Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Practicing Safe Stress for the Holidays: "Fast Food for Thought" from the Stress Doc ™

Yesterday I had a blast. It only lasted ten-minutes but the ebb and flow of the audience’s riveted attention and hearty laughter produced a slow to fade afterglow. I did some serious shtick on “Practicing Safe Stress for the Holidays” at a holiday gathering for members of Federally Employed Women (FEW)/Metro Washington Region. Consider this some holiday “fast food for thought” from the Stress Doc. Hopefully you will find these morsels quick and easy to consume, tasty and nutritious. The menu lineup:

A. Stress Doc’s Classic Holiday Joke and Poetic Proverbs
B. Holiday Stress Smoke Signals
C. Burnout Spiral and The Vital Lesson of the Four “R”s
D. The Six Strategic “F”s for Mastering Loss and Change
E. Closing “Shrink Rap” ™


Practicing Safe Stress for the Holidays: Some Serious Shtick or "Fast Food for Thought"

A. Stress Doc’s Classic Holiday Joke and Poetic Proverb

While many associate the holidays with Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol, and its theme of gaining and sharing the holiday spirit, the opening lines from A Tale of Two Cities may have even more relevance:It was the best of times, it was the worst of timeIt was the season of light, it was the season of darkness...It was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair.Like Dickens, I too have tried to capture the complexity of the holidays; if not through a great novel, then with my one classic holiday joke. To help you negotiate some of that holiday pressure, consider this distinction between "Holiday Blues" and "Holiday Stress." Now holiday blues is the feeling of loss or sadness that you have over the holidays when, for whatever reason, you can't be with those people who have been or are special and significant. And holiday when you have to be with some of those people!

So here are two “poetic proverbs” for survival:

You may think I’m at a loss without having you as boss
Still, when it’s just me, not us or you
Please, don’t tell me what to do!

Do ask or suggest; maybe better…let it rest!

And a “pp” with a humorous edge:

Tenaci-Tea for Two: The Narcissist’s Version

You for me and me for me.
Oh how nurturing you will be.
Forget “to be or not to be”
Just simply think of Me, Me Me!

B. Holiday Stress Smoke Signals

How do you know when you’re experiencing “holiday stress smoke signals?” Drawing on my “Three ‘B’ Stress Barometer” Exercise, how do your Brain, Body and Behavior tell you when you’re under more stress or are more tense than usual?

Snappy, impatient, rise in blood pressure, increased smoking or drinking, mind-racing or in a fog, etc., etc. These are some of the common responses to the above question. Here are three of my favorites. Notice how the first two are double-edged:
1) Sleep Disturbance – “Some mornings, anyone ever feels like just not getting out of bed? Then, aren’t there folks who know all the best buys on Ebay or Home Shopping Network at three in the morning?”
2) Eating Disturbance – “Anyone eat a little more under stress to numb those gnawing anxious feelings?” Many hands quickly go up. “Anyone lose their appetite or eat less when feeling stressed?” A few hands flutter. My immediate response: “And we hate those people, don’t we?”
3) TMJ – “Does anyone have problems with muscle tension, back or neck pain? What about a clenched jaw or TMJ? We know what TMJ really stands for, don’t we…Too Many Jerks!

C. Burnout Spiral and The Vital Lesson of the Four “R”s

And stress unchecked can spiral…into a state of burnout. In fact, I call burnout the “erosive spiral”: Burnout is a gradual process by which a person detaches from work and other significant roles and relationships. The result is lowered productivity, cynicism, confusion, a feeling of being drained having nothing more to give. Doesn’t sound like fun!

How to stop this vicious cycle? Grapple with “The Vital Lesson of the Four ‘R’s”: If no matter what you do or how hard you try, Results, Rewards, Recognition and Relief are not forthcoming and you can’t say “No” or won’t “let go”, that is, you can’t step back and get a new perspective; there’s only one right person, position, or possible outcome because in your mind you’ve invested so much time, money, and ego…trouble awaits. The groundwork is being laid for apathy, callousness, and despair!

How to let go?…See right below.

D. The Six Strategic “F”s for Mastering Loss and Change

In today’s uncertain economic and career climate, the ability to grapple effectively with unemployment, a downsized budget or family lifestyle, to handle the uncertainty of a company reorganization, or flexibly adapt to working in new departments or with new work teams is vital. However, positively engaging with loss and change requires more than just “sucking it up.” Try mastering the Stress Doc’s Six “F”s of Loss and Change; turn potential danger into personal and professional opportunity:

1) Familiar. Grapple with the anxiety, rage, hopelessness or sadness in letting go of the familiar role or predictable past. The big question: Who am I? This role or relationship has been such a big part of my identity. Remember, sometimes your former niche of success now has you mostly stuck in the ditch of excess. There's a critical crossroad ahead,

2) Future. Clearly the horizon appears cloudy and threatening, lacking direction and clarity. What will be expected of me? Who will I now have to report to or work with? Just because your past or traditional roles and responsibilities may be receding doesn't mean you can't transfer your experience and skills into new challenging arenas,

3) Face. Some loss of self-esteem and self-worth is all too common, especially when our life puzzle has been broken up other than by one's own hand. Would this scenario be unsettling: "Two months ago you gave our department a great performance review? Now you’re cutting our budget in a major way, and no one knows if there will be layoffs." Shame and guilt, rage and diminished confidence are frequent early traveling partners on an uncertain and profound transitional journey,

4) Focus. Major change can be scary. Underlying feelings may include rage, helplessness, hopelessness and humiliation. Sometimes we need a little rage to break through chains of mind-body-behavior paralysis. Of course, rage needs to be tempered. Remember, more people shoot themselves in the foot than go postal! (And, let me say, as a former Stress and Violence Prevention Consultant with the US Postal Service, I know “Going Postal.”) The challenge is to grapple with this array of powerful feelings, if need be, with personal or professional support. You want to temper the rage by having the courage to embrace those vulnerable emotions; this leads to a productive, yin-yang state of focused anger. You can’t just willpower your way through this emotional quicksand or burnout spiral.
For the Phoenix to rise from the ashes
One must know the pain
To transform the fire to burning desire!

If you can honestly grapple and grieve the first three "F"s, then you are engaged in a productive brooding and refocusing aggression process. Maybe I am ready to knock on if not knock down doors again. At minimum, you will affirm, "I may not like the cards that have been dealt, but how do I make the best of my reality right now." And you'll likely start hatching a new perspective with, if not crystal clear targets, then an intuitive, crystal ball-like enlightenment. Suddenly this Stress Doc mantra starts resonating: "I don't know where I'm going...I just think I know how to get there!"

5) Feedback. Throughout this process, but especially now, getting solid feedback is crucial. It’s not easy getting clear, clean, and honest feedback: many don’t really have a clue how to give it. Or people are fearful you won’t know how to handle it. You have to work hard to find someone who will give you the Stress Doc’s version of TLC: "Tender Loving Criticism" and "Tough Loving Care." You need a “stress buddy” to help sort out the wheat from the chaff. Before you blow up in a supervisor’s office check in with your buddy and ask, “Am I seeing this situation objectively or not? What’s my part in this problem?” In times of rapid or daunting change, trustworthy feedback helps us remember who we are; that our basic, core self remains intact despite being shaken by unsettling forces.

6) Faith. Having the courage to grapple with these "F"s now yields a strength to understand what in your present life rests in your control and what lies beyond. Of course, there’s always an unpredictable element or moment in major transition. Life is not a straight line progression. However, by doing your “head work, heart work and homework,” you are in a much stronger personal and professional position. You are building cognitive and emotional muscles; you can have faith in a growing ability to handle whatever will be thrown at you. Going through this process means you are evolving the psychological capacity for dealing with ambiguous and unpredictable twists and turns on life’s journey. As I once penned: Whether the loss is a key person, a desired position or a powerful illusion, each deserves the respect of a mourning. The pit in the stomach, the clenched fists and quivering jaw, the anguished sobs prove catalytic in time. In mystical fashion like spring upon winter, the seeds of dissolution bear fruitful renewal.

And how do we transform mystical maturation into everyday evolution? Consider the prescient words of the great scientific/polio pioneer, Dr. Jonas Salk: Evolution is about getting one more time than you fall down; being courageous one more time than you are fearful; and trusting just one more time than you are anxious.

E. Closing “Shrink Rap” ™

I close by putting on my Blues Brothers hat and black sunglasses and taking out a black tambourine, thereby revealing a secret identity: "I'm pioneering the field of psychologically humorous rap music and as a therapist calling it, of course, 'Shrink Rap' ™ Productions." Predictably, there's an audible groan from the audience. And my response: "Groan now. We'll see who has the last groan." (However, in my defense, years back, an African American friend upon hearing the lyrics said, "Oh, so you're into 'Aristocratic Rap.'")I then explain that this is my Charlie Chaplin Maneuver. ("Alas, after I'm through you may need the Heimlich Maneuver.") The pioneering comedic film genius observed that, The paradoxical thing about making comedy is that it is precisely the tragic which arouses the funny. We have to laugh due to our helplessness in the face of natural forces and in order not to go crazy. Naturally, I note that what the audience is "about to see and hear will give new meaning to the word 'tragic.' And as for not going 'crazy,' it's way too late for that. So buckle up your straightjackets…It's the 'Stress Doc's Stress Rap.'" And not only am I belting out the words but I'm prancing around the room while banging on the tambourine.

The Stress Doc's Stress Rap

When it comes to feelings do you stuff them inside?
Is tough John Wayne your emotional guide?
And it's not just men so proud and tight-lipped.
For every Rambo there seems to be a Rambette.

So you give up sleep, become wired and spent
Escape lonely frustration as a mall-content.
It's time to look at your style of stress.
You can't just dress or undress for success.

Are you grouchy with colleagues or quietly mean?
Hell, you'd rather talk to your computer machine.
When the telephone rings, you're under the gun
Now you could reach out and really crush someone.

The boss makes demands yet gives little control
So you prey on chocolate and wish life were dull, but
Office desk's a mess, often skipping meals
Inside your car looks like a pocketbook on wheels.

Those deadlines, deadlines...all that aggravation
Whew, you only have time for procrastination.
Now I made you feel guilty, you want to confess
Better you should practice the art of "Safe Stress."

