Tag Archives: Coaching

Book Summary & Review — Anxiety at Work: 8 Strategies to Help Teams Build Resilience, Handle Uncertainty, and Get Stuff Done by Adrian Gostick & Chester Elton

According to Adrian Gostick, one of the main reasons for writing the book had to do with his (now) 25-year-old son, Anthony (Tony) Gostick, who had been struggling with anxiety since high school and had always wanted his dad to write about this topic. Tony soon realized that he wasn’t alone and that many of his peers and even his managers were also feeling anxiety.

As Adrian Gostick and Chester Elton, his friend and coauthor, traveled the world talking and working with organizations and their executives, the theme that kept coming up again and again was that of anxiety in the workplace and what leaders can do to help their employees deal with anxiety — how to help (i.e., having the tips & tools) employees feel more supported and more resilient in the workplace. 

The book is organized by eight sources* of anxiety in the workplace, with a chapter for each strategy (Gostick & Elton, 2021, p. 26):

  • Employees’ uncertainty about the organization’s strategy contending with challenges, and how it affects job for security.
  • Work overload and the need for managers to help balance loads and help prioritize.
  • A lack of clarity about prospects for career growth and development, as well as the need for clarity in everyday work situations.
  • How perfectionism has become the enemy of getting things done.
  • Fear of speaking up, contributing, and debating issues.
  • Feeling marginalized as “others” for women, people of color, those on the LGBTQ+ spectrum, and religious minorities.
  • Being excluded socially by team members, with the sense of alienation from working remotely an emerging variation of this problem.
  • A lack of confidence and feeling undervalued.

*To get some clarity, I emailed Gostick and Elton to inquire about the citation(s) of these “eight leading sources of anxiety in the workplace.” This was Adrian Gostick’s reply: “Those 8 are our conclusions of leading sources of anxiety in the workplace based on our research and interviews. They are proprietary. It didn’t seem right to use someone else’s list as our conclusion. . .” Within each of the 8 are sources [he’s referring to the hodgepodge of sources in the “Notes” section] to back up the claims. With that said, we aren’t claiming this is an exhaustive list, but our conclusion based on experience, research and interviews.”

**Although I’m disappointed to not have received greater clarification on how these “eight leading sources of anxiety in the workplace” came to be, I do understand The Culture Works’ (a Utah-based global training and consulting company founded by Gostick & Elton) reluctance (like many other private consultancies) to disclose their research data.

At the end of each chapter is a very handy chapter summary.

Chapter 1 The Duck Syndrome – Highlights (no summary page)

“Despite a great deal of coverage in the media about rising anxiety levels, the stigma at work remains potent. Most people aren’t willing to discuss what they’re going through with anyone but their closest family and friends, and often not even with them” (Gostick & Elton, 2021, p. 10).

“Only one in four people who suffer from anxiety say they have talked about it to their boss. The rest? They hide their symptoms. Many have been doing it since their school days” (Gostick & Elton, 2021, p. 11). 

*This is not from the book, but I really like Arifeen Rahman’s description of the duck syndrome (below):

“At Stanford the term ‘Duck Syndrome’ describes students struggling to survive the pressures of a competitive environment while presenting the image of relaxed California chill. Imagine a calm duck gliding across a fountain. Underwater, the duck’s feet are paddling furiously – against the terrifying possibility that it may sink or even worse: be revealed as trying too hard” (Rahman, 2019).

Gostick and Elton (2021) say that this Duck Syndrome is alive and well in the workplace. They wrote that, similar to these struggling college students who appear fine, at work, “many people who might seem to be doing fine are, in reality, in danger of going under” (p. 11).

“According to a study by Stanford Graduate School of Business and Harvard Business School professors, workplace stress and anxiety may be a contributing factor in more than 120,000 deaths annually. In short, tens of billions of dollars, massive employee burnout, and the mental and physical well-being of our workforces are all at stake when considering how to mitigate anxiety” (Gostick & Elton, 2021, p. 13).

Gostick and Elton (2021) stated: “we are not suggesting leaders should try to become therapists” (p. 20). However, they contend that, “managers must take responsibility and do what they can to alleviate some of the strains work life is placing on so many of their people” (p. 22).

“Are managers willing to be present with an employee as that person makes sense of their mental health issue? Do they know how far to help without it becoming a counseling session? This is vital knowledge for managers these days” (Gostick & Elton, 2021, p. 22).

Good summary of Anxiety at Work:  

“The hopeful news this [Anxiety at Work] book offers is that leaders of teams can adopt a set of eight simple practices we’ve [Gostick and Elton] identified that can greatly reduce the anxiety their people are feeling. Using these practices and the lessons throughout the book will help any leader convey that they genuinely care about those they are privileged to lead—sending them home each night feeling a little more valued, listened to, and included” (Gostick & Elton, 2021, p. 23-24).

“Working to make team members feel understood, accepted, and secure is an extraordinary team-bonding opportunity. Research leaves not the slightest doubt that it’s also a powerful productivity booster. Devoting a little extra time and attention to this new way of managing will pay off in spades, and that is a great anxiety reliever for leaders as well, many of whom are concerned with their own job security” (Gostick & Elton, 2021, p. 28).

In today’s workplaces, the pace of change is intensifying and competition ever-present. Managers will never be able to completely stop their employees from feeling anxious, stressed, or worried. And there’s not much managers can do about the challenges that batter the workplaces (Gostick & Elton, 2021). However, “within our teams, we can go a long way to relieving tensions, providing support, inspiring enthusiasm and loyalty, and creating a safe place for people to spend their days” (Gostick & Elton, 2021, p. 28-29).

Chapter 2 Summary – Lead through Uncertainty (p. 67)

* Uncertainty can trigger various responses in people, often with negative consequences on performance. The most common uncertainty for today’s employees is whether or not a job will last.

* Uncertainty is exacerbated when managers don’t communicate enough about challenges facing their organizations and how those issues may affect their people and their teams.

* A good deal of employee uncertainty is about their own performance and development, i.e., How am doing? and Do I have a future here? By meeting one-on-one regularly to evaluate performance and growth opportunities, leaders can help team members avoid misreading situations while enhancing their engagement and commitment to the organization.

* Leaders can use a set of methods to help reduce uncertainty: 1) make it okay to not have all the answers, 2) loosen your grip in tough times, 3) ensure everyone knows exactly what’s expected of them, 4) keep people focused on what can be controlled, 5) have a bias to action, and 6) offer constructive feedback.

Chapter 3 Summary – Help with Overload (p. 95)

* Leaders often fail to appreciate that constantly demanding more and more work in less and less time will lead to employee frustration, rising anger levels, and eventually anxiety and burnout.

* Managers may believe it is an individual failure when an employee is overwhelmed, and yet more than 90 percent of employees feel burned out at least some of the time. The problem is often organizational.

* Most approaches businesses take to helping people cope with crushing workloads are aimed at fixing the person instead of focusing on underlying issues with the amount of work assigned and with the ways in which employees are managed.

* When employees feel anxiety from overload, managers can start by helping them break work into optimal chunks.

* Other methods to help team members better cope with workload expectations and reduce anxiety levels include: 1) create clear roadmaps, 2) balance loads, 3) rotate people, 4) closely monitor progress, 5) help people prioritize, 6) avoid distractions, and 7) encourage R&R.

Chapter 4 Summary – Help Chart Career Development (p. 124)

“Of course, classes and virtual training in foundational business skills can be quite valuable, but the learning that will most excite employees, and make the most immediate impact on their performance, is about how to tackle the specific challenges they’re facing in their work day-to-day” (Gostick & Elton, 2021, p. 116).

* Research shows younger workers are more eager to move up or out, and more than 75 percent of Gen Zers say they believe they should be promoted within their first year on the job. Creating more steps on the career path can help.

* Some 90 percent of younger workers “highly value” career growth and development opportunities, and organizations that effectively nurture their people’s desire to learn are 30 percent more likely to be market leaders.

* Some 87 percent of millennials ranked job security as a top priority when looking for a job. That is more than likely going to be even higher in the post-pandemic world.

* Following a set of methods can reduce employees’ anxiety about where they’re heading in their careers. They include: 1) create more steps to grow, 2) coach employees about how to get ahead, 3) help employees assess their skills and motivations, 4) use a skill development flow, 5) make learning real-time, 6) tailor development to the individual, 7) carefully calibrate growth opportunities, and 8) encourage peer-to-peer support.

Chapter 5 Summary – Manage Perfectionism (p. 149)

* There are certain jobs when flawless execution is vital. Perfectionism isn’t about a rational quest to get things right when they have to be; it’s a corrosive impulse to appear perfect, and often to push others for flawlessness as well.

* Studies have found perfectionists have higher levels of stress, burnout, and anxiety. They can also spend so much time tinkering or deciding on a course of action that they get little done.

* A key difference between unhealthy perfectionism and healthy striving is being able to define realistic expectations and knowing when to say “that’s good enough.”

* To identify someone who might have perfectionist tendencies, look for those who seek excessive guidance, seem loath to take any sort of risk, and treat most decisions as if they were a matter of life and death. Perfectionists can also tend to become overly defensive when criticized, and they can become preoccupied with their missteps or the mistakes of others.

* A series of methods can help lead those with perfectionist tendencies, including: 1) clarify what good enough is, 2) share the wisdom of innovators, 3) treat failures as learning opportunities, 4) regularly check in on progress, 5) team them up, and 6) discuss the issue openly.

Chapter 6 Summary – Manage Healthy Debate (p. 170)

* Many people today are conflict-avoidant—sidestepping uncomfortable situations and holding back on giving honest feedback.

* The best work groups are places of high trust and high candor, where team members debate to drive problem-solving. When employees are free to speak up and know their voices will be heard, it can increase engagement, enhance psychological safety, and bolster self-confidence and a sense of ownership.

* Leaders facilitate this by encouraging debate in a safe environment. They set ground rules and encourage all voices to be heard, de-escalate quarreling, ask team members to clarify their opinions with facts, and create clear plans and timelines for moving forward.

* Managers can spot employees who may be conflict-averse if they shy away from difficult conversations, try to change the topic or flee the scene when things get tense, get uncomfortable during debates, or resist expressing their feelings or thoughts during meetings.

* Methods that managers can use to coach their employees to find their voices and work through difficult conversations include: 1) address the Issue, Value, Solution, 2) don’t delay, 3) stick to facts, 4) use your words, 5) assume positive intent, 6) have plan, 7) give and take, and 8) get comfortable with the uncomfortable.

Chapter 7 Summary – Become an Ally (p. 188)

* There has been a historic pattern of anxiety in particular groups within the workplace—those too often made to feel like “others.” Of particular concern are women, people of color, those on the LGBTQ+ spectrum, members of religious minorities, and those with disabilities.

* Many in these communities must hide their true identities. But when managers create cultures where people feel comfortable being themselves, dramatic performance gains can be unlocked as everyone is able to focus all their attention on work.

* Many leaders do not understand the level of implicit bias that occurs in our work cultures. Microaggressions are biases that reveal themselves in often subtle ways and leave people feeling uncomfortable or insulted. They can take a psychological toll on the mental health of recipients and can lower work productivity and problem-solving abilities.

* Methods to help those who are marginalized feel valued and included in any team include: 1) listen up, 2) sponsor, 3) stand up, and 4) advocate.

Chapter 8 Summary – Build Social Bonds (p. 209)

* Exclusion can be toxic to anxiety levels. Fear of missing out (FOMO) may harm mental well-being since humans have such a strong need to belong. Some 71 percent of professionals say they have experienced some degree of exclusion within their team.

* There is much team leaders can do to spot those who may seem to be left out—all the more important when some or all of a team works remotely: Which person is regularly cut off during group discussions? Who doesn’t seem to be interacting with anyone? Regular one-on-ones are the best way to understand what’s really going on.

* Leaders can encourage inclusion by ensuring that all team members can contribute in meetings and have their voices heard in a calm and organized manner, buddy new hires up with friendly seasoned employees, and spend time in every meeting recognizing contributions.

* Other methods for helping move a team from exclusion to connection include: 1) build camaraderie, 2) find a common core, 3) foster connections and friendships, 4) provide frequent validation, and 5) include remotes.

Chapter 9 Summary – Build Confidence with Gratitude (p. 226)

* One of the simplest and most effective ways to motivate employees to achieve is by regularly expressing gratitude. Research shows offering positive reinforcement produces impressive boosts in team performance and significantly reduces anxiety levels in team members.

* Leaders don’t express gratitude to their people about work well done anywhere nearly as frequently or effectively as they should.

* High-performing employees are often gratitude sponges and perceive a lack of attention from a manager as a sign that things are not good; silence can cause worry to creep up on even the best of workers.

* Regular expressions of gratitude are like deposits in a Bank of Engagement. They build up reserves for when an employee’s work has to be corrected. Research shows gratitude also helps people develop a greater capacity to handle stress.

* Other practical methods to turn doubts into assurance include: 1) make gratitude clear, specific, and sincere, 2) match gratitude to magnitude, 3) preserve gratitude’s significance, 4) provide gratitude to high-flyers, too, and 5) keep gratitude close to the action.

How Anxiety Fills the Gap

“Leaders often shy away from discussing hard truths. They fear that such a discussion might dishearten their workers or cause them to bolt. And yet, there’s something exhilarating for employees about facing facts head-on. Such inclusion helps people feel like they are being brought into the inner circle to brainstorm solutions to challenges. Ambiguity either prolongs inevitable bad news or widens the trust gap. Or both” (Gostick & Elton, 2021, p. 62).

How to Turn Less into More

“To lessen anxiety, we’ve found some good questions to ask in these individual check-ins include: (1) Do you feel like you can complete the project by deadline without having to work unreasonable hours? (2) Is there anyone else on the team who could help so you could meet the deadline? (3) Is there any part of this project that might be delayed? (4) Do you need any additional training or resources to be successful? (5) What have you learned that we might do differently next time we are up against a task like this?” (Gostick & Elton, 2021, p. 87).

Clear Paths Forward

“If leaders are seeking to retain the best young workers, and reduce unnecessary career anxiety in their people, then addressing concerns about job security, growth, and advancement are vital” (Gostick & Elton, 2021, p. 100).

