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ATD Blog

Less Ego, More Soul

Monday, November 20, 2023

One of the biggest challenges that we face in talent development is the fact that the talent we recruit, train, and reward all come with ego. Many of us associate ego with the work of Sigmund Freud. Freud considered human personality a three-part structure consisting of the id, ego, and superego. While the id comprises basic human urges and impulses and the superego controls the id by considering the principles and ethics of society, we’re most familiar with the term ego. According to Freud, it is the only conscious part of personality.

Ego is not necessarily a bad thing. It is the Latin word for I. It serves as a balancing force between the id (unrealistic and impulse-driven) and the superego (the reality of the external world). Ego allows us to maintain a sense of self. A healthy ego offers an opportunity for humans to house their thoughts and feelings. Ego provides self-esteem and confidence while creating a fertile ground for healthy ambition and drive, sound decision making, and measured risk.

But when ego goes off the rails, the results are troubling. Inflated ego can result in confirmation bias, jealousy, and envy. It can keep us from learning from our mistakes or growing both professionally and personally. Finally, ego can fuel narcissistic and toxic behavior on the part of leaders. And while there may be many causes behind an out-of-control ego, one thing is for sure—social media doesn’t help.

Author David Brooks once wrote that we all live in the culture of the “Big Me.” He explains that many around us, especially those in power—supervisors, managers, and senior executives—want us to promote ourselves. We are roped into the idea that social media platforms define who we are, and it is incumbent upon us to place even the most marginal accomplishment out there for the world to see. It is like a living virtual report card. We are also seduced by social media into advertising details of our lives, such as the pictures where we look the best, moments throughout our day, and even pictures of our food.


Social media use is not going away anytime soon. Research shows that 39 percent of Americans consider themselves addicted to social media, 84 percent of people aged 18 to 29 use at least one social media site, and the average person spends about 145 minutes on social media every day. Meanwhile, the younger generations especially are experiencing more issues with depression and self-esteem because of the constant demands of posting, re-posting, and liking.


So, what does this mean for experts in talent development? It means that we have an imperative to counterbalance the forces of social media that are contributing to the culture of the Big Me. Somehow, we must wade through the glitz and glimmer offered by high-resolution screens and surround sound to reintroduce our workforces to the health and beauty of the soul.

This is not news to leadership development and coaching professionals. They have long pushed for classrooms and coaching sessions that are marked by moments of reflection, journaling, and, dare we suggest, silence. But the need for more soul in our organizations applies to all areas of our work. Interview questions for new recruits that are related to empathy and kindness is a good start. A deliberate focus on diversity, equity, and inclusion throughout our organizations is paramount. Finally, creating environments of psychological safety, empathy, and trust will go a long way in allowing the space for all our most valuable resources to rediscover their soul.

About the Author

Patrick Malone is director of Key Executive Leadership Programs at American University in Washington, D.C. He is a frequent guest lecturer on leadership and organizational dynamics and has extensive experience working with government leaders. Patrick’s research, teaching, and scholarship include work in public sector leadership, executive problem solving, organizational analysis, ethics, and public administration and policy. He is a retired navy captain, having spent 22 years in a number of senior leadership and policy roles.

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