(c) Mark Gorkin 1992
Shrink Rap Productions

At the onset of my "performance," people seem embarrassed for me; some are just sitting there wide-eyed with their mouths agape. (Clearly I'm perpetuating a stereotype, notwithstanding Elvis Presley, John Travolta and Justin Timberlake: the rhythmically-challenged status of the white male!) However, my bravery if not my witticisms win them over. Often the group begins clapping their hands to my self-styled beat. Once the lyrics are completed the room erupts in applause. After waving off the feedback, my immediate response: "I've been doing this long enough…I know when an audience is applauding out of relief!" And then, "All this shows after twenty years off and on of all kinds of therapy -- from Jungian analysis to primal scream -- I have one singular accomplishment. Just one: Absolutely no appropriate sense of shame!"

Finally, as the laughter subsides, a woman in the audience ventures a comment, likely on other's minds: "Don't quit your day job!"

And my rejoinder is fairly predictable: "It's too late…This is my day job!"

Hey, I'm just fulfilling my destiny: "Have Stress? Will Travel: A Smart Mouth for Hire!" Obviously, my goal in life: "Being both a wise man and a wise guy!" And hopefully, my attempt at mixing wit and wisdom will help one and all...Practice Safe Stress!

Mark Gorkin, MSW, LICSW, "The Stress Doc" ™, a Licensed Clinical Social Worker, is an acclaimed keynote and kickoff speaker and "Motivational Humorist" known for his interactive, inspiring and FUN speaking and workshop programs. In addition, the "Doc" is a team building and organizational development consultant for a variety of govt. agencies, corporations and non-profits. Mark is an Adjunct Professor, No. VA (NOVA) Community College and currently he is leading "Stress, Team Building and Humor" programs for the 13th Expeditionary Support Command and the 15th Sustainment Brigade, Ft. Hood, Texas and the 3rd Chemical Brigade, Fort Leonard Wood, MO. A former Stress and Conflict Consultant for the US Postal Service, the Stress Doc is the author of Practice Safe Stress and of The Four Faces of Anger. See his award-winning, USA Today Online "HotSite" – called a "workplace resource" by National Public Radio (NPR). For more info on the Doc's "Practice Safe Stress" programs or to receive his free e-newsletter, email or call 301-875-2567.

Friday, December 11, 2009

The Dangers of Being Too “Positive” in a Team Building Process: Or Don’t Just “Have a Nice Day!”

“You’re being negative!” Recently I led a team building workshop, and that was a federal government Division Director’s reply to my questioning, “Why the ‘Front Office’ meeting had not been working?” Preceding my operational assessment a number of people noted:
a) that for several months people were not bringing relevant agenda issues to the meeting and
b) the overall lack of meaningful discussion, especially regarding communication and coordination issues of concern to all staff. Now taking his challenge one step further the Director said, “If you are saying the Front Office meeting is not functional, are you implying that we are dysfunctional?” The Director then proceeded to say how much he respected the talents, hard work and commitment of all his staff. (I suspect this “negative” labeling generated some dissonance for participants as shortly before I had enthusiastically noted the positive energy and lively discussion generated by an exercise, illustrated below.)

My last word, as the Director had to rush out to another meeting, was, “Perhaps we can hold both possibilities, that is, the staff is, in fact, a talented and committed group and that team communication and coordination can also be strengthened…we can improve the communication bridges.”

Actually, setting the stage for this confrontation was first a fun and thought-provoking icebreaker followed by a small and large group conflict resolution exercise. Divided into teams of four, each group identified and attempted to problem-solve an issue related to “Communication Breakdown,” and then reported back to the entire audience for further exchange. The lively and passionate discussion in both settings certainly belied the notion that there weren’t pressing issues on people’s minds. (The exercise does have a somewhat provocative wording – “Communication Breakdown.” However, I see the existence of some breakdown or barriers to communication as a natural part of doing business in a bureaucracy, actually, as a seemingly inevitable byproduct of almost any group-organizational communication process, not an indictment of management, employees or the operational system. Perhaps I will add this message to future exercise instructions. The phrase is used in my workshops because it’s an effective trigger; everyone seems able to provide an example of or an experience related to “message sent is not message received.”)

For this article, I’d like to examine two issues: a) the dynamic nature and appropriateness – upside and downside – of the Director’s specific confrontation and b) the larger issue of the upside and downside of viewing communication in an “all or none” or “positive vs. negative” manner, especially within a team building–organizational openness context. Here are “Two Confrontation-Communication Keys”:

1. Confrontational Dynamics. In hindsight there was some validity to the Director’s comments. If I had the chance to do it again, instead of asking, “Why the ‘Front Office’ meeting had not been working?” I would have said, “What might be contributing to the reduced agenda development and problem solving communication?” In other words, I would have been more specific, descriptive and objective in my wording; let’s call it avoiding a “half empty” approach to giving feedback. This really isn’t a trivial issue. For example, consider this confrontational sequence:
“What’s your problem?”
“What’s the problem?”
Can you give me some specifics?
“How can I be of help?

Clearly the sequence starts off more confrontational and judgmental and evolves into a less contentious more objective and cooperative style. “How can I be of help?” is less likely to feed the defensiveness fire.

On the Other Hand

However, the Director’s confrontation was not especially clear or clean. He took my “why is it not working” question and definitely gave the phrase (as well as my motives) more negative spin than intended or warranted. What was his motivation, conscious or otherwise? Consider some possibilities:
a) the Director was surprised to learn of the number and intensity of staff concerns; a half-full approach might say he was simply misinformed while a half-empty approach might question whether he really wanted to hear “bad news,”
b) that the Director felt challenged as a leader by my ability to fairly quickly elicit the identification of real operational issues and the facilitation of give-and-take discussion and an active problem-solving climate, and
c) by giving me a “negative” label the Director could more readily cast himself in a “positive leader” light.

Apropos of this analysis, many people afterwards expressed surprise by the Director’s reactions to my comments. And finally, I did write a tactful follow-up letter to the Director, outlining how I would have rephrased my question and focused on “strengthening communication bridges.” I also suggested that for the benefit of the division we might want to meet and discuss our different philosophy and approaches to team building communication. I’m awaiting his reply.

2. Staying Positive vs. Being Negative. Clearly, as a communicator being “positive” is often a virtue. In fact, consider these “Advantages of a “positive” perspective in a motivational, problem-solving and team building context”:
a) Work with Strengths – focusing on strengths tends to be a more effective motivator; as Marcus Buckingham and Curt Coffman noted in First Break All the Rules: What the Greatest Managers Do Differently, it’s easier to get people to build on their talents than to try to fill in the gaps or compensate for what’s not there,
b) Reduce Defensiveness – clearly, a “positive” approach elicits less defensiveness; certainly balancing criticism with some positives makes the medicine easier to take; considering how feedback processes often play out though, not surprisingly for many people “constructive criticism” often is an oxymoron, and
c) More Efficient and Focused – my early training in psychotherapy was in “Crisis Intervention and Brief Treatment.” Most clients were not expected to dredge up or dwell upon past painful or “negative” memories, but were encouraged to achieve a clearer, more objective cognitive and emotional understanding of one or two pressing problem areas. It was called a person-situation assessment. (The benefit of working with people or teams in crisis is that the crisis state not only focuses people’s attention on the present issues but crises naturally surface those painful, seemingly “negative,” often unresolved emotional issues. Heartfelt tears of grieving actually help cleanse old wounds. This grieving process, embracing the “negative,” eventually frees up problem-solving energy for working intentionally in the present.) Then together we would rapidly design behavioral/task-oriented skills and “positive” strategies (taking into account the client’s strengths and resources) for engaging the critical issues that the client wanted to work on. Staying focused on the present, tapping into a sense of urgency, allowing the client to lean on me psychically for support during this vulnerable period, the goal was to achieve some meaningful problem solving within a six week period, as one to six weeks is the typical life of a crisis state. Beyond six weeks some level of post-crisis coping – adaptive or not – will occur.

Some cultures have historically understood the double-edged nature of “crisis.” For example, Chinese iconography, eschewing “an all or none” perspective, reveals the dual aspect of crisis with two characters – one character depicts “danger,” the other “opportunity.” Most of us have learned firsthand an ironical truth: sometimes an issue posing danger or uncertainty, that is, a “negative” situation, is required for “positive” or novel problem solving to occur. As I once penned:

For the Phoenix to rise from the ashes
One must know the pain
To transform the fire to burning desire!

d) Create a Virtuous Cycle – while a uniformly negative approach can quickly spiral downward into pessimism or personal finger pointing and blame, by finding positive common ground, even among the most diverse groups, you likely will foster a sense of tolerance and empathy. One exercise that achieves this effect is having diverse groups, “Share an Embarrassing Moment.” Status differences quickly fade as everyone has a story; all can relate, reveal and empathize…and ultimately laugh together. By throwing in some spicy humor (a humor that allows folks to both poke some good natured fun at their own and others’ flaws and foibles; see the “Embarrassment Exercise”) you just may build a vibrant culture that will likely have: a) leaders becoming more down to earth, that is, individuals with whom most can relate and connect, b) group members positively feeding off each other’s differences as well as c) evolving team spirit building on palpable and mutual energy, enthusiasm and support. (Having lived in N’Awlins for sixteen years I call it a “gumbo” culture. All the varied ingredients contribute to a great stew.)

The Problems of Attributional Bias and of Being “Too Positive”

Of course, despite all the advantages of being “positive,” there’s no shortage of negative and judgmental commentary. Leaving aside personal predilections for the moment, why is it that finger pointing rarely goes out of fashion? In addition to people basically needing to get a life or to stop placing people on unrealistically high pedestals (e.g., Elliot Spitzer or Tiger Woods; we seem to enjoy tearing down our icons), I believe it has something to do with a social psychology construct called “misattribution.” Attribution theory primarily examines why and how a person makes judgments about other people’s motives and actions. Self-attribution also comes under its purview. We tend to make either a: a) personal attribution, that is, explaining someone’s motives or actions as reflecting something about their personality makeup or b) situational attribution, whereby the individual’s environment or external circumstances is seen to play a decisive role in assessing the individual’s motives and behavior.