How “It’s Not Perfect” Can Become “It’s Good, I’ll Move On”

“Jared, you’ve got high standards, just like me. I see that you always try to make sure all the details are attended to and everything is done exactly right. That can be a good thing. Now, as I want you to progress in this organization, I’ll tell you something I had to learn. Focusing on improving things from 95 percent to 100 often bogs down opportunities. It’s easy to get tunnel vision in getting something perfect that can cost more than it does to move on to the next project. Let me give you an example I saw where you might have applied this lesson” (Gostick & Elton, 2021, p. 146).

From Conflict Avoidance to Healthy Debate

“Managers should address mean-spirited tensions head-on, and team members who stir up hostility should be coached. But there is a big difference between hostility and debate” (Gostick & Elton, 2021, p. 152).

In high-performing teams with high trust and high candor, team members welcome debates and report that disagreements and strenuous debates help “drive inventive problem-solving, and can be highly motivating” (Gostick & Elton, 2021, p. 152).

“When managers perceive that a conflict-avoidance issue may exist, they can do a great deal to address it by working with employees to stand up for themselves. They may also help them take time to consider their own opinions before agreeing to anything that might violate their values, and stick to their guns when challenged” (Gostick & Elton, 2021, p. 154).

Becoming an Ally

“As we spoke with individuals in marginalized communities, a few things they wanted managers to understand about addressing bias included: 1) Don’t try to convince a person from a marginalized group of all the things that have gone wrong in your life to better relate to their issues (you were poor, your parents died, you have a learning disorder, etc.); this is not a competition. 2) Don’t ante up by saying that your daughter is gay or that you have lots of Black friends. 3) Be compassionate but don’t be “shocked” by racism or other forms of bias; if you are, you have been actively ignoring what’s been happening because it did not affect you directly. 4) Don’t preach about your “wokeness” to the issue; show it” (Gostick & Elton, 2021, p. 179).

Transform Exclusion into Connection

“There’s actually quite a lot that team leaders can do to encourage inclusion; for instance, looking carefully for anyone on the team who may seem to be left out (all the more important when some or all of a team works remotely), which person is regularly cut off during group discussions, who is regularly chatting with whom, and who doesn’t seem to be interacting with anyone. By watching, a manager can gain awareness and insight” (Gostick & Elton, 2021, p. 191).

Turn Doubts into Assurance

“One of the most effective ways leaders can combat anxiety is to foster an attitude of gratitude throughout their organizations—not just top-down, but peer-to-peer” (Gostick & Elton, 2021, p. 218).

“When leaders align rewards with the level of achievement, they help those who are anxious make more positive assumptions about their work. For small steps forward, verbal praise or a note of thanks is appropriate, but bigger achievements require a tangible reward presented in a timely manner” (Gostick & Elton, 2021, p. 221).

WHAT I REALLY LIKE

By following the strategies, tips, and techniques provided by Gostick and Elton in Anxiety at Work, leaders will not only become better at reducing the stress and anxiety on their teams and in their employees, but they will also become better leaders. Inherent in many of these suggested practices is the assumption that one is already a capable boss and that these anxiety-reducing practices for leading your team will make you an even better boss. And, if you’re a subpar leader, Gostick and Elton’s recommendations will most certainly help raise your leadership skills.

For example, in Ch. 2, Gostick and Elton wrote (2021, p. 67): “A good deal of employee uncertainty is about their own performance and development, i.e., How am doing? and Do I have a future here? By meeting one-on-one regularly to evaluate performance and growth opportunities, leaders can help team members avoid misreading situations while enhancing their engagement and commitment to the organization.” In Ch. 3, they stated (Gostick & Elton, 2021, p. 95): “Leaders often fail to appreciate that constantly demanding more and more work in less and less time will lead to employee frustration, rising anger levels, and eventually anxiety and burnout.” In Ch. 6, the authors maintained (p. 170): “The best work groups are places of high trust and high candor, where team members debate to drive problem-solving. When employees are free to speak up and know their voices will be heard, it can increase engagement, enhance psychological safety, and bolster self-confidence and a sense of ownership.” In Ch. 8, Gostick and Elton said (p. 209): “There is much team leaders can do to spot those who may seem to be left out—all the more important when some or all of a team works remotely: Which person is regularly cut off during group discussions? Who doesn’t seem to be interacting with anyone? Regular one-on-ones are the best way to understand what’s really going on.” Finally, in Ch. 9, they declared (p. 226): “One of the simplest and most effective ways to motivate employees to achieve is by regularly expressing gratitude. Research shows offering positive reinforcement produces impressive boosts in team performance and significantly reduces anxiety levels in team members.”

These are all classic management and leadership advice! I LOVE it!

CAUTION/CAVEAT:

As a former mental health professional, I want to make two important points. 

Point Number One: 

There’s an implicit assumption in Anxiety at Work that the “anxiety at work” is work-related and that managers and leaders need to have tips and tools to help their employees who are experiencing anxiety at work. What is very important to understand, however, is that individuals who experience anxiety also experience anxiety in other areas of their lives OUTSIDE of work. 

There was no clearly explained causes of anxiety mentioned in Anxiety at Work (I’m referring to the clinical definition & diagnosis of anxiety). According to the American Psychiatric Association (2017), “the causes of anxiety disorders are currently unknown but likely involve a combination of factors including genetic, environmental, psychological and developmental. Anxiety disorders can run in families, suggesting that a combination of genes and environmental stresses can produce the disorders.” In general, for a person to be diagnosed with an anxiety disorder, the fear or anxiety must: (1) Be out of proportion to the situation or age inappropriate, and (2) Hinder ability to function normally (APA, 2017). 

As Dr. Edmund Bourne (a clinical psychologist who has specialized in the treatment of anxiety disorders and related problems for 30 years) explained in The Anxiety & Phobia Workbook (2015, p. 8): “Anxiety is an inevitable part of life in contemporary society. It’s important to realize that there are many situations that come up in everyday life in which it is appropriate and reasonable to react with some anxiety. If you didn’t feel any anxiety in response to everyday challenges involving potential loss or failure, something would be wrong.”

“Anxiety disorders are distinguished from everyday, normal anxiety in that they involve anxiety that 1) is more intense (for example, panic attacks), 2) lasts longer (anxiety that may persist for months or longer instead of going away after a stressful situation has passed), or 3) leads to phobias that interfere with your life” (Bourne, 2015, p. 8).

Point Number Two:  

Seek appropriate mental health help for anxiety disorders (see APA, 2016; APA, 2017; NAMI, 2017). Gostick and Elton (2021) wrote: “for employees feeling anxiety symptoms at any level, referral to a company employee assistance program (EAP) or licensed counselor can be extremely helpful” (p. 20). Anxiety at Work is written with the primary focus on helping managers and leaders aid their employees, rather than providing an individual worker with the tools to cope with anxiety.

If you experience anxiety that is (1) hard-to-control, (2) where you excessively worry about a host of issues—health, family problems, school, money, work—that results in both physical and mental complaints (e.g., muscle tension, restlessness, easily tired and irritable, poor concentration, and trouble sleeping), and (3) you experience it on most days for 6+ months, PLEASE seek appropriate, qualified, and licensed mental health help (see APA, 2016; APA, 2017; NAMI, 2017).

In addition to seeking clinical help, I would strongly suggest reading books that specifically address anxiety, such as:

  • “The Anxiety Toolkit: Strategies for Fine-Tuning Your Mind and Moving Past Your Stuck Points” by Alice Boyes
  • “The Anxiety Skills Workbook: Simple CBT and Mindfulness Strategies for Overcoming Anxiety, Fear, and Worry” by Stefan G. Hofmann 
  • “Anxiety Happens: 52 Ways to Find Peace of Mind” by John P. Forsyth and Georg H. Eifert
  • “The Anxiety First Aid Kit: Quick Tools for Extreme, Uncertain Times” by Rick Hanson, Matthew McKay, Martha Davis, Elizabeth Robbins Eshelman, Martin N. Seif, Sally M. Winston, David A. Carbonell, Catherine M. Pittman and Elizabeth M Karle
  • “Coping with Anxiety: Ten Simple Ways to Relieve Anxiety, Fear, and Worry” by Edmund J. Bourne and Lorna Garano

Takeway:

Adrian Gostick and Chester Elton’s Anxiety at Work: 8 Strategies to Help Teams Build Resilience, Handle Uncertainty, and Get Stuff Done is a fantastic contribution to the field of management and leadership as well as occupational health psychology (a field of psychology concerned with the health, safety, and well-being of employees, and covers four connected areas: the employee; the job environment; the organizational environment; and the external environment). In Anxiety at Work (2021), Gostick and Elton utilized stories and examples of real managers and their employees “to create a simple guide for managers that they can read very quickly” (p. 25) and included recommended practices that leaders can implement immediately (Gostick & Elton, 2021). Anxiety at Work is an important resource and guide for managers and leaders of teams, functions, and organizations. The tips and practices are great for helping leaders create and maintain a lower-stress work environment.

However, it is important to note that Anxiety at Work is not a guide for those experiencing anxiety at work and in other domains of life. Anxiety at Work is not a replacement for seeking help from a licensed and trained mental health clinician nor can it adequately help employees (on an individual level) better deal with and manage anxiety. The book is written to target the job and the organizational environment (i.e., what managers & leaders can do and need to do), not the individual employee.

With that caveat in mind, I really like Anxiety at Work and highly recommend it for leaders at all levels of an organization.

As Gostick and Elton (2021) wrote, you must acknowledge “the frantic duck-paddling going on under the surface in your team” (p. 227) and “begin to minimize anxiety, offer support for people to work through their feelings, and build resilience for challenges to come” (p. 227). Anxiety at Work helps leaders better understand that mental health and employee well-being are just as important as sales quotas and customer satisfaction.

Best of all, Anxiety at Work provides leaders with practical solutions: (1) to help reduce uncertainty; (2) to help team members better cope with workload expectations and reduce anxiety levels; (3) to reduce employees’ anxiety about where they’re heading in their careers; (4) to lead those with perfectionist tendencies; (5) to coach their employees to find their voices and work through difficult conversations; (6) to help those who are marginalized feel valued and included in any team; (7) to help move a team from exclusion to connection; and (8) to turn doubts into assurance.

Written By: Steve Nguyen, Ph.D.
Leadership & Talent Development Consultant

References

American Psychiatric Association (APA). (2017, January). What Are Anxiety Disorders? https://www.psychiatry.org/patients-families/anxiety-disorders/what-are-anxiety-disorders

American Psychological Association (APA). (2016, October 1). Beyond worry: How psychologists help with anxiety disorders. https://www.apa.org/topics/anxiety/disorders

Bourne, E. J. (2015). The Anxiety & Phobia Workbook (6th ed.). New Harbinger Publications, Inc.

Bourne, E. J., & Garano, L. (2016). Coping with Anxiety: Ten Simple Ways to Relieve Anxiety, Fear, and Worry (2nd ed.). New Harbinger Publications, Inc.

Forsyth, J. P., & Eifert, G. H. (2018). Anxiety Happens: 52 Ways to Find Peace of Mind. New Harbinger Publications, Inc.

Gostick, A., & Elton, C. (2021). Anxiety at Work: 8 Strategies to Help Teams Build Resilience, Handle Uncertainty, and Get Stuff Done. Harper Business.

Hanson, R., McKay, M., Davis, M., Eshelman, E. R., Seif, M. N., Winston, S. M., Carbonell, D. A., Pittman, C. M., & Karle, E. M. (2020). The Anxiety First Aid Kit: Quick Tools for Extreme, Uncertain Times. New Harbinger Publications, Inc.

Hofmann, S. G. (2020). The Anxiety Skills Workbook: Simple CBT and Mindfulness Strategies for Overcoming Anxiety, Fear, and Worry. New Harbinger Publications, Inc.

National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI). (2017, December). Anxiety Disorders. https://www.nami.org/About-Mental-Illness/Mental-Health-Conditions/Anxiety-Disorders

Rahman, A. (2019, July 26). Duck Syndrome. https://www.kqed.org/perspectives/201601138907/duck-syndrome

Disclosure: I received a print copy of Anxiety at Work as a complimentary gift in exchange for an honest review.

What Burnout Is and Why It Isn’t Confined To The Occupational Sphere

What Is Burnout?

Burnout isn’t just being tired or “fed up” with work. “Burnout is far more than feeling blue or having a bad day. It is a chronic state of being out of synch with your job, and that can be a significant crisis in your life” (Leiter & Maslach, 2005, p. 2). With burnout, a person is no longer able to work (exhaustion) and no longer wants to spend effort at work (distancing). Burnout is characterized by exhaustion, mental distancing, and impaired cognitive functioning, such as poor attention and concentration, and a poor working memory (Schaufeli, De Witte, & Desart, 2020).

In their book, Banishing Burnout, Leiter and Maslach (2005) wrote that: 

Burnout is lost energy. You are constantly overwhelmed, stressed, and exhausted” (Leiter & Maslach, 2005, p. 2).

Burnout is lost enthusiasm. Your original passion has faded and been replaced by a negative cynicism” (Leiter & Maslach, 2005, p. 2).

Burnout is lost confidence. Without energy and active involvement in your work, it’s hard to find a reason to keep going” (Leiter & Maslach, 2005, p. 3).

Burnout has become serious enough that the World Health Organization (WHO, 2019) included it in the 11th edition of the International Classification of Diseases (ICD-11) as an occupational phenomenon, though not a medical condition. According to ICD-11: “Burnout is a syndrome conceptualized as resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed. It is characterised by three dimensions: 1) feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion; 2) increased mental distance from one’s job, or feelings of negativism or cynicism related to one’s job; and 3) a sense of ineffectiveness and lack of accomplishment. Burnout refers specifically to phenomena in the occupational context and should not be applied to describe experiences in other areas of life.”

According to psychology professors, Michael Leiter, Christina Maslach, and Wilmar Schaufeli (2009): “burnout is a psychological syndrome in response to chronic interpersonal stressors on the job. The three key dimensions of this response are an overwhelming exhaustion; feelings of cynicism and detachment from the job; and a sense of ineffectiveness and lack of accomplishment” (p. 90). 

