No Ego: How Leaders Can Cut the Cost of Workplace Drama, End Entitlement, and Drive Big Results – Cy Wakeman


Organizations lose billions annually due to ego-driven emotional waste. A lot of money gets pumped into employee engagement, including surveys, HR initiatives, and learning & development programs. The truth seems that these activities actually exacerbate more problems rather than solving them the most fundamental one: the ego. Cy Wakeman, an international leadership speaker and consultant, found out through studies that the average employee spends 2 hrs and 26 mins a day in drama and emotional waste—i.e. on addressing ego behaviors, working to get buy in, overcoming resistance to change, and employee engagement. So why is that?

The reason companies lose out is because they end up not developing leaders who have the mindsets, methods and tools to help them bypass ego and eliminate emotional waste. Yet, the role of leadership must change so that it can more effectively address the waste and drama created by these behaviors and mental processes. In fact, results of her work on this issue (termed ‘Reality-Based Leadership’), show that leaders who become fluent in bypassing the ego manage to successfully address more than 30 percent of the issues faced.

Traditional tools and programs DON’T necessarily work, because they…

  1. Feed the ego.
  2. Tolerate dissent to non-negotiable strategic decisions.
  3. Focus on fostering engagement but without accountability, which leads to entitlement.
  4. Coddle people’s preferences rather than helping them grow their business readiness.
  5. Don’t help employees develop better mental processes through reflection and heightened self-awareness.
  6. Actually generate, rather than eliminate emotional waste.


Reality-based leadership offers a different approach compared to ego-based leadership. It hinges on several core beliefs.

2.1.) Professionals give others the benefit of the doubt – they assume noble intent. 

This relies in the positive belief that everyone is capable of doing the right thing. People often need coaching and encouragement in that moment. In that way, they can recognize their reality, move beyond their egos and make the choices that will lead to greatness.

2.2.) Venting is the ego’s way of avoiding self-reflection.

Ego and confidence are not the same thing. To have confidence is to have faith in your own abilities and believe in yourself. Your ego is something entirely different. Unlike confidence, the ego operates out of self-interest. It seeks approval, accolades and validation at all costs in order to be seen as “right.” It is resistant to feedback and assigns motives that are rarely verifiable. One example that feeds the ego is the “open door policy”, which invites people to vent and tell stories that aren’t based in reality. Venting and self-reflection are mutually exclusive. Venting leaves people stuck in ego. The leadership’s trick to bypassing ego is to defuse it by engaging the part of the brain that is capable for self-reflection, cognitive analysis and decision-making based on good data.

2.3.) Accountability is death to the ego

Sympathy soothes the ego by agreeing with the victim’s perspective and assigning blame. Empathy bypasses ego, acknowledging suffering and then separating suffering from reality with accountability. Accountability is about taking responsibility for your actions and consequences. Leaders who do not sugarcoat difficult issues but tackle them by asking the right questions to help create self-awareness and self-reflection are able to put aside their ego. If you want to learn more about accountability, we recommend you reading this summary on Crucial Accountability.

2.4.) Your circumstances are not the reason you can’t succeed; they are the reality in which you must succeed.

As long as people continue to believe that their reality is hurting them, they will remain victims. The key is to learn how to separate suffering from reality and ease the pain with readiness. If suffering is based on a reality (for example, having the timelines on a major project revised multiple times), acknowledge the reality and ask again: “Why am I suffering? It’s true that this project has changed significantly and requires something different of us, but what is my true source of suffering?”

Wishing the project hadn’t changed, complaining, or offering opinions about why it’s a bad idea won’t change the reality. Venting highlights the lack of flexibility or skills that are needed to become fluent in the now and ready to move forward.


Eliminating emotional waste is not easy. To do so requires a leadership paradigm shift. It takes a process towards a new, more effective and respectful way of managing others.

Leaders traditionally took on the role of inspiring, motivating, directing, and even micromanaging. With the paradigm shift, instead of giving people the answers, true leaders facilitate conversations that direct people to find good answers themselves. The mark of a great leader is when these mental practices are adopted and practiced by employees, even in the absence of the leader.

By using conversations and questions to redirect thinking away from “perfecting circumstances” and spur thinking on how to succeed in the current circumstances, the new leadership role evolves from simply manager to facilitator. Discussions shift from “why we can’t” to “how we can”. It the next part, we’re going to look at some tools for this new leadership position.


4.1.) Self-reflection assignments

Leaders can facilitate the introspection and reflection that help others bypass ego. In this way, they can help fertilize growth and development by asking the right questions, in a form of a self-reflection assignment. The best time to do so is right after delivering feedback. Give the employee some time with the assignment and return to the conversation after to see what insights the employee discovered. How did the reflection help the person account for his or her role?

Some examples of questions you can use in the self-reflection assignments:

  • What are you trying to create?
  • What do you fear that is getting in the way of action? How can you move beyond that fear or concern?
  • Which are some of the most challenging parts of your role; How do you wish to be more skilled or more fluent in handling?
  • What would make this successful? What will you do to ensure that?

Here are two examples of self-reflection assignments. Ask or tell employees:

  • Whom do you know who is generally successful under these kinds of circumstances? Connect with them, ask for their three best tips on how to be successful, and let’s talk about what you learnt.
  • Read [a book or article] or watch [a video, TED talk, etc]. Identify two things that resonate with you. Afterward, let’s talk about why you found those things important.

The point and value in these questions and exercises is to help the employees see what kinds of choices they are making and how different choices might lead to better outcomes.