Let me illustrate. If a relatively new colleague came to work late a couple of times there’s a tendency to start questioning his or her commitment, capacity for organization or scheduling, personal sloth, etc. In other words, you might make personal attributions. However, what if you had an unexpected run of lateness? What would be your self-attribution mechanism? I suspect you’d likely quickly note the effect of “Beltway traffic,” the weather, a child’s illness, daycare mishap, etc., etc. Clearly, these occurrences reflect situational attributions. And in this scenario, surely, the personal attributions have a more negative slant while situational attributions are more face-saving. Actually, the tendency to overplay personal attributions and overlook external factors with others is called “attributional bias.” Of course, a person also can excuse away his or her own actions by looking for external factors, thereby deemphasizing or denying personal responsibility. Conversely, one can over attribute success to personal qualities, minimizing how much support was received from other people or outside resources. Regarding this last point, there’s attributional research showing that those in power often underestimate the advantages bestowed when having access to inside or “early warning” information. That is, bosses tend to overestimate their own skills and knowledge while evaluating subordinates as less knowledgeable/less smart on a personal level. In reality, often the differential factor is “situational,” that is, whether one does or does not have access to relevant, often selectively filtered or guarded information.

The Perils of Being Too Positive

Now let’s return to our workshop scenario and the director’s confrontation. He seemed to be putting my actions and words in a personal/judgmental context -- “You’re being negative!” (There’s a classic blaming “You” message. And remember, consistently throwing around “acc-you-sations” and you may become a “blameaholic.”) But it wasn’t the critical or “misattribution” messages directed at me that was most problematic for a team building process. (Most people seemed to assess our respective communication intentions accurately.) Actually, most troublesome was his need to be absolutely “positive.” What really happens when the formal leader claims he wants honest feedback but his walk indicates he expects people to be positive, including downplaying signs of trouble? Again in a team context, consider these “Limits of 'all or none' positive thinking and communication”:
a) Stifles Openness and Honest Exchange – unless a person or group is ready to challenge a “one-sided” authority, after awhile trying to stay relentlessly positive when there are objectively problematic issues to discuss undermines if not wears down a spirit of genuine give and take; if it goes on long enough, groupthink or rubberstamp decision-making occurs. This reminds me of my “Law of the Loyalty Loop”: Those who never want you to answer back always want you to back their answer. In addition, when an authority who doesn’t deal in “bad news” gives praise, his or her “positive feedback” can ring hollow,
b) People Tune Out – sometimes the most obvious impact of over-generalized positivism (or avoidance of thorny issues) is that people just tune out; as one participant noted, she simply stares out the window. People realize the leader doesn’t want to hear or engage with “any negative” or “bad news”; sometimes a lemon needs to be digested as a lemon (to fully understand its range of qualities and possible applications) before attempting to turn it into lemonade that isn’t saccharinely sweet,
c) Undermines a Sense of Trust – during my workshops, I use exercises that allow organizational members to, for example, discuss the sources of everyday workplace stress and conflict. (They also have to come up with group pictures depicting these stressors; the result is often hilarious and “out-RAGE-ous,” that is, we turn people’s frustrations, the “negatives” into fun, creative, team problem-solving energy and camaraderie.) At times I need to remind management that people are not being disrespectful. Actually, the great energy and team spirit quickly belies that notion. Most important, employees want to know that management understands the necessity and value of periodically blowing off steam, especially with folks that have walked in your shoes…and can feel your bunions. This need for sharing is especially critical when working under demanding/always on conditions. People want managers who are open to hearing and learning from the folks on the front lines. Once team members start working off this tension productively and evolve a greater consciousness of “we all are in this together,” now people start feeling reenergized and more “positive.” And invariably this workshop/playshop process strengthens a sense of trust between management and employees, and
d) Minimizes Complexity and Collaboration – understanding the complexities and subtleties of human nature or group dynamics rarely comes down to “all or none,” right or wrong,” “black or white” thinking and assessment. For example, usually some combination of personal and situational attributions is at play when it comes to understanding human dynamics or team motivations and actions. As I like to say, much of the time the proverbial glass is both “half empty” and “half full.”

Finally, when groups do their most creative problem-solving, diversity and difference are often the critical catalyst. That is, genuine collaboration requires identifying and synthesizing an array of real and often conflicting needs and anxieties, ideas and interests as well as pulling out hidden agendas. While this process can be tension-laden (e.g., “why are you being so negative?”) and take more time, the outcome typically reveals a more encompassing and sophisticated understanding of the problem. Collaborative engagement invariably yields more potent strategic options. In other words, everyone being quickly on the same “positive” page often fosters homogeneity and pseudo-harmony. Buy-in is usually superficial and under stress the “one big happy family” façade or “consensus” unravels quickly.

Closing Summary

Using a recent team building workshop as a case example, the benefits of being “positive” and “negative” were examined, along with the capacity for confrontation to foster clarity or confusion. In particular, how individuals attribute the motives or actions of others was scrutinized. Overemphasizing personal explanations while minimizing situational factors often yields “attributional bias.” Finally, the perils of being rigidly positive in a team building context were delineated. The dangers include diminished openness and honesty as well as groupthink. In addition, there’s likely to be a problem solving process having reduced member investment along with diminished cognitive-collaborative complexity. Learn to see the glass as “half empty” and “half full” – words to help us all stay real and to…Practice Safe Stress!

Mark Gorkin, MSW, LICSW, "The Stress Doc" ™, a Licensed Clinical Social Worker, is an acclaimed keynote and kickoff speaker and "Motivational Humorist" known for his interactive, inspiring and FUN speaking and workshop programs. In addition, the "Doc" is a team building and organizational development consultant for a variety of govt. agencies, corporations and non-profits. Mark is an Adjunct Professor, No. VA (NOVA) Community College and currently he is leading "Stress, Team Building and Humor" programs for the 13th Expeditionary Support Command and the 15th Sustainment Brigade, Ft. Hood, Texas and the 3rd Chemical Brigade, Fort Leonard Wood, MO. A former Stress and Conflict Consultant for the US Postal Service, the Stress Doc is the author of Practice Safe Stress and of The Four Faces of Anger. See his award-winning, USA Today Online "HotSite" – called a "workplace resource" by National Public Radio (NPR). For more info on the Doc's "Practice Safe Stress" programs or to receive his free e-newsletter, email or call 301-875-2567.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Transforming the Conventional into the Creative: Discovering and Designing the "Bright Crystals" of Contradiction

These days everyone wants to be creative, to “think out of the box.” But how do you walk the talk? As a workshop leader who often tries to give organizations a “Jolt of CPR: Being Creative, Passionate and Risk-Taking,” let me share one concept that just might be an integral component of creative thinking and problem-solving. On stage, I like to introduce this concept through a thought-provoking and, possibly, unsettling exercise that was inspired by the research of Dr. Albert Rothenberg, as reported in his book The Emerging Goddess: Creativity in the Sciences and the Arts. (The title evokes the mythic imagery of Athena, Greek goddess of both war and creativity, being born full-sized from the head of her almighty father, Zeus.) This Yale Psychiatrist and Cognitive Psychologist found that subjects who responded with more opposites or antonyms in a word association test – e.g., "wet" to the word "dry" or "fast" to the word "slow" – had higher scores on certain creative personality measures than subjects generating mostly synonyms or "original” responses. (Rothenberg’s sample was fairly small and at most his results can be suggestive. My casual workshop trials indicate that usually less than ten percent of the audience free associate predominantly with antonyms. Of course, I remind participants that this is only one informal measure of creativity.) Considering the small or informal sample size, nonetheless, why might there be a correlation between contradictory association and personality differentiation? To expand your worldview and problem-solving vision, consider these Seven Cognitive Complexity Keys for Transforming the Conventional into the Creative:

a. Challenge the Conventional. To think oppositionally reveals a willingness to confront the conventional and the accepted or even "the respected authority." While some view this as defiance, others see a delicious opportunity. As von Oech wryly noted in his classic on creativity, A Whack On the Side of the Head: "Sacred cows make great steaks." Or more potently and paradoxically, consider the pioneering 20th century artist, Pablo Picasso’s refrain: “Every act of creation is first of all an act of destruction!” (Guess sometimes to “think out of the box” is not sufficient; to start fresh and be fertile you may have to blow up the sucker, or at least be willing to challenge some traditional or foundational assumptions.) To seek a higher truth, one may have to look at the oppositional with a more complex, ironical, or even volatile mind’s eye and become more comfortable with seeming contradiction. (Hot ice anyone?)

b. Recognize Yin-Yang Perspective. This Eastern symbol depicts a complex truth: that seeming opposites don’t necessarily result in division or separation, but potentially flow into each other forming a greater, interconnected whole. Also, the symbol illustrates how a small circle of contradiction embedded in its opposite (as represented by a small black dot in the largest part of the white flowing amoeba-like space or a small white dot in the largest part of the black flowing amoeba-like space) is seeding the emergence of its counterpoint, that is, the white space ultimately transforms into black space and the black into white.

A Yin-Yang perspective was articulated by the pioneering actor and comedian, Charlie Chaplin, who, for example, believed the “light-hearted” emerged from darkness: “A paradoxical thing about making comedy is that it is precisely the tragic which arouses the funny. We have to laugh due to our helplessness in the face of natural forces and in order not to go crazy.” Or consider the poignant observation from the inspiring disability pioneer, Helen Keller: The world is so full of care and sorrow it is a gracious debt we owe one another to discover the bright crystals of delight hidden in somber circumstances and irksome tasks. Ms. Keller certainly perceives the yin-yang seeding principle. Finally, what about this seemingly contradictory example: have you ever had a fair fight with a close friend or partner? You both express angry feelings; each one says his or her piece without wanting to rub the other’s face in the mud. And lo and behold, once feeling genuinely heard (even without reaching total agreement) the anger begins to subside replaced by a sense of relief, sure, but also some intimacy, perhaps even a little more trust.

c. Develop Forest and Trees, Tactics and Strategy. Oppositional thinking is not simply reactive: by definition it’s positioning one concept in juxtaposition or relation to another – such as by quality, e.g., “wet vs. dry,” quantity, e.g., “large” vs. “small” or by position, “above vs. below” or “hill vs. valley.” That is, oppositional perspective challenges you to see multiple points of view, including your antagonist’s mindset – which may facilitate understanding and empathy or even give you an advantage in terms of short-term tactics and long-term strategy. Creative problem solving requires definite feel for details (the trees), but you also want a sense of the big picture (the forest).

