Managing Ego Energy for Personal and Organizational Success

Managing Ego Energy for Personal and Organizational Success

Managing Ego Energy for Personal and Organizational Success

by Ralph H. Kilmann

This article is adapted from R. H. Kilmann and Associates, Managing Ego Energy: The Transformation of Personal Meaning into Organizational Success (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1994).


The social science literature has relied on numerous self-concepts to study human behavior. Some of the most popular ones include self-esteem, self-efficacy, self-regard, self-respect, self-confidence, and self-worth. Since these terms are often used synonymously and interchangeably, however, research on the self-concepts has become increasingly fragmented. As a consequence, its potential contribution to interdisciplinary domains – such as organizational theory – has not been realized. This article seeks to rectify this situation by integrating the unique aspects of the self into a multidimensional concept of ego energy. Specifically, ego energy is defined as each individual’s primitive struggle to know (consciously and accurately) his or her identity (Who am I?), competency (How effective am I at being who I am?), value (Have I contributed what others need or want?), worth (Am I a good or bad person? Do I deserve to be happy?), and responsibility(Who controls who I am and what I do?). This article then addresses these important questions: What is the source of ego energy? What is positive versus negative ego energy? How can positive ego energy be channeled to achieve organizational goals? Why must ego energy be managed now?


Since the time of Sigmund Freud in the nineteenth century, numerous concepts have been used to describe the human ego – how it forms, develops, and impacts on every aspect of human existence. Consider this listing of the most prevalent self-concepts that have appeared in the social science literature: self-esteem, self-regard, self-respect, self-worth, self-confidence, self-efficacy, self-identity, self-pride, self-appraisal, self-differentiation, self-expression, self-enhancement, self-evaluation, self-definition, self-assertiveness, self-verification, self-awareness, self-knowledge, self-responsibility, self-reflection, and self-reliance. While many of these concepts are used as if they are essentially the same, there are also some important differences among them that address the subtle aspects of the human mind and spirit.

The first purpose of this paper is to highlight the distinctive aspects of the various self-concepts in order to integrate their unique features into a revitalized theory of ego energy. The second purpose is to examine the value of using this new concept for seeing how individuals and organizations can cope more effectively with our fast-paced, dynamic, and turbulent world. Towards these ends, this article is organized according to five key questions: What is ego energy? What is the source of ego energy? What is positive versus negative ego energy? How can positive ego energy be channeled to achieve organizational goals? Why must ego energy be managed now? Lastly, I conclude with some future directions for research on ego energy.


Two components of ego energy are discussed more than any others: self-efficacy (Bandura, 1982; 1986; Gist, 1987) and self-esteem (Brockner, 1988; Tharenou, 1979). Branden (1994) views self-efficacy as confidence in one’s ability to master challenges and manage change, while he defines self-esteem as a combination of both self-efficacy and self-respect (one’s right to be happy). Mone and Kelly (1994) divide their review of the research into self-efficacy (the belief an individual has regarding his or her ability to perform specific tasks) and self-esteem (a general sense of self-worthiness, which includes self-respect). Bailey et al. (1994) use the term self-knowledge to describe the ability component of ego energy and the term self-esteem as a desire to hold oneself in a positive regard (similar to self-respect). Kaplan (1990; 1994) and Levinson (1992) are concerned with people’s desires for mastery (as being on top of their jobs in terms of competence and control) and a sense of personal worth (similar to self-esteem) that comes from their achievement or mastery of tasks. Thus, people’s confidence in their abilities (self-efficacy) and people’s regard for themselves (self-esteem) are two recurring components of ego energy.

Mone and Kelly (1994) integrate these two components by examining four levels of self-esteem: global self-esteem (context free), organizationally based self-esteem, role specific self-esteem, and situation specific self-esteem. The latter, situation specific self-esteem, is based on an individual’s belief about his or her competency to perform a particular task – and thus is identical to self-efficacy. The components of self-esteem and self-efficacy can therefore be viewed as being on two ends of a continuum – ranging from global self-esteem (general self-regard that is independent of context) to self-efficacy (specific beliefs in one’s ability to perform a given task).

Several authors, however, suggest other unique components of the emerging concept of ego energy. While Holmer (1994) cites two components, she defines them as self-esteem and self-awareness – whether people stay open to threatening emotional experiences or shut down and deny what they see, think, or feel. Denial and self-deception play a major role in Holmer’s theory, since people cannot address in themselves and others what they are not willing to see. Other authors who have emphasized the importance of self-awareness and its implications include Argyris (1964), Rogers (1961), Schaef (1987), and Will (1994).