4.2.) Recognize and disrupt projection

Reliable signs of projection include blame, defensiveness and bad will. If an employee had an emotional eruption that went way beyond the topic of discussion, projection is likely to be at play. Leaders need to recognize this and take action in order to defuse the ego and get people to clarity.

4.3.) Creating a conscious and visible reality

Make reality more conscious and visible to others by using tools that can help capture people’s thinking and verbalizing in writing. An example of such a tool is the SBAR (Situation, Background, Assessment, and Recommendation). This tool is frequently used in the healthcare industry, but can definitely benefit your business as well. You can find more information about this tool here.


Surveys show that leaders spend too much time on efforts to get or keep employees “engaged”. Without a strong foundation of accountability, energy spent on engagement will backfire and will create entitlement.

Accountability helps you listen to the right people.

Traditional engagement surveys may show that employees don’t trust leadership. However, employees that are held accountable tend to naturally put more trust in their leaders . Almost universally, negative trust scores were coming from low-accountable employees who saw leadership as making radical changes and moving too fast. The ones who were dissatisfied were those who weren’t ready for what’s next and not the ones who were eager to make progress.

Without accountability, the company would give complaints from low accountable employees to stop the progress needed to keep it competitive. However, if you’re hearing dissatisfaction from your highly accountable employees, paying attention to that reveals barriers or obstacles present in the organization.

Four factors of accountability

Accountability is a mindset that comprises four factors. They include:


Leaders assume commitment but fail to ask for it directly. They then set expectations, assign projects, ask for deliverables, and then hope (fingers crossed!) that employees will step up. Instead, ask questions like “What is your level of commitment? What is keeping you from being committed? Can I count on you to do this?” Explicitly asking for commitment is what leaders need to get when they notice unwillingness.

2. Resilience

Resilience seeks to find solutions for ways to move forward, regardless the difficulty of one’s circumstances. One way to actively engage others in their own problem-solving is by using “resiliency boards”. It begins by coming up with a clear, direct question that frames the problem, then getting it out to networks – through online forums, chat rooms, social media, even on a flip chart in the break room. These are not asking for anyone to completely solve the problem but to generate ideas for a next step, something to try, another person to contact, another resource they hadn’t thought of. By reporting on the suggestions collected, learning is reinforced and resiliency grows.

3. Ownership

Ownership is the willingness to accept the consequences of whatever happens. It is therefore the bedrock of accountability. Ownership is shown through the prolific use of the pronoun “I”. You’ll hear things like “I chose, “I denied”, “I assumed”, “I decided”. Employees who speak in such ways can hear feedback without pain or defensiveness because they are eager to know how to grow.

4. Continuous learning

Continuous learners are those who can capitalize on their mistakes. They are willing to commit, with confidence, to different results with clarity around what will be required of them to do it.

6) Putting it all together: Shifting the focus from Change Management to Business Readiness

Even today, conventional wisdom hammers leaders with the importance of “managing change”.  However, in today’s fast and furious change environment, the philosophy of ‘change management’ is no longer relevant. Instead, there needs to be a mindset change to one of “Business Readiness” which basically says: “Change is coming, we can’t stop it, and we’ve got to get good at it”.

Business readiness is a fresh, radical approach which requires leaders to deliver reality to people with transparency, direction, clear expectations and without apology. It develops employees to have the agility and abilities to capitalize on change no matter what form it takes, be it marketplace disruptions, re-organizations, increased expectations or changing needs of customers. Change management philosophy is rooted in passivity and transactions, not development. It’s about minimizing disruption for people. Business readiness, however, ensures that change isn’t disruptive to the business.

Leaders can build up the level of “business readiness” by mentoring their employees up to the levels of Business Readiness pyramid:


On the business readiness pyramid, the idea is to quickly move employees from awareness of the change that is required to understanding the shared responsibility of making it happen.


Willingness is frequently assumed in the face of resistance. People often stay silent in meetings, and then unload in meetings after the meetings. That’s why willingness needs to be addressed with individuals by continually asking “Can I count on you? What is your plan to get on board?”


Often, negativity is brought on by the vocal minority, while the rest remain a silent majority. Leaders can move people from passive silence to active advocacy by identifying some of the silent majority and challenging them to take on the shared responsibility to speak up for the leadership. This can be done by asking questions like: “Can I count on you to reframe a negative hallway conversation by highlighting the potential this project has for the company’s future?”

Active Participant

With a barrier-free mental state, the willing advocates are able to step up into taking ownership for action. Here, employees become partners in change. They take responsibility for building the skills and competencies they need to be fluent and are ready for what’s next. Leaders have a role in asking these questions to help: “What is your plan for adapting? How are you going to structure your work to deliver what is required? What do you think is required of you to make this change? How will you meet that requirement?”


In an organization, it isn’t efficient for leaders to be the main drivers of change. Employees are the ones closest to the marketplace, and they can be invaluable resources. Drivers are the scouts who become the preemptive, innovative thought leaders from within. Leaders need drivers who are credible and trusted, and need to discern when to allow requests from people to take off, and to say no when they are not ready.


‘No Ego’ is all about challenging people you work with to answer the call to greatness. It is to disrupt the traditional way of egoistic thinking by spurring on self-reflection, married with the tools to expand one’s capacity to move more skillfully into developing the workplace into one full of creativity and readiness for what’s to come. This book goes into greater detail with the tools to be carried out under Reality Based Leadership. You need to read them if you think the summary piques your interest, and even better, practice that where you are.

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Sarah Phua
Hi, my name is Sarah and I love business books. I have a passion for doing things right and helping companies perform at their best so that they can be accountable to their stakeholders – the community from which the business draws its resources