Grappling with polarity encourages the rejection of simplistic “black or white” and “good or bad” thinking. A capacity to make discriminations, to see shades of gray (a byproduct perhaps of the tension between forest and tress and other dichotomies) and, especially, examining both sides of an issue is critical for being a guide “on the cutting edge.” (And remember, these days, “If you’re not living on the edge you’re taking up way too much space.”)

d. Blend the Analytic and the Empathic. Oppositional processing also means building a mind bridge within, that is, harnessing your masculine and feminine energy, using your head and heart, or according to one neuropsychological researcher, cultivating “bi-hemispheric peace of minds.” Of course, the different sides of the brain-personality are not always in perfect harmony. On a personal level and in the performance arena, I need time and space for my manic-like, “out there” stage persona. But I also must have room for being a sometimes melancholy or a frequently introspective and analytically insightful cave dweller. (Alas, sometimes one soars then crashes or at least burns or runs out of energy before the rejuvenation cycle kicks in.) But when I have both these energy – mind and mood – sources cooking and interacting, when my heated passion is tempered with cool purpose and hard-earned perspective…then I’m “Touched with Fire” (the title of psychologist and best-selling author, Kay Redfield Jamison’s book; its subtitle – “Manic-Depressive Illness and the Artistic Temperament”).

e. Pay Homage to Janus, F.Scott and A. North. Many in the arts and sciences have recognized the importance of reconciling seeming opposition to achieve a sense of wholeness or enriched integration, what Albert Rothenberg called “Janusian Thinking.” This cognitive process was named for the dual and opposite profiled, Roman deity, Janus, whose image was often found on gates and doorways. And appropriately, Janus was the god of “beginnings and endings” and of “leavings and returns.” Consider my Janusian-like linguistic loop of beginnings and separations: “One must begin to separate…one must be separate to begin.”

Moving from the mythic, to the more contemporary, thinkers of all stripes, including Nobel Prize-winning physicist, Alfred North Whitehead and acclaimed 20th century author, F. Scott Fitzgerald, have embraced the latter’s ideas about the significance of grappling with opposition: “The test of a first-rate intelligence is the capacity to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function. For example, one should see things as hopeless yet determined to make them otherwise.” Sounds like another leading edge mantra!

f. Explore and Express Text and Context. As a “word artist” – both on the page and on stage – the importance of grappling with “text” and “context” is inescapable. “Text” is the “on its face” data or “utility” of a message while one notion of “context” is the envelope of personal, interpersonal, cultural, historical background or circumstance in which the message is embedded, thereby providing or coloring it’s full meaning and significance. The best communicators understand that, in yin-yang fashion, both text and context along with substance and style and a forest and trees perspective must be accounted for if real meaning is to be gleaned, or if “message sent is to be message received.” Can you relate to this vexing example of one-dimensional information flow: have you ever received directions for assembling a product with only verbal instructions and no supportive images? GRRR!

Of course, accurately receiving a message is only half the battle. The cutting edge communicator is not simply passionate but also knows how to deliver a message, especially by telling a story. According to Daniel Pink, in his book, A Whole New Brain, most of our thinking and our knowledge are organized as stories. Storytelling is the ability to place facts in context and to deliver them with emotional impact. A story blends high concept and high touch. Stories are high concept because they sharpen our understanding of one thing by showing it in the context of something else, a basic tool for understanding. Of course, when telling stories, especially in our ADHD culture, consider this Shakespearean maxim – Brevity is the soul of wit. And I would add, “Wisdom.”

Finally, as James Lukaszewski, founder of The Lukaszewski Group Inc., a crisis communication firm, observed in a recent speech: “Telling stories is far more powerful than all of the studies, analyses, data, and information piled together on any given subject you can name. Data is debatable; stories permit everyone who hears, sees, or reads to make up their own minds from their own perspectives. Great leaders tell great stories. Stories help others learn to be leaders…Be a storyteller and you'll become known for being helpful, memorable, and a source of inspiration, insight, as well as self-evident truths."

g. Generate and Tolerate Thesis-Antithesis Tension. When trying to reconcile the seemingly irreconcilable you may experience what psychiatrist, Richard Rabkin, called a state of “thrustration,” which I defined thusly: “Thrustration occurs when you’re torn between thrusting ahead with direct action and frustration as you haven’t quite put together the pieces of the puzzle.” Some are not able to tolerate such tension. A truly classic New Yorker cartoon, playing off the opening lines of A Tale of Two Cities, forever lampooned the dangers of self-righteous rigidity in the face of seeming contradiction. A nattily attired, pompous looking publisher standing behind his power desk begins to chastise a humbly dressed, hat in hand Charles Dickens: "Really, Mr. Dickens…was it the best of times or was it the worst of times? It could scarcely have been both!"

However, if you can stay with such cognitive tension and confusion, the angst just may fire the right hemisphere of your brain with the potential for sparking metaphorical images and analogies along with surprising and paradoxical visual puns. The reward may be worth the risk. Here’s a personal illustration of how the tension between thesis and antithesis yielded a creative and integrative “Aha!” Back in the early ‘90s, I wound up writing some rap-like lyrics for a black beauty contest theme song. (Don't ask. I had periodically tried my hand at poetry, including a bluesy number called “The Burnout Boogie.” Email for any and all.) One morning, shortly after my noble, beauty contest effort, I awoke chastising myself: I was a university professor, a psychotherapist (thesis)…What was I doing trying to write rap lyrics (antithesis)? A blazing flash scattered my sleepy haze. As the mist lifted, there…a mystical (if not hysterical) conceptual vision; a catalyst for my pioneering efforts in the realm of psychologically humorous rap music. I was no longer just playing in a field of dreams: “If you write and “Shrink Rap” ™ it…they will come” (creative synthesis). Clearly, my goal in life has a paradoxical bent: to be a wise man and a wise guy. Again, a pretty good recipe for a cutting edge thinker, leader and budding “psychohumorist” ™!

Closing Summary

A conceptual framework for turning on your creative brain has been outlined. Seven paradoxical, mind-expanding tools were illustrated:
a. Challenge the Conventional,
b. Recognize Yin-Yang Perspective,
c. Develop Forest and Trees, Tactics and Strategy,
d. Blend the Analytic and the Empathic
e. Pay Homage to Janus, F. Scott and A. North,
f. Explore and Express Text and Context, and
g. Generate and Tolerate Thesis-Antithesis Tension.

So learn to discover and design “bright crystals” of contradiction. You will transform conventional cognition and communication into imaginative, insightful and multifaceted understanding and adaptation – the hallmarks of creative connection. And as illustrated, this connection manifests in domains ranging from achievement to affiliation: 1) in the intrapersonal realm of mind-mood/mania-melancholia/heated passion-cool purpose interplay, “bihemispheric peace of minds” along with the synthesizing “Aha!” experience and 2) in the interpersonal realm of empathy, integration and emotional intelligence. Complex concepts to keep us evolving and to enable one and all to…Practice Safe Stress!

Mark Gorkin, MSW, LICSW, "The Stress Doc" ™, a Licensed Clinical Social Worker, is an acclaimed keynote and kickoff speaker and "Motivational Humorist" known for his interactive, inspiring and FUN speaking and workshop programs. In addition, the "Doc" is a team building and organizational development consultant for a variety of govt. agencies, corporations and non-profits. Mark is an Adjunct Professor, No. VA (NOVA) Community College and currently he is leading "Stress, Team Building and Humor" programs for the 13th Expeditionary Support Command and the 15th Sustainment Brigade, Ft. Hood, Texas and the 3rd Chemical Brigade, Fort Leonard Wood, MO. A former Stress and Conflict Consultant for the US Postal Service, the Stress Doc is the author of Practice Safe Stress and of The Four Faces of Anger. See his award-winning, USA Today Online "HotSite" – – called a "workplace resource" by National Public Radio (NPR). For more info on the Doc's "Practice Safe Stress" programs or to receive his free e-newsletter, email or call 301-875-2567.

Saturday, November 28, 2009

One Small Step for Employee-Management-Community Consensus Building: Affirming the Purpose and Power of Admin Professionals

One of the challenges for an Organizational Development Consultant is getting management and employees on the same page, if not singing from the same sheet of music. Sometimes you don’t need management to generate static. Status distinctions within the employee ranks may exacerbate in-house tensions. For example, in one government directorate, scientists and IT folks were called “professional” staff while the clerical/administrative personnel were labeled “support” staff. (On a retreat, I quickly changed the nomenclature: all were professional staff; some were scientific, others were administrative.)

When you move beyond exclusionary, “superior-subordinate” or “right or wrong” thinking and can become thoughtfully inclusive, allowing for both individual difference while still reaffirming a sense of team and community, you are taking a small but meaningful step for trust- and team building. If not always a win-win solution, at least you have discovered or designed a necessary “pass in the impasse.”

Consider this scenario of a government unit with similar status issues and professional community barriers as noted above: As a follow-up to a team building retreat with an admin staff of a federal government division we initiated a once/month meeting with the Assistant Director. The meeting gives the admin group a chance to both get management’s perspective on operational issues as well as to identify issues and articulate concerns close to their heads and hearts. This was an important step as these six ladies believed that management overlooked them and did not seriously listen to issues they had been raising.

An agenda item came up that I would like to spotlight: whether the admin staff needs to attend the weekly “front office” meeting with all division staff. While one or two of the admin people thought there was an occasional nugget from these meetings, all agreed that most of the time the issues are mission technical and don’t relate to the operational interests and needs of the admin team.

As the discussion unfolded we seemed to be moving toward an “all or none” resolution, though we also agreed that anyone wanting to could attend the meeting. I was concerned about the possible message sent or message perceived by the rest of the staff if most admin did not show up to the front office meetings (e.g., reinforcing “professional staff” divisions or that admin was uninterested, feeling unwelcomed, frustrated, etc.) I also wanted admin not to be merely passive observers but to have a task-related presence at these front office gatherings.

The nuanced solution: “How about if admin sent a formal representative to the front office meetings?” And this representative would present during a “Five Minutes with Admin” segment. The representative’s agenda would emerge from a mix of morning huddles and the monthly meeting with the Assistant Director. And the representative would also report back to the admin team relevant ideas and issues generated in the full staff meeting. The solution seemed to accommodate individual flexibility while generating formal admin participation as well as the opportunity for two-way information gathering-sharing. It added meaning and value to admin’s informal collegial meetings. And with the admin rep being filled on a rotational basis, all would have a chance to hang back in the shadows as well as play a more visible, leadership role. (We coined a new title for the representative: Admin Ambassador. You know the ladies loved that one.) Perhaps the best definition of consensus I’ve come across on my consulting travels: “Everyone gives up a little for the greater good, goals and gain of the community.” Words to bridge status and role differences and strengthen a community focus while helping one and all…Practice Safe Stress!

