What is negative brainstorming?

When ego takes over, bad behavior typically ensues, writes Cy Wakeman in her book No Ego.  

Ego argues with reality.  Ego wants to be seen as “right” at all costs.  It doubts, suspects, rages, gossips, and keeps score.  

When we act from ego, we become self-righteous.  We judge others.  Ego overrides compassion: “My suffering is worse than your suffering.”

Or, we’re misunderstood, helpless, and a victim of circumstances.

There is a better way, Cy suggests.


Self-reflection leads to mental flexibility, taking accountability, forgiveness, letting go, and moving on, Cy writes.

Yesterday, we looked at some of the key questions we can ask ourselves and others to generate meaningful self-reflection.  

Today, we will explore Cy’s additional self-reflection strategies, which also can be used with our teams.

What to do when our teams fall victim to doomsday predictions and/or sweeping generalizations: “This won’t work.” Or, “It’s an impossible problem.”  Or, “I don’t like this.”

As leaders, we often make the situation worse by arguing or directing.

Instead, Cy outlines several brainstorming tools we can utilize.

SBAR is a helpful framework we can use to break down and analyze a situation or challenge:  

Situation: The facts less drama

Background: Relevant information

Assessment: Critical thinking/problem solving where we outline the risks and root causes

Recommendation: Creative solutions with multiple options to improve or solve the issue, including feasibility and alignment with organizational values.

Another valuable tool Cy calls “negative brainstorming,” where we encourage healthy dissent but then transform the challenges into action.  

We begin by capturing each concern on a flip chart, leaving room for responses.  We keep writing until all the responses are on the board.  We label these “risks.”

Next, the team categorizes each risk as low, medium, or high.  Low risks are often based on a fear or story and can be eliminated through discussion.  Medium and High risk items require the team to create a strategy to mitigate the risk.  

“Thinking inside the box” is a third tool we can utilize when our thinking gets stuck on what we don’t have, i.e. “We can’t do this without more resources.”  Or, “We can’t handle any more change.”

The move here is to focus on what is possible.  There will always be constraints.  Rather than trying to “wish them away”, we simply replace the “or” with “and” as we seek to solve the problem.  Cy shares a conflict between doctors who wanted test results immediately, and the lab which wanted to batch orders together to save time and money.  Using the power of “and”, the doctors got a certain number of urgent requests.  Otherwise, they would wait until the lab processed the tests in batches.

“Crowd-sourcing” involves seeking feedback from others.  Input can be gained through a formal “360 degree feedback tool” where members of the individual’s team and others within the organization provide feedback, or more informally by simply asking others for their feedback.  

Potential strategies include: “Who do I know who is generally successful under these kinds of circumstances?  Connect with them and ask for their three best tips on how to be successful.  Then, let’s talk about what you learn.”  Or, “Talk to three people about the situation and ask them for a next step or best tip on how to proceed.”  

One key benefit here is ownership for the making the change in behavior rests with the individual requesting the feedback, not the manager or those providing the input.


Reflection:  Think back on a time when I sought out counsel on how to improve in a specific area.  Consider a current personal goal.  Who do I know that could provide counsel or feedback?

Action:  Reach out to that person.  Today.

How accountability is the death of ego

Cy Wakeman believes leadership  is not about motivating people or solving their problems or ordering people around.

Leadership, Cy believes, is about inquiry.  We are at our best when we ask ourselves and our colleagues thoughtful questions, which lead to self-reflection and ultimately to action.

Today we examine the power of self-reflection.  Self-reflection is the path to insight.  It is how we become true experts in our own lives.

It is also difficult to do when we are triggered emotionally.  

Step one is often to let someone share their feelings and emotions, experts like Dr. Daniel Friedland agree.    

So, as leaders, we begin by listening.  We encourage the other person to share.  We let them talk.  There is value in letting someone speak their mind.  

But, our real job as leaders begins once the emotion peters out.  

