The Enemy Within: Is Your Ego Holding You Back?

The Enemy Within: Is Your Ego Holding You Back?
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Summary: The ego—that little voice inside our heads that tells us we’re special and important and that failure is not an option. As L&D professionals, we know that failure can be a major roadblock to Learning and Development. But did you know that it’s often our ego that’s to blame?

Overcome Your Ego And Elevate Your Learning

At its core, the ego is simply our sense of self-importance and self-esteem. But when left unchecked, it can lead us to value how we appear to others more than growth and progress, leading us to avoid failure at all costs. According to psychoanalysis, the ego is part of our mind that mediates between the conscious and the unconscious, helping us to create a sense of personal identity and reality testing. But here’s the thing—the ego isn’t always under control. It’s constantly processing information and experiences, and can be influenced by a range of internal and external factors.

So what does all of this mean for Learning and Development? Well, the ego can be a protective mechanism that shields us from the pain of failure. But this protection can actually hinder our growth and development in the long term. To truly thrive as learners, we need to learn how to manage our ego and reframe failure as an opportunity for growth and learning. As the great psychoanalyst, Freud once said, "The ego is not master in its own house." So let’s take charge of our own Learning and Development by learning to tame our egos and to embrace failure as a stepping stone to success.

How Can It Sabotage Your Progress?

Fear Of Failure

When our ego is in control, we become overly concerned with our appearance to others, worrying we will look foolish, weak, incompetent, or any number of other negatives. This fear of failure can prevent us from taking risks, trying new things, and actively participating in classroom contexts, ultimately hindering our ability to learn and grow. The relationship between fear of failure and its impact on learning is a well-researched topic. Elliot and Church suggest that this fear can lead to academic procrastination, decreased motivation, and lower academic achievement. Moreover, a study of 563 university students from Norway found a significant association between fearing failure and low academic performance. Fearing failure has no place in a Learning and Development context; as Les Brown said, "Too many of us are not living our dreams because we are living our fears."

Resistance To Feedback

Our ego can make us defensive and resistant to feedback, especially if that feedback challenges our self-image. As Ken Blanchard stated: "Feedback is the breakfast of champions, but our ego can turn it into a bitter pill to swallow." Instead of seeing feedback as an opportunity to improve, we may see it as a threat to our sense of self-importance, leading us to reject or dismiss it. Some people even get angry when given feedback they don’t like. This problem grows exponentially, as, if you respond negatively to feedback, eventually people will stop trying to tell you the truth. Moreover, the more one progresses in their career, the more intimated people may feel giving honest feedback. It’s absolutely essential to have a reputation that you are approachable, or, at the very least, have a few trusted people who will be honest, in a kind way, of course.

Quick check:
Are you open to feedback? Try asking someone on your team for some honest feedback, preferably not someone above you in a hierarchical sense. See what happens! There is some evidence of this concept in empirical studies. In the US, within a healthcare organization, a study of 350 employees found that those with high levels of ego resistance reported lower job satisfaction. The authors inferred this was because they were less receptive to feedback and less willing to engage in Learning and Development opportunities.


The ego can create a rigid sense of personal identity and a fixed mindset, making us resistant to change and new ideas. We may become stuck in our ways, unwilling to challenge our assumptions or try new approaches, ultimately limiting our ability to learn and adapt to new situations. William James highlights the importance of this, stating: ‘The greatest discovery of my generation is that a human being can alter his life by altering his attitudes."

A study published in the Journal of Applied Psychology found that individuals with high levels of ego rigidity were less likely to engage in problem-solving behaviors that were effective in solving complex problems. Moreover, those with ego rigidity were less likely to generate new ideas or think outside the box, according to the Journal of Occupational and Organizational Psychology. This is fatal in creative brainstorms and problem-solving tasks— both essential attributes in Learning and Development.