Mark Gorkin, MSW, LICSW, "The Stress Doc" ™, a Licensed Clinical Social Worker, is an acclaimed keynote and kickoff speaker and "Motivational Humorist" known for his interactive, inspiring and FUN speaking and workshop programs. In addition, the "Doc" is a team building and organizational development consultant for a variety of govt. agencies, corporations and non-profits. Mark is an Adjunct Professor, No. VA (NOVA) Community College and currently he is leading "Stress, Team Building and Humor" programs for the 13th Expeditionary Support Command and the 15th Sustainment Brigade, Ft. Hood, Texas and the 3rd Chemical Brigade, Fort Leonard Wood, MO. A former Stress and Conflict Consultant for the US Postal Service, the Stress Doc is the author of Practice Safe Stress and of The Four Faces of Anger. See his award-winning, USA Today Online "HotSite" – – called a "workplace resource" by National Public Radio (NPR). For more info on the Doc's "Practice Safe Stress" programs or to receive his free e-newsletter, email or call 301-875-2567.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Practice Safe Stress with the Stress Doc ™: Non-Traditional Book Review

A friend and career consulting colleague, Martha Collar,, requested a review of my book, Practice Safe Stress, for Best Practice Magazine (she's editing) – Hong Kong based -- with a circulation of 30,000 (including inflight on Cathay and numerous business lounges in hotels and airlines) and the theme is Corporate Wellness. I've pasted a preview below. (Don't miss the witty and wise "Natural SPEED" verse.)

In a 24/7, wired world fraught with uncertainty, that's cycling from "more with less" downsizing to ever faster upgrading while periodically spinning scarily out of control, managing stress and effective team coordination and cooperation are on everybody's mind. The pressures to sustain morale while fostering resilience and productivity have never been greater. And in today's diverse world and workplace, learning to disarm misunderstanding and build communicational bridges with a light touch is invaluable. Hmmm, a pretty daunting task. Still, have no fear…Mark Gorkin, "The Stress Doc" ™ is here with a dynamic, inspiring and fun-filled primer on “combat strategies at the burnout battlefront.” His popular, wide-ranging guide: Practice Safe Stress: Healing and Laughing in the Face of Stress, Burnout and Depression.

Here are two key components of the book:

A. The Four Stages of Burnout. “Burnout is a gradual process by which a person detaches from work and other significant relationships in response to excessive and prolonged stress and mental, physical and emotional strain. The result is lowered productivity, cynicism, confusion, a feeling of being drained, having nothing more to give.” The stages are:

1) Physical, mental emotional exhaustion. You may be still holding it together at work, but do you recognize this sequence: as soon as you get home, it’s straight for the fridge, get out the Ben & Jerry’s or light beer, put on the tube, hit the sofa and you’re comatose for the rest of the evening (or wish you could be). And some still question whether there’s anything wrong with this.

2) Shame and doubt. For example, if your supervisor asks you to take on a new assignment you want to be helpful, but suddenly a voice inside screams, “Are you kidding?” You’re feeling shaky in the present and losing confidence about managing the future; you can even start discounting past accomplishments. You probably are an elite member of the “Frequent Sigher’s Club.”

3) Cynicism and callousness. If you’re main motivational mantra is, “Look out for # 1” or “Who gives a d…!” you may be into third stage burnout. And sometimes it’s those nice or accommodating folks who are most susceptible. Alas, burnout is often less a sign of failure and more a sign that you gave yourself away. Not surprisingly, you can become resentful and feel that people are taking advantage of you. Also, beware retreating into a cave or becoming that “strong silent type.” Remember these types get a lot more ulcers than Oscars.

4) Failure, helplessness and crisis. During this final stage, you can feel trapped between “Damned if I do, damned if I don’t; damned if I stay, damned if I leave.” It feels as if your coping mechanism is coming unglued. And while it sounds terrible, consider this: hitting bottom means there’s no more downward spiral. And if you can reach out, there’s nowhere to go but up.

Finally, burnout is not simply a byproduct of too many demands and responsibilities along with insufficient control, authority, autonomy, resources and support. It can also result from tedium or insufficient stimulation, what the Stress Doc calls the Bjorn Bored Syndrome (named for the Swedish tennis great, Bjorn Borg, who burned out in his late 20s): When Mastery times Monotony provides an index of Misery! The Doc’s solution: “Fireproof your life with variety.”

B. Develop Natural SPEED. People are more open to a serious message when it’s gift-wrapped with humor, sayeth the Stress Doc, a self-proclaimed psychohumorist ™ (who lets his audience decide where the emphasis on that word should go). With this in mind, consider the Doc’s witty and wise, survival strategy “Natural SPEED” verse:

As you sprint to the wire with blood pressure higher
Timeless mind-body tips to heed
For slowing down, getting feet on the ground
And building Natural SPEED.

"S" is for "Sleep"
Now don't be cheap
Seven hours, at least
To be a beauty with mental acuity
Not that snooze-button bashing beast.

"P" stands for "Priority"
You can't do it all every day.
Urgent means now but important can wait.
Do you know "N & N"?:
Just say "No and Negotiate!"

"E" is for the "Empathy"
Found in a caring shoulder.
But all give without take is a big mistake
For now you shoulder a boulder.

The second "E" is for "Exercise"
Start pumping iron or those thighs.
You may not need SSRIs.
Try thirty minutes of non-stop spin
For your mood uplifting endorphin.

And, finally, "D" is for a healthy "Diet"
Alas, many would rather die than try it.
To manage foods you crave
Grieve, "let go" and then be brave
Sending diet fads to an early grave.

So eat those fruits and veggies
Try fish oils and soy protein.
For too much fats and sugar
Excess alcohol and caffeine
Is a rollercoaster formula
For an artery-clogged machine.

It's time to end this Shrink Rap
With final tips for you:
"A firm 'No' a day keeps the ulcers away, and the hostilities too."
So to lessen daily woes, "Do know your limits, don't limit your 'No's!"

Ponder this Stress Doc wit and wisdom
Try to live it day after day:
Burnout is not a sign of failure
You simply gave yourself away.

Remember, sometimes less is more
And more is really less.
Balance work and play, faith and love
And, of course...Practice Safe Stress!

Mark Gorkin, MSW, LICSW, "The Stress Doc" ™, a Licensed Clinical Social Worker, is an acclaimed keynote and kickoff speaker and "Motivational Humorist.” In addition, the "Doc" is a team building and organizational development consultant, and is America Online's "Online Psychohumorist"™. Recent clients include Cleveland Clinic, MITRE Corporation, and Sonoma County, CA, Govt. Managers Conference and the 1st Cavalry and 4th Infantry Divisions, Ft. Hood, Texas. The Stress Doc is the author of Practice Safe Stress and of The Four Faces of Anger. See his award-winning, USA Today Online "HotSite" -- -- called a "workplace resource" by National Public Radio (NPR). For more info on the Doc's programs or to receive his free e-newsletter, email

Monday, September 7, 2009

3-D Group Combat-Intervention at the Burning Out and Burning Up Battlefronts: Discussion-Drawing-Diversity to Disarm Conflict and Build Camaraderie

Being a conference or retreat speaker and “Motivational Humorist” sounds like a lot of fun; and it usually is. However, sometimes you are asked to intervene with a group that’s under siege. At these times, the tension and acting out of frustration between management and employees or mistrust within the diverse employee ranks is palpable and a bit scary. And the dissension and discord has reached such degrees and decibels of intensity that management alone cannot disrupt the vicious cycle. To work effectively with groups in such troubled settings, when you only have limited time – whether two hours or two days – requires helping people discuss both the overt and underlying sources of tension and conflict without the workshop regressing into a dump on the enemy or primal scream session. Let me briefly illustrate such a contentious scenario and the 3-D Stress Busting and Team Building exercise that is my most powerful disarming and bridge building tool.

In the 90s, I helped defuse a racial and generational time bomb in a federal govt. agency. Under the pressure of reorganization, if not elimination, a federal division was physically relocated from a relatively new office complex in the suburbs to the dark, dank basement of the Dept. of Commerce in Washington, DC. Job insecurity and rumors were running rampant, especially for the senior employees, as their craft was starting to be phased out by computer graphics. Minorities, women and younger workers began moving into positions once mostly filled by the "dominant" culture. Not so surprisingly, fear and frustration turned into rage and retaliation. One group started pulling up and sharing KKK websites. In return, a second group began playing Louis Farrakhan tapes. And the federal government was starting to hemorrhage tens of thousands of dollars in grievance procedures. An outside Project Manager told top management it was time for the Stress Doc ™. After some preliminary meetings with management and the union, two one day "Managing Stress & Conflict and Team Building" programs were held with half of the sixty person division in each program. And through a mix of dynamic and real exercises, constructive and challenging large group dialogue, group role play along with the abovementioned 3-D team exercise the aggressive acting out stopped, along with the grievances. (It probably didn’t hurt that by this time I had already been a Stress and Violence Prevention Consultant for the US Postal Service. I definitely was battle-tested!)

The BLUF (Bottom Line Under Fire): The Project Manager observed that our intervention "saved the federal government hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of dollars in grievance procedures."

3-D Stress Busting and Team Building Exercise

So just what constitutes this Team Discussion-Drawing-Diversity (“3-D”) Exercise and what makes it such a potent critical intervention – stress busting and consensus-community building – tool? And how does it impede the vicious cycle and turn it into a virtuous one? While the 3-D instrument is not exactly “real life” it does deal with real issues; and it’s far from being abstract or hypothetical. It is not simply a venting session or a mind game. However, it does resonate with some of the less obvious meanings of the word “consensus”: the exercise provides participants an opportunity to have a “meeting of the minds” by verbally and visually drawing out (instead of acting out) “feeling(s) together.” Its essence in ten words or less: shared angst and laughter through group discussion and art therapy.