Another definition of burnout is that it is: a work-related state of exhaustion occurring among employees. Burnout is characterized by extreme tiredness, reduced ability to regulate cognitive and emotional processes, and mental distancing. These four core dimensions of burnout are also accompanied by depressed mood and by non-specific psychological and psychosomatic distress symptoms (Schaufeli, De Witte, & Desart, 2020).

Although there are varying perspectives on the definition of what constitutes burnout, what is common to all definitions is that, “burnout occurs at an individual level; that it is an internal psychological experience involving feelings, attitudes, motives, and expectations; and that it is a negative experience for the individual, in that it concerns problems, distress, discomfort, dysfunction, and/or negative consequences” (Maslach, Leiter, & Schaufeli, 2009, p. 89). 

And while burnout is an individual phenomenon, the impact of burnout can reverberate throughout an entire team or even department. In their book, Anxiety at Work, Adrian Gostick and Chester Elton talk about how work overload can have an effect on not just one individual, but also the entire team: “Allowing overload to escalate into anxiety and burnout can have negative ricocheting effects on an entire work group” (Gostick & Elton, 2021, p. 75).

Symptoms of Burnout

4 Core Symptoms of Burnout:

1. Exhaustion: severe loss of energy that results in feelings of both physical (tiredness, feeling weak) and mental (feeling drained and worn-out) exhaustion. Specific symptoms include; lack of energy to start the new working, feeling completely used-up after a whole day of working, feeling tired quickly even after spending minimal effort at work, and inability to relax after work (Schaufeli, De Witte, & Desart, 2020, p. 27).

2. Emotional impairment: manifests itself in intense emotional reactions and feeling overwhelmed by one’s emotions. Specific symptoms include; feeling frustrated and angry at work, irritability, overreacting, feeling upset or sad without knowing why, and feeling unable to control one’s emotions at work (Schaufeli, De Witte, & Desart, 2020, p. 27).

3. Cognitive impairment: indicated by memory problems, attention and concentration deficits and poor cognitive performance. Specific symptoms include; difficulties to think clearly and learn new things at work, being forgetful and absent-minded, indecision, poor memory, attention and concentration deficits, and trouble staying focused at work (Schaufeli, De Witte, & Desart, 2020, p. 27).

4. Mental distance: Psychologically distancing oneself from the work is indicated by a strong reluctance or aversion to work. One withdraws mentally – and sometimes even physically – from work and avoids contact with others, for example with customers, clients, and colleagues. Indifference and a cynical attitude are characteristic of mental distance. Little or no enthusiasm and interest for the work exists and one feels that one functions on autopilot (Schaufeli, De Witte, & Desart, 2020, p. 27).

3 Secondary Symptoms of Burnout:

1. Psychological distress. This refers to non-physical symptoms that are the result of a psychological problem, such as sleep problems, worrying, feeling tense and anxious, feeling disturbed by noise and crowds, and weight fluctuations without being on a diet (Schaufeli, De Witte, & Desart, 2020, p. 27-28).

2. Psychosomatic complaints. This refers to physical complaints that cannot be explained by a physical disorder, but are exacerbated by or result from some psychological problem. Examples are, palpitations and chest pain, stomach and intestinal problems, headaches, muscle pains and getting sick often (Schaufeli, De Witte, & Desart, 2020, p. 28).

3. Depressed mood. This refers to a gloomy and sad mood and to the inability to experience pleasure. Depressed people feel powerless, suffer from guilt and are disappointed in themselves. Please note that depressed mood is a normal, temporary reaction to disappointment or loss and should be distinguished from mood disorder, which is a psychiatric syndrome (Schaufeli, De Witte, & Desart, 2020, p. 28).

Burnout is caused by an imbalance between high job demands and not enough resources. Issues outside of work as well as personal vulnerability may facilitate the onset of burnout. Burnout also leads to feelings of being incompetent and poor performance at work (Schaufeli, De Witte, & Desart, 2020).

Six Areas of Person-Job Mismatch

Leiter and Maslach (2004) proposed that six areas of job-person mismatch are the critical sources of burnout. From surveys and interviews of more than 10,000 people across a variety of organizations in different countries, Maslach and Leiter (2005) found most person-job mismatches fall into six categories: work overload (too much work, not enough resources); lack of control (micromanagement, lack of influence, accountability without power); insufficient rewards (not enough pay, acknowledgment, or satisfaction); breakdown in community (isolation, conflict, disrespect); absence of fairness (discrimination, favoritism); and value conflicts (ethical conflicts, meaningless tasks).

Both individuals and organizations can use the six-category framework to diagnose which categories are especially troublesome for them, and then to design interventions that target these problem area (Maslach & Leiter, 2005).

According to Maslach (2017), the six positive “fits” to tackle the person-job mismatches and promote engagement and well-being are (1) a sustainable workload; (2) choice and control; (3) recognition and reward; (4) a supportive work community; (5) fairness, respect, and social justice; and (6) clear values and meaningful work.

Burnout Is Not Confined To The Occupational Sphere

Some researchers (e.g., Bianchi, Truchot, Laurent, Brisson, & Schonfeld, 2014; Hallsten, 1993; Kristensen, Borritz, Villadsen & Christensen, 2005; Pines, Neal, Hammer & Icekson, 2011; Pines & Nunes, 2003) have argued that burnout is not just job-related and should not be confined only to the workplace, and that we need to move away from a work-specific to a generic, cross-domain or context-free approach to better understand burnout (e.g., Hallsten, 1993; Kristensen, Borritz, Villadsen & Christensen, 2005; Pines, Neal, Hammer & Icekson, 2011; Pines & Nunes, 2003). They contend that the fundamental cause of burnout is unresolvable, chronic stress and, as such, burnout can be developed outside of the workplace (Bianchi, Truchot, Laurent, Brisson, & Schonfeld, 2014). “Burnout can only be considered a multi-domain syndrome, given that chronic stress is not a job-restricted phenomenon” (Bianchi, Truchot, Laurent, Brisson, & Schonfeld, 2014, p. 359).

Indeed, even Maslach (2006) has acknowledged that, “Although burnout has been identified primarily as a phenomenon in the world of work, the significance of the social context and interpersonal relationships for burnout suggests that burnout might be relevant to other domains of life” (p. 39). 

Researchers who support burnout as an occupational phenomenon (e.g., Maslach, Schaufeli, & Leiter, 2001; Schaufeli & Taris, 2005; Schaufeli, Desart, & De Witte, 2020) have extended the definition of work to also include athletes, volunteers, and even students. They maintain that because work refers to all structured, goal-directed activities that are mandatory in nature, athletes, volunteers, and students also “work” and, as a result, may also suffer from burnout (Schaufeli, Desart, & De Witte, 2020). 

Other researchers openly support the view that burnout extends beyond and outside the workplace. For example, Mikolajczak, Gross, Stinglhamber, Lindahl Norberg, and Roskam (2020) have presented a case for why parental burnout is distinct from job burnout. These researchers (e.g., Mikolajczak, Gross, & Roskam, 2019) have described parental burnout as an overwhelming exhaustion related to one’s parental role, an emotional distancing from one’s children, and a sense of parental ineffectiveness). There’s also a parental burnout assessment (PBA) in which the parental burnout phenomenon is reconstructed based solely on the testimonies of burned-out parents (Roskam, Brianda, & Mikolajczak, 2018). Although both parental burnout and job burnout share common consequences, such as problematic alcohol use, problem sleeping, somatic complaints, there are specific consequences for job burnout versus parental burnout. Specific consequences for parental burnout include parental neglect and parental violence, while a specific consequence for job burnout includes intent to leave the company.

Another type of burnout is caregiver burnout. “A caregiver can be any relative, partner, friend or neighbor who has a significant personal relationship with, and provides a broad range of assistance for a child or an adult with a chronic or disabling condition. These individuals may be primary or secondary caregivers and live with, or separately from, the person receiving care” (American Medical Association, 2018).

“Caregiver burnout is defined as a state of physical, emotional and/or mental exhaustion that can create negative and unconcerned caregiver attitudes. Caregiver burnout can occur when caregivers don’t get the help or support they need, and when the demands on a caregiver’s mind, body and emotions are overwhelming, leading to fatigue and sometimes hopelesness. Serving as a caregiver for a loved one is often mentally and physically demanding, making it difficult for the one providing care to tend to their own needs. Once the individual begins to feel the effects of burnout, it becomes difficult to care for themselves, as well as the patient in their charge” (American Medical Association, 2018).

Research studies have suggested that family caregivers (also referred to as informal caregiving) of adults with Alzheimer’s and dementia may also suffer from burnout (Almberg, Grafström, & Winblad, 1997; Alves, Monteiro, Bento, Hayashi, Pelegrini, & Vale, 2019; Chan, Cheung, Martinez-Ruiz, Chau, Wang, Yeoh, & Wong, 2021; Yilmaz, Turan, & Gundogar, 2009). James and Paulson (2020) recently developed the Informal Caregiver Burnout Inventory (ICBI), a measure of burnout for informal caregivers of individuals with Alzheimer’s disease and dementia.

If we accept that a fundamental cause of burnout is chronic stress (Bianchi, Truchot, Laurent, Brisson, & Schonfeld, 2014; Maslach et al., 2001), and if we agree that chronic stress can exist outside of one’s job or workplace, then “burnout cannot be confined to the occupational sphere because chronic stress is not confined to the occupational sphere” (Bianchi et al., 2014, p. 359). 

Written By: Steve Nguyen, Ph.D.
Leadership & Talent Development Consultant

References

Almberg, B., Grafström, M., & Winblad, B. (1997). Caring for a demented elderly person—burden and burnout among caregiving relatives. Journal of Advanced Nursing, 25(1), 109-116.

Alves, L., Monteiro, D. Q., Bento, S. R., Hayashi, V. D., Pelegrini, L., & Vale, F. (2019). Burnout syndrome in informal caregivers of older adults with dementia: A systematic review. Dementia & Neuropsychologia, 13(4), 415-421.

American Medical Association (AMA). (2018). Caring for the caregiver: A guide for physicians. https://www.ama-assn.org/sites/ama-assn.org/files/corp/media-browser/public/public-health/caregiver-burnout-guide.pdf

Bianchi, R., Truchot, D., Laurent, E., Brisson, R., & Schonfeld, I. S. (2014). Is burnout solely job-related? A critical comment. Scandinavian Journal of Psychology, 55(4), 357-361.

Chan, C. Y., Cheung, G., Martinez-Ruiz, A., Chau, P., Wang, K., Yeoh, E. K., & Wong, E. (2021). Caregiving burnout of community-dwelling people with dementia in Hong Kong and New Zealand: A cross-sectional study. BMC Geriatrics, 21(261).

Gostick, A., & Elton, C. (2021). Anxiety at work: 8 strategies to help teams build resilience, handle uncertainty, and get stuff done. Harper Business.

Hallsten, L. (1993). Burning out: A framework. In W. B. Schaufeli, C. Maslach & T. Marek (Eds.), Professional burnout: Recent developments in theory and research (pp. 95-113). Taylor & Francis.

James, N., & Paulson, D. (2020). Development of a novel measure of informal caregiver burnout. Innovation in Aging, 4(Suppl 1), 477. 

Kristensen, T. S., Borritz, M., Villadsen, E. & Christensen, K. B. (2005). The Copenhagen Burnout Inventory: A new tool for the assessment of burnout. Work & Stress, 19, 192-207.

Leiter, M. P., & Maslach, C. (2004). Areas of worklife: A structured approach to organizational predictors of job burnout. In P. L. Perrewé & D. C. Ganster (Eds.), Research in occupational stress and well-being: Vol. 3. Emotional and physiological processes and positive intervention strategies (p. 91–134). Elsevier Science/JAI Press.

Leiter, M. P., & Maslach, C. (2005). Banishing burnout: Six strategies for improving your relationship with work. Jossey-Bass.

Maslach, C. (2017). Finding solutions to the problem of burnout. Consulting Psychology Journal: Practice and Research, 69(2), 143-152.

Maslach, C. (2006). Understanding job burnout. In A. M. Rossi, P. Perrewe, & S. Sauter (Eds.), Stress and quality of working life: Current perspectives in occupational health (pp. 37-51). Information Age Publishing.

Maslach, C. & Leiter, M. P. (2005). Reversing burnout: How to rekindle your passion for your work. Stanford Social Innovation Review, 3(4), 42-49.

Maslach, C., Leiter, M. P., & Schaufeli, W. (2009). Measuring burnout. In S. Cartwright & C. L. Cooper (Eds.), The Oxford handbook of organizational well-being (pp. 86-108). Oxford University Press.

Maslach, C., Schaufeli, W. B. & Leiter, M. P. (2001). Job burnout. Annual Review of Psychology, 52, 397-422.

Mikolajczak, M., Gross, J. J., & Roskam, I. (2019). Parental burnout: What is it, and why does it matter? Clinical Psychological Science, 7, 1319-1329.

Mikolajczak, M., Gross, J. J., Stinglhamber, F., Lindahl Norberg, A., & Roskam, I. (2020). Is parental burnout distinct from job burnout and depressive symptoms? Clinical Psychological Science, 8(4), 673-689.

Pines, A. M., Neal, M. B., Hammer, L. B. & Icekson, T. (2011). Job burnout and couple burnout in dual-earner couples in the sandwiched generation. Social Psychology Quarterly, 74, 361-386.

Pines, A. M. & Nunes, R. (2003). The relationship between career and couple burnout: Implications for career and couple counseling. Journal of Employment Counseling, 40, 50-64.

Roskam, I., Brianda, M.-E., & Mikolajczak, M. (2018). A step forward in the conceptualization and measurement of parental burnout: The Parental Burnout Assessment (PBA). Frontiers in Psychology, 9, Article 758.

Schaufeli, W. B., Desart, S., & De Witte, H. (2020). Burnout Assessment Tool (BAT)—Development, validity, and reliability. International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, 17(24), 9495.

