Self-esteem in the workplace can be both healthy and productive, as it points to self-respect and confidence in one’s abilities. Lawyers, for example, having gone to four years of college and three of law school before passing a rigorous bar exam, not only have reason to be confident but in fact must be, given the competition and stakes involved. Doctors require years more training with life and its quality at stake. Executive assistants need to be highly organized and efficient. Insurance salesmen must be well versed in the often-arcane byways of life, home, auto, health and disability. The same parameters of individualized excellence apply to a thousand other professions, which lead to promotions, salary increases, personal fulfillment and positive societal contributions.
Yet why does the ego so often cross the line from benefit to baseness? S. Mark Young, a professor at the University of Southern California’s Marshall School of Business, points out that “narcissists may do the most damage at the top, but they can disrupt workplaces at all levels. They possess very little empathy and have grandiose views of themselves, leading to feelings of entitlement and a constant need for admiration. Narcissists are cutthroat and scheming; they tend to dominate the conversation and will do just about anything to be the center of attention, even if it’s negative attention.”
The history of the business world is littered with examples of executives who may have started out their jobs with idealism and discipline, yet became ever more unbearable as their responsibilities, salaries and stock options increased. This hardly needs to be a quid pro quo. For every such insufferable manager, there are those on the other side whose egos do not require skyscraper attention and who take corporate social responsibility seriously. Why do some descend into the former camp, while others thrive within the latter?
Taking a step back from the moments and tasks at hand, those able to recognize the brevity of life, and how small they are not only in relation to the size of our planet but within the annals of history—regardless of title or entitle—have consistently shown themselves to be happier and more content than those whose ego allows them to operate with the visibility of a snowstorm. And beyond home and hearth, family and fellowship, education and enlightenment, what good is money? Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook’s cofounder and chief executive, just announced that he and his wife, Dr. Priscilla Chan, would donate 99% of their company shares (currently approaching $50 billion) to charity during their lifetime, a pledge made via an open letter to their newborn daughter: “Our initial areas of focus will be personalized learning, curing disease, connecting people and building strong communities.”
Who would anyone rather work for, someone who knows how fortunate he or she is and is determined to give back, or someone who knows little beyond a job’s daily parameters and base measurements? Given how permanently obvious the answer is to most people with a heart and two lungs, it remains astonishing how prevalent—how bad—the alternative.