The large audience is divided into small groups (four-six people) and the groups are tasked (usually for ten minutes) to discuss the sources of or factors contributing to stress and conflict in everyday workplace operations. (The question can be modified to suit the specific client’s needs, for example, “What are the obstacles to more effective team coordination?”) This is the easy part. The groups are then informed they will have another ten minutes to come up with a group picture – a stress icon, a storyboard, a Dilbert-like cartoon – that turns their individual stress factors and perspectives into a picture with a unified theme. Anticipating participant uncertainty if not angst, especially around the drawing segment, I provide a clarifying example. Years ago a burnt out CEO of an engineering company was running his company into the ground. Actually, he was hardly running the company; more likely he was off flying his small airplane. Things were getting a little bizarre, when, finally, he hired a Vice-President who anxiously called me for some stress and team building help. In our workshop one of the groups drew a picture of a menacing creature, calling this big stalking dinosaur a "Troublesaurus." All the little people in the plant are scattering in fear. However, one person, bigger than the rest, is totally oblivious, has his back to the dinosaur with his head in the clouds while watching planes fly by. Helps you get the picture, doesn't it?

While some are immediately excited (especially upon learning that they will be using colored markers and flipchart paper), even with the above illustration, usually a number are confused; some people are more than a tad ambivalent or resistant: “What’s he talking about…turning individual stressors into a team image?” Or these familiar refrains: “I can’t draw” or “Drawing isn’t my thing!”

Oh, and to add to the confusion, I try to maximize diversity in the composition of the groups, demographically – gender, race, age, etc. – and the groups are diversified organizationally by mixing management and line staff, white and blue collar or military and civilian personnel, etc. And I especially try to place representatives of various departments (in reality often isolated from each other) in the same work team.

Safe and Subtle Steps for Turning Danger into Opportunity

At first glance there appears to be divided or uncertain common ground among the array of participants and perspectives. Still, a look through the proverbial optimist-pessimist glass reveals conditions ripe for turning a seemingly confusing and conflicted exercise into a camaraderie- and community-building laboratory. So how do you get this disparate collection literally and figuratively working on the same page? Consider these “Five Steps for Turning 3-D Danger into Opportunity”:

1. Making It Safe.
First, I inform participants that, “This is not true confessions. Share at the level at which you feel comfortable.” In paradoxical fashion, I believe this injunction reduces anxiety and actually frees people to reveal more than anticipated. And the process of group sharing and drawing out feelings further encourages this openness.

Second, I quickly attempt to defuse people’s performance anxiety about drawing, especially drawing in public. (Providing broad-tipped colored markers and large-size easel paper makes the task seem a bit more child-like and playful.) I emphatically state that I’m not looking for artistic wizardry, but for images and visual symbols that convey a feeling, a message and/or tell a story. For example, sinking ships and sharks in the water represented a major reorganization experience at a naval base. With operational icebergs looming large, one group depicted an officer rearranging desk chairs on the Titanic.

Finally, I inform participants that, “We are not going to get too uptight about the drawing exercise: Stick figures are fine! I myself am a graduate of ‘The Institute for the Graphically-Impaired.’” Hmm…maybe I’m into a new and playful synthesis of the verbal and visual: “Shtick figures!” (Go ahead; groan now. We’ll see who has the last groan!)

Actually, I use humor to reduce drawing anxiety throughout the exercise. For example, during the transition from the discussion to the drawing segment, after all groups have markers and flipchart paper, I announce the "final drawing instructions. Just remember what your fourth grade art teacher likely said. She probably said, 'Have you thought about music?'" As the laughter subsides, I affirm that she most likely proclaimed, "Use the whole page, make big images, and use lots of color." Then I add: "And be Out-Rage-ous!"

2. Allowing for Multiple Sensory Channels and Evolving Comfort Levels. This discussion and drawing exercise gives people room to participate based on comfort level and skill confidence. Some members primarily focus on the verbal brainstorm; others are into conjuring visual imagery and/or coloring. While exercising both sensory channels excites a number of individuals. And perhaps most important, once you get people to open up and share, no matter the level, something fundamental occurs: by identifying and talking out so-called individual perspectives or differences, invariably some common or overlapping issues if not universal themes are discovered. People are more ready to move onto the same drawing page. In addition, an initial perspective may take on new shading and hue through verbal-visual give and take.

3. Overcoming Confusion and Resistance through Group Dynamics, Ego and Targeted Support. As noted, a number of people become confused or anticipate having difficulty transforming their stress issues into a visual image or thematic picture. Sometimes these folks begin to withdraw or voice skepticism about the exercise.

However, the positive problem-solving power of the team almost always quickly emerges: as soon as one person comes up with a visual image or metaphor to which all can see or relate (e.g., “going through a reorg feels like walking a tightrope without a safety net”) then the clouds recede and all team members can come out and play and contribute.

Certainly, some groups take the exercise as a test of their cleverness and problem-solving powers. I recall a trial attorney commenting how he and his litigator peers (those “verbal swordsmen”) took the exercise as a personal challenge, especially the visual component. This team was competing with me, the provocative authority, as much as with the other drawing groups.

Still, occasionally, a group becomes stuck during the drawing phase. I will approach and, after hearing some of the stress issues already identified, may volunteer a couple of possible broad visual metaphors. Once I used this process for a teaching point with people who were preparing for a job layoff. After sharing a couple of images, I quickly walked away. I was confident that their brainstorming process had been jump-started; and, in fact, the group demonstrated it was up to the task. Later, though, during the post-exercise analysis, I underscored the group members’ reluctance to ask for help. This behavioral characteristic obviously can inhibit success on a job search.

4. Generating Big Picture Metaphor Power. In addition to helping overcome project resistance by envisioning a common starting point, a visual metaphor (e.g., a company or division being compared to a five-ring circus) allows team members to free associate and build bridges from their individual experience to a shared and/or more specific individual-group perspective: most can relate to feeling like a juggler overwhelmed by the number of balls in the air; or the inverse may apply – going from an individual juggler to being caught up in a circus atmosphere. Now the individual diverse threads are working together on a common loom, eventually producing a unique tapestry whereby the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. Coming up with a big picture vision (akin to a “big tent” philosophy) has the potential for allowing diverse individuals to identify with at least some of the metaphor or theme. This often facilitates buy-in to (or, at least, a willingness to work with) a common and larger perspective.

5. Transforming Barriers into Bridges. When I determine that there is considerable tension in the room and management appears defensive or is not ready to hear some “bad news,” I may add an “extra credit” component to the exercise. I challenge the small teams to illustrate how the sources of stress and conflict or “barriers” to productivity, good communication and cohesiveness may also yield new opportunity. Significant change in the organization is an obvious example of how a potential “barrier” may also be a “bridge.” Or, I ask the group to identify both the sources of stress and the sources of support in the workplace. I remind people of a quote by the novelist, F. Scot Fitzgerald: “The test of a first rate intelligence is the capacity to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function. For example, one should see things as hopeless yet be determined to make them otherwise.”

One of the most double-edge – critical and celebratory – pictures I’ve witnessed was created by a group of administrative assistant-type university employees. In this work setting, overall, there seemed to be palpable friction between employees and management. The exercise group (four women) drew a picture of a man dressed in a fashionable uniform sporting a “First Prize” badge pinned to his chest. The “barriers to bridges” transformation fully emerged in the subsequent “Show and Tell” segment (more shortly about “S & T”). As part of their post-team discussion-drawing “Show and Tell”, the spokesperson explained that their picture represented a team that had been having communication problems with a micromanaging leader (who was male). The group’s task was to produce uniforms. One of the members had heard of a corporate contest for the best designed uniform. The women persuaded their manager to let them enter the contest and asked the manager to trust each woman to best utilize her expertise without prejudging their efforts. One woman selected the best fabric, another chose the fanciest buttons and epaulettes. A third did the pattern design and measuring and the fourth the sewing. The manager was to be the runway model in the contest.

The message and moral was clear: when a manager loosens up on the controls and lets his people demonstrate their talents, employee motivation and the quality of the work will speak for itself…and all will celebrate. In fact, when addressing the larger audience, the team presenter emphasized that these “designing women” didn’t need to be in the spotlight. They were happy to help the manager “look good,” in all senses of the phrase.

Gallery Walk and Fashion Show (and Tell)

If the size of the audience, time frame and room logistics permit, I initiate a “Gallery Walk” before “Show and Tell.” People are encouraged to meander around the room or auditorium and view their colleagues’ drawings, either on tables or taped to the walls. However, there is one caveat: “do not discuss your team’s drawings, yet.” I want people to eyeball the pictures, to take in the varied yet often familiar perspectives. Also, walking around the room provides a physical break. And with everyone milling about, making comments, and laughing together while viewing the pictures, a sense of community begins to emerge.

After about 5-10 minutes of walk- and talk-about, we are ready for the “fashion show” part of the program, where each group has a chance to explain its “creative design” to the larger audience. I ask the groups to “select a spokesperson and a holder. And don’t everybody volunteer to be the holder.” ;-)

This segment of the exercise encourages each group, through their spokesperson, to share briefly (usually no longer than a couple of minutes) their team’s verbal and visual story. Sometimes, though, a group may initially decide to play “Show and Guess,” asking the audience to speculate on the imagery or meaning of their drawing. Other times, a group may turn their “Show” time into performance art, acting out or singing the message. Again, the time factor is often the biggest constraint on how much digression, expression or “acting out” is possible.

The real value of “Show and Tell” is that it allows people with an intimate perspective to highlight issues using an insider’s knowledge and language. And the knowing laughter and vigorously nodding heads clearly demonstrate how much the audience appreciates or resonates with the visuals and stories. (For audiences in the hundreds, I ask for volunteer teams for “Show and Tell.” Even when I try to limit the numbers, groups keep stepping up. When feasible, people are happy to extend the program.)

Clearly, stories are a basic tool for cognitive understanding and empathic connection. According to Daniel Pink, in his book, A Whole New Brain, most of our thinking and our knowledge are organized as stories. Storytelling is the ability to place facts in context and to deliver them with emotional impact. A story blends high concept and high touch. And as the popularity of comic books attests, stories wedded to visual images can be very engaging and compelling.