Schaufeli, W. B., De Witte, H. & Desart, S. (2020). Burnout Assessment Tool (BAT) – Version 2.0 Test Manual. KU Leuven, Belgium: Unpublished internal report.

Schaufeli, W. B. & Taris, T. W. (2005). The conceptualization and measurement of burnout: Common ground and worlds apart. Work & Stress, 19, 256-262.

World Health Organization. (2019, May 28). Burn-out an “occupational phenomenon”: International Classification of Diseases. https://www.who.int/news/item/28-05-2019-burn-out-an-occupational-phenomenon-international-classification-of-diseases

World Health Organization. (2020). International statistical classification of diseases and related health problems (11th ed.). https://icd.who.int/

Yilmaz, A., Turan, E., & Gundogar, D. (2009). Predictors of burnout in the family caregivers of Alzheimer’s disease: Evidence from Turkey. Australasian Journal on Ageing, 28(1), 16–21.

Self-Insight Is Sparked by “Crystallization of Discontent” Moments

“The twists and turns of your life can be so unexpected, and that’s a good thing to learn.” -Christina Baker Kline (American novelist)

In The Power of Moments (“Defining moments shape our lives, but we don’t have to wait for them to happen. We can be authors of them” [Heath & Heath, 2017, p. 5]), Chip and Dan Heath (2017) talk about self-insight, “a mature understanding of our capabilities and motivations” (p. 116).

“[S]elf-insight rarely comes from staying in our heads. Research suggests that reflecting or ruminating on our thoughts and feelings is an ineffective way to achieve true understanding. . . .Better to take a risk, try something, and distill the answer from experience rather than from navel-gazing. Action leads to insight more often than insight leads to action” (Heath & Heath, 2017, p. 117).

Lea Chadwell had always dreamed of starting her own company, so she took a risk and opened a bakery she named, “A Pound of Butter,” which makes custom cakes for birthdays and weddings, and pastries to local restaurants. However, the charm of owning her own business began to fade. “Baking cakes for her own family was fun. But baking cakes for demanding customers was stressful” (Heath & Heath, 2017, p. 115).

One weekend, as she was rushing against a deadline to finish a wedding cake, she loaded the cake into her car and was about to drive off when she remembered that the front door of her bakery was left wide open. “It was her lightning-bolt moment: I’m making myself crazy being this stressed out. And she realized, ‘I wasn’t in love with baking anymore,’ she said later. ‘It was like this albatross of butter around my neck’” (Heath & Heath, 2017, p. 115).

Being a business owner made her miserable and she felt overwhelmed. She closed her bakery business after 18 months. The experience taught her about her capabilities and her values. Chadwell doesn’t regret starting or having to close her bakery. “What she gained was the insight that comes from experience. She came to accept. . .some qualities that made her the wrong person to run her own business. ‘I’m unorganized. Impractical. Fickle. . . . While these traits make me a great candidate for a Wacky Friend, they are just awful to try to form a business around. I suspect if I hadn’t quit, I’d have failed, and it actually really sucks to admit it. But, there’s the painful lesson I’ve learned. I’m great when I’m working for others; they rely on me. Working for myself? I’m a terrible boss’” (Heath & Heath, 2017, p. 116).

“Chadwell’s self-insight was sparked by a classic “crystallization of discontent” moment—the moment when she almost drove away from her bakery with the door wide open. In an instant, the fragments of frustration and anxiety she’d experienced were assembled into a clear conclusion: I’m not good at this. It’s not me” (Heath & Heath, 2017, p. 116).

The crystallization of discontent occurs when “contradictory events link together to form a large pattern of negative, dissonant thought” (Baumeister, 1991, p. 304). “These negative feelings and doubts have become linked to a broader pattern of meaningful relations that contradicts the high-level beliefs, instead of being a mere collection of isolated feelings and misgivings that in themselves seemed minor and that bore no relationship to one another” (Baumeister, 1991, p. 304).

The crystallization of discontent “typically initiate some serious reconsideration” whereby a person “assesses the options and alternatives, and many people will actively begin searching for alternatives” (Baumeister, 1991, p. 305). “The crystallization of discontent prompts a reassessment of the relationship or commitment. Isolated problems, frustrations, and bad days can be ignored as low-level setbacks that do not reflect negatively on one’s overall level of satisfaction and commitment. But a large pattern of problems and frustrations brings one up to a broader level of meaning and raises the issue of whether the positives outweigh the negatives. The person’s calculation of whether the involvement is worthwhile can no longer ignore the large body of problems” (Baumeister, 1991, p. 306).

“Baumeister (1991, 1994) claimed that people arrive at life changing decisions by first experiencing a crystallization of discontent. He portrayed the crystallization of discontent as part of a subjective process in which the individual concludes that the negative aspects of a certain life condition outweigh the positives. Until that point, the individual engages in maintaining the view that the positives outweigh the negatives (e.g., by contextualizing or otherwise minimizing the importance of the negatives), thereby enabling the person to keep a rosier big picture and to maintain the current life condition. But when the person perceives bad days as turning into bad years, the person is more likely to conclude that the future will contain much of the same. At this point, the person arrives at a crystallization of discontent and is motivated to make a major life change” (Bauer, McAdams, & Sakaeda, 2005, p. 1182).

In the crystallization of discontent — “The negative aspects link up with each other to form a broad, undesirable pattern: this is not just a bad day, but a bad year. When the problems were regarded merely as isolated exceptions, there was no reason to expect more of them, but once one sees them as part of a broad negative pattern, then further unpleasant develoments can be anticipated. The positive aspects must now be compared against an accumulated set of interrelated negative aspects, rather than being compared against the isolated negative aspects one at a time” (Baumeister, 1991, p. 325-326).

“Sometimes, at least in retrospect, a single and possibly minor incident will seem to stimulate this crystallization of discontent. It symbolizes a latent, broad set of dissatisfactions. The negative feelings about the involvement are thus recognized at a higher, more meaningful level; whereas once they were merely a temporary, brief, even one-day matter, now they are part of an ongoing pattern that reflects badly on the involvement over months or years. After the crystallization of discontent, each small frustration is no longer just another isolated problem but can readily link up to the broader context of general dissatisfaction. Each grievance reminds you of past grievances and warns of more to come” (Baumeister, 1991, p. 326).

“Connection reveals the very essence of meaning, which is to link things—objects, events, possibilities, other ideas—together. Meaning influences events by enabling people to see them as interrelated and hence to respond differently to them. The crystallization of discontent [is] perhaps the clearest example of this. A person’s life may contain exactly the same amount of problems, costs, and unpleasant facts after this crystallization as before it. What changes, however, is that these negatives are seen as one large pattern rather than a collection of isolated exceptions that are unrelated to each other. Connecting them, through meaning, is a crucial step in major life change. As long as these facts can be kept unconnected, the person is much less likely to initiate a major change” (Baumeister, 1991, p. 360).

Researchers have found that insight is an important and positive predictor of well-being (Harrington & Loffredo, 2011). “Insight was the most robust positive predictor” (p. 50) of well-being and “powerfully predicted both the subjective and eudaemonist constructs of well-being” (Harrington & Loffredo, 2011, p. 51).


I’ve experienced several “crystallization of discontent” moments in my life, all of which required me to stretch (oftentimes uncomfortably so) and, in the process, I learned more and more about myself each time.

One “crystallization of discontent” moment happened in my early 20s, as an undergraduate student working on my Bachelor’s. It was the summer of 1992 and I was supposed to be preparing to take the MCAT (medical school entrance exam). My parents even hired a tutor to help me master Organic Chemistry. But, at the last minute, I took action and called my tutor and canceled, telling her that I never wanted to become a medical doctor and that I was too cowardly to tell my parents and had just gone along for three years with what they wanted me to be. 

Another “crystallization of discontent” moment occurred in my early 30s. Having spent almost five years in a Master’s program and soon graduating with a graduate degree in counseling psychology, I experienced a very powerful “crystallization of discontent” moment in 2003. I “knew” very clearly in my head and heart that although I had spent years studying counseling and practicing how to be an effective counselor, I really did not enjoy counseling nor could I picture myself being a counselor and doing counseling as a long-term career. It was a frightening realization and stunning admission because how could I still be unhappy and dissatisfied when I had already pivoted away from another career field and had finally (I thought) found a career in mental health counseling?” In hindsight, there were a number of signs of my discontent throughout my time in the counseling Master’s program, but I ignored them each time. 

My “crystallization of discontent” moment in 2003—starting shortly before and continuing on after getting my graduate degree in counseling psychology—was, perhaps, the most powerful because it led me to the intentional decision to apply for a job in a school system (i.e., took action) over 7,000 away on a tropical island called Saipan, a career decision that ultimately changed not only my career but also my life. In fact, it was this decision that eventually led me to the training/learning & development and leadership & talent development space. And it was on the island of Saipan that I met and married my wife (who experienced her own “crystallization of discontent” moments that led her to leave Tokyo and seek out jobs in Sydney, Australia, and on the islands of Guam and Saipan).

Takeaway: 

Chip and Dan Heath (2017) observed that, “Self-understanding comes slowly. One of the few ways to accelerate it—to experience more crystallizing moments—is to stretch for insight” (p. 117-118). My “crystallization of discontent” moments in 1992 and 2003 were moments of insights that my journey in life includes many winding paths, twists, and turns; that I have to make multiple course corrections and pivots (i.e., take action) to find my bearings, and this is OK!

This perfectly captures my experiences with my own “crystallization of discontent” moments: “Often, what looks like a moment of serendipity is actually a moment of intentionality. What . . . [the people featured in the Power of Moments book] experienced as the shock of an insight was actually . . . the whiplash caused by realizing they could ACT and then willfully jolting their lives in a new direction. They were not receiving a moment, they were seizing it” (Heath & Heath, 2017, p. 262).

Have you ever had “crystallization of discontent” moments? Did you recognize and seize these moments?

Written By: Steve Nguyen, Ph.D.
Leadership & Talent Development Consultant

References

Bauer, J. J., McAdams, D. P., & Sakaeda, A. R. (2005). Crystallization of Desire and Crystallization of Discontent in Narratives of Life-Changing Decisions. Journal of Personality, 73(5), 1181-1213.

Baumeister, R. F. (1991). Meanings of life. The Guilford Press.

Baumeister, R. F. (1994). The crystallization of discontent in the process of major life change. In T. F. Heatherton, & J. Weinberger (Eds.), Can personality change? (pp. 281-297). American Psychological Association. 

Harrington, R., & Loffredo, D. A. (2010). Insight, rumination, and self-reflection as predictors of well-being. The Journal of Psychology, 145(1), 39-57.

Heath, C., & Heath, D. (2017). The Power of Moments: Why Certain Experiences Have Extraordinary Impact. Simon & Schuster.

How to Give Direct and Clear Feedback

From front-line leaders all the way up to C-suite leaders, I have seen, time and time again, how managers have made a mess in delivering feedback to their employees.

In this article, I will:

    • Clarify the difference between coaching and feedback;
    • Highlight and explain the Situation Behavior Impact Model (SBI);
    • Share Brené Brown’s “Engaged Feedback Checklist”; and
    • Wrap up with Dianna Booher’s five feedback tips.

Many managers misunderstand feedback, with most calling it “coaching.” Feedback is not coaching, and it is important to not mistake feedback for coaching (Semple, 2018). There’s a “coaching” model & process and there’s a “feedback” model & process that should be and can be a part of coaching, but this “feedback” can also be standalone model & process.

Those who confuse and fail to differentiate between “feedback” and “coaching” are at risk of delivering ineffective and even destructive “feedback” and cause recipients to recoil whenever they hear the word “coaching.”

International Coaching Federation (ICF) defines coaching as partnering with clients in a thought-provoking and creative process that inspires them to maximize their personal and professional potential.

Here’s my coaching definition, which I like much better, based on an amalgamation from these books: Leading at a Higher Level; Coaching for Performance; You Already Know How to Be Great; and Psychological Dimensions of Executive Coaching.

Coaching is a deliberate process of using focused conversations to help people to access their best self, remove interference, and free themselves to perform at their highest level. It’s about unlocking people’s potential so they can optimally make decisions, commit to actions, and produce breakthrough results. Effective coaching involves growth and change, whether that is in perspective, attitude, or behavior (Miller & Blanchard, 2010; Whitmore, 2017; Fine, 2010; Bluckert, 2006).

Feedback communicates to others about what their strengths are, specifies which of their skills are valuable to the team and/or organization, and explains to them where you believe they have the ability to change and improve (Buron & McDonald-Mann, 1999).

“Effective feedback provides the necessary information people need to build on their strengths and to shore up weaknesses. It’s a powerful tool for accelerating learning and for developing mastery” (Buron & McDonald-Mann, 1999, p. 7).

Therefore, it is absolutely critical that leaders and managers learn when and how to give effective feedback to subordinates.

When to Give Subordinates Feedback, according to the Center for Creative Leadership (CCL) (Buron & McDonald-Mann, 1999, p. 11):

    • Often
    • On Time
    • As an Opportunity for Development
    • To Solve a Performance Problem

The Situation Behavior Impact Model (SBI) by the Center for Creative Leadership (CCL) is great feedback model:

    • Situation – Describe the situation. Be specific about when & where it occurred.
    • Behavior – Describe the observable behavior. Don’t assume you know what the other person was thinking.
    • Impact – Describe what you thought or felt in reaction to the behavior.

“Called SBI for short, this simple feedback structure keeps your comments relevant and focused to maximize their effectiveness. Essentially, SBI means you describe the Situation in which you observed the employee, you describe the Behavior you observed, and you describe the Impact of that behavior on you and others present in that situation” (Buron & McDonald-Mann, 1999, p. 12).

Here’s one example from CCL (Buron & McDonald-Mann, 1999, p. 12):

Jim, I saw that presentation you made to the Excelsior group
(Situation). I liked how you picked up on their questions. I noticed
that you were able to move out of your prepared presentation to
address their concerns without missing a beat (Behavior). They
were all nodding their heads in agreement when you answered that
question about the delivery time frame. You made me confident that
you were in control of all the material and information. Joel Smythe
told me afterwards that our company seems to have a much better
understanding of Excelsior’s situation than anyone else on their
short list (Impact).

