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How to cut out drama in the workplace to improve results

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  • Suffering is optional, and usually self-imposed.
  • Our suffering does not come from our reality; it comes from the stories we make up about our reality.
  • Your circumstances are not the reason you can’t succeed; they are the reality in which you must succeed.
  • Venting is the ego’s way of avoiding self-reflection.
  • Professionals give others the benefit of the doubt – they assume noble intent.

Those are five core beliefs shared by Cy Wakeman in No Ego, a book about how individuals create drama and discord in the workplace – rather than constructive collaboration – by operating out of ego.

Originally a therapist who moved into workplace consulting, she was struck by how conventional leadership approaches were missing this element.

At times, the approaches fed ego – and not just those of top leaders, but also anyone in the ranks resisting feedback and grumbling about how wrong everything around them is.

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Sound exaggerated? Ms. Wakeman says we continually stoke drama in the workplace, creating "emotional waste."

She gives this quick example: The boss asks how you are doing on a project. You indicate you're a bit behind and she encourages you to try to catch up as soon as possible. Good-willed collaboration? Probably, but chances are you might create a different story around that interaction, about a micromanaging boss or a superior always hounding and mistrusting you, particularly when you're overly busy.

Ms. Wakeman surveyed human resources experts and employees, finding that emotional waste – stewing in our stories, arguing with reality – chews up 2 1/2 hours a day. Such surveys have their faults, but no doubt your experience suggests emotional waste is real and higher than desired.

"Ego is not your amigo," Ms. Wakeman says in an interview. "Ego is a distorted filter of the world, judging and creating motive. It's like wearing a bad pair of prescription glasses. Stop believing what you think.

"You aren't what you think. You aren't even the one doing the thinking."

Dealing with this as a supervisor or team leader revolves around two more aphorisms she has developed as core beliefs you need to adopt:

  • The impact of a leader does not come from what he or she tells team members but from what he or she gets them thinking about.
  • Engagement without accountability creates entitlement.

You should push for self-reflection by team members or subordinates. Instead of giving them answers and directions – actions you probably think leadership requires, but only provoke egotistical reactions – the questions deftly sidestep their ego. The questions get them pondering how they might improve, instead of creating more stories to defend against change. "Ego keeps us from growing and self-reflection," Ms. Wakeman says.

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Here are some questions that can help:

  • What do you know for sure?
  • What would be most helpful in this situation?
  • What could you do next that would add value?
  • What could you do right now to help?
  • Would you rather be right or happy?
  • What is helpful in this situation – your expertise or your opinion?
  • How could we make this work?

"Collaboration and engagement are natural states when you get the ego out," Ms. Wakeman says. Stay away from questions with "why" or "who" in them, which usually ignite ego, and the accompanying stories of misery with inevitable emotional waste. You can instead ask those questions of yourself, disrupting your own ego.

Before you judge someone else, take the lead for improvement. If a colleague tends to be uncommunicative, start the conversations first yourself. Keep your heart and mind open.

As an example, she says, "you could have voted for Trump and my mind closes. If I open my heart, it helps. I might learn that you are worried about your job." When you find yourself suspicious about other people's motives or behaviour, it's probably a signal to examine your own intentions and behaviour.

If somebody gives you troubling feedback, instead of developing a story of why it's wrong, embrace the feedback as true and see if that helps you to improve.

She says leaders today are overly concerned about engagement, believing that if they create perfect circumstances for employees those folks will give the gift of work. But engagement is a choice. It's a choice usually made by people who are highly accountable for their work and feel they can be productive and contribute whatever the situation. But our engagement surveys lead us to pay too much attention to people who don't have a sense of accountability for improving their circumstances. Foster accountability through questions that encourage self-reflection, and you'll get more engagement.

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More generally, do your share to cut your workplace drama. Apply her insights on reducing or bypassing ego.

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About the Author
Management columnist

Harvey Schachter is a Kingston, Ont.-based writer specializing in management issues. He writes Monday Morning Manager and management book reviews for the print edition of Report on Business and an online column, Power Points. More

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