Post-Exercise Analysis – Questions and Reflections

Once all groups have completed the fashion show/story time, and I have applauded the audience for their wonderful energy, effort and designs, I then ask two questions: “Did you enjoy the exercise? And was the exercise useful? Quickly establishing the broad level of enjoyment, we have people call out and delineate its utility. This post-exercise Q & A and discussion contributes to my identifying factors that helped make the exercise a success. And Part II of this article will elaborate “Ten Dynamics Underlying the Purpose, Power and Sense of Play of the 3-D Stress Busting and Team Building Exercise.”

1. Sharing Universal Themes.
Everyone can readily participate and share their own stress smoke signals or sources of pressure in a 24/7, anytime/anywhere, uncertain and lean-and-MEAN world. Invariably, people comment on the universal or common themes depicted in the drawings. This occurs no matter how diverse the larger audience (e.g., geographical and cultural differences among attendees at a national conference) or when the exercise teams are demographically dissimilar or comprised of members from different organizational departments.

2. Acknowledgement Overcomes Anxiety, Shame or Isolation. People discover they are not alone when it comes to pressures; they can begin to let down an "I've got to always be strong" Rambo or Rambette persona. Participants find real support when being open with folks who have been or still are walking in the same tight-fitting shoes, and can empathize with the bunions. Remember, psychology research suggests a variation on the old saw: “Misery doesn’t just like company…it likes miserable company!” Or as I like to say, “Common calluses make uncommon comrades.”

3. Nonverbal Expression and Releasing Aggression. While many adults are anxious when it comes to drawing, once reassured that stick figures are fine (recall my being a graduate of the Institute for the Graphically Impaired) they usually forge ahead. And by doing so, folks rediscover how emotions, especially frustration and anger, can be playfully drawn out with colored markers and large flipchart paper. Nothing like putting a tail and horns on a devil of a boss to put things in a less frightening perspective and to evoke a stress relieving laugh.

4. Laughing at Others’ and Our Own Flaws and Foibles. Just a little exaggeration can tickle some knowing laughs, especially from folks feeling on the edge. And, of course, laughing itself is a real stress reliever. As Dr. David Fry, humor expert observed, “Laughing with gusto is like turning your body into a big vibrator giving vital organs a brief but hardy internal massage.” This “inner jogging” releases mind calming and mood uplifting chemicals like Endorphins and Dopamine.

Some admit they laugh so not to cry. And no other than the pioneering comedic and film genius, Charlie Chaplin would agree. As Chaplin observed, “A paradoxical thing about making comedy is that it is precisely the tragic which arouses the funny. We have to laugh due to our helplessness in the face of natural forces and in order not to go crazy.”

Others say they laugh at their lack of drawing skills, but these folks usually admit they had fun. Finally, I pose another possible source of laughter: “You know the person that says, ‘You don’t seem to realize, I really am as important as I think I am.’ You want to stick in a pin and deflate that big ego balloon. And the drawing exercise gives you the opportunity poke at people and situations that deserve some lampooning.” Yet all agree that the exercise is not mean-spirited. There was too much good energy and a sense of fun for that. Perhaps, Sigmund Freud, himself captured the value of placing things or poking people in a lighter, even somewhat absurd, perspective. For the “Father of Psychoanalysis,” philosophical humor, the highest defense mechanism, boldly declares: "Look here! This is all this seemingly dangerous world amounts to. Child's play – the very thing to jest about."

5. Envisioning “The Big Picture” and a Diverse Perspective. As mentioned earlier, I try to create diverse teams, for example, having people from different departments in the same organization working together. The reason is obvious: “Ever hear someone in your organization say something like, ‘I thought it was only our department being disrupted by the recent operational change’?” This exercise literally helps all participants get beyond the silos and see “the big picture” while making it easier to get on the same page and field of schemes.

And there’s a less obvious value added. While attacking problems in a diverse group may be frustrating and time consuming, the process may motivate more complex conceptualizing and yield a higher order synthesis. I recall a study of small group problem-solving involving seamen on a submarine. The most diverse groups predictably achieved higher levels of creativity in their problem-solving strategies and solutions. Reconciling diversity and seeming contradiction resists easy answers. However, as a result of this challenge, if the team sustains this complex problem-solving effort multiple perspectives and resources as well as myriad designs and plans may come to fruition. Invariably, the group breaks out of comfortable assumptions or habitual behavior patterns to imagine new connections among disparate elements and to evolve a fresh consensus-building big picture.

6. Generating Creativity. Invariably, there’s an “Amen and Women” chorus when I ask, “Did we see some creativity?” I remind people not to confuse drawing talent with the wonderfully fresh and imaginative visual metaphors that have been produced. Everyone is also aware of the great energy in the room. I liken it to a jazz riff: people are bouncing ideas and images off each other.

Also, people have said that they really like the drawing part of the exercise because it seems to challenge them to use a different part of their brain, that is, to think of the professional-organizational issues from more than just an analytical perspective. The power of "interactive imagination" comes to life.

7. Experiencing Open Interaction and Team Synergy. All readily agree the groups quickly transformed into teams. There is a division of labor. The exercise allows participants to find a comfortable niche, whether this involves verbalizing and/or visualizing the issues. And as previously noted the power of team emerges when people realize not everyone has to take the lead or the initiative. For example, once one member articulates a concept or image that makes sense, even those initially uncomfortable with the coloring part of the exercise can get on (the drawing) board. Many times I've witnessed a hesitant individual morph into an eager contributor.

Perhaps the most valuable problem-solving aspect of these exercises is that no group member has "the one right answer." Everyone's responses are valuable. Both verbally and nonverbally one person's suggestions will readily trigger ideas and images that stimulate a colleague while embellishing the group design and strengthening the team process. The final product is an amalgam of group ideas and images.

8. Managing Truth, Building Trust and Providing an Invaluable Assessment Tool. If it occurs, one piece of group process requires some “fair and balanced” commentary. For example, there are times during “show and tell” when an employee-spokesperson focuses on a particular source of stress and, not surprisingly, the target is likely to be “management.” Conversely, when a program is geared to supervisors and managers, “employees” may get caught in the verbal-visual crosshairs. Who has absolute truth? Obviously, no one has. Of course, there are individual employees and managers who are “stress carriers” and need to be engaged if not confronted and even disciplined. (You know the definition of a stress carrier: someone who doesn't get ulcers just gives them.) However, my primary goal is to help both sides better appreciate the other’s challenges and demands. I want employees to better understand some of the external or higher level pressures that the managers face; I want managers to better appreciate the daily grind in the trenches.

Not surprisingly, many of the drawings poke fun or have an edge. Occasionally I need to remind management that such venting is not a sign of disrespect, but may reflect the need to blow off some steam with people who understand each other’s pressures, passion and pain. This is especially natural when you are asking people to still perform at high levels in the face of budget or staff cuts or other signs of reorg tension. However, a mean-spirited atmosphere is quite rare; to the contrary, people are usually amazed to discover that they can be laughing and sharing such good energy while talking about workplace issues that usually have them feeling resigned or worked up.

And there’s one vital seemingly “unexpected” result: when employees perceive that management can handle their need to vent and provide some genuine feedback, even some “bad news,” and that management doesn't get uptight, defensive or vindictive, then the exercise strengthens the level of trust in the organization. And I always affirm a management team that brings me in knowing the program will definitely be “out of the box” if not a bit “out-rage-ous.”

Finally, I underscore how the pictures are a truly valuable resource. One CEO remarked, “I get written reports all the time, but these pictures have given me more useful operational info than anything else that’s come across my desk.” Or as a Commander of an army brigade observed: “Our “drawing” exercise was absolutely enlightening. I cannot tell you how valuable it was to me as the “CEO” to see these products and see how the differing sections and commands worked together.”

9. Highlighting the Power of Time. As mentioned above, I usually allot 7-10 minutes each for the discussion and drawing segments of the program. I also provide periodic reminders, such as “three more minutes” or “last flourishing touches.” Why such an emphasis on the time element; what is the method to being a maddening nag? As participants note, time pressure is a daily reality. And time pressure helps people drive for the goal line, especially if key dynamics are at play.

But before providing an explanation, let me place this time-goal dynamic in the context that can maximize the effect. I find people/groups tend to be the most productive-creative when they have a “good question/problem” to solve. A good problem-solving task is often one that suggests a broad desired outcome and lets the group come up with its own signature solution. Clearly, the stress drawings do just that. And when you combine such factors as people having sufficient skills and resources, valuing imagination over artistic execution, along with having a good problem to solve, and participants are acutely aware of the time constraints…well, you definitely are generating some “good stress,” energizing and driving folks to the finish line. (Some groups are so motivated or competitive they hardly want to stop. Naturally I quip that, “You know which people wouldn't put down their pens during that 7th grade math test.”)

Finally, a link is made between time realities and the need to forsake the pursuit of perfection. Periodically, I remind groups that there isn't a whole lot of time for fine prototyping in pencil. People have to “jump in” and act out their emotions and draw out their discussion ideas using the markers and flip chart paper. Actually, the time limits only underscore the sense of surprise regarding the imaginative if not artistic quality of the pictures: “Wow, we did all this in just twenty minutes!” And when everyone signs their name to the picture, you know there is a sense of team ownership.

10. Encouraging a Dynamic Close: Discovering the “Inner Child” and a Feeling of Community. There’s a two step process for completing the exercise: a) it takes little prompting to get the audience to acknowledge the enjoyment in sharing their designs with colleagues: “Hey, most of us have that inner six year-old waiting to leap out: while holding up an imaginative drawing I fairly shout, “Hey mom, look what I did today!” and b) I close with a question-observation: “Is it just me, or do we all detect a greater sense of community in the room?” The nodding heads and energetic applause underscore the obvious. Again, affirming the energy and creativity in the room, I end on a passionate note: “Sure the (organizational) boat has some holes. But it’s our boat. And if we pull together we can make some repairs and get the boat moving again with renewed energy, direction and commitment.

Finally, depending on time availability, I try to add an exercise segment that builds a bridge between problem-identification and strategic recommendations. Two teams join together and extract one or two key issues from their two pictures. Then the large group brainstorms some strategic “next steps.” I encourage the selection of issues that have a reasonable chance of being tackled within the resources and realities of their workplace. The blended teams present their ideas to the collective; the latter then provides commentary and critique. Where appropriate, I also encourage groups to bring back their pictures to their in-house teams (or sometimes even their families) and continue the creative problem solving process.