Step two is to be curious.  To ask questions.  To encourage the other person to reflect and search for insights and solutions to the situation at hand.

One of Cy’s core beliefs is: Our impact as leaders does not come from what we tell team members, but from what we get them thinking about.  

Our role is not to solve the problem but to invest our energy in helping others self-reflect, discover their own solution, and anticipate potential obstacles.

“Self-reflection is the ultimate ego-bypass tool. It is also the core driver of accountability,” Cy writes.  And, “accountability is the death of ego.”

A great time for self-reflection is immediately after giving someone feedback.  

We encourage the other person to reflect on the feedback provided.  The goal is to give “the mind a place to start and ego a place to rest.”  Which in turn leads to meaningful self-inquiry.  

Later, we engage in a follow up conversation to see what insights have been gained.  How did the reflection help the person to see their role in the results?  What shifts in the person’s thinking do we detect?

Here are some questions to ask ourselves and others to generate self-reflection:

What would great look like right now?

If there were other explanations for someone’s behavior, what might they be?

What do I know for sure?

What would be most helpful in this situation?

What could I do next to add value?

What could I do right now to help?

Would I rather be right or happy?

What do I want?  

What am I willing to do to get that?

What am I really trying to achieve?

What is getting in the way of taking action?

What is my part in the outcome?

What did I say that helped?  Hindered?

What is my current approach?  

How is that working for me?

What would I like to change in that approach?

What would happen if I just chose to agree and help?

What would make this successful?

What will I do to ensure that?


Reflection:  Consider a current situation where I am stuck.  Select two questions from the list above and journal my answers.

Action:  Look for an opportunity today to encourage a colleague to self-reflect. 

Is the leader’s job to motivate people?

In many organizations, leaders are expected to motivate people.  To keep associates happy and engaged.  To improve the morale of their team.

Our concept of leadership is flawed, Cy Wakeman writes in her book No Ego.

Leaders can’t motivate people, Cy observes.  People make their own choices about motivation, accountability, commitment, and happiness.

Great leaders don’t solve the problems for their colleagues.

They also don’t tell, direct, or order people around.

Instead, Cy believes the role of the leader is to facilitate thinking and action.


By prompting team members to engage in self-reflection so they can solve their own problems and take on challenges and opportunities with gusto.  

The key to leadership success?

Developing the mindset, the methods, and the tools to help our colleagues bypass their egos and eliminate costly emotional waste.   

Ego is the enemy (thank you, Ryan Holiday!).  It creates false and destructive narratives.  It hides out in ambiguity.  Proof is the last thing our egos want to see.  It is suspicious of new information.  It resists even in the face of compelling evidence.  

The antidote to ego?

Inquiry.  True inquiry leads us back to reality.

Great leaders refuse “to foster the daily theatrics at work.”  Instead, we help people see reality more clearly.  We coach associates in ways that are grounded in reality.  And, in so doing, we transform negative energy into self-reflection which leads to greater self-awareness and positive change.

It begins with asking questions which challenge ourselves and others to self-reflect and open their hearts and minds. 

An open mind allows us to maintain mental flexibility.  Rather than having tunnel vision and getting locked in on a single explanation, we come up with alternate explanations for why someone is acting a certain way.  What would a kinder, less suspicious explanation be?  

We can ask: “How am I contributing to this situation?”  Or: “What could I do to change this relationship dynamic or business outcome?”

An open heart encourages us and others to lead with grace rather than judgment.  When someone acts out, we self-reflect: “Have I ever lost my temper?”  

It takes a lot of energy to hold onto the past and stay injured, Cy points out.  Instead of judging others harshly, we can respond with understanding and compassion.  

We stop blaming and start helping. 


Reflection: What do I think of Cy’s ideas around leadership?  How might I benefit from re-framing my definition of leadership?

Action: Journal about the answers to the two questions above.

