings, thoughts and behaviors that are more uninhibited, inquisitive, creative and curious. You might experience this person being playful, having tantrums, sulking, becoming impulsive or emotional. The person using this ego type might explore options and in turn make sure the group is having fun during the process. In short they are like play dough, molding and creating as they go.
Each of these ego types are neither right nor wrong. They are designed to protect the psyche from harm and to maintain comfort. Their selection is simply a matter of taste. The facilitator’s task is to manage the impact of these ego types on group dynamics.
My Way or the Highway. At a recent meeting, I was facilitating a group of highly controlling, competitive executives, composed of each of these ego types. One peer of the others in the room sat at the far end of U-shaped seating formation. As a strongly opinionated, traditional person, he instantly presented himself as a “taught ego.” He was unhappy that the group was moving in a direction on their strategic plan different from the one he had suggested. We had addressed the issues, (economics, personal impact, personnel impact, etc.) and surfaced all relevant information as determined by the group. Everyone in the group verbally agreed to move forward to the next agenda item. This gentleman’s ego began to defend itself because clearly it was feeling vulnerable. On several occasions he attempted sarcastic humor but to no avail. The group would call him on the ground rules when his behavior was disruptive and then he’d back off for a while.
I’m Not Playing Anymore! Finally out of frustration (and individual need) he pulled out his laptop and proceeded to take notes related to the meeting and on a side conversation he’d started. People were interested in what he was doing and began gathering around him. Some commented on the quality of the information he possessed. It was clear he was hungry for power and control. When I asked if he was willing to share with the whole group what he had captured, he said “Nah, never mind.” closed his laptop, crossed his arms and lifted his feet onto the table so that the soles of his shoes faced the front of the room. His “instinctive ego” was sulking and having a tantrum.
The Egofest. Other egos in the room began to respond. Some taught egos voiced their dislike for his actions and commented on how they couldn’t believe how a person could behave in such a manner, “It just isn’t right.” “Look how he’s wanting it his way.” “Who made him the Colonel?”
Some of the logical egos asked, “What is really bothering you.” And, “Explain why you really thought the idea seems like a better approach.” Other instinctive egos began cracking jokes and asked, “Have you taken your Prozac?’” Or “Is it that time of the month?” Some even offered completely new ideas in hopes of making him happy. It was a regular smorgasbord of egos, a feeding feast for all.
Egos, like sushi, if left unattended in the wrong conditions, can smell and start breeding germs that spread and create an unhealthy situation for everyone. For facilitators, it’s a tough call to determine the right time and approach for intervening and helping an ego resolve it’s own discomfort.
How to Facilitate Hungry Egos
Ego Play. Consider the following dynamics before you intervene and facilitate egos in groups.
1. What relationships do you have with the participants? Are they a peer, subordinate, client, different or same gender, or do they come from a different culture than you? Differences in people correspond to differences in values, beliefs, communication styles, and how we are expected to communicate. A clear understanding of your role and the roles of your participants helps clarify your intention when you decide to intervene and move more quickly toward a joint resolution.
2. What roles do participants play in the group? Some groups have accepted and depend on individual egos in a group. Healthy or not, egos that are known quantities can be counted on to act in predictable ways. Sometimes people are happy and relieved that another’s ego can address a topic they don’t want to address. They have come to depend on or tolerate this ego because the results are acceptable to them. Check in with a group to determine the acceptability of a given behavior. Recognize that people are motivated both by fear and need. If you can determine a person’s fears or their needs, you can better understand and address their behavior.
3. What roles do participants play in the organization? Some individuals are in higher positions because their ego, behavior, actions, intelligence and political savvy have served them well. They know how to behave in order to stay at the level they’ve achieved and have no interest in changing their behavior. Consider addressing the topic of “position” at the beginning of the meeting. Develop a clear understanding on meeting purpose. Does the leader seek a consensual agreement between all the players? Or are inputs being considered in the context of roles and positions?
4. What’s the mental health of individuals? I once had an employee who was released from prison after serving a murder sentence. He was considered mentally ill at the time of the murder due to a chemical imbalance, but now under medication, he was considered functional. Before our group meetings, I would check in with him to see how his day was going (in essence I wanted a reading on his mental wellness). I have clients that I refuse to coach because they are not taking their bipolar meds and if there is a chemical imbalance there is not much you can do until their mental health is treated. If an individual’s behavior is questionable to you, check with participants to see if this is usual and acceptable behavior for this person. If the person is not mentally stable, avoid antagonizing or challenging their sense of reality. Their behavior makes perfect sense to them. At this point, you will have to do your best to keep the dialogue flowing smoothly and address the issue off-line.
A person’s behavior can make perfect sense to them. After all, their ego is naturally protecting other issues present unconsciously. Egos are part of the dynamics within a group and do need to be managed.
Prepare With Care. As with eating sushi, the results of the facilitation are affected by your preparation. Set the tone, purpose, parameters and ground rules before you start a meeting as a proactive measure to facilitate the egos in the room.
Be Sensual. As with eating sushi, facilitation is an experience that involves all your senses. The environment you create, including colors, sounds, shared laughter, and taste left in people’s mouths. These all impact the experience. Being open to understanding people’s fears and needs and trying to address the real issue causing the behavior will be necessary for dealing with the issue that surface.
Use Ritual. As with eating sushi, the facilitation process is a ritual must have and needs to have a strong beginning and close. It requires an opportunity for the group to celebrate its success. Kampai (‘cheers’ in Japanese) to all those who help a group of strong egos accomplish their goals.
About the Author: Eileen Dowse Ph.D., Organizational Psychologist and Certified Master Facilitator is founder and principle of Human Dynamics providing services designed to help support you and your organization. I hope you will consider using us as a resource and refer us to anyone you think would benefit from our services. Email Eileen at [email protected]
What are the biggest ego challenges you run into in your groups? How might you approach them differently based on the tips in this article? Please share your questions, feedback, or experience on this topic in the comments section below.