Closing Summary

This article has presented a stress reducing, morale enhancing and team building exercise that works, whether the audience members are momentarily under siege or facing a chronically hazardous work environment. It also resonates with participants attending a national conference and wanting to strengthen a sense of professional identification and unity. First we outlined “Five Steps for Turning 3-D (Discussion-Drawing-Diversity) Danger into Opportunity”:
1. Making It Safe
2. Allowing for Multiple Sensory Channels and Comfort Levels
3. Overcoming Confusion and Resistance through Group Dynamics, Ego and Targeted Support
4. Generating Big Picture Metaphor Power
5. Transforming Barriers into Bridges

Next we elaborated “Ten Dynamics Underlying the Purpose, Power and Sense of Play of the 3-D Stress Busting and Team Building Exercise”:
1. Sharing Universal Themes
2. Acknowledgement Overcomes Anxiety, Shame or Isolation
3. Nonverbal Expression and Releasing Aggression
4. Laughing at Others’ and Our Own Flaws and Foibles
5. Envisioning “The Big Picture” and a Diverse Perspective
6. Generating Creativity
7. Experiencing Open Interaction and Team Synergy
8. Managing Truth, Building Trust and Providing an Invaluable Assessment Tool
9. Highlighting the Power of Time
10. Encouraging a Dynamic Close: Discovering the “Inner Child” and a Feeling of Community

Here is an individual and collective high-octane exercise for transforming workplace pressures into synergistic processes and products. And you have a blueprint for bringing back this robust learning experience into everyday operations and meetings, to help yourself and others…Practice Safe Stress!

Mark Gorkin, MSW, LICSW, "The Stress Doc" ™, a Licensed Clinical Social Worker, is an acclaimed keynote and kickoff speaker and "Motivational Humorist" known for his interactive, inspiring and FUN speaking and workshop programs. In addition, the "Doc" is a team building and organizational development consultant for a variety of govt. agencies, corporations and non-profits. Mark is an Adjunct Professor, No. VA (NOVA) Community College and currently he is leading "Stress, Team Building and Humor" programs for the 1st Cavalry and 4th Infantry Divisions, Ft. Hood, Texas and Fort Leonard Wood, MO. He is also delivering webcasts for the national Institute for Paralegal Education. A former Stress and Conflict Consultant for the US Postal Service, the Stress Doc is the author of Practice Safe Stress and of The Four Faces of Anger. See his award-winning, USA Today Online "HotSite" – -- called a "workplace resource" by National Public Radio (NPR). For more info on the Doc's "Practice Safe Stress" programs or to receive his free e-newsletter, email or call 301-875-2567.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

"Cutting-Edge" Strategies for Reorganizing or Downsizing: The Stress Doc's Top Ten Tips for Tip-Top Management

Warning: This satire may be hazardous to the ironically impaired.

In this era of organizational restructuring or downsizing, or better still, rightsizing, or most on target, what I call "frightsizing," the challenge for top management is having the savvy and guts to gut much of your workforce while still maintaining survivor productivity and team morale - that "esprit de corpse." While some advocate a market- or politics-driven streamlining, I believe in a higher-level, visionary downsizing mode. To create a "lean-and-MEAN" working machine requires an Olympian management team capable of thunderously jolting a downtrodden, de-motivated workforce and being down-to-earth, "hands-on" role models. (Oh yes, in these hypersensitive, politically correct times, just be careful where you place those hands. If you have any questions, please refer to Mitsubishi's manual of personnel policies and procedures.)

Be Wary: Some critics will claim that these forthcoming strategies produce less "lean-and-mean" operations and more "lean-and-mean-spirited" organizations. Ignore such softheaded, liberal posturing. Now for your cutting-edge commandments. Go for it! The Top Ten Commandments:

1. Keep Employees Grateful and Humble. Continuously remind employee survivors that they should be thankful to have a job. By not filling those vacant positions, there's less competition for eventual promotions, assuming, of course, there's not another RIF - Reduction In Force - that, of course, is very unlikely. (Even if there is a RIF, and some employees manage to survive it, then surely they will have to be uncomplainingly thankful.) For recalcitrant, insufficiently grateful employees, some cheerfully designed signs - "thank you for not whining" and "beware the effects of second-hand whining" - may be prominently displayed in the work and break areas.

2. Avoid Negative Feelings through Positive Motivation. Hire a hotshot outplacement team to motivate people to ignore their feelings of betrayal, fear, and rage and to generate employee enthusiasm and positive thinking about updating their resumes, leaving the organization, or applying for positions in economically- and demographically-challenged areas. Reassure confused and vulnerable employees that a change of job or an out-of-state position is the new learning curve they've probably needed. At minimum, this will help them escape that seven-year or seven-month itch (whether they know they need to scratch or not). Hey, it's so prehistoric, so "p.b." - pre-boomer - to work for twenty or thirty years in one place.

3. Separate the Transitionally Displaced. Create a transition center for the dispirited who no longer have a job (but are still on payroll) that removes them from the rest of the company. (And don't let anyone mistake this center for a leper colony; the displaced are ill-fated, not contagious.) Without distractions, these isolates will focus expeditiously on their future career plans. An additional benefit to quarantining: with these folks out of sight, they'll also be out of mind, i.e., other employees would never suspect that such a treatment might happen to them.

4. Beware the "Blame Game." Refuse to hold management-employee team building/group grieving sessions; open expression of feelings just makes management the target of another "bitch session." (Please do not impute any sexist connotation to either open blabbing or the aforementioned "b"-word. These days, being a strong, silent John Wayne- or Rambo-type is not just a male thing. There are plenty of Rambettes out there.)

5. Don't Get Predictable. Keep information about the restructuring as vague and inconsistent as possible. In fact, the more disinformation the better. A certain amount of uncertainty heightens group competition and, hopefully, will disorient your best people and/or discourage them from leaving (until you think it's appropriate, especially if they may be a threat to your own tenured position).

6. Demonstrate Decisive Displacement. Have new managers rapidly fill some of the positions of displaced managers, especially those managers who were well respected; people don't need to dwell morbidly on the past. On a more positive note, this transition-transfusion also provides a real opportunity for new blood. (Of course, one hopes we are speaking figuratively here. You might want to have escorts, though, for these new managers as they leave work.)

7. Instill the Spirit of Overload and Accommodation. Make sure middle managers and supervisors appear to accept cheerfully "doing more with less," even if their employees feel that they are at the breaking point. Low morale, heightened staff tension, and anger or especially that self-serving term "burnout," are not sufficient counterindicators to "sucking it up"; nor is psychobabble about psychosomatic, stress-induced illness acceptable. (Cardiac arrest, however, continues to be grounds for excused leave.)

And don't let any of those wimpy stress experts tell you "Burnout is less a sign of failure and more that you gave yourself away." Remember, a manager or supervisor who selflessly takes on an ever-expanding workload without renegotiating priorities and time frames is an icon of company loyalty and dedication. Such a role model will surely inspire even surly subordinates to meet the plantation's, I mean the organization's, new goals.

8. Consider Token Team Building. If in a careless moment you do allow employees or supervisors to form support/work productivity teams that meet on company time, shortly thereafter insist that the company can't afford to have this many people away from their assignments or work stations. Reduce the size by half; especially eliminate any indigenous leaders. If this small matrix group is to meet sporadically, they must provide only positive ideas; your mood should not be disturbed in order to pacify others' upsets or egos. And while giving lip service to dilettante democracy, expect absolute buy-in for your ever-evolving company vision. (Or is it a hallucination? So often it's such a fine line.) Eventually retire the group with gilt framed team-building certificates.

9. Create Social Diversions. Plan a company picnic, a Christmas dinner party, or some diversionary event for your beleaguered "survivor shock" employees. When not enough people sign up (or refuse to contribute a potluck dish), send an e-mail saying that regretfully, because of lack of employee interest, the party had to be canceled. You can also organize a committee to discover the reasons why people didn't sign up. The results should be forwarded to the above-mentioned token support team for prompt and decisive action.

10. Retreat Reorganizationally from Reality. Avoid a sustained relationship with a consultant trained in reorganizational crisis, conflict, loss, and grief work, as this intervention will surely make things worse. You know because you once attended one of those touchy-feely retreats where they even made people briefly hug one another. Or you heard about a workshop facilitator who used a "let it all hang out" encounter-group-like method on a law firm retreat with thirty litigators. Big surprise…The workshop turned into a primal attack/scream session and people didn't speak to one another for the next six months. (So the retreat was a wash; there probably had been too much socializing around the company coffee machine anyway. Or maybe it was just one of those retreats where people took their vows of silence to heart.)

A sure sign that you're dealing with a true consulting superstar: this leader will totally work out all those minor post-restructuring adjustment problems in a weekend retreat. In addition, on the same reorganizational retreat, such a stellar management coach, if you act right away, should offer to place a big positive motivational bandage on all pre-crisis dysfunctional work relationships, at no extra cost. If you do dismiss the retreat approach, there still is a safe, effective image-enhancing option: send a couple of key personnel on a three-day "team building" workshop. Then you can answer "affirmative" if anyone asks whether yours is a team-based operation.

In conclusion, if you or your executive management team has the courage and foresight to enact one or more of these cutting-edge strategies, please let me know. As a reorganizational consultant, I certainly aspire to work with such a visionary, progressively "lean -and-MEAN" upper management team. I understand loneliness at the top. And believe me, you'll need all the help you can get!

Mark Gorkin, MSW, LICSW, "The Stress Doc" ™, a Licensed Clinical Social Worker, is an acclaimed keynote and kickoff speaker and "Motivational Humorist" known for his interactive, inspiring and FUN speaking and workshop programs. In addition, the "Doc" is a team building and organizational development consultant for a variety of govt. agencies, corporations and non-profits and is AOL's "Online Psychohumorist" ™. Mark is an Adjunct Professor, No. VA (NOVA) Community College and currently he is leading "Stress, Team Building and Humor" programs for the 1st Cavalry and 4th Infantry Divisions and Brigades, Ft. Hood, Texas and Ft. Leonard Wood, MO. A former Stress and Conflict Consultant for the US Postal Service, the Stress Doc is the author of Practice Safe Stress and of The Four Faces of Anger. See his award-winning, USA Today Online "HotSite" -- -- called a "workplace resource" by National Public Radio (NPR). For more info on the Doc's "Practice Safe Stress" programs or to receive his free e-newsletter, email or call 301-875-2567.