Although Ferris (1994) considers self-competence (self-efficacy) and regard (received from others) in his discussion of ego energy, he builds his comprehensive framework around four detailed components of the ego: sense of self (awareness, self-identity), sense of pride (being unique and valued), sense of achievement (similar to self-efficacy but including actual accomplishment), and sense of justice (including ethics, ideals, morals, equity, and fairness).

Branden (1994) similarly expands the two components of ego energy (self-efficacy and self-regard) into what he calls the six pillars of self-esteem: living consciously (self-awareness), self-acceptance (refusing to fight with oneself), self-responsibility (for thoughts, feelings, behavior, and self-esteem), self-assertiveness (authenticity), living purposely (setting and achieving goals), and integrity (matching one’s behavior to one’s ideals and rhetoric).

Allcorn (1994) examines the ingredients of ego energy by making use of Freud’s (1960) three intrapsychic components: the id, ego, and superego. The id’s unconscious feelings, desires, and needs are in perpetual conflict with the superego’s unconscious false self (extra good or extra bad) – which generates two kinds of anxiety (Horney, 1950): basic anxiety (which stems from being anxious – in general – about the self and the outside world) and neurotic anxiety (which stems not only from conflicts in using psychological defenses for distorting reality in the intrapsychic world, but also from conflicts in using these defense mechanisms and other dysfunctional behavioral solutions in the interpersonal world). The ego represents the conscious, conflict-free, reality-based functioning of the true (real) self – which can effectively cope with normal anxiety.

Building on aspects of this Freudian model, Marshall et al. (1994) add the dimensions of locus of control (Do people believe what happens to them is determined by what they do – or by outside forces?) and ego attachment (Do people believe their attachments in a work setting will be severed – or nurtured). Marlowe and Nyhan (1994) also build on this attachment theme by considering the cognitive and emotional investments that people make in an organization – and particularly how these investments are affected by the external environment of an organization.

Perhaps the most provocative discussion on the nature of ego energy is presented by Bolman and Deal (1995) and Stein (1992). They examine how human spirit can help to transform organizations into a new spiritual faith – for a sustainable, competitive advantage. As suggested by Deal and Hawkins (1994), when individual ego energies are mobilized and channeled in the same spiritual direction, a collective ego energy is released – which may be the key ingredient of strong corporate cultures.

Certainly, there is more consensus on the basic components of ego energy than what ego energy means for individuals and their organizations. Nevertheless, some themes do emerge and suggest a working definition of the concept. It seems evident that ego energy can be used individually and collectively, consciously and unconsciously, constructively and destructively. Indeed, ego energy appears to be drained by dysfunctional use (on oneself and toward others) – which limits what can then be used for achieving both personal and organizational goals. Furthermore, ego energy appears to enable people to make strong psychological attachments and emotional investments in their organization – which, of course, can either be damaged or nurtured. Finally, since the ego can be viewed as a dynamic solution to the perpetual tug of war between the id and the superego, the challenge of being driven by one’s desires and fears versus what is desirable or ideal (or, alternatively, what is punitive or bad) leads to many difficult questions about ethics, morals, and justice for every organization and its many stakeholders.

The following definition of ego energy attempts to integrate most of the foregoing perspectives: Ego energy appears to be each person’s primitive struggle to know – both consciously and accurately – his or her identity (Who am I? What emotional investments should I make?), competency (How effective am I at being who I am? Are my decisions, actions, and investments ethical?), value (Have I contributed what others need or want? Is my organization benefiting from my decisions, actions, and investments?), worth (Am I a good or bad person? Do I deserve to be happy?), and, lastly, responsibility (Who controls who I am, what I do, what emotional investments I make, and whether I am good or bad, happy or sad?). Moreover, ego energy can be unleashed, mobilized, and channeled for the collective good (or bad) of an organization. Thus, each person’s struggle with identity, competency, value, worth, and responsibility affects the achievement of both personal and organizational goals – and the satisfaction derived from these pursuits.


Knowing the source of ego energy helps us to understand how to create and mobilize it in beneficial ways; knowing the amount of ego energy suggests what is available to channel for the achievement of personal and organizational goals. While various authors address these issues within their different frameworks, there is still considerable agreement on where ego energy comes from and how much is available for productive use.

