By Rob Cooney (@EMEducation)
I was first introduced to Cy Wakeman while working with a wonderful leadership coach. We were talking through some of the many leadership challenges surrounding buy-in and she advised me to watch Mrs. Wakeman’s keynote at the 2018 WorkHuman Conference. As I listened to the keynote, it seemed to me that I had heard her style before. I walked over to my bookshelf and discovered that I actually already owned her book, No Ego: How Leaders Can Cut the Cost of Workplace Drama, End Entitlement and Drive Big Results. Talk about the power of an “anti-library!” After completing keynote, I sat down and began reading what was to become my favorite leadership book of 2018.
Mrs. Wakeman’s background is that of a “drama researcher.” Her research has demonstrated the extremely high cost of drama at work. As she goes on to explain, almost all drama is rooted in the ego, that voice inside our heads that constant works to distort our reality. This drama is nothing more than emotional waste. It steals a leaders’ time and energy and distracts us from doing work that matters. Many behaviors fall within this bucket, including lack of ownership and accountability, blaming others, resisting change, failing to buy-in, gossiping, defensiveness, and hurt feelings. Unfortunately, these situations seem to be increasing. Modern leaders spend almost 2 1/2 hours of their day dealing with the drama created by these behaviors! Furthermore, our current toolkits for dealing with these problems only creates a sense of entitlement and feeds the ego. They do not help employees develop the most effective mental processes that generate the success that we wish to achieve.
The remainder of the book is focused on coaching our followers (and ourselves) to defeat their ego. This is no easy task. Dealing with reality requires a significant amount of self-reflection, and our ego opposes this behavior every step of the way. She quickly illustrates how effective leaders move past the ego by asking a series of questions.
- What would “great” look like?
- What do you know for sure?
- What can you do to help?
- How could we make this work?
Questions like these engage the process of self-reflection, and as Mrs. Wakeman states, “self-reflection is death to the ego.” It also happens to be profoundly helpful when establishing accountability. Other ego bypass tricks that she promotes include narrative writing in order to overcome our internal narrator, going first when it comes to empathetic listening, maintaining an “open heart, open mind” by coming up with three different explanations for why another person is behaving in the manner they are, and to “stop guessing and inquire” by actually asking questions in order to gain further clarity. She includes a full list of self-reflection questions on pages 51 and 52.
Another fascinating section of the book deals directly with the issue of engagement. As she explains, engagement is a choice made by the follower. Unfortunately, there are three flawed ways of thinking about engagement currently (see page 62):
- Every employee’s opinion is equally credible
- Leaders are responsible for creating the perfect environment for employees to give the “gift of their work”
- Engagement is the magic key for great results
What is missing from the above points is that engagement without accountability equals entitlement. Accountability is the magic key. So what should we do instead? First, we need to understand motivation a little bit better. (It may be helpful to review self-determination theory and locus of control theory). It is also helpful to identify your high performers. If they are dissatisfied, pay attention. In order to be high performers, they have already “bought in” and demonstrate their accountability through their great work. And for low performers? It’s back to question time. Ask them about their commitment, willingness to be on board, or plan to either get on board or find a new job. As she goes on to explain, accountability is their choice, not your responsibility.
The book continues to explore accountability in great depth before moving into the relationship between accountability and modern change management. She finishes with a wonderful, 65-page appendix filled with tools and question guides.
As I mentioned above, this book is my favorite leadership book of 2018 and one that I frequently pull off the shelf and review. I have even made little cheat sheets for myself that sit on my office desk for when they’re needed. Pick up a copy and prepare to think a little bit differently by the time you’re finished.