Stuck with a Bad Leader? Success is Still in Your Control


Listen to our WorkHuman Radio interview with Cy Wakeman in the podcast embedded at the top of this post.

What surprised me most when I was promoted to a leadership position was how conventional HR practices are rarely based in psychology, especially since these practices affect something all employees have in common – the human condition. Instead of calling people up to greatness, I quickly observed that conventional HR leadership practices caused more drama and fueled entitlement.

Moving from a therapist to a leadership role in a major medical system, I dared to lead my team differently, according to my training in psychology. We became very well-known throughout the nation for incredible results and super-high engagement – and I assure you our circumstances were less than perfect. My approach was counterintuitive to most accepted HR wisdoms and my teams’ shared mantra was to “ditch the drama!”

Many of my peers thought drama in the workplace was simply something to be accepted. But as a therapist, I coached clients to use ways of thinking that produce better results. Think about waste in the workplace. The way we get rid of waste in the workplace is to use better processes. Simply put, drama is emotional waste. Thus, how do you get rid of emotional waste in the workplace? By using better mental processes.

That’s how I became known as a drama researcher and uncovered the big game-changer: Leaders’ jobs aren’t to motivate, engage, and inspire; leaders’ jobs are to teach people better mental processes by which they can eliminate emotional waste, upcycle people’s energy and time, and redirect that focus toward a better workplace.

Reality-Based Leadership is a modern form of leadership development. It’s a big breakthrough, one we haven’t seen in almost 30 years of studying leadership. We teach leaders to focus first on themselves and their own mindset before they reach out to help others. Reality-Based Leaders achieve innovation and collaboration, which is our natural state when the drama is gone, and they quickly learn to recapture the waste caused by letting our egos filter reality.

Myth: People Leave Bad Leaders

We’ve been told that the number one reason people leave their jobs is because of their leader. You might start thinking you have an over-managing and under-leading boss when you find yourself saying, “I got a call from my boss and he’s micromanaging me, and he doesn’t think I can handle this project. He treats me like a child. He asks questions he should already know the answer to and demands I check in with him incessantly before taking action.”

Here’s where a Reality-Based Leadership approach may blow your mind a bit. Your stress, especially at work, doesn’t come from your reality, it comes from the story you make up about your reality.

Most of what we’re upset about never even happened. The stress didn’t arise because my leader called to check on my project, the stress came from me making up a story that he’s a micromanager. Why do we do this? Because our ego is our narrator of the world. As part of our shared human condition, it’s our filter through which we see the world, but it is a horrible source of information. It corrupts the data that enters our perception and loves to paint us as a victim.

How do we get past our egos and create great mental processes throughout our organizations? First, look inward and edit your stories by asking, “What do I know for sure?” When you edit the story in the example above and take out everything you don’t know for sure, all you have on paper is, “My boss called to check on my project.”

The next best question is, “What could I do next to help?” Maybe this leader does check in a bit more frequently than you prefer, or ask for more details than you are comfortable giving.  However, our true value as employees is delivering up quality work despite less than perfect circumstances. Leaders are human, and in reality, you will likely work for and with less than perfect leaders for almost half of your career. Editing the story you’ve told yourself about your leader and asking where you bring the most value allows you to step into the power you already have to deliver up superior performance.

Here’s the beauty about Reality-Based Leadership: it has no reliance on position. It is about managing energy. Great leaders simply manage the energy of any interaction, whether they’re working through a relationship with their boss, a peer leader, or managing their team.

You are always in the driver’s seat and you get to decide where the energy goes. If you’re in a meeting and all the energy is swirling into, “why we can’t” and “why we shouldn’t have to,” you can simply manage the energy by asking, “Folks, what do we know for sure? (Remember, edit the stories). What are we trying to achieve? Given our circumstances, how can we work within them to create what we want?”

These simple questions get people reflecting and refocusing their energy to create a major mindset shift. If I begin to perceive my leader as the source of drama, I can ask better questions of my leader to build the relationship, such as, “Would you spend five minutes with me helping me better understand what you want to create?” or “What is your strategy? How can I help?”

It doesn’t matter where people are in the work chain when you can get folks reflecting on what great work looks like, editing their story, and talking about “how we can” instead of “why we can’t.” Start with a few great leaders willing to change their approach to lead people beyond their ego. Just imagine the innovations, creativity, and success that can be accomplished in the absence of drama! If you’re willing to go beyond ego, I’ll meet you there.

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Cy Wakeman Cy Wakeman (1 Posts)

Cy Wakeman is a drama researcher, international leadership speaker, and consultant. In 2001, she founded Reality-Based Leadership. She is the author of three books: Reality-Based Leadership: Ditch the Drama, Restore Sanity to the Workplace and Turn Excuses into Results (2010); New York Times bestseller The Reality-Based Rules of the Workplace: Know What Boosts Your Value, Kills Your Chances, and Will Make You Happier (2013); and No Ego: How Leaders Can Cut the Cost of Workplace Drama, End Entitlement and Drive Big Results (2017). In 2017, she was named as one of the Top 30 Global Leadership Gurus by Global Gurus, a Top 100 Leadership Expert to follow on Twitter, and was deemed “the secret weapon to restoring sanity to the workplace.” She lives in Waterloo, NE.