Based on the Freudian model (and its subsequent refinements), Allcorn (1994) devotes considerable attention to the question of source. He equates the big-bang theory of the origin of the universe to the big-bang theory of the origin of the ego: At birth, the id, ego, and superego are undifferentiated and fused, but these three intrapsychic elements become differentiated and detached as the infant separates from the mother (and the rest of the world). Thereafter, the child experiences inherent tensions between the id and the superego (in the inner world) and between the ego and others (in the outer world). These tensions derive from fears of abandonment (being completely separate from others, and hence, not fused) and engulfment (being completely fused with others and, hence, not being separate). Such countervailing forces in the ego seems to generate anxiety. The ego must then tap biochemical, neurological, and biomechanical energy in order to cope with this anxiety. An intrapsychic chain reaction appears to create ego energy: the ongoing tension among the id, superego, ego, and the outer world; the basic and neurotic anxiety that an individual experiences from all this tension; and the biochemical, neurological, and biomechanical energy that the ego activates in order to manage this anxiety.

People may differ significantly with respect to the potential amount of ego energy available to them – due to various environmental, genetic, and developmental factors that create different tensions, anxieties, and reservoirs of biochemical, neurological, and biomechanical energy. For example, Allcorn (1994), Goff and Goff (1991), and Lewis (1992) suggest how different kinds of family pathology (resulting from parents who are physically, sexually, or emotionally abusive; or cold, unpredictable, uncaring, unnurturing, and unavailable) affects not only the amount of anxiety that people experience, but also the particular mix of psychological defenses (e.g., projection, denial, identification, and regression) and interpersonal solutions (overexpansive, self-effacing, or resignation) they habitually use to cope with their anxiety. But it would be mere speculation to suggest the extent of such differences in the potential ego energy among the members of a given organization (due to conceptual and measurement problems). However, one thing is clear: The more that psychological defenses and dysfunctional interpersonal solutions are used to manage basic and neurotic anxiety, the less ego energy is available to people for consciously and accurately defining their identity, competency, value, worth, and responsibility in their organizations.

Goddard (1988) and Kaplan (1990; 1994) believe that the source of ego energy is basic desires and fears – specifically, the desire to succeed and the fear of failing. Kaplan (1994) is particularly concerned about the excess energy that some executives have – and use – in dysfunctional ways, thereby equating excess energy with energy spent on psychological defenses and dysfunctional interpersonal solutions (what he calls “extremely expansive” solutions) versus energy spent on balanced interpersonal solutions. Of course, some executives (and people in general) use “underexpansive” solutions, because their ego energy is somehow blocked, inhibited, or deactivated – which also results in dysfunctional behavior and outcomes. The ideal case for a person, according to both Kaplan (1994) and Allcorn (1994), is having – and using – adequate ego energy: a moderate amount of energy that is readily available for productive use (and hence is not deactivated), but does not overwhelm the self or others (and hence is not used excessively for defense mechanisms and dysfunctional interpersonal solutions). Ironically, perhaps, it might be better for people to reduce their total supply of ego energy, if this reduction would remove their excessive, dysfunctional energy – leaving them a greater share of conscious ego energy for reality-based functioning.

Ferris (1994) and Furman (1982) also believe that the primary source of ego energy is the anxiety of separation from the mother (by the infant) and a generalized fear of further separations throughout life. The conflicting fears of abandonment (separation) versus suffocation (fusion) drive ego development and self-identify: Who am I? What makes me unique or special? What makes me valuable? Marshall et al. (1994) also see the primary source of ego energy as a fear of abandonment, but they include the additional fear of not being in control (when, for example, other people are in a position to make decisions that can result in separation and abandonment).

Probably the most elusive source of ego energy is “spirit”. Bolman and Deal (1995) and Deal and Hawkins (1994) offer many examples of how individuals, groups, and organizations have been able to mobilize huge amounts of their spirit by various expressive acts: rituals, rites, stories, myths, legends, ceremonies, music, art, theater, festivity, poetry, and song. Whatever latent spirit resides within people (arriving there by whatever means), it is these collective – cultural – forums that seem to release a spiritual substance that can then be channeled into either functional or dysfunctional uses.

In sum, then, numerous authors appear to concur that the original source of ego energy (much like original sin) stems from each human being’s primitive fears of being abandoned versus being suffocated, which results in a lifelong struggle to define and verify the generic self-concepts: identity, competency, value, worth, and responsibility. Furthermore, these conflicting fears may result in various types of anxiety – which can be generated internally (tensions between the id and the superego) or externally (tensions between the ego and the interpersonal world). Externally generated sources of ego energy, incidentally, not only stem from uncertainties and emotional challenges emanating in the external environment, but also may result from both planned and unplanned expressive acts that can release the latent spiritual energy that exists in everyone.


