Leggo My Ego: A Look Inside Defense Mechanisms In Workplace Dynamics

Today’s post comes from the deeply thoughtful and intelligent Brianna Franklin. Her words will challenge you to think differently about your workplace surroundings and dynamics. I am grateful to be able to share her words with you!

The Origin of the Ego

Sigmund Freud first exposed the world to the concept of the “ego”, which, if you were to ask many people today, they would deem his research as antiquated. However, I believe this proves Freud’s point more than ever. Our ego can both serve as a primitive drive for success as well as an inhibitor of honest vulnerability and development.

In order to protect our ego, Freud ascertained the utilization of defense mechanisms. One example is called compensation. “The “fluid compensation” principle (Steele, 1988, p.267) posits that people can recover from threat in one domain (e.g., a failed exam) by emphasizing their positive qualities in a different domain (e.g., close relationships)” (Rudman, Dohn, & Fairchild, 2007). It is my assertion that compensation is prevalent in various social settings particularly in the workplace.

Professional Manifestation of the Ego

The use of this defense mechanism, as an example, can be seen in meetings wherein individuals have an audience to perform for, generally one’s peers and supervisors. The air can be filled with power dynamics, image maintenance concerns, and often, one’s own undisclosed desires. In order to cope with the experiential dissonance perceived during such moments, we begin to take subconscious control back.

A phrase often heard in meetings is “I just want to clarify…” followed by many “I know that but…” and head nods to prove the point that the only information requested was of minimal stature. It’s as if there is a need to send nonverbal messages that indicate what an individual already knows. Now, some of you might assume that I am overthinking someone wanting clarification on a topic. I’m not trying to eliminate the use or purpose of the word “clarify”. Rather than dismissing these seemingly isolated statements as traditional meeting nomenclature, let’s look to see what they might be pointing to, which could be a bigger issue than previously assumed.

Personal Intersections of the Ego

What purpose does cushioning one’s response with layers of selective comprehension serve, particularly in a public setting? Those cushions protect one’s ego from damage. What does a damaged ego lead to? Vulnerability. There are two types of power when someone says “I don’t know”. On the one hand, power can be perceived to be lost due to lack of knowledge or awareness. On the other hand, the power of vulnerability can be shown when we don’t try to accompany our unknowing with supplemental knowledge. This is the type of power that fosters relatability and self-awareness.

It is my assertion that we would rather cling on to one iota of self-efficacy at the cost of sacrificing time and authenticity, than appear inadequate. This has a correlation with our self-esteem and how we are constantly searching for opportunities to rebuild our walls (even if those walls don’t intersect). In another instance, we might subconsciously feel compelled to communicate to someone all that we know or have accomplished when we feel robbed of some control or respect in our personal lives. “Similarly, Tesser (2000) argued that threatened people draw on alternate sources of self-esteem and that this process can proceed effortlessly, without conscious awareness. This reasoning concurs with response latency evidence that people with high self-esteem automatically recruit their positive qualities (and repress their weaknesses) following failure feedback (Dodgson & Wood, 1998)” (Rudman, Dohn, Fairchild, 2007)” (Rudman, Dohn, & Fairchild, 2007). We are not making conscious decisions to use our verbal and nonverbal efforts to send messages to others; however, it is important to denote that we seek out our positive attributes when we feel we have failed or that people could perceive us failing to protect one’s ego. This contributes to a cycle of unrealistic expectations for ourselves and others.

Conclusion

In conclusion, many, if not all, of these examples are deeply rooted within our subconscious and thus, this is not a conscious effort to blame others but to draw attention and encourage self-introspection that focuses not only on strengths. What can we do about this if is it not a conscious act? I propose we embrace the ideal that ‘perfection is the enemy of the good’ and move away from the mindset that mistakes are metaphorical ammo waiting to be used against us. When we unlearn our core held beliefs about self-worth, we can begin to be more mindful and aware of how our ego-protecting phrases are contributing to a culture of comparison.

We are people who are highly influenced by our surroundings and we learn very quickly how to survive and mold and protect others’ perceptions of us, but at what cost? Through active attention to these instances, teaching teams through interactive activities, and conducting an emotional inventory of ourselves, we can combat our own defenses for our greater good. I believe this unlearning and relearning will enhance our self-awareness, emotional intelligence, social connectedness, and vulnerability in and outside of the workplace.

coordinator-bri

Bri Franklin, M.A. is currently a Coordinator for Residence Life and Education at the University of Central Florida. She has two degrees from UCF, a Bachelor’s in Humanities-Philosophy, Religion, and Popular Culture and a Master’s in Counselor Education-Marriage, Couple, and Family Therapy. She has worked at UCF’s Housing and Residence Life Department since 2011 in various roles and has developed a passion for professional development and personal introspection. In her spare time, she likes spending time with family, friends, and her puppy, Mocha. If you would like to contact her, please email her at Brianna.Franklin@ucf.edu.