Here’s another example of the SBI method:

    1. Situation: Describe the specific situation in which the behavior occurred. Avoid generalities, such as “Last week,” as that can lead to confusion. Example: “This morning at the 9 a.m. team meeting…”
    2. Behavior: Describe the actual, observable behavior. Keep to the facts. Don’t insert opinions or judgments. Example: “You interrupted me while I was telling the team about the new leadership development initiative,” instead of “You were rude.”
    3. Impact: Describe the results of the behavior. Because you’re describing exactly what happened and explaining your true feelings—not passing judgment—the listener is more likely to absorb what you’re saying. If the effect was positive, words like “happy” or “proud” help underscore the success of the behavior. If the effect of the behavior was negative and needs to stop, you can use words such as “troubled” or “worried.” Example: “I was impressed when you addressed that issue without being asked” or “I felt frustrated when you interrupted me because it broke my train of thought.”

In her book, Dare to Lead, Brené Brown says one of the biggest issues for leaders is having tough conversations:

“We avoid tough conversations, including giving honest, productive feedback. Some leaders attributed this to a lack of courage, others to a lack of skills, and, shockingly, more than half talked about a cultural norm of “nice and polite” that’s leveraged as an excuse to avoid tough conversations. Whatever the reason, there was saturation across the data that the consequence is a lack of clarity, diminishing trust and engagement, and an increase in problematic behavior, including passive-aggressive behavior, talking behind people’s backs, pervasive back-channel communication (or “the meeting after the meeting”), gossip, and the “dirty yes” (when I say yes to your face and then no behind your back)” (Brown, 2018).

Brown (2018) declares: “Clear is kind. Unclear is unkind.”

“Feeding people half-truths or bullshit to make them feel better (which is almost always about making ourselves feel more comfortable) is unkind. Not getting clear with a colleague about your expectations because it feels too hard, yet holding them accountable or blaming them for not delivering is unkind. Talking about people rather than to them is unkind” (Brown, 2018).

Brown shares a readiness checklist — Engaged Feedback Checklist — to contemplate before you sit down to give someone feedback.

I know I’m ready to give feedback when (Brown, 2012):

    1. I’m ready to sit next to you rather than across from you.
    2. I’m willing to put the problem in front of us rather than between us (or sliding it toward you).
    3. I’m ready to listen, ask questions, and accept that I may not fully I understand the issue.
    4. I want to acknowledge what you do well instead of picking apart your mistakes.
    5. I recognize your strengths and how you can use them to address your challenges.
    6. I can hold you accountable without shaming or blaming you.
    7. I’m willing to own my part.
    8. I can genuinely thank you for your efforts rather than criticize you for your failings.
    9. I can talk about how resolving these challenges will lead to your growth and opportunity.
    10. I can model the vulnerability and openness that I expect to see from you.

“[P]sychological safety makes it possible to give tough feedback and have difficult conversations without the need to tiptoe around the truth” (Amy Edmondson, 2012).


Dianna Booher, a communication strategist and author, has some terrific and useful tips on giving feedback. She writes, “The best managers learn how to lead team members to assess their own performance so that feedback flows naturally. As a result, resistance decreases and performance improves” (Booher, 2021).

According to Booher, leaders and managers should try embedding feedback within coaching conversations. She recommends (2021) keeping these steps in mind:

(1) Lead the Person to Assess His or Her Own Performance – You are coaching for improved performance so begin the conversation with open-ended questions. For example (Booher, 2021): “How do you think this last product launch went over with our route drivers? Did you get the sense that they really understand the difference between this new formula and what we had on the market last year?”

(2) Ask About Lessons Learned – Instead of lecturing, ask what your team member has learned. For example (Booher, 2021): “What do you think you’ll do differently with the drivers on the next launch?” (Then listen to them elaborate on changes they already have in mind after self-assessing the outcomes that were less than desirable.)

(3) Acknowledge Their Perspective – If the team member has good self-awareness & self-assessment of their performance or the situation, you can confirm positively what s/he has said (Booher, 2021): “I agree with what you’ve said about…” “I think you’ve identified the trouble spots and have the right approach to correcting them for the next time.” (Notice that you’re giving credit for identifying and correcting their own performance.)

(4) Add Your Own Observations – Booher says that, while acknowledging the team member’s point of view, the leader/manager can share their observations (2021): “I have a few things to add about the situation. “I have a different take on what happened during the launch.” “I have a different viewpoint about why the route drivers walked away from the launch meeting confused. Let me add my observations to what you’ve said.”

(5) Be Direct, Clear, and Optimistic About the Future – Booher advises (2021): “Be direct. You never want to sugarcoat bad news or poor performance. But focus on the future rather than on the past. End the conversation by “looking forward” to the changes or improvements the team member will be making in the process, situation, or performance.”

Key Takeaways:

“To succeed in your leadership role, you must learn how to make feedback a part of developing your subordinates to their full potential. More than that, you must learn how to provide effective feedback that is empowering, not damaging; that is constructive, not debilitating” (Buron & McDonald-Mann, 1999, p. 7).

“Positive feedback will make the recipient feel better, reinforce good behavior, and build confidence. But negative feedback points out improvement opportunities and ways to build competence—and employees remember it longer” (Lane & Gorbatov, 2020).

“A manager’s inability to give feedback in a way that holds employees accountable for their performance, or that effectively delivers the message that their work outcome is poor, will lead to talent drain and drop in productivity overall” (Lane & Gorbatov, 2020).

Written By: Steve Nguyen, Ph.D.
Leadership & Talent Development Consultant

References

Bluckert, P. (2006). Psychological Dimensions of Executive Coaching. Open University Press.

Booher, D. (2021, February 16). Coaching With Feedback That Actually Works. https://www.tlnt.com/coaching-with-feedback-that-actually-works/

Brown, B. (2018). Dare to Lead: Brave Work. Tough Conversations. Whole Hearts. Random House.

Brown, B. (2012). Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead. Penguin/Gotham.

Buron, R. J., & McDonald-Mann, D. (1999). Giving Feedback to Subordinates. Center for Creative Leadership.

Center for Creative Leadership (CCL). (n.d.). Immediately Improve Your Talent Development with the SBI Feedback Model. https://www.ccl.org/articles/leading-effectively-articles/hr-pipeline-a-quick-win-to-improve-your-talent-development-process/

Edmondson, A. C. (2012). Teaming: How Organizations Learn, Innovate, and Compete in the Knowledge Economy. Jossey-Bass.

Fine, A. (2010). You Already Know How to Be Great: A Simple Way to Remove Interference and Unlock Your Greatest Potential. Penguin Group.

Lane, A., & Gorbatov, S. (2020, March 30). The Feedback Fallacy. https://www.talent-quarterly.com/the-feedback-fallacy/

Miller, L., & Blanchard, M. H. (2010). Coaching: A Key Competency For Leadership Development. In Blanchard, K. (Ed.). Leading at a higher level (pp. 149-163) (Revised & Expanded Edition). FT Press.

Semple, R. (2018, August 30). Don’t Mistake Feedback for Coaching. https://www.flashpointleadership.com/blog/dont-mistake-feedback-for-coaching

Whitmore, J. (2017). Coaching for Performance (5th ed.). Nicholas Brealey Publishing.

I Felt the Fear and Did It Anyway – The Risk I Took to Blossom

“And then the day came when the risk to remain tight in a bud was more painful than the risk it took to blossom.” -Anaïs Nin

Today — January 26, 2021 — is a day of personal celebration for me because 6210 days or 204 months or 17 years ago, exactly to the day, I took a job on a tiny island (I started on January 26, 2004) that forever changed my life, both professionally and personally.

From 2002 to 2003, I went through my SECOND career identity crisis around the time that I was about to graduate from a Master’s Counseling Psychology program in the spring of 2003. It was a very scary and confusing time for me because I had, at least I thought, already gone through my FIRST career identity crisis a few years before that when I finally decided to become a mental health counselor. Now, as I’m nearing graduation from my Master’s program and having actually counseled people, I realized that I didn’t really like listening to people’s problems all day long and I was so afraid that I would spend the rest of my career life doing something that would be emotionally draining.

After much soul searching, praying, and reflection, I decided to take a job in a school system on an island in the North Pacific Ocean called Saipan (on the other side of the world from my home in Dallas, Texas [USA]). In late January 2004, after a 20+ hour flight and traveling almost halfway around the world, I landed on a tiny island in the North Pacific Ocean, and for the next few years experienced some amazing adventures, did some pretty exciting things, and got to see and do something very different.

In 3½ years on Saipan, I played beach volleyball with professional players, saw guys husk coconuts with their teeth, flew on airplanes not much bigger than a Hummer, learned Mixed Martial Arts (MMA) from an MMA fighter, created my first website, trained over 800 teachers and professionals on Crisis Intervention and Classroom Management, was invited to offer testimony to the CNMI Legislators on Assisted Outpatient Treatment, helped research and edit the CNMI Assisted Outpatient Treatment Act, produced a “School Crisis Response Handbook,” and had my School Crisis Response Training presentation videotaped. Oh, I also met a wonderful woman who, despite my shortcomings, agreed to become my wife.

Making that decision and taking that plunge was one of the SCARIEST and BEST decisions of my life! That job led me to crisis training, which ultimately helped me to make a career pivot into leadership & talent development and learning & development, the space within which I work today.

The funny thing is that the people who helped me the most were actually strangers on an Internet forum about computers! I had shared that I was yearning for adventure, excitement, and something different and a few people told me that I might regret it if I didn’t do something about it. In essence, they were my sounding board and they echoed back to me what I had been telling myself but could not hear over all of my internal interference.

The advice I would give someone in a similar situation is that, oftentimes, the “answers” to our problems are right inside of us. We usually “know” what to do, but we’re just too afraid to do it. Whether it’s changing careers, make some tough choices, etc. – we know what we should do or need to do, we just let our fears and doubts interfere with us taking action.

For me, the most AMAZING part of all of this (far beyond career success) is that the Saipan island job led me to meet my now wife (who was also tired of life in Tokyo and wanted adventure). And because I took that huge career pivot, even when I was scared, I’m now sitting here looking at my 6½ year-old-daughter — who would never have existed had I let my fear paralyzed me and I had stayed in Dallas.

I love this quote:

“The only way to get rid of the fear of doing something is to go out and do it.” -Susan Jeffers

I found this to be so true! It is terrifyingly liberating to be doing something you’re afraid of. This is an important life lesson for me and I will share it with anyone who will listen. It is also a lesson that I will share often with my daughter.

Written By: Steve Nguyen, Ph.D.
Leadership & Talent Development Consultant

References

Jeffers, S. (2006). Feel the Fear . . . And Do It Anyway: Dynamic Techniques for Turning Fear, Indecision and Anger into Power, Action and Love (20th Anniversary Edition). Ballantine Books.

Nguyen, S. (2014, July 26). I Will Teach My Daughter Not To Be Afraid. https://workplacepsychology.net/2014/07/26/i-will-teach-my-daughter-not-to-be-afraid/

Resilience Is Adapting Successfully to Adversity, Hardship, and Tragedy

“The oak fought the wind and was broken, the willow bent when it must and survived.” -Robert Jordan, The Fires of Heaven

Looking Back at 2020

As 2020 comes to an end and as we reflect back on this year, humanity has gone through one of its most trying ordeals—the COVID-19 pandemic—since, perhaps, the Spanish flu of 1918. The words “resilient” and “resilience” have been used often to characterize our ability to continue to press onward despite the severe ramifications the coronavirus has caused.

To everyone who has been impacted by tragedy, trauma, hardship, adversity, disaster or other significant life stressors, this post is for you. Whether it’s losing a loved one, losing a job, losing your home, or way of life, few of us have been spared. But know this: Human beings are incredibly resilient creatures. For centuries, we, individually and collectively, have overcome unbearable misfortunes and defied impossible odds to push on. And, despite the adversities, hardships, and tragedies, we have learned and continue to learn to adjust, adapt, and even thrive to our new circumstances.

Resilience Isn’t “Bouncing Back”

A very common description of resilience is that it’s “bouncing back” from adversities or difficulties. However, this “denies the reality of working through difficulties. Anyone who has faced a major obstacle in life will have been changed by it. They move forward with a different perspective, with changed values, and with hard-won learning. The word ‘bounceback’ does not reflect how tough that process can be” (Pemberton, 2015, p. 2-3).

Resilience Is Coming Back Rather than Bouncing Back

In his book, Developing Resilience: A Cognitive-Behavioural Approach, Michael Neenan explains how resilience isn’t about bouncing back, but rather coming back:

“Coping with hard times usually involves pain and struggle as you push forward to find a brighter future. As part of the self-righting process, you need time to adapt to the new realities in your life and to process your feelings about the changes and losses you’re experiencing. This process of adjusting to new conditions suggests that coming back, as opposed to bouncing back, from adversity is the more realistic response. Bouncing back presents a picture of a rapid, pain-free, almost effortless return from adversity. Also, if you pride yourself on being the bouncing back type, you’re more likely to put yourself down if your latest ‘bounce’ doesn’t take off. For example, faced with an unfamiliar situation where your usual problem-solving skills are proving ineffective, you conclude that you’re not making progress because you’re weak or incompetent and feel ashamed that your failings have been exposed for all to see” (Neenan, 2018, p. 175).

Definitions of Resilience

“Resilience is the human ability to adapt in the face of tragedy, trauma, adversity, hardship, and ongoing significant life stressors” (Newman, 2005, p. 227).

“Resilience comprises those inner strengths of mind and character—both inborn and developed—that enable one to respond well to adversity, including the capacities to prevent stress-related conditions, such as depression or anxiety, or their recurrence; recover faster and more completely from stress and stress-related conditions; and optimize mental fitness and functioning in the various areas of life” (Schiraldi, 2017, p. 2).