I have already suggested what ego energy is and where it comes from – including how much is potentially and actually available for use. Now I will consider its consequences. While the usefulness of ego energy (like most other qualities) may range across a wide spectrum of outcomes (benefits and costs for internal and external stakeholders), for convenience I will simplify my discussion by speaking in terms of constructive versus destructive, functional versus dysfunctional, and positive versus negative.

Some authors examine the consequences of ego energy and consider whether these effects are positive or negative for both individuals and their organizations. Allcorn (1991), Ashforth (1994), Branden (1994), and Kets de Vries and Miller (1991) boldly ask whether the workplace supports a person’s self-esteem – or does violence to it. Branden (1994) views positive ego energy as representing an immune system of consciousness – enabling individuals to respond to life’s adversities in an adaptive, learning manner. Negative ego energy, in contrast, is evident when this psychological immune system is either insufficient or nonexistent – so that individuals crumble before inconsequential obstacles (at home and at work).

Similar to this intrapsychic immune system, Holmer (1994) defines the concept of “orientation and response to emotional challenge” (OREC) for the purpose of identifying individuals who can receive feedback with minimal distortion and denial – even though an experience or event is threatening. Those people who seem to have an emotional capacity to “stay open” to the outside world will be able to perform rationally and constructively by making full use of their mental abilities – despite the anxiety and threat in the situation. But individuals without this emotional capacity may “shut down” in the face of adversity, deny what they see, and thereby deceive themselves – resulting in irrational and destructive outcomes.

Deal and Hawkins (1994) also note the constructive versus destructive aspects of spirit when they distinguish between hope and despair. When spirit is either purposely suppressed or inadvertently deactivated, it puts a “bloated, existential anchor” on performance – to the detriment of both individuals and their organizations. In contrast, when leadership is able to provide a nourishing environment in which people can utilize their talents while connecting with the souls of others, a large amount of both individual and collective ego energy can be unleashed and mobilized for constructive purposes. According to Bolman and Deal (1995), encouraging and enabling members to engage in expressive activity not only creates an energized and committed membership, but also enhances consciousness (being in touch with one’s self, other people, and the external environment).

For Bailey et al. (1994), positive ego energy results when each job in the organization is designed (and then assigned) to fit with the jobholder’s needs to self-appraise his or her ability to perform – and to maintain a favorable image of the self. Indeed, if members feel confident in their abilities to perform their jobs because they regularly receive the information they want and need about their abilities, they do not have to waste energy by designing and conducting self-appraisals: they can use all their ego energy to achieve organizational goals. Yet if the job situation is highly uncertain, rapidly changing, and the information that members need to assess their abilities is not readily available, they may purposely withhold their energy in order to see how their abilities affect job performance (relative to all the other contributing factors in the situation). But withholding energy for the purpose of assessing the effects of one’s abilities also serves to lower job performance. Thus negative ego energy results when members either do not have the abilities to perform their job or do not have the information they desire to see the results of their effort (which wastes valuable energy as they collect this information and appraise their abilities).

As Bailey et al. caution us, however, some people, particularly with low self-esteem, may only desire information that positively confirms their abilities: They do not want information that points out any deficiencies on their part. If these individuals (who have a low desire for self-appraisal) are given the negative information they don’t want, their self-image may be negatively affected – which may decrease their ego energy during the next cycle of job performance. Thus, jobs should be designed to match not only people’s abilities to perform, but also their self-concepts (specifically: identity, competency, value, worth, and responsibility) – which may be different from one person to another.

Allcorn (1994) implies a different slant on the question of functional versus dysfunctional ego energy. Negative ego energy results when people frequently, rigidly, and compulsively use psychological defenses and dysfunctional interpersonal approaches to ward off basic and neurotic anxiety. But when these solutions don’t work well (especially for satisfying other people’s needs and managing complex business problems), even more anxiety is generated – which is then followed by more of the same ineffective solutions that further disconnect people from their true self and the outside world. As a result of these vicious cycles, most of the ego’s energy is shifted toward maintaining a false self (extra good or extra bad) that is not allowed to be questioned by others, which thus prevents the conflict-free, reality-based portion of the ego from performing effectively in the interpersonal world.

