Egos May Win But They Net More Losers

06/02/2010 04:41 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

According to labor bureau, roughly 145,000,000 people make up the American workforce. That means that over half of the people in this country not only go to work everyday, but also face the challenges inherent to successfully reaching a common goal. And, I bet if I asked all of those people if they wanted security in life, they would answer with a resounding, "Yes!" They would also no doubt think that I was crazy for asking such a stupid question, or stupid for asking such a crazy question.

We want security and we want it everywhere. As a nation, we're obsessed with national security and as individuals we pursue careers that offer financial security. Once we're employed we work hard to prove ourselves to obtain job security. We have lifestyles we want to secure and we look for it in our relationships. We secure our buildings, our computers, our accounts and our valuables. But we never seem to notice that the security people feel inside is often the least secure thing of all. Instead we install more alarms, add to our nest eggs and write new laws to protect our assets, our futures and our loved ones. Yet, what we really need to do is appreciate internal security as much as we value it externally in the world around us.

That said, we cannot attempt to undo someone's development and change how he or she sees the world, especially not in the workplace. That wouldn't be right and I'm not suggesting that we do so. But we can consider how learning from the past continues to shape the future and in that process we can create environments that help people feel more secure. This way, we get the best of what they have to offer as opposed to the worst.

It helps to picture a school of fish. They swim together in perfect unison. They navigate their environment in complete harmony while maintaining impeccable form. The overall shape may change, but the relationship of one fish to another remains intact. In order for them to move forward as a collective, each one must be healthy enough to swim and contribute to the execution of the goal, which is to advance together as one. Sound familiar? Sound ideal? It does, because it is how work is supposed to be. Intuitively, we know this, but it somehow always seems to get lost in the execution.

Now picture a school of fish that feels the threat of a pebble dropped into the center of its formation, or the vibration of a nearby swimmer who gets too close. The fish scatter every which way and abandon the very order they'd maintained only moments before. And yet when the threat is gone, they reassemble naturally as if nothing had happened.

Why then is it that people in most organizations perpetually look more like the fish reacting to a threat than they do the fish who swim merrily along as a whole - even when there is no threat?

Well, the easy answer is that fish don't have egos that distort reality and make them feel insecure all the time. Unfortunately though, it's not that simple. While fish respond to threats that are real and not perceived, people often respond to threats that are perceived and not real. Human ego by its nature defends against a perceptual reality informed by events of the past that may or may not be relevant in the present. Therefore the threats to which people respond tend to be part of their own perceptual worlds rather than to what actually occurs in the real world. That's a problem.

See, in order for organizations to be intrinsically healthy, it's not enough that employees exercise, eat right and go for their annual check ups. Physical health, while important, does not define the health of a workforce, not by a long shot. If individuals aren't healthy, in body, mind and psyche, then the company for which they work can't, and won't be either. This then begs the question, "Why isn't individual security and the healthy development of ego something we work on when we're at work?"

If we could just move past the smoke-free offices, subsidized gym memberships and healthy snacks and create personal security for people within the work environment, we could foster growth through the development of healthy, robust employees both inside and out. They in turn would be confident and ready to move forward into the future as opposed to backwards into the past where they feel safest bringing everyone else along for the ride. That's not good.

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