The Key To Resilience Is Hardiness

Dr. Salvatore R. Maddi and his team of researchers at the University of Chicago worked with 450 employees at Illinois Bell Telephone (IBT) before, during, and after the greatest divestiture in history. By the end of 1982, IBT had downsized from 26,000 to 14,000 employees. About two-thirds of the employees in the study suffered significant performance, leadership and health declines due to the extreme stress. However, the other one-third actually thrived during the upheaval despite experiencing the same amount of disruption and stressful events as their co-workers. They remained healthy and vigorous by seeing the workplace changes as opportunities rather than disaster. They performed better than their less hardy coworkers and found creative ways to professionally advance, despite ongoing workplace changes. Those who thrived had three key attitudes (the 3Cs) of commitment, control, and challenge that Maddi and colleagues came to call hardiness (Maddi & Khoshaba, 2005).

“Hardiness is a pattern of attitudes and skills that provides the courage and strategies to turn stressful circumstances from potential disasters into growth opportunities instead” (Maddi, 2007, p. 61).

Three Resilient Attitudes

Resilient people have the hardy attitudes of the 3Cs: commitment, control, and challenge (Maddi & Khoshaba, 2005).

1. COMMITMENT. People who are strong in the commitment attitude get involved with (instead of withdraw from) what’s happening, despite how stressful it may be, seeing this as the best way to learn from their experiences (Maddi, Khoshaba, Harvey, Fazel, & Resurreccion, 2011). They view their work as important and worthwhile enough to warrant their full attention, imagination, and effort. They stay involved with the events and people around them even when the going gets rough (Maddi & Khoshaba, 2005).

Strategies to Develop Commitment in Yourself (HRG, 2019):

    • Establish a support system that will help you to prevail
    • Commit to yourself
    • Quiet your mind and focus
    • Recognize and appreciate that this process is going to be a challenge & stay the course

Leader Actions to Foster Commitment in Others (HRG, 2019):

    • Give recognition, awards, praise for accomplishments
    • Be visible; spend time with team and peers
    • Support individual professional development (education, learning opportunities)

2. CONTROL. People who are strong in the control attitude believe that making an effort to influence outcomes by the decisions they make is more likely to lead to meaningful outcomes (Maddi, Khoshaba, Harvey, Fazel, & Resurreccion, 2011). Instead of allowing themselves to sink into passivity and powerlessness in the face of stresses, they do their best to find solutions to problems. When considering where to apply their efforts, they recognize the situational features that are open to change and accept those outside of their control (Maddi & Khoshaba, 2005).

Strategies to Develop Control in Yourself (HRG, 2019):

    • Don’t entertain more negativity
    • Develop coping mechanisms
    • Break tasks down into manageable chunks
    • Recognize (what is creating the anxiety)
    • Create healthy boundaries
    • Increase your release of endorphins get physically active

Leader Actions to Foster Control in Others (HRG, 2019):

    • Provide tasks that are challenging but within employees’ capabilities to achieve
    • Provide resources and time needed to accomplish goals

3. CHALLENGE. “People who are strong in the challenge attitude believe that stress is normal and that fulfillment is not to be found in easy comfort, security, and routine but rather in the continual growth in wisdom through what is learned from the negative and positive experiences of an active, changing life” (Maddi, Khoshaba, Harvey, Fazel, & Resurreccion, 2011, p. 370). They confront stressful changes, try to understand them, learn from them, and solve them. They embrace life’s challenges, not deny and avoid them. (Maddi & Khoshaba, 2005).

Strategies to Develop Challenge in Yourself (HRG, 2019):

    • Become an expert
    • Actively seek feedback
    • Be realistic
    • Be open to continuous learning
    • Try new things
    • Recognize lessons in failures

Leader Actions to Foster Challenge in Others (HRG, 2019):

    • Always emphasize value of change for learning
    • Model enjoyment, fun in variety
    • Treat failures as chance to learn

Viktor Frankl: Purpose and Meaning

“People who sense that their lives have meaning and purpose are generally happier and more resilient” (Schiraldi, 2017, p. 155).

Viktor Frankl (the Austrian psychiatrist, author, and Holocaust survivor), in his books Man’s Search for Meaning and Recollections: An Autobiography, reminds us that we can learn to deal with anything in life if we can find meaning in it.

“Even though conditions such as lack of sleep, insufficient food and various mental stresses may suggest that the inmates were bound to react in certain ways, in the final analysis it becomes clear that the sort of person the prisoner became was the result of an inner decision, and not the result of camp influences alone. Fundamentally, therefore, any man can, even under such circumstances, decide what shall become of him – mentally and spiritually. He may retain his human dignity even in a concentration camp. Dostoevsky said once, ‘There is only one thing that I dread: not to be worthy of my sufferings.’ These words frequently came to my mind after I became acquainted with those martyrs whose behavior in camp, whose suffering and death, bore witness to the fact that the last inner freedom cannot be lost. It can be said that they were worthy of their sufferings; the way they bore their suffering was a genuine inner achievement. It is this spiritual freedom – which can not be taken away – that makes life meaningful and purposeful” (Frankl, 1984, p. 87).

“But there is also purpose in that life which is almost barren of both creation and enjoyment and which admits of but one possibility of high moral behavior: namely, in man’s attitude to his existence, an existence restricted by external forces. A creative life and a life of enjoyment are banned to him. But not only creativeness and enjoyment are meaningful. If there is a meaning in life at all, then there must be a meaning in suffering. Suffering is an ineradicable part of life, even as fate and death. Without suffering and death human life cannot be complete. The way in which a man accepts his fate and all the suffering it entails, the way in which he takes up his cross, gives him ample opportunity – even under the most difficult circumstances – to add a deeper meaning to his life” (Frankl, 1984, p. 88).

“There is nothing in the world, I venture to say, that would so effectively help one to survive even the worst conditions as the knowledge that there is a meaning in one’s life. There is much wisdom in the words of Nietzsche: ‘He who has a why to live for can bear almost any how'” (Frankl, 1984, p. 126).

“I am convinced that, in the final analysis, there is no situation that does not contain within it the seed of a meaning” (Frankl, 2000, p. 53).

“By knowing we have choices in life, have a purpose, and can execute those choices, we become stronger, more resilient—hardier in our lives. This hardiness gives us added strength when we encounter our next life challenge” (Stein & Bartone, 2020, p. 22).

Never forget: “Humans are remarkably resilient in the face of crises, traumas, disabilities, attachment losses, and ongoing adversities. In fact, resilience to stress and trauma may be the norm rather than the exception” (Southwick, Litz, Charney, & Friedman, 2011, p. xi).

“What you’ve been through will help somebody else get through it.” -Joel Osteen

“One day you will tell your story of how you’ve overcome what you’re going through now, and it will become part of someone else’s survival guide.” -Unknown

Written By: Steve Nguyen, Ph.D.
Leadership & Talent Development Consultant

References

Frankl, V. E. (1984). Man’s Search for Meaning: An Introduction to Logotherapy. Washington Square Press. (Original work published 1959)

Frankl, V. E. (2000). Recollections: An Autobiography. Basic Books.

Hardiness Resilience Gauge (HRG). (2019). Hardiness Resilience Development Debrief. Multi-Health Systems Inc.

Maddi, S. R. (2007). Relevance of Hardiness Assessment and Training to the Military Context. Military Psychology, 19(1), 61-70.

Maddi, S. R., & Khoshaba, D. M. (2005). Resilience at Work: How to Succeed No Matter What Life Throws at You. AMACOM.

Maddi, S. R., Khoshaba, D. M., Harvey, R. H., Fazel, M., & Resurreccion, N. (2011). The Personality Construct of Hardiness, V: Relationships With the Construction of Existential Meaning in Life. Journal of Humanistic Psychology, 51(3), 369-388.

Neenan, M. (2018). Developing Resilience: A Cognitive-Behavioural Approach (2nd ed.). Routledge.

Newman, R. (2005). APA’s Resilience Initiative. Professional Psychology: Research and Practice, 36(3), 227-229.

Pemberton, C. (2015). Resilience: A Practical Guide for Coaches. McGraw Hill.

Schiraldi, G. R. (2017). The Resilience Workbook: Essential Skills to Recover from Stress, Trauma, and Adversity. New Harbinger Publications, Inc.

Southwick, S. M., Litz, B. T., Charney, D., & Friedman, M.J. (2011). In S.M. Southwick, B.T. Litz, D. Charney, & M.J. Friedman (Eds.), Resilience and Mental Health: Challenges Across the Lifespan (pp. xi-xv). Cambridge University Press.

Stein, S. J., & Bartone, P. T. (2020). Hardiness: Making Stress Work for You to Achieve Your Life Goals. John Wiley & Sons.

Can video conferencing apps mimic or replace human-to-human connection?

I was contacted by a journalist writing a story about workplace communication, why human beings need human-to-human connection in the office, and whether technology can mimic or replace face-to-face human-to-human connection. She wanted to know if video teleconferencing apps and technologies are getting better at mimicking or even replacing face-to-face human-to-human connection. I am reposting my responses below.

1. Are video teleconferencing apps and technologies capable of replicating and feeding that human connection that you say is so essential to our brains?

As much as we would like to think that human beings are capable of duplicating and mimicking physical human connection, the answer is no. Human beings have not been able to virtually replicate the in-person connection. Perhaps the biggest reason is that, according to social psychologists, our human brains were created and wired to connect and interact with others and to do so in physical proximity to one another.

We can see how, during the COVID-19 pandemic, people were Zoom-fatigued. That is, we “connected” online and virtually—seeing each other’s faces and hearing one another talk—but at the same time feeling that it’s just no where the same as doing so in person. Indeed, researchers have found that the greatest bonding experience actually occurs during in-person interaction rather than by video chat, audio chat, and instant messaging.

2. What are the nonverbal cues that enrich our communication? Why are they so important to connecting and getting work done?

The nonverbal cues that help further enrich human communication include gestures, body language, as well as tone, pauses, inflection, and volume.

According to communications experts, nonverbal communication is important because it tends to be perceived as more believable than verbal communication. For instance, if you say “I’m fine,” but your body language communicates something different (such as you are grimacing, with the corners of your mouth turned down), people will most likely not believe what you told them (your verbal communication) and instead believe your nonverbal communication.

3. Are there times when face-to-face is not necessarily right?

I believe that there may be times when it may not be in the best interests of either or both parties to meet face-to-face. This can be when emotions run extremely high, when there’s protracted interpersonal conflict, or when there’s risk to psychological or physical safety. In these scenarios, a third party mediator might need to step in to de-escalate and diffuse the situation prior to meeting in person.

4. Will the push to recreate human-to-human connection via apps and video conferencing change our brains? Can we find the same kind of psychological connection through online groups like Slack and Facebook groups?

I don’t think our brains will “change” because of the use of apps and video conferencing softwares. The same applies to online group chats such as Slack or Facebook groups. Our minds adapt to a new/different way to communicate but the need to connect—physically—will always be there. As I mentioned in my answer to #1, researchers have discovered that the best and greatest bonding experience happens during in-person interaction, followed by video chat, audio chat, and instant messaging.

Written By: Steve Nguyen, Ph.D.
Leadership & Talent Development Consultant

Blocked Personal Learners Don’t See Value in Self-Development

“Growth is the great separator between those who succeed and those who do not. When I see a person beginning to separate themselves from the pack, it’s almost always due to personal growth.” ―John C. Maxwell

Blocked Personal Learner
According to Barnfield and Lombardo (2014), a person is a “blocked personal learner” if he or she:

  • Is closed to learning new personal, interpersonal, managerial, and leadership skills, approaches, and tactics.
  • Prefers staying the same, even when faced with new and different challenges.
  • Is narrow in interests and scope.
  • Uses few learning tactics.
  • Doesn’t seek input.
  • Lacks curiosity.
  • Is not insightful about him/herself.

Reasons Why a Person Is a Blocked Personal Learner (Barnfield & Lombardo, 2014):

  • Hangs on, hoping to make it without changing.
  • Low risk taker.
  • May block change for others.
  • Narrow in scope and interests.
  • Not open to new approaches.
  • Perfectionist.
  • Prefers the tried and true.
  • Self-learning/development interest is low.
  • Too busy to learn anything new.
  • Too comfortable.

If others describe you as someone who is often stuck or living in the past. If you often resist change or anything new or different and you’re one of the last people to get on board with a new initiative, consider this: “You can’t survive today without keeping you and your skills fresh. There’s not much room anymore for someone stuck in the past” (Barnfield & Lombardo, 2014, p. 471).

“I do not think much of a man who is not wiser today than he was yesterday.”-Abraham Lincoln (16th President of the United States)

Perhaps the reason blocked learners are “closed to learning” (Barnfield & Lombardo, 2014, p. 472) is because they just don’t see the value in developing themselves. After all, why would they if their scope and interests are narrow and they’re comfortable with the way things are?

Being a blocked learner is harmful to one’s career. Barnfield and Lombardo (2014) list it as one of ten “Career stallers and stoppers” [Stallers and stoppers are behaviors generally considered problematic or harmful to career success” (p. ii)].

Living In the Past
Have you noticed that some people live in the glory of the past? If you listen to them talk, they’ll often reminisce about how life was 20 or 30 years ago. They’ll recall facts and events almost as if they’re happening in the present moment. There’s a sense of longing to relive their past and feelings of regrets about missed opportunities or steps not taken.

The key is to reflect on your past and learn from it, rather than to relive it or ruminate on your past.

Learning From Your Past
Nancy Koehn, a Harvard professor, historian, and author of the book Forged in Crisis, wrote in one of her “Leading yourself in crisis” posts on LinkedIn (Insight #151): “If you cannot learn from and then let go of past missteps, you cannot hone your talents and advance your mission. [Abraham] Lincoln became a great communicator because he kept moving beyond what went wrong in his speaking and writing.”

“Forgive yourself first. Release the need to replay a negative situation over and over again in your mind. Don’t become a hostage to your past by always reviewing and reliving your mistakes. Don’t remind yourself of what should have, could have, or would have been. Release it and let it go. Move on.” -Les Brown

Self-Development
“Great leaders push themselves to learn, evolve, and adapt. Once leaders stop pushing themselves, their chances of continued success are greatly diminished. Self-development is a key ingredient for leaders who want to stay on the forefront in their professions” (Nelson & Ortmeier, 2011, p. 17).

What’s blocking you from taking on the commitment to and the work of self-development (Scisco, Biech, & Hallenbeck, 2017)?