For Allcorn, positive ego energy occurs when people use adaptive, flexible, and well-reasoned solutions for coping with normal anxiety. In this case, a large portion of the ego is available for conscious functioning – with minimal energy being used to deny or distort intrapsychic and interpersonal reality. While Allcorn suggests that not much can be done in a work setting to make chronically low-esteem people feel better about themselves (other than to be aware, sensitive, and compassionate about their predicament – and not to get caught in their emotional traps)‚ supportive and consistent management practices can enhance the functioning of people who have adequate self-esteem.

Kaplan’s (1994) approach is completely consistent with Allcorn’s (1994) use of ego psychology. For Kaplan, negative ego energy is released when a person relies on either an overexpansive (excessive) or underexpansive (inhibited) solution to organizational life. The overly expansive solution appears to be based on an idealized false self (extra good), while the underexpansive solution is based on a punitive false self (extra bad). In contrast, positive ego energy is demonstrated when people are more relaxed, open, balanced, sensitive, flexible, tolerant, reasonable, patient, trusting, and accepting of themselves and others – which appears to be rooted in adequate self-esteem (neither too much nor too little). Along these lines, Kaplan (1990) counsels people (especially senior executives) to redirect their negative ego energy to more positive ego energy – through a personalized, management development program.

The most explicit treatment of positive versus negative ego energy is provided by Ferris (1994). He distinguishes ego energy as either a powerful asset or a ruinous liability and puts the burden on management for either helping individuals to alleviate their anxiety or to exacerbate it. On the one hand, if management practices (and the design and administration of formal organizational systems) foster members’ natural ego-defining behaviors by enabling them to enhance their sense of self, pride, achievement, and ethics (or, in terms of our self-concepts, their identity, competency, value, worth, and responsibility), members will be energized to achieve organizational goals along with their personal goals. On the other hand, if management practices violate members’ ego-defining behaviors by expecting them to succeed at the expense of one another (or at the expense of any key external stakeholders – such as their organization’s customers), they may be energized to accomplish their personal goals instead of organizational goals.

Cianni and Romberger (1994), Bandura and Schunk (1981), and Redmond, Mumford and Teach (1993) see management practices as either sustaining members’ beliefs in their abilities to accomplish personal and organizational goals (i.e., positive ego energy) or, alternatively, losing their self-confidence and belief in themselves (i.e., negative ego energy). While Cianni and Romberger concentrate on the special case of developing and sustaining the self-efficacy of women and minorities during periods of prolonged stress from organizational restructuring, it seems that their discussion applies to all members whenever uncertainty and anxiety are present. Management practices such as furnishing job mastery experiences, providing effective role models, giving emotional support, and reducing stress levels – for all organizational members – seem to develop self-efficacy and thus mobilize positive ego energy. But if management fails to provide what is needed for nurturing the self-concepts or does not make developmental experiences (and encouragement) available to all employees on an equal basis, people’s self-efficacy may deteriorate and their sense of ethics will be violated. Under these circumstances, members will have little ego energy (or belief in themselves) to perform their jobs to the best of their ability.

Marshall et al. (1994) also make clear distinctions between positive and negative ego energy as they consider the trauma of organizational transformation for 15,000 employees at Florida Power and Light. For these authors, two primary experiences lead to massive anxiety for members during restructuring, downsizing, redeployment, and job abolishment: First, members can easily feel out of control (which fosters beliefs in external control), since these corporate decisions are usually out of their hands and little formal communication is provided as senior management secretly makes these decisions and plans their implementation; second, major organizational change usually severs the psychological bonds among the members of work groups – as existing jobs are eliminated while new jobs and departments are formed. In most systemwide transformations, members probably feel violated on both counts: (1) their self-identity, competency, value, worth, and responsibility are being negatively affected (or at least threatened) by someone else; and (2) their prior attachments to the organization (emotional investments) are being torn apart without anything (at least for the moment) to replace them – a powerful replay, perhaps, of abrupt separations at birth and thereafter (which generates massive anxiety).

The good news is that Marshall et al. illustrate how, under the difficult and anxiety-producing process of large-scale change, an organization can not only minimize the trauma but also mobilize positive ego energy: Members can be encouraged to actively participate in the transformation process (which fosters beliefs in the internal control of their self-concepts) and, at the same time, to securely reattach themselves to new work groups and new jobs (which are designed with their abilities and needs in mind). Thus, rather than violating members’ self-concepts and thereby mobilizing negative ego energy against the (villainous) organization, fostering active involvement in the change process and keeping everyone continuously informed of what is happening (and thereby activating positive ego energy) will help members take care of both themselves and their organization.

