Don’t let your Ego and your Job Fall in Love

April 28, 2014 § 4 Comments

Diplomacy was born in the rarefied upper reaches of aristocracy when monarchs governed through their courts and when power and aristocratic station were two names for the same thing.

Canada is surely among the most egalitarian societies on the planet. Moreover, our culture has a strong current of anti-elitism running through it. But when we enter into the diplomatic and high-level international policy profession, our job often becomes synonymous with entry into the upper strata of the elite in our host countries. There is tension and hazard here.

Whether you are a diplomat or a country manager for a multinational, the natural habitat is the upper crust. This seductive phenomenon is more acute in societies marked by inequality and class division. Let’s face it, people are uncomfortable mingling across social divisions. Mingling upwards takes people out of their comfort zone and makes some worry about the risk of rejection. It’s hard for most people to reciprocate the classy and fancy hospitality that high level diplomats and international executives are expected to offer. A real effort is needed to make friends across social divisions.

International policy professionals need to be aware of this peculiar workplace hazard. There is a risk that your ego can inflate past your personal attributes in order to meet the level of flattery that your powerful position attracts.

In my experience, this ego expansion is obvious to our compatriots. It annoys them.  Like an open fly, nobody will tell you if they see it, except your spouse or best friend – after it is too late. So we better be very self-aware. However, we also need to be skilled in multiple modes of behaviour. Our jobs require that we conduct ourselves with dignity, confidence and comfort in high level, formal and public occasions. This is being a good steward of the prestige of our office. Then we need to return safely to the ground. Good diplomats are authentic people at the same time.


§ 4 Responses to Don’t let your Ego and your Job Fall in Love

  • Peter McKernan says:

    An accurate and important observation, Tim!

    I would add that our colleagues in other government departments also sense this elitism and view it unfavourably. In a global age, when nearly every aspect of policymaking has an international dimension, our ability to work effectively across departmental lines is more important than ever. Both in town, and overseas, elitism doesn’t do us any favours.

    I wonder: what impact do you think the amalgamation between DFAIT and CIDA will have in this respect?

    • diplocounsel says:

      Thanks for your comment, Peter. I very much agree with you. Foreign ministries sometimes circle the wagons to control access to the diplomatic network as well as policy making. At the same time, there are specific technical and management knowledge and skills connected with overseas operations. It is important that people that move into international policy positions acquire these skills because running an embassy in Cairo is is not the same as a regional office in Calgary.
      I am a supporter of the amalgamation for many reasons. For example, in many cases our development objectives have to do as much or more to do with encouraging the policy choices of our partners as it does with transferring money When can use the full suite of policy instruments, we can have better impact.
      All the best,

  • mary says:

    While I have seen this grandiose sense of self and ego in executive-level diplomats I believe that the reality of the current Foreign Service will ensure that younger generations no longer suffer from the affliction. After last year’s strike, it is well known that we are not as well paid as our compatriots in Ottawa, nor do we have the same possibilities for upward mobility.

    The rent ceilings and hospitality budget cuts at mission have created a situation where we cannot entertain or host events at our staff quarters. Events and receptions are cancelled five times out of ten.

    I remember once I was told by a Director that I could attend an important meeting in New York but I would have to cover my own accommodation expenses. After a trying night at the YMCA I got up the next morning and represented our country at the United Nations. Its hard to develop an ego under such circumstances.

    • diplocounsel says:

      Dear Mary,
      You make an excellent point. Young diplomatic officers should work in a collegial and respectful relationship with ambassadors and executives. But elitism and failure to tailor work activities to scarce resources is bad for the institution. A few executives, like the director to whom you refer, make the poor management choice of asking officers to make personal sacrifices in order to get on the job learning. It’s unfair, irresponsible and no way to run a foreign ministry. Thank you very much for your comment and raising the important issue of working conditions for young professional diplomats.

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