  • You’re overwhelmed by how much you have to learn.
  • You lack curiosity.
  • You have been successful in the past and don’t see a need to change.
  • You believe self-development calls attention to your weaknesses.
  • You believe training time takes you away from your work.
  • You’re satisfied in your current role and don’t want to take on another.
  • You’re unable to fit your developmental commitments into your life.
  • Your work priorities crowd out your attempts to develop new leadership skills.

“The bottom line is, those who learn, grow, and change continuously across their careers are the most successful. The skills someone has now are unlikely to be enough in the future. Acquiring new skills is the best way to navigate an uncertain future. . . . You look to grow from experience. Seek out feedback and are open to what you hear. Challenge yourself in unfamiliar settings. Try out new skills. Learn from others. . . . Development is a personal commitment. You make the choice” (Barnfield & Lombardo, 2014, p. 355).

Growing from the InsideOut
In his book, You Already Know How to Be Great, Alan Fine (2010) writes that much of what holds us back from our full capacity or potential (i.e., high performance or being our absolute best) is interference. Interference is anything that keeps us from high performance (InsideOut Development, 2019); anything that gets in the way of higher performance (InsideOut Development, 2018); or anything that blocks progress (InsideOut Development, 2019).

For blocked learners and those who don’t believe or invest in self-development, their interference or the things that block progress or get in the way of their high performance include: fear of taking risks, not being open to new learning or approaches, being complacent, being arrogant, being defensive, being unsure what to do, and being afraid to fail or fearful that others may see their shortcomings.

It Takes Ownership to Have a Breakthrough
In order to become unblocked and begin a journey of learning and self-development, these individuals must want to change and be motivated to change. They must take ownership for and accountability of their own learning and development.

“Accountability is doing what needs to be done because someone expects it. Ownership is doing what needs to be done because you expect it yourself.” ―Alan Fine

Seize the Opportunities
In his book, Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell shares some interesting facts about the Beatles. For instance, many Americans thought that the Beatles were an overnight sensation when the band came to the United States and put out a string of hit records. However, the Beatles had been playing together for a while and had many years of experience under their belt. As a matter of fact, “By the time [the Beatles] had their first burst of success in 1964, . . . they had [already] performed live an estimated twelve hundred times” (Gladwell, 2008, p. 50). 

Gladwell points out that “the time that elapsed between their founding and their arguably greatest artistic achievements—Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band and The Beatles [White Album]—is ten years.” 

Gladwell (2008) reminds us that, “success follows a predictable course. It is not the brightest who succeed. . . .Nor is success simply the sum of the decisions and efforts we make on our own behalf. It is, rather, a gift. Outliers are those who have been given opportunities—and who have had the strength and presence of mind to seize them” (p. 267).

“Extraordinary achievement is less about talent than it is about opportunity.” ―Malcolm Gladwell

Takeaway: Success belongs to individuals who seize opportunities in front of them or, if there aren’t any, they seek out opportunities. Regardless of how intelligent or talented you are, you will not succeed if you don’t invest in time to develop yourself and hone your skills. Never stop learning. Keep your skills fresh, be open to learning, and learn from your past to improve yourself. Even if you are a genius or lucky or both, you can still very easily squander your talents if you don’t seize on the opportunities that are presented to you. Your success depends on the opportunities presented to you, along with a bit of good luck. But above all, success is about putting in the effort and hard work and using your imagination and creativity to act on the opportunities that might not be so obvious or even hidden.

“Success is no accident. It is hard work, perseverance, learning, studying, sacrifice and most of all, love of what you are doing.” -Pele

Written By: Steve Nguyen, Ph.D.
Leadership & Talent Development Consultant

References

Barnfield, H. C., & Lombardo, M. M. (2014). FYI: For your improvement – Competencies development guide (6th ed.). Korn Ferry.

Fine, A. (2020, March 25). Working amid Coronavirus: 3 ways coaching can help. Retrieved from https://www.chieflearningofficer.com/2020/03/25/working-amid-coronavirus-3-ways-coaching-can-help/

Fine, A. (2010). You Already Know How to Be Great: A Simple Way to Remove Interference and Unlock Your Greatest Potential. Penguin Group.

Gladwell, M. (2008). Outliers: The story of success. Little, Brown and Company. 

InsideOut Development (2018, November 13). How to Get Executives Invested in Your Coaching Initiative. Retrieved from https://blog.insideoutdev.com/how-to-get-executives-invested-in-your-coaching-initiative

InsideOut Development (2018, November 26). Intro to the GROW Model and Performance Wheel. Retrieved from https://blog.insideoutdev.com/intro-to-the-grow-model-and-performance-wheel

InsideOut Development (2019, August 13). Interference: The Impediment of Performance. Retrieved from https://blog.insideoutdev.com/interference-the-impediment-of-performance

InsideOut Development (2019). The State of Workplace Interference: An InsideOut Development Research Report. Retrieved from https://resources.insideoutdev.com/articles/the-state-of-workplace-interference

Nelson, S. E., & Ortmeier, J. G. (2011). Awaken, Align, Accelerate: A Guide to Great Leadership. Beaver’s Pond Press, Inc.

Scisco, P., Biech, E., & Hallenbeck, G. (2017). Compass: Your Guide for Leadership Development and Coaching. Center for Creative Leadership Press.

Three Leadership Derailing Behaviors

Leaders exhibit common bad habits and researchers have pinpointed specific behaviors that can derail a person’s career (Lombardo & Eichinger, 2009). For two great coaching and development guides, consult FYI: For Your Improvement: A Development and Coaching Guide (Lombardo & Eichinger, 2009) and Compass: Your Guide for Leadership Development and Coaching (Scisco, Biech, & Hallenbeck, 2017).

Lombardo and Eichinger (2009) define derailing behaviors as negative characteristics or flame-out factors that derail an individual’s career. According to the Center for Creative Leadership (Scisco, Biech, & Hallenbeck, 2017), “A derailed leader is one who, after having reached a level of success in the organization, is fired, demoted, or involuntarily reaches a career plateau. Before these managers derailed, their organizations saw them as having high potential for advancement, having an impressive track record of results, and holding an established leadership position. But then something happened.”

Statistics about failure or inadequate success experienced by executives in new leadership positions (in the first 18 months) range from 38% to over 50% (Riddle, 2016).

Here are three common leadership derailing behaviors I see in leaders in organizations:

  1. The overwhelming desire to always add their two cents (i.e., their unsolicited opinion) to every discussion (Goldsmith, 2007).
  2. Not listening (Goldsmith, 2007).
  3. Not taking extreme ownership (Willink & Babin, 2017) [Note: I’m including Goldsmith’s “Refusing to express regret” (inability to take responsibility or admit you’re wrong), “Making excuses” (stop making excuses), and Passing the buck” (blaming everyone but ourselves) under the not taking extreme ownership derailing behavior].

Always Adding Your Two Cents

Marshall Goldsmith, a world-renowned executive coach, shared a story where he witnessed this very bad habit of “adding too much value” in action during dinner:

“The two men at dinner were clearly on the same wavelength. One of them was Jon Katzenbach, the ex-McKinsey director who now heads his own elite consulting boutique. The other fellow was Niko Canner, his brilliant protégé and partner. They were plotting out a new venture. But something about their conversation was slightly off. Every time Niko floated an idea, Katzenbach interrupted him. “That’s a great idea,” he would say, “but it would work better if you . . .” and then he would trail off into a story about how it worked for him several years earlier in another context. When Jon finished, Niko would pick up where he left off only to be interrupted within seconds by Jon again. This went on back and forth like a long rally at Wimbledon” (Goldsmith, 2007, p. 48).

“Imagine you’re the CEO. I come to you with an idea that you think is very good. Rather than just pat me on the back and say, “Great idea!” your inclination (because you have to add value) is to say, “Good idea, but it’d be better if you tried it this way.” The problem is, you may have improved the content of my idea by 5 percent, but you’ve reduced my commitment to executing it by 50 percent, because you’ve taken away my ownership of the idea. My idea is now your idea—and I walk out of your office less enthused about it than when I walked in. That’s the fallacy of added value. Whatever we gain in the form of a better idea is lost many times over in our employees’ diminished commitment to the concept” (Goldsmith, 2007, p. 48-49).

Not Listening

Lombardo and Eichinger (2009) wrote that people who are unskilled at listening tend to cut others off, try to finish other people’s sentences, and interrupt to make a pronouncement or render a solution or decision. As a result, those poor at listening do not learn much from their interactions with others.

Goldsmith worked with a group of executives of one of the world’s most respected research and development organizations that had a problem retaining young talent. They had a very visible and annoying way to show that they weren’t listening.

“During presentations everyone in senior management had developed the annoying habit of looking at their watches, motioning for junior scientists to move it along, and repeating over and over, “Next slide. Next slide.” . . . Have you ever tried to make a presentation while a manager grunted at you and kept telling you to move it along? Well, that’s how the junior scientists at this company felt” (Goldsmith, 2007, p. 87).

Not Taking Extreme Ownership

The best and most concise description of taking ownership is from the book, Extreme Ownership: How U.S. Navy SEALs Lead and Win (Willink & Babin, 2017):

“On any team, in any organization, all responsibility for success and failure rests with the leader. The leader must own everything in his or her world. There is no one else to blame. The leader must acknowledge mistakes and admit failures, take ownership of them, and develop a plan to win. The best leaders don’t just take responsibility for their job. They take Extreme Ownership of everything that impacts their mission” (Willink & Babin, 2017, p. 30).

“The irony, of course, is that all the fears that lead us to resist apologizing—the fear of losing, admitting we’re wrong, ceding control—are actually erased by an apology. When you say, “I’m sorry,” you turn people into your allies, even your partners” (Goldsmith, 2017, p. 84).

“If we can stop excusing ourselves, we can get better at almost anything we choose” (Goldsmith, 2017, p. 79).

“A leader who cannot shoulder the blame is not someone we will follow blindly into battle. We instinctively question that individual’s character, dependability, and loyalty to us. And so we hold back on our loyalty to him or her” (Goldsmith, 2017, p. 94).

I love this quote:

“Be humble to see your mistakes, courageous to admit them, and wise enough to correct them. The most difficult obstacles to remove are the ones that you create for yourself. If you cannot see your mistakes, you cannot fix them.” -Amine Ayad

Written By: Steve Nguyen, Ph.D.
Leadership & Talent Development Consultant

References

Goldsmith, M. (2007). What Got You Here Won’t Get You There. Hyperion.

Lombardo, M. M., & Eichinger, R. W. (2009). FYI: For your improvement: A development and coaching guide (5th ed.). Lominger International.

Riddle, D. (2016). Executive Integration: Equipping Transitioning Leaders for Success. Retrieved from https://www.ccl.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/04/ExecutiveIntegration.pdf

Scisco, P., Biech, E., & Hallenbeck, G. (2017). Compass: Your Guide for Leadership Development and Coaching. Center for Creative Leadership Press.

Willink, J., & Babin, L. (2017). Extreme Ownership: How U.S. Navy SEALs Lead and Win. St. Martin’s Press.

To Engage and Retain Employees Provide a “Mini” Job Rotation During Employee Orientation


Have you noticed that, in many companies, employees often have no clue what many of the other employees in other functions do to support the overall organization? When you look at how companies typically onboard new employees and the lack of follow-up employee development training, it’s not at all surprising that so many employees struggle with not fully understanding what their colleagues do and how their companies operate.

As a result, these employees, their teams, and leaders unintentionally and detrimentally create and maintain silos, often pitting one or several functions against each other. For example, in one organization, corporate staff and sales staff do not know what it is that each of the respective functions do to support the overall firm. Each group, failing to grasp how interconnected and interdependent they are to one another and the overall organization, operates and wages a daily battle of “us vs. them.” Sadly, they undermine not only their “opponent” but also their own efforts to help themselves and the larger organization.

To improve job learning and experience, why not include a “mini” job rotation as part of a 2-week new employee orientation*?

*NOTE: The new employee orientation must be part of a larger, well-designed onboarding program (Allen, 2020). Good onboarding begins before a person reports for the first day of work and extends to the end of the new employee’s first year (Workforce, 2011).

In a job rotation, an employee (spending anywhere from several weeks to several months) rotates and does different jobs within an organization to increase their breadth of knowledge (Aamodt, 2016; Riggio, 2018). Of course, my recommendation of a “mini” job rotation during the new employee orientation means a much shorter time period.

Companies can pilot a 5-day job rotation (part of a 2-week new employee orientation) in which new employees will rotate into, learn as much about, and practice doing only the most critical jobs/functions that enable the company to operate (e.g., critical roles within Finance, Operations, Human Resources, Sales/Business Development, and Customer Service).

Here’s one example of a 5-day job rotation integrated into a 2-week new employee orientation:

New Employee Orientation – Week 1:

  • 1-day new employee orientation (company history, mission, culture & stories, organizational structure & functions, benefits, payroll, company policies, employee ID, tour of workplace, introducing new employees to senior corporate and team leaders, etc.)
  • 3-day job rotation for Wk. 1 (one day in Finance, one day in Operations, one day in Human Resources)
  • 1-day debrief for Wk. 1 (Q&A); Preparation for Capstone Project Presentations*

New Employee Orientation – Week 2:

  • 2-day job rotation for Wk. 2 (one day in Sales/Business Development, one day in Customer Service)
  • 1-day debrief for Wk. 2 (Q&A); Overall Wk. 1 & 2 debrief; Preparation for Capstone Project Presentations*
  • 1-day Capstone Project Presentations*
  • 1-day New employee orientation wrap-up

*NOTE: This recommendation to do a Capstone Project Presentation is based on advice from Eichinger, Lombardo, and Ulrich (2004) regarding using projects to help ensure new hires grasp the contributions that different functions make within the organization. To demonstrate their understanding of the contributions that different functions make, small teams of 3-4 new hires will do a Capstone Project Presentation. The Capstone Project Presentations will require new hires to work in small teams (of 3-4 people) to learn about the work and contributions of the most critical functions and apply that knowledge to resolve a real-life situation that the organization is facing].

