How can you eliminate all the drama at work?
The average work week in America is 45 hours. From Monday through Friday, you find yourself clocking into an environment you have very little control over. You can’t pick your co-workers, your bosses, and sometimes even your desk. So much of this leads to tension, unpleasantness, and yes, drama. So what can you do to squash the workplace drama once and for all, and start living the breezy life you’ve always dreamed of?
Cy Wakeman is a drama researcher, keynote speaker, and trainer, who has spent more than 20 years cultivating a revolutionary approach she calls Reality-Based Leadership. She writes for Fast Company, Forbes, and the Huffington Post. She's also a New York Times best-selling author. Her new book is No Ego: How Leaders Can Cut the Cost of Workplace Drama, End Entitlement, and Drive Big Results.
I recently interviewed Cy on the LEADx Podcast, where we discuss empathy, ego, and BMW’s. (The interview below has been lightly edited for space and clarity.)
Kevin Kruse: I’m hoping you will share a time when you failed, and what you learned from it?
Cy Wakeman: It’s hard to pinpoint just one. I always tell my staff, I say, “I screw this up, but only daily.” One that sticks out in my mind that's been a lifelong lesson is that my team had been asked to move five times in a single year. It was one of those times where we were growing rapidly, and I was in health care. Rather than moving patients on ventilators, they would move HR. I remember after about the fourth move, my team just revolted. They thought the move meant that we didn't care about them and we didn't value their contribution.
They came to me, and they were furious. They're like, “Cy, what about my engagement? What if I don't have the tools I need to do my job?” I made the mistake of sympathizing rather than empathizing. I heard them and felt sorry for them and colluded with them that we were innocent victims and that the organization didn't care about us, instead of empathizing, saw that they were suffering and then called them to greatness. I actually went and demanded to see my boss two levels up, and I was going to represent my people.
They were suffering, and I needed my boss to stop the moving. I'll never forget the lesson I learned. She looked at me, and I said, “My team is suffering.” She's like, “Well, why are they suffering?” I said, “Because we move all the time.” She said, “Well, I've noticed that you move a lot, that that's your reality. I'm just wondering why there's suffering.” It stumped me. “We're suffering because we move all the time.” She said, “No, that's your reality. Why are you suffering?” It was such a great coaching question because it was the first time somebody helped me separate out suffering from reality, that reality was just reality, but suffering was optional.
The reason we suffered is we hadn't yet gotten mobile. We had moved four times and never developed the skill set to live as nomads. If I went back to my team and got us skillful in living as nomads, moving would never hurt.
It was the first time that whenever I thought that my team or my pain came from reality, I was wrong. My pain came from not growing the skill set I needed to be fluent in that current reality. That was mind-blowing to me. It changed the way I lead to this day.
Kruse: I guess this is really your origin story of how you understood that there is reality, but suffering is optional.
Wakeman: Absolutely. What she said to me, which was mind-blowing, was, “You know, if reality were perfect, I wouldn't need you as a leader. You would add no value. The only value you add as a leader is in an imperfect reality.” I was like, “Dang.”
Kruse: When I was younger I broke bad news to my team and immediately agreed that it was awful and unfair. I should have represented the imperfect reality that we were in.
Wakeman: That is a wonderful learning because I tell leaders all the time, when you take a role as a leader, you lose the right to your personal opinion because what it does is it injures people. Let's say I was having a heart attack and I went to an emergency room, and the provider came out and said, “Cy, what's wrong?” I'm like, “I have crushing chest pains,” and the provider said, “Oh, my gosh, me, too. Does it go down your left arm?” “Yes.” He or she said, “Me, too.” See, I came to the emergency room looking for medical care, and I didn't get any because the person sympathized with me. They had the same stuff going on.
I think that's what happens when people come to us for leadership, is we fail them when we collude or sympathize or roll things out with our personal opinion. I think that's such a good lesson for people to learn early on in their careers.
Kruse: What does ‘BMW’ stand for?