How to inspire breakthroughs

Lisa was nervous.  She was a brand new hire on Cy Wakeman‘s team.  The next day she was scheduled to train a group of union workers, people she wasn’t accustomed to working with.

She asked Cy for advice.

“I’d suggest you ask for feedback when the training is over,” Cy shares in her book No Ego.

The day after the session Lisa was back in Cy’s office, this time in tears.

“Well I took your advice and asked for feedback,” Lisa said.

Through her tears she related that the workers had hated the workshop.  One guy stayed afterwards for an hour writing negative feedback on a piece of paper.

Lisa vented and wept for 15 minutes.

Cy took a pen from her desk.  She wrote on a piece of paper:

“I asked for feedback.

I received feedback.

Now I am crying.”

She showed Lisa the paper.  “Are these the facts?” Cy asked.

Lisa smiled.  Then, she began to laugh.

These were the facts.  Everything else was based on an ego-based story.

One of the core beliefs of Cy’s “no ego philosophy” is that our suffering does not come from reality.  Our suffering comes from the stories we make up about our reality.  

As leaders, when team members finish venting, we can help our colleagues edit their stories in real-time by writing down the facts – on a piece of paper or a white board.

Our objective as leaders is not to solve the problem.  Instead, we become a facilitator.  

We inspire breakthroughs by asking questions which help others confront reality.


Reflection:  Think of a time when a manager or mentor helped me to come up with a solution to a problem.  What was their approach?  How did the conversation go? 

Action: Journal about my answers to the questions above.  Look for insights I can put into action.

Is venting healthy?

Cy Wakeman was a brand new manager.  It was her first time managing a team.  She was excited to attend her organization’s “boot camp for new managers” and learn everything she needed to know to be successful.

“A great leader always has an open door,” the trainer told the class.  

“An open door? That was easy,” thought Cy.  “Not only was I going to have an open door policy, I was going to ace it!”  She went down to the gift shop of the health center where she worked and purchased a doorstop to send a clear message her door was always open.

“Soon team members began popping their heads in my open door.  ‘Do you have a minute?’ they asked.”

“Sure, I have two!” Cy replied.

It soon became clear, however, her team members weren’t asking for advice on critical business decisions or how to serve clients better or how to develop or hone skills.

“People came in to tattle on others.  They wanted to tell me stories about things that had happened only in their heads,” Cy recalls.  “Or they’d vent about circumstances that couldn’t be changed (what I call reality).  They’d use our time to spin fantasies about a dismal or doomed future.  Frequently, it was a combination of these things.”

The kicker?

At the end of the meeting, they would say, “Please don’t do anything about this.  I just wanted you to be aware.”

Is it time to re-think the open-door policy?

The conventional wisdom says having an “open door policy” is key to becoming a good manager. 

Or, is it?

“The open door was a portal for drama,” fueling feelings of victimhood, catering to ego, and contributing to low morale, writes Cy.  

So, what’s wrong with letting off a little steam?  Isn’t venting a good thing?  

Not so fast, Cy suggests.

Just venting doesn’t resolve anything.  “It leads to more venting which ramps up negativity, not problem solving,” Cy observes.

Venting by itself allows our ego to take charge.  Our egos love “a good ride in the BMW,” what Cy refers to as bitching, moaning, and whining.  

Ego sees insult where none is intended.  Ego lets us off the hook and justifies our lack of action.  Worst of all, ego filters out life’s valuable lessons. 

So, as leaders, should we “shut the door” on the open door policy?

No.  Instead, we need to change the content and tenor of the conversations which follow.

As leaders, we have a higher calling.  We can help team members stop arguing with reality and instead, confront it.  We can help people stop judging others and instead, offer to help.  We can encourage colleagues to stop seeing themselves as victims of cruel circumstances and instead recognize that circumstances are the reality within which we must succeed.


By asking questions.  Asking questions leads to reflection.  Reflection increases self-awareness.  

We can ask: “What do you know for sure?” Or, “What’s your part in this?”  Or, “What are your ideas for resolving the issue?” 