In another case of organizational transformation for four thousand employees of a county government in the United States, Marlowe and Nyhan (1994) make the distinction between ego energy that is activated and ego energy that is enervated. While they address the differences in positive and negative ego energy much like many of the other researchers (via the impact of the formal and informal systems in the organization), these researchers discuss an additional perspective: the effect of the external environment (and not just internal management practices) on the mobilization of ego energy. Marlowe and Nyhan suggest at least three environmental factors (which I have generalized from their focus on a county government) that affect the self-concepts of organizational members: a negative image of the organization and its members held by the public at large or other external stakeholders, which includes diminished expectations about the quality of the organization’s products or services; a fiscal crisis largely driven by external conditions in the region, industry, nation, or global economy; and the growing complexity of the external problems and opportunities facing the organization. These outside factors can significantly drain the ego energy of members – above and beyond what may be occurring inside the organization. But an improvement process that actively involves members in reinventing their organization (and takes into account how every decision and action might raise or lower their ego energy) can succeed in mobilizing positive ego energy – not only to achieve personal and organizational goals but also to create (or select) a more benign external environment.

In sum, much like the discussions on what ego energy is and where it comes from, there appears to be considerable agreement in the literature concerning the mobilization of positive (constructive) versus negative (destructive) ego energy: Specifically, when members are able to define as well as control their self-concepts (identity, competency, value, worth, and responsibility), they will invest their abundant ego energy in the achievement of organizational goals. Alternatively, when members experience external, radical, and unannounced disruptions in their ego attachments (which violate their self-concepts), they may spend most of their ego energy taking care of their anxiety with psychological defenses and dysfunctional interpersonal solutions. And even if organizational members do not need to use their energy for maintaining an extra good or bad false self (because they have adequate self-esteem), their available ego energy will be primarily devoted to achieving personal goals – while they ignore or, worse yet, undermine organizational goals.


In the process of distinguishing positive versus negative ego energy, I mentioned a number of management practices that facilitate the positive side of the equation: (1) helping members to stay open during crises, so they can apply reality-based approaches to these anxiety-ridden surprises; (2) encouraging the active participation of all employees in any transformational change (for reinventing the organization while redefining their self-concepts and reattaching themselves to new surroundings); (3) designing and assigning jobs to fit with members’ abilities as well as their needs for self-appraisal and self-regard; (4) providing all employees with job mastery experiences, role models, emotional encouragement, and stress reduction so they continue to believe in their abilities and themselves; (5) endorsing expressive activities (such as ceremonies, rites, rituals, stories, theater, song, and dance), so that members can release – and then effectively channel – their collective spirit; (6) counseling individuals to help them redirect their excessive self-esteem towards more balanced, adaptive, and flexible behavioral solutions to complex problems.

This brief listing of management practices does not do justice to the extensive literature on organizational development, which provides many interventions to improve the self-concepts – both directly and indirectly (e.g., Cummings and Worley, 1993). Given the limitations of space, however, I only offer a general classification scheme that summarizes the organizational systems, management practices, and leadership behavior that can channel ego energy towards the achievement of organizational goals.

Kilmann (1989) classifies all the formal and informal systems in an organization into these categories: the setting (dynamic complexity and external stakeholders); the organization (strategy-structure and the reward system); the individual (interpersonal styles and skills for managing people and problems); the group (collective decision making and action taking); and, at center stage, the informal organization (cultural norms, values, and beliefs). The key question is whether these systemic elements are barriers or channels to achieving the desired results: the ongoing satisfaction of customers and other key stakeholders.

It should be apparent that this paper is concerned with learning how to unleash, mobilize, and channel positive ego energy – so as to improve the functioning of individuals and their organizations. But for the purpose of making the key distinctions absolutely clear, the next few paragraphs summarize the two extremes: How organizational systems and management practices can generate either negative or positive ego energy – depending on how they are designed and conducted throughout an organization.

Organizational systems that are systemic barriers to success (and thus promote negative ego energy) are evidenced when the culture fosters mistrust and dysfunctional behavior among members – both within and across work groups; employees exhibit defensive communication and deficient problem-solving skills; members show little cooperation and teamwork – both within and across their work groups; employees receive conflicted strategic signals that have been translated into confusing goals, objectives, and jobs; formal work units are divided by steep functional walls – which prevent members from obtaining the essential resources (and information) to perform their jobs (and define their self concepts); the reward system overemphasizes measures of short-term (financial) results, downplays the behavioral (psychological) contributions needed to manage complex problems and improve business processes and, in the worst cases, promotes unhealthy competition among members and their work units.

