Healthy self-image

Apr 25, 1994

I’ve always been a student of human interaction. So when I hear someone say of another person in a derogatory tone, “That Wilson sure has a big ego,” I immediately ask myself “Who is this guy to say Wilson has a big ego? Is he jealous of Wilson because Wilson is more successful than he is?” If Wilson is less successful than the speaker, I’m probably more inclined to listen. If, on the other hand, Wilson has racked up some impressive accomplishments, I might give him the benefit of the doubt. I’m sure in the past I have been accused of having a big ego, so I’m bound to be sympathetic. But I’d like to think I’m more rational than that. I guess I have always believed that in order to be successful, you have to have a healthy self-image. If you can’t see yourself as successful, how will anyone else? You have to be able to visualize yourself getting that new project, getting that promotion, or solving that tricky problem. In other words— as someone deserving of success. Undoubtedly, there are people out there working at the highest levels in A/E and environmental consulting firms who others commonly say have “a big ego.” In fact, despite appearances, the complete opposite might be true. These people may instead have some deep-seated insecurities they masquerade with a veneer of success— sort of false bravado. As a leader in your firm, it’s important to distinguish the pretenders from those with a healthy self-image. You want to hire the latter, because all factors being equal, they will probably be more successful. And, whether we’re talking about a peer, an employee, or a client, it’s important to distinguish between those who have a positive self-image and those who only appear to. Because it will affect just about every interaction you have with them. There are ways to identify these “impersonators” by digging just a little below the surface. Here are some signs: Impersonators are much more concerned about the trappings of success than the intrinsic rewards that come from it. Fancy cars, lavish houses, over-priced clothes, lofty titles, and short-term income are more important to these people than longer-term income, the value of their equity in their firm, and the satisfaction that comes from being a team player in building a successful business. The reason is, deep down, big ego impersonators fear they could be exposed at some point and lose everything. So their attitude is: “better get it now because who knows what tomorrow will bring.” Impersonators have a history of sour relations with other people. They aren’t willing to risk rejection or failure in a personal relationship, so they never invest the time and emotional energy to form one that’s more than superficial. As principals, impersonators tend to blame others for their failure— their staff is never good enough. They are down on others because they have a negative view of themselves. Impersonators can often only perform in one narrow band of knowledge, and fail once they get out of that. Whether it’s a narrowly defined managerial role or a single technical specialty area, the impersonator is distinguished from the real thing by his complete lack of flexibility. The biggest problem may not be innate ability— it’s an unwillingness to try anything that really tests their capabilities for fear of being exposed as a failure (and in their mind— a fraud). Impersonators cannot visualize anything that’s too abstract. If a future scenario is too far removed from their own experience, the big ego impersonators will see it as “B.S.” These people will almost always oppose any changes in the company that require an investment and don’t have an immediate pay-off. Things like developing a strong human resources department, or establishing an on-line project management control system, or investing in a P.C. for everyone’s desk. Impersonators often tell “white lies” or practice other petty acts of dishonesty. People with a poor self-image often lie to boost others’ opinion of them. They’ll lie about how much money they make, how much of the company’s stock they own, their family background, or what their spouse does for a living. But they don’t worry about the long-term implications of getting caught in these lies. Taking the time to study the behavior or your staff, peers and clients is time well spent for anyone in a leadership role in an A/E/P or environmental consulting firm. You can’t always tell who has a good self-image and who has a poor one by a first impression. But it’s important to you as a manager and consultant to find out. Originally published 4/25/1994

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