A Tactic for Other's Frustration - and an Unfortunate REVIEWED: No Ego (Cy Wakeman)

This one is going around, and I should have known better. I admit, I came into Cy Wakeman’s No Ego: How Leaders Can Cut the Cost of Workplace Drama, End Entitlement, and Drive Big Results with high hopes and low expectations.


The book isn’t worth your time, but one tactic or approach is very useful. So I’m going to share that tactic with you. Now you can do something productive with the few hours it would take you to read No Ego.


Ms. Wakeman’s analysis of ego starts at the truth: people respond to certain situations by creating stories that just aren’t true. These stories are often expressed as frustration, victimhood, or entitlement. Her first story is about the failure of the open door policy, and that it simply invites complaining.


Ms. Wakeman never interrogates why her employees are constantly coming to her with strong negative emotion reactions. These reactions, remember, are the immediate response to an interaction, and are therefore the beginning of an emotion relationship. Emotion relationships are the expected feelings we have in a situation based on past experiences. A wise scholar of human existence would suppose that maybe it happens because of events in the workplace. If employees are writing stories that aren’t true, perhaps it is because those stories are true in other aspects of the work?


The organizational environment impacts the decisions that people make, and leadership’s role is to shape these environmental factors to allow people to make good decisions. For Ms. Wakeman, it seems that individuals are solely responsible for their decisions. While this is true in the abstract, it is inaccurate – even dangerous – in the real world. I don’t disagree that some people decide to not perform and should be let go, as I discuss in the section in Redefining Leadership, but Wakeman takes this to the extreme.


So, setting aside all of the judgement and derision throughout the book, Ms. Wakeman reaches a recommendation: teach your employees to reframe their “complaining” into finding ways to improve . Her solution works because it redirects an emotion reaction towards the function of vision. By asking – and supporting – group members to transition from their emotional reaction of a situation towards a productive outcome, leadership connects this experience to the story of vision. The question, “what can you do to overcome this challenge and create excellence?” allows the individual to see his or her individual contribution and the value it offers to the customer.


What Wakeman calls complaining is actually a way for people to process stress and frustration. These are natural feelings in the course of interacting with others to accomplish a goal. People need to get express these feelings so they can be recognized and shared, and then they are able to move on towards productive action based on logical and deliberate thoughts. Plus, these are bonding experiences: “Can you believe the client wants that?” is a way to check in with the other members and establish commonality of experience. Emotion is a first response, but it has to be processed otherwise it will linger and create worse emotions. Once that is done, then the redirect can move the group forward.


That’s the role of leadership – to understand human beings, to allow them space to act as humans, and then to provide what the group needs to move towards excellence.


As an aside, Wakeman’s perspective is an ironic contrast with her attacks on traditional leadership theories that leaders should motivate, encourage, and at times direct. It’s as if she thinks putting out fires of drama is the most enjoyable, useful way to apply a fancy title, so who wouldn’t rather do that than find a root cause and actually move people forward? Another example: yes, she is right that you can’t increase engagement through fancy coffee machines and comfy couches. She’s wrong about the why and how: those things do not address the most valuable reward of work, individual contributions to meaningful change. Nor is it appropriate to write off disengaged employees as “unaccountable”, as she does. Rather, tell the story of vision. It’s that easy.


Accountability is not an independent variable in the employment equation. It’s not static: it is constantly being created, based on constantly-shifting feelings and thoughts, within each employee. Don’t get me started on change management, which she believes “coddle employees” (121) or the more advanced topics later in the book. When an argument starts from the perspective that people are whiney, self-indulgent, deliberately counterproductive, and generally lazy, the solutions are likely to reflect a similarly negative approach to humanity.


The short of it: when someone is frustrated or disengaged, whatever the cause, ask questions that help them find their contribution to overcome the situation and contribute to the meaningful change from the story of vision.


Don’t waste your time on this book, because now you know the tactic.


If you want to learn more about the story of vision, check out our vision challenge. This will walk you through the five factors so that you are ready when someone comes to you with unbridled frustration.


No Ego: How Leaders Can Cut the Cost of Workplace Drama, End Entitlement, and Drive Big Results. Cy Wakeman. St. Martin’s Press, 2017.

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