When someone comes in to tattle, we can encourage them to go directly to the person and ask: “How can I help?”  The benefit of which is instant teamwork!

Cy’s favorite question? 

“What would great look like right now?”


Reflection:  Is my experience with the open-door policy similar to Cy’s?  Why or why not?

Action: The next time someone comes into my office to vent, re-frame the conversation by asking questions.

How sympathizing with our team members causes harm

It had been a long day capped off by a late flight.

The crowded plane was finally on the ground and the passengers were starting to depart.

Cy Wakeman recalls in her book all she could think about was getting to her rental car so she could drive to her hotel and get a good night’s sleep.

The guy in front of her was not helping the situation.  He was texting.  He would walk a few steps, stop, and meander left to right.

There was construction in the airport so Cy was unable to walk past him.   

She could feel her blood beginning to boil.

“My usual breathing techniques weren’t keeping me calm, and it was all I could do not to push him out of the way,” she recalls.  

“But just as I had that thought, he stumbled and fell off the curb at the airport,” she writes.

In a flash, Cy’s irritation changed to concern.  

She had a choice to make.  Option one: ignore him and move on.  That didn’t feel right.

Option two: choose to be sympathetic.  She might say, “Oh, you poor thing. It’s crazy that airport officials don’t make it easier for us to walk and text!  We should demand uneven surfaces be eliminated throughout the airport!  How is anyone supposed to walk and text in these ridiculous conditions?!”

Option three: Stop with sympathy and lead with empathy.  

“I’m so glad you are okay,” Cy said to the man as she helped him up.  “I was observing your current texting process ended up in a really painful situation.  My daughter insisted I start using voice text and it’s worked really well for me so far.”

Empathy acknowledges suffering but doesn’t require collusion.  Empathy separates the suffering from reality.  Empathy often includes a call to greatness.

Too many leaders use sympathy to connect with team members.  But feeling sorry for someone doesn’t help them.  Colluding with them and agreeing we are at the mercy of circumstance reinforces a victim mindset.

Read more about empathy in some of my past RWD blogs Three types of empathy? and Why connection surpasses response


Reflection: What’s my go-to response, sympathy or empathy, when someone is suffering?

Action:  Look for an opportunity today to practice empathy.

Is your ego your amigo?

Confidence is a good thing.

Confidence involves believing in ourselves and having faith in our abilities.

So, ego is a good thing, right?

Not so fast, writes Cy Wakeman in her terrific book No Ego.

Confidence and ego are not the same thing.

Ego operates out of self-interest.  It seeks approval, accolades, and validation. Ego wants to be seen as “right” at all costs. 

When ego takes over, bad behavior typically ensues, Cy tells us. We adopt a self-righteous attitude.  We judge others.

We’re convinced we are right, better than others, and people should always listen to us. 

Or, we’re misunderstood, helpless, and a victim of circumstances.

In both cases, ego generates emotional waste. 

“The ego is the source of all suffering,” is written on the wall of a well-known Buddhist temple. 

Ego acts as a lens to distort reality to protect us from pain, Cy writes.  Instead of looking inward for the true source of suffering, ego looks outward, eager to find someone or something to blame when we don’t get what we want.

Signs that ego is in the driver’s seat?

When blaming, defensiveness, victim-thinking, resistance to change, catastrophizing, and assigning negative motives rule the day. 

Ego creates stories which let us off the hook, make us feel safe, allow ourselves to look good, or excuse our lack of action.  Ego works to filter out life’s valuable lessons. 

The greatest danger?

When ego becomes our default state of mind.

“Your ego is not your amigo,” Cy writes. 

Reality, on the other hand, is our friend.  Our pal who gives it to us straight.

More tomorrow.


Reflection:  Think back on a recent situation where things did not go well.  Did my ego play a role?

Action:  Ask myself today:  What story am I telling myself?  How accurate is this story?