Four Strategies To Overcome Ego In Learning

1. Embrace A Growth Mindset

A growth mindset believes that intelligence and abilities can be developed through hard work and perseverance. When you adopt a growth mindset, you view failure as a temporary setback and look for opportunities to learn from your mistakes and improve over time. This can be an incredibly effective way to tackle the ego in the context of learning for several reasons.

Firstly, it directly combats the fear of failure. Those with a growth mindset have a completely different perception of failure. Instead of viewing failure as a negative outcome, they view it as a learning experience and an inevitable element of any worthwhile journey. Doing so encourages one to persist in the face of failure, helping to overcome the ego’s need for instant gratification and recognize that success results from hard work and facing failure.

Steven Bartlett was rejected as a contestant on Dragons Den; now, he is an investor in the show. Bill Gates and Paul Allen’s first company, Traf-O-Data, went bankrupt due to competitors entering the market. Micheal Jordan was cut from his high school basketball team. Walt Disney was fired from a newspaper job as he lacked creativity. None of these people let their ego overcome them in the face of failure. Their growth mindset meant that they believed that they could develop, improve, and nurture their abilities, meaning these failures were viewed as bumps on the road rather than the end of their journey. A growth mindset is one surefire way to remedy an out-of-control ego. Remember Thomas Edison’s mantra: "I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that don’t work."

Cast your mind back to your last, really painful failure…did you give up or use it to grow? If you give up, ask yourself what you can learn from the situation next time, and use that knowledge to make improvements and adjustments moving forward.

2. Adopt A Beginner's Mindset

Egos are inherently individual, so just because you have a growth mindset does not mean your ego isn’t getting in the way of learning. Maybe you are determined and never give up, but only if it’s your idea. Many people struggle to hear, listen, and learn from others in a corporate learning context. This relates to the inflexibility discussed above, where people with high ego rigidity struggle to generate and support new ideas.

In those circumstances, adopting a beginner’s mindset is key. Essentially, this mindset encourages people to view learning from the perspective of a complete beginner, with the openness, curiosity, and willingness to learn that taps into a childlike sense of wonder. By doing so, one can break out of old habits, explore new ideas and expand horizons with ease.

3. Focus On The Journey, Not The Destination

"Success is not a destination, but the road that you’re on."—Marlon Wayans. Rather than fixating on the end result, focus on the process of learning and growing. Celebrate your progress and any small successes along the way, and use failures as an opportunity to learn more about yourself and your abilities. Be kind and understanding with yourself when you experience failure. Recognize that everyone makes mistakes and that failure is a natural part of learning. Use self-compassion to motivate yourself to try again, rather than beat yourself up over the experience.

The next time you learn something new, try setting process-oriented goals rather than goal-oriented ones. For example, if you wanted to learn a language, instead of setting a goal like I want to be fluent by 2024, you could aim to spend 30 minutes a day practicing.

4. Surround Yourself With Support

Seek out a community of people who are supportive and encouraging, and who can provide you with constructive feedback and guidance as you navigate the learning process. "The ego is like a shield that protects us from feedback, but it also keeps us stuck in old patterns and prevents us from reaching our full potential. To break through that shield, we must be willing to listen, learn, and grow."—Carol Dweck.

This can help you feel more confident in yourself and your abilities, and give you the courage to push through any obstacles or setbacks you encounter. The importance of seeking out people who have the best intentions and can communicate criticisms appropriately is essential, as bad experiences can be off-putting and kick the ego into overdrive. As Frank Clark cleverly coined: "Criticism, like rain, should be gentle enough to nourish a man’s [a person’s] growth without destroying his [their] roots."

Get in touch with a friend, family member, mentor, or coach you trust. Share a problem, as big or small as you wish, that you’re struggling with, and ask for their advice. Be open and receive their opinion. If you hear the voice in your head instantly reject a difference in opinion, remind yourself that it’s just your ego.

Don’t let your ego hold you back from reaching your full potential. Take action to keep it at bay, and check out our ego course to kick your organisation’s learning journey into high gear!

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