Wakeman: We joke and we say that BMW stands for bitching, moaning, and whining wagons. Right? What my research really led to in the writing of this newest book, No Ego, is that I was able to quantify the amount of time people spent in drama, bitching, moaning, and whining, venting, tattling, score-keeping, complaining, resisting change, and it is two-and-a-half hours per day, per head count. That's 816 hours a year on average per employee. When you think about the work you have at hand on your team, and if everybody could recapture and upcycle 816 hours a year and put it towards results, plus the bonus is you're happier, it's just this incredible opportunity of recapturing this emotional waste that's in the workplace that we've come to accept as the cost of doing business.
Kruse: It seems even if we just scale back on our BMWing all day, we would be more productive and a lot happier.
Wakeman: Absolutely. Something else happens, too, because the ego gets fed by seeing insult where there isn't any, and it's always narrating kind of a negative interpretation of life. It's where I'm the victim of circumstances. The ego, the venting actually fuels the ego. If you can stop the venting and instead move into self-reflection, the bonus points is not only do you just recapture time, but that energy is really upcycled because self-reflection is such a big part of accountability, which is such a big part of innovation and all of that.
In fact, we know that anything you want for yourself or your team, whether you want your team to be more innovative or more successful or collaborate more or be better teammates, that's their natural state. That's what's inside us. That's who we are when the drama is gone. The drama is ego-driven, but if you can bypass that ego and get to the center of your brain where you're innovative and creative, all that good stuff is there. It's just that we can't be in ego and self-reflection at the same time. The brain is incapable of it.
If you're BMW driving, you're operating out of ego. You're not operating out of self-reflection and that core part of your brain where everything good comes from.
Kruse: You say, “Your ego is not your amigo.” How do I push the ego aside and get into self-reflection?
Wakeman: It all starts with some great questions. What I would say is stop believing everything you think. The first step really to be actionable is awareness. Get in touch with how often your ego is narrating your reality and it's corrupting your data. “I have a slow laptop, and therefore I'm never going to get this done.” Okay, do you hear where the ego jumped in?
“I have a laptop that's not my preference.” Reality. “I will never get this project done.” Ego. Once you start to realize that your ego is just narrating and that you can stop believing everything you think, I ask myself a question. “I'll never get that project done. Is that true?” Well, no, that's not true. I need to get this project done. Self-reflection, “What could I do to be more effective and efficient given the fact that I have a slow laptop?”
Kruse: Does this have roots in cognitive behavioral therapy?
Wakeman: I started life as a therapist. I'm busted. It is cognitive behavior therapy. What you need to do is the way you get out of this narrative is you ask yourself questions that, again, we call them ego bypass. It gets you away from your ego, which is giving you a distorted view of the world. It's like wearing a poor set of prescription glasses. It gets you into, “What can I do?” One thing in our company that's very actionable is we have a mantra, “Stop judging. Start helping.” Stop judging. Start helping.
When I find myself in ego, judging, like, “Kevin interrupts me all the time and doesn't give me the work I need, and he's a micromanager,” okay, that's all judgment, I catch myself, and I go, “Wait a minute, what could I do that would help?” It's just a way of reframing.
Let's say that I am judging you, that you're my manager and you micromanage. I would go to you. Instead of judging you, I would say, “Kevin, what's one thing I could do that would raise your confidence in me so that you would feel more comfortable checking in just once a week rather than maybe daily?”
Kruse: It's about starting the work on solving the challenge at hand and feeling empowered and taking some action.
Wakeman: Absolutely. The ego, the first step is just understanding how often that narrates the world and how often you're working with corrupted data. You're working with a story. Another thing I do a lot is I just ask myself, “What do I know for sure, and what could I do next that would add value?” Let's say I am sales support and I have an order that comes up on my screen, and there's information missing.