Management practices (guided by barriers to success) that seem to promote negative ego energy are evidenced as discouraging members from enacting their natural ego-defining behaviors – and thereby maintaining external control over the ego energy of employees and, correspondingly, being insensitive to their ego attachments. As might be expected, these management practices also do not question the systemic barriers to success and, therefore, do not even consider the option of changing the formal and informal systems so they will foster more authentic, constructive, and satisfying human relationships.

Organizational systems that are systemic channels to success (and, hence, promote positive ego energy) are evidenced when the culture fosters trust, candor, information sharing, and a willingness to change and improve; employees have the appropriate styles and skills to communicate effectively with one another, and identify and solve complex problems; a spirit of cooperation and teamwork flourishes within and across all work units; members have an accurate and clear understanding of how their daily jobs (and their self-concepts) align with the strategic direction of their organization and have the necessary resources to perform efficiently and effectively; the reward system motivates high individual – and team – performance according to external (benchmarked) standards of excellence (versus internal social comparisons among members) and explicitly appraises behavioral contributions to long-term organizational success (such as fostering positive ego energy among members).

Management practices (guided by channels to success) that seem to promote positive ego energy are evidenced as actively encouraging the meaningful involvement of all employees in their natural ego-defining behaviors and being especially sensitive to their ego attachments – especially during periods of transformation, restructuring, and uncertainty. In fact, these management practices regularly examine the functionality of the formal and informal organizational systems – and proceed to transform any identified barriers to success into channels for success. In essence, these practices encourage all people and systems to stay open to reality – despite ongoing threats to members’ self-concepts (Holmer, 1994).

Besides these organizational systems and management practices for unleashing and mobilizing positive (versus negative) ego energy, it is important to consider the influence of the external environment on the organization as suggested by Marlowe and Nyhan (1994): dynamic complexity in general (which can generate considerable uncertainty and anxiety via fiscal crises, for example) and external stakeholders in particular (whose unfavorable opinions of the organization can erode members’ self-concepts and thus stimulate psychological defenses and dysfunctional interpersonal solutions). But, the more the organization has developed functional systems and practices, the more it can be proactive in influencing (and selecting) its external setting.

And besides systems, practices, and proactively managing the external setting, it appears that leadership (creating and changing systems) and not just management (administering the existing systems) has an fundamental effect on channeling positive ego energy. Several authors place a special burden on the organization’s senior executives. Branden (1994), Ferris (1994), Kaplan (1990; 1994), and Staub (1993), for example, suggest that the major task for leaders is to enhance their own self-esteem – before they can expect to foster the self-esteem of anyone else in their organization.

Not everyone can benefit from organizational systems, management practices, and leadership efforts that attempt to foster positive ego energy. Both Branden (1994) and Allcorn (1994) remind us that people with chronically low self-esteem are too engrossed with their intrapsychic survival to receive feedback and then respond in a functional manner. Or in Holmer’s (1994) terms, some people have not developed a sufficient emotional capacity to respond adaptively when faced with considerable anxiety and threat. But if people with low self-esteem wish to pursue their personal growth and development, they can get professional help outside the immediate workplace (for example, through an employee assistance program or in some other therapeutic setting).

The external environment, organizational systems, management practices, and leadership behavior – all seem to play an important role in channeling positive ego energy to achieve organizational goals (especially for people with adequate self-esteem). Likewise, the key ingredients that appear to enable people to be in touch with their inner being and their interpersonal world (so they can make conscious and constructive use of their abundant energy and abilities) are the same ingredients that enable an organization to satisfy its internal and external stakeholders. The ultimate win/win scenario: It takes well-functioning people to sustain a well-functioning organization – and vice versa.


The fifth and last question to address in this paper could also have been the first – since it concerns the timeliness of this discussion. Indeed, numerous authors recognize a particular confluence of circumstances and events that make ego energy more important now than ever before: Rapid technological, political, economic, and social change generates massive anxiety, uncertainty, turbulence, and fear. In today’s world, people’s identity, competency, value, worth, and responsibility are constantly being challenged and threatened – especially since organizations have to implement major transformations and frequent restructurings in order to survive. More than ever before, people must minimize the use of reality-avoiding psychological defenses and dysfunctional interpersonal solutions and, instead, rely on more adaptive solutions. Mental health and organizational health are now at stake.

