March 14, 2022

Ego and the Stories We Tell Ourselves

Leadership Development | Team Development

Reading Time: 3 minutes

Ego-driven leaders tend to make up stories when facing challenges in order to avoid taking personal responsibilities. When you encounter an upsetting situation, your ego may cause you to make guesses and judgements about others’ intentions and you start telling yourself a story. In the absence of honest self-reflection, these stories are a lazy way to make yourself feel better about difficult situations.

3 Stories: Victim, Villain, Helpless

As highlighted in the great book “Crucial Conversations,” if you are lacking in humility, you tell yourself one of three stories. The first one, the victim story, is a story in which you convince yourself that nothing is your fault. You want to believe that you are an innocent sufferer and that the “the other person is bad, wrong or dumb” and “I am good, right or brilliant.” These victim stories are sometimes supported with noble but inaccurate motives: “The only reason I was late to submit the report is because I wanted it to be perfect.” Then you go on to tell yourself that you are being punished for your virtues, not your vices: “They don’t appreciate a person with my great attention to detail.” 

The second story is a villain story, in which you believe that it’s everyone else’s fault except your own. Under this logic, you automatically assume the worst possible motives or grossest incompetence about others while ignoring any good intentions or important skills that they may bring. As such, you engage in blatant double standards: When you make a mistake, you tell victim stories by claiming that your intentions are innocent and pure. But when others make mistakes, you tell villain stories in which you invent terrible motives or exaggerate flaws for them. It is well known that when you don’t take the time to be honest with yourself, you judge yourself based on your intentions, but you judge others based on their actions.

This is what psychologists often refer to as the “fundamental attribution error”: the tendency for people to over-emphasize personality-based explanations for behaviors observed in others, while emphasizing situational explanations for themselves. The common example used to illustrate this bias is when someone cuts you off on the highway vs. when you cut off others. In the first case, you assume that the other person is a jerk that cares only about themselves, whereas in the second situation, you justify it by saying: “I don’t always drive like this but today I had to because I am late!

The third story or excuse showing a lack of self-reflection is one of being helpless. This typically sounds like “there’s nothing else I can do.” You convince yourself there was nothing healthy or productive that you could have done to deal with the issue to justify the bad actions that you have taken. For example, after humiliating a subordinate in a meeting, you tell yourself: “What else could I have done? If I don’t yell at her in front of everyone, she will never listen and change her behavior.

The Humbitious (Low-Ego, High-Drive) Approach

As a humbitious leader, you are certainly prone to telling yourself inaccurate stories. However, as soon as you take the time to self-reflect, you ask yourself some hard questions: “What do I know for a fact? And what stories am I telling myself?” Your humility will enable you to challenge the illusion that the way you are feeling is the only right way to feel under the circumstances.

Rather than the lazy story that omits crucial information about yourself and about others, you reflect on what the real story is: a story in which you turn yourself from victim and helpless actor to responsible actor, and in which you turn others from villains into reasonable human beings. 

You then ask yourself brutally hard questions such as:

  • What is my role in the problem?
  • Why is the other person acting the way they are?
  • What do I really want?
  • What should I do to achieve what I want?

When you adopt this sort of honest reflection, you allow yourself to get closer to the truth, which in turn enable you to show up in a more humble and confident way to solve problems.

What stories do you often tell yourself?

Amer Kaissi is the author of “Humbitious: The Power of Low-Ego, High-Drive Leadership

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About the author

Amer Kaissi, Ph.D.

Amer is a sought-after executive coach, professor, speaker and author. Books he's authored include "Intangibles: The Unexpected Traits of High-Performing Healthcare Leaders" and "Humbitious: The Power of Low-Ego, High-Drive Leadership."

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