If I'm reality-based, I go, “Oh my gosh, we have a new customer. That's great. There's information missing. Okay, what do I know for sure? Just that there's information missing. I have a phone number. What could I do next? I'll call the customer, thank them for joining our organization as a customer, talk to them about how great a decision that was, tell them I want to make sure that order flies through manufacturing, and to that end, I want to check and make sure all their data is correct.” That would be just such a happy, wonderful approach.
Here's what most people do, is they get thinking, “Sales does this crap on purpose. They make the big bucks. I have to clean up every order. I'm surrounded by idiots. I'm the only one around here who cares about quality. If I did my job like they did their job, I would be fired.” Ego, ego, ego. If I ask myself, “What do I know for sure? I'm surrounded by idiots,” I don't know that. “They do this on purpose.” I have no way of knowing that. I doubt they get up in the morning and have a plan to screw up my day.
What I do know for sure is that we have a new customer and there's information missing that could affect their order, so what can I do? I could call the customer, and in a way that adds value and builds our brand. Add value, get their order on track without ever telling them it was off track and have it fly through manufacturing. The bonus in this is you live a more peaceful life. You're so much happier. When we're in ego, we think it, we believe it. It's like stop believing everything you think. That will open up a whole new world of ways you can add value.
Kruse: What do you do when someone is sure that what their ego is saying is true? How do you convince them to try it?
Wakeman: I can’t convince them, but I can just tell them that if they witness how we live at Reality-Based Leadership, they would see how peaceful it is. Here's the deal. Here's the reason. It's not that people don't want to be responsible. It's that the ego wants to live, and to stay alive, the ego eats anger for lunch. The ego has to stay mildly irritated about many things. It has to see insult where there isn't any because if you get into self-reflection, that leads you to accountability, and accountability is the death of the ego.
People tell me, “I don't think people want to be accountable,” and I don't think it's about people choosing. I think it's about people sleepwalking, that they actually haven't figured out that their ego is not them, that it's just a narrator, that they sit behind their ego and that they're so much more powerful than they think. I'll give you an example. I had a woman tell me her culture was really toxic. I had been in this organization for a few days, and I was having a blast. Great people.
I said, “I want to hear more from you. Tell me more.” She said, “Well, here's an example,” and she showed me an email, and it said, “There's an ice cream social at 2:00 this afternoon.” All I could think about was joy. Free ice cream in the lobby, 2:00. I said, “That sounds great.” She goes, “Oh, you don't know the backstory.” I'm like, “Well, what's the backstory?” She said, “Well, my leaders plan ice cream at 2:00 because they know that's when my team would be least able to make it because we're in the call center.”
Now, your ego made that story up, the odds in a company of 40,000 that somebody can figure out the worst time for you to have an ice cream social. I said, “Oh, I doubt that's true.” She wouldn't let go of it. She goes, “Plus, I'm lactose intolerant, and they don't provide an alternative.” I'm like, “Oh, my gosh.” Just hear how hard we work to resist happiness and resist success. Some people really believe their thinking. If you want peace, my best advice is question everything you think. Question it.
Your ego is narrating your reality, and it always paints you as a victim, and it always diminishes you, and it convinces you, you don't have power. Some people tell me, “Cy, I need to be empowered.” I'm like, “Step into the power you already have.”
Kruse: I always like to challenge our listeners to get 1% better every day, so what's one thing we can do today to become a better leader?
Wakeman: I would say give people the benefit of the doubt, meaning that when you are about to assign negative motive, stop yourself and assign positive motive. If I think you walked by me and you didn't say “Hello,” because you're rude and you just got a promotion, I need to stop that story and insert something positive. You were deep in prayer and meditation for peace in the world and didn't see me. Just starting getting mentally flexible because our ego would have everything that happens have a negative narration.
Just to confuse my ego, I just start assuming the best of people. As a professional, I give people the benefit of the doubt, and it creates new possibilities.
Kevin Kruse is a New York Times bestselling author, host of the popular LEADx Leadership Podcast, and the CEO/Founder of LEADx.org, which provides free world-class leadership training, professional development and career advice for anyone, anywhere.