Branden (1994) argues that the human mind has become the dominant factor in our global marketplace – given the economic imperative to rapidly create and market better products and services. And as the mind has become increasingly important, so has self-esteem – since without adequate levels of self-esteem, people cannot – and will not – use their minds for creative and constructive purposes. Similarly, Holmer (1994) notes that mental processes are severely affected by people’s emotional capacity: If people deny what they see and feel in the face of threat and anxiety, their minds cannot manage reality or complexity.

Holmer (1994) and Saaty and Boone (1990) also believe that the development of rational technology (for example, computer technology, robotics, artificial intelligence, and telecommunications) has far exceeded the development of people’s emotional capacity to use this technology as intended. As such, there may be a large gap between what organizations have the potential to do (rationally, technically, and economically) and what they can actually do – given people’s undeveloped emotional capacity to cope with anxiety-producing situations (including corporate transformations and restructurings). Deal and Hawkins (1994) argue the same essential point: The traditional, rational approaches for improving organizations have not worked – because they routinely ignore the spiritual side of collective action. Therefore, the gap between the rational/technical and the emotional/spiritual approaches must now be closed; otherwise, organizations will not succeed in increasingly turbulent environments.

The advent of greater environmental complexity also argues for a better understanding and use of ego energy. Complex problems can only be managed by integrating the wisdom and abilities of diverse experts – since no one individual can possibly have all the knowledge and abilities to manage multidisciplinary, interconnected problems. Traditional external incentives to ensure compliance with formal rules and regulations (external control) do not seem to work very well for motivating creative interchanges among diverse experts. Instead, internal incentives are needed to stimulate complex mental processes – which include people’s natural ego-defining processes. As Bailey et al. (1994) and Ferris (1994) aptly propose, enabling people to define their self-concepts while they join together to identify and solve complex problems is not only altogether natural. It is far more realistic than expecting external inducements to produce internal commitment among diverse experts.

Besides having to use diverse experts for managing complexity, it is also important to recognize the greater diversity of race, gender, and ethnic background among organizational members. What was an overwhelming majority of white males (particularly in management and technical positions) is quickly becoming a majority of women and minorities in the workforce (Fisher, Schoenfeldt, and Shaw, 1993). Yet, as suggested by Cianni and Romberger (1994) and Solomon (1990), women and minorities may still have greater difficulty in obtaining job mastery experiences, finding compatible role models (especially at the higher levels in the organization), receiving emotional support (outside the old boy network), and reducing stress levels (if they are not accepted by the white-male establishment – which surely produces additional anxiety). As their belief in themselves and their ability to perform diminishes, their actual performance on the job also suffers. Making matters worse, according to Allcorn (1994) and Lerner (1989), women are socialized to rely on self-effacing (passive-dependent) solutions for managing anxiety, while men are socialized to use expansive (aggressive-independent) solutions. For men and women in the organization, therefore, these lifestyle solutions often result in a dysfunctional – codependent – relationship in which aggressive men hold the senior management positions while passive women occupy the lower-level jobs. But by knowing how to unleash, mobilize, and then channel ego energy for all employees on an equal basis, every organization can make full use of its diverse human resources.

In sum, then, it appears that we now need a deeper – and richer – understanding of the human mind and spirit if we are to meet the complex challenges in today’s increasingly turbulent world. We must now recognize each individual’s primitive struggle for personal meaning if the potential of human intelligence and adaptability is to be utilized for functional purposes. The emerging theories and methods of ego energy can now integrate the emotional/spiritual dynamics of organizational life with the mostly rational/technical approaches – to create the best of both worlds.


I have attempted to integrate the various self-concepts used in the social science literature into a revitalized focus of ego energy. I have also discussed some reasons why individuals and organizations must be in close touch with their inner being and the outside world – in order to devote all their energies and abilities on organizational problems and opportunities. Without this reality-based orientation, both individuals and organizations will find it increasingly difficult to survive – let alone to succeed.

Regarding future directions, I suggest that researchers study how various interventions (and combinations of interventions) can increase the amount of positive ego energy in organizations – especially during the process of organizational transformation. Such efforts could also be used to test the underlying hypothesis that people can be more supportive and successful at organizational change if they truly believe that they will not lose themselves in the process. Indeed, the bottom-line question for both research and practice is this: Can members quickly and effectively detach their egos from the old ways of doing things and reattach themselves to new kinds of coworkers, jobs, organizations, institutions, and environments?

Producing valid and useful knowledge for helping people and their organizations adapt to an increasingly changing world is vitally important – not only for the future well being of society, but also for the social sciences. Instead of looking “out there” for new solutions to complex challenges, we need to spend more time studying how people define their essence and who they are. Everything else seems to emanate from this inner perspective.


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