“The basic premise behind job rotation is to expose workers to as many areas of the organization as possible so they can gain a good knowledge of its workings and how the various jobs and departments fit together” (Riggio, 2018, p. 195).

“Job rotation is especially popular for managerial training because it allows a manager trainee to experience and understand most, if not all, of the jobs within the organization that his subordinates will perform” (Aamodt, 2016, p. 305).

What many companies so often forget is this: “Job rotation is also commonly used to train nonmanagerial employees. Aside from increasing employee awareness, the main advantage of job rotation is that it allows for both lateral transfers within an organization and greater flexibility in replacing absent workers” (Aamodt, 2016, p. 305). Thus, if one employee suddenly quits or is absent, another person will have already been trained (also known as “cross-training”) to step in to perform the job (Riggio, 2018).

To help employees satisfy their need for growth and challenge, one of the easiest and most common things organizations can do is provide job rotations (Aamodt, 2016). “Research has shown that job rotation not only increases learning, but it also has positive effects on employees’ career progression and development” (Riggio, 2018, p. 195). Another benefit of job rotation is that it can “alleviate the monotony and boredom associated with performing the same work, day in and day out” (Riggio, 2018, p. 267).

Eichinger, Lombardo, and Ulrich (2004) cautioned that if the goal is to introduce employees to on-the job knowledge, targeted training (i.e. training as a student) is more effective than job rotations. And, “If the goal is really to understand the contributions that different functions make, then projects are far and away the most powerful source of how those skills are applied to real-life situations” (Eichinger, Lombardo, & Ulrich, 2004, p. 329-330).

In addition, rather than simply offering a traditional orientation that highlights only job requirements and information about the company or one that’s focused solely on the elements of the organization that foster pride, orientation that is focused on new employees’ personal strengths and how they can bring them to their work results in lower turnover and greater customer satisfaction (Levy, 2017). Obviously, this approach requires not only time and effort, but also dedicated staff, cost, and resources devoted to ensuring that the employee orientation experience (part of a larger onboarding program) and “mini” job rotation are well-designed and implemented (e.g., having a mentor, internal trainer, or supervisor/trainer at each step of the job rotation plan [Heathfield, 2019]).

It’s important to note that, while there are many great benefits to having a job rotation, there are also some things to consider. According to a Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) article: “Job rotation may increase the workload and decrease productivity for the rotating employee and for other employees who must take up the slack. This may result in a disruption of work flow and a focus by line managers on short-term solutions to correct these problems” (SHRM, 2020). Another factor to consider is cost — “costs associated with the learning curve on new jobs, including time spent learning, training costs and errors that employees often make while learning a new job” (Campion, 1996).

So, with these cautions in mind, let’s return to job rotation benefits. Researchers have discovered that “people who are starting out in their careers typically are more eager to demonstrate their willingness to learn, to advance and to take on increasing responsibilities to enhance their skill development. And, overall, they have more to learn and benefit more from rotation experiences” (Campion, 1996). Thus, it makes sense to incorporate a “mini” job rotation into the employee orientation period.

Takeaway: If planned well and done correctly, a “mini” job rotation (during the new employee orientation) can result in tremendous benefits for the new employees, for the teams and departments they are joining, and for the larger organization. This includes exposure to different business areas [for the individual, team, and organization]; fresh perspectives to existing roles [for the team(s), department(s), and organization]; acceleration of professional development [for the individual, team, and organization]; enhancement to recruiting and retention [for the team and organization]; and career satisfaction, involvement and motivation in one’s career [for the individual].

Written By: Steve Nguyen, Ph.D.
Leadership & Talent Development Consultant

References

Aamodt, M. G. (2016). Industrial/organizational psychology: An applied approach (8th ed.). Cengage Learning.

Allen, T. (2020, April 2). The Key Difference Between Employee Onboarding and Orientation. Retrieved from https://trainingindustry.com/articles/onboarding/the-key-difference-between-employee-onboarding-and-orientation

Campion, L. (1996, November 1). Study Clarifies Job-rotation Benefits. Retrieved from https://www.workforce.com/news/study-clarifies-job-rotation-benefits

Eichinger, R. W., Lombardo, M. M., & Ulrich, D. (2004). 100 things you need to know: Best people practices for managers & HR. Lominger Limited.

Heathfield, S. M. (2019, June 5). 6 Keys to Successful Job Rotation. Retrieved from https://www.thebalancecareers.com/keys-to-successful-job-rotation-1918167

Levy, P. E. (2017). Industrial/organizational psychology: Understanding the workplace (5th ed.). Worth Publishers.

Riggio, R. E. (2018). Introduction to Industrial/Organizational Psychology (7th ed.). Routledge.

Robert Half. (2016, May 27). Job Rotation for Your Staff: Why Letting Go Could Mean Holding On. Retrieved from https://www.roberthalf.com/blog/management-tips/job-rotation-for-your-staff-why-letting-go-could-mean-holding-on

SHRM [Society for Human Resource Management] (2020). How do I implement a job rotation program in my company? Retrieved from https://www.shrm.org/resourcesandtools/tools-and-samples/hr-qa/pages/whatisjobrotation.aspx

Workforce. (2011, September 7). Dear Workforce Who Has a Good Blueprint for Creating an Onboarding Program? Retrieved from https://www.workforce.com/news/dear-workforce-who-has-a-good-blueprint-for-creating-an-onboarding-program

What You Should Know About Leadership Development Training

I’ve spent more than a decade working in three related and intersecting fields: Training, Learning & Development, and Leadership Development. One can certainly make a case that these all fall under Talent Development. In my current role, I am a Leadership Development Manager & Advisor. I partner with senior leaders and top decision-makers on ways to improve human behaviors in the workplace and on how to make people and organizations more effective (e.g., leadership development, training & development, etc.). I’m involved in developing and implementing key initiatives, training, and programs to create and sustain a high-performing organization. Finally, I’m often tasked with developing, designing, and delivering leadership development training.

I want to talk about some common issues and challenges in leadership development training. I’m sharing best practices drawn from various resources and lessons learned from my own experience working within organizations in the hope that it will help you avoid missteps and prevent catastrophes as you design and execute leadership training in your own organizations.

The Biggest Challenge Leaders In Organizations Face Today

Based on my experiences and observations, one of the biggest challenges leaders in organizations face today is how to recruit, develop, and sustain leaders in the company, and how to ensure that there’s a pipeline of leaders who will be able to move into leadership roles. The need for this is what all organizations experience or face, which is the need to have effective leadership, not only at the very top, but also at the mid-level and front-line level of the organization.

Leader Development, Leadership Development, and Leadership Training

Leader development focuses on developing individual leaders whereas leadership development focuses on a process of development that inherently involves multiple individuals (e.g., leaders and followers or among peers in a self-managed work team) (Day, Fleenor, Atwater, Sturm, & McKee, 2014).

The Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) defines leadership development as “formal and informal training and professional development programs designed to assist employees in developing leadership skills” (SHRM, 2020).

Leadership training programs are programs that have been designed to enhance leader knowledge, skills, abilities. They include all types of leader, managerial, and supervisory training/development programs and/or workshops (Lacerenza, Reyes, Marlow, Joseph, & Salas, 2017).

“Leader development is broadly defined as the expansion of a person’s capacity to be effective in leadership roles and processes. For organizations, developing leaders includes enhancing their performance in current roles, improving their ability to carry out the tasks of leadership in ways congruent with changing organizational realities, and, for some, expanding their capacity to take on higher positions” (McCauley, Kanaga, & Lafferty, 2010, p. 29).

Three Mistakes about Leadership Training

The first and biggest mistake is not doing a needs assessment. Too many organizational leaders blindly dive in and begin developing a leadership training program without ever doing a needs assessment. They think that once you have someone or some team design a leadership development program that it will automatically—by sheer willpower and wishful thinking—become successful just because it was created. Leadership development does not work in a vacuum or silo. It has to be a part of an organization’s DNA and corporate culture and mindset. The leadership training program is but one event that must be part of a larger strategic plan to grow and sustain leaders for the company’s current and future needs.

The second mistake is a tendency to try to cram too much content into the training and expecting participants who attend the leadership development program to instantly become an instant expert or a “leader” (i.e., meeting all the objectives of the program) once the program ends. In some ways, they treat it like a hot dog eating contest — the faster and more you consume in the allotted time the better. Instead of a seamless, connected, and well-organized program, what results is often a confusing and disjointed hodgepodge of courses and sessions.

The third mistake is failing to evaluate the leadership training program. One of the fears to training evaluation is that evaluating will yield unwanted or unfavorable information about the training program (e.g., audience, design, delivery, presenters, instructional contents, etc.). Another fear to evaluating is struggling with when to evaluate and how to isolate the effects of training. However, rather than fearing evaluation, we should think of it in this manner: “Training evaluation provides a way to understand the investments that training produces and provides information needed to improve training. . . Training evaluation provides the data needed to demonstrate that training does offer benefits to the company” (Noe, 2017, p. 249).

We’ll delve into more details about evaluation in the Training Evaluation section.

Leadership Training

“[E]vidence suggests that [leadership training] improves learning, transfer, and organizational outcomes by up to 29% (Lacerenza et al., 2017). Thus, not only do these programs affect leaders participating in the programs (i.e., by increasing learning and their ability to utilize concepts on the job, which is known as transfer), but they also influence desired subordinate outcomes as well (e.g., subordinate job satisfaction, turnover; Lacerenza et al., 2017)” (Lacerenza, Marlow, Tannenbaum, & Salas, 2018, p. 521).

Researchers have suggested that “leadership training developers should pay close attention to the desired outcome (e.g., organizational results, transfer, learning) because leadership training programs may be more effective for some than others. While leadership training typically shows positive results for affective learning and affective transfer, they tend to be even stronger for cognitive learning, cognitive transfer, skill-based learning, and skill-based transfer . . . [W]hen designing a leadership training program, it might be more beneficial to include (and evaluate) cognitive and/or skill-based content” (Lacerenza, Marlow, Tannenbaum, & Salas, 2018, p. 522).

Key Questions Leaders Should Ask About Training (Salas, Tannenbaum, Kraiger, & Smith-Jentsch, 2012):

Steps to Effective Training (Davies, 2007)

[For information on how to develop and implement a coherent training strategy, consult The Training Manager’s Desktop Guide (2nd ed.) by Eddie Davies]

Step one: Identify the training need
Instead of jumping in and solving the immediate problem, you need “to investigate to identify the true cause. This will help you decide if the problem is one that can be solved by training or will other remedies be more effective” (Davies, 2007, p. 101).

Step two: Design/choose the training/development intervention
Influences on the design of training to consider include: Training facilities available (space and equipment); time available; type of trainee; organization’s culture; learning objectives; skills of trainer; principles of learning; group size; budget (Davies, 2007).

Step three: Implement the event
“Senior management will need to be seen to be backing the programme. In addition to the customary chief executive’s letter of support, try to ensure that all senior managers that are due to attend come on the early courses. . . . In addition to gaining the explicit commitment of senior managers you will also need to make sure that the immediate line managers of the participants are also involved in the process. They will form an important role in raising trainee’s expectations before they attend. An equally essential activity will involve them in de-briefing the trainees when they return to work. This discussion should focus on how the new learning can be applied to make a real difference to both the individuals and organization’s performance” (Davies, 2007, p. 108-109).

Step four: Follow-up the training/development
“Training does not start and end in the training room. It is a widely reported phenomenon that whilst trainees learn in the classroom they sometimes fail to translate their learning back to the workplace. . . [Y]ou should also be thinking about this transferability of skills as part of the overall design. Individual sessions should end with time for reflection and review, and the participants should return to work with an action plan they can discuss with their managers” (Davies, 2007, p. 109).

Step five: Evaluate the outcome
“This final stage will involve you in going back to the start of the training cycle. The whole process was started because someone identified a need that could best be addressed through training. For the training department to survive and prosper it must show that it has been of benefit by providing the solutions in an efficient, effective and economical way” (Davies, 2007, p. 110).

Training Evaluation

An area in the leadership training space that requires particular attention is training evaluation or, rather, the lack of or inadequate measurement of leadership development training. As mentioned earlier, one of the fears and obstacles to training evaluation is deciding when to evaluate and how to isolate the effects of training (Kraiger, 2002). Another fear, often understood but not openly discussed, “for not conducting more rigorous evaluations is that the training function may have everything to lose and nothing to gain from the data” (Kraiger, 2002, p. 340).

Two strategies for increasing the impact of training evaluation practices (Salas, Tannenbaum, Kraiger, & Smith-Jentsch, 2012):

(1) Begin training evaluation efforts by clearly specifying one or more purposes for the evaluation and should then link all subsequent decisions of what and how to measure to the stated purposes. STEP: Clearly specify the purpose of evaluation. ACTION: Determine what you hope to accomplish by evaluating the training and link all subsequent decisions back to the purpose (Salas, Tannenbaum, Kraiger, & Smith-Jentsch, 2012).

(2) Use precise affective, cognitive, and/or behavioral measures that reflect the intended learning outcomes. STEP: Consider evaluating training at multiple levels. ACTIONS: (a) Consider measuring reactions, learning, behavior, and results. (b) Use precise affective, cognitive, and/or behavioral indicators to measure the intended learning outcomes as uncovered during the needs assessment (Salas, Tannenbaum, Kraiger, & Smith-Jentsch, 2012).

As Kraiger (2002) explained: The art of training evaluation springs from knowing why. What’s the purpose for evaluation (is it for decision making, feedback, and/or marketing)? How will the results be used to make decisions affecting training courses or the training function?

We need to know what to measure but to also be able to place it into a larger context in which success indicators and reasons why the evaluation is being conducted are considered.

The training evaluation outcomes table (Table 6.1) from the Noe textbook (2017) is helpful. Training outcomes are grouped into six categories: reaction outcomes, learning or cognitive outcomes, behavior and skill-based outcomes, affective outcomes, results, and return on investment.

“Table 6.1 shows training outcomes, the level they correspond to in Kirkpatrick’s evaluation model, a description of each of the outcomes and how they are measured, and the question that each outcome can help answer. Kirkpatrick’s original evaluation model included only four levels (reaction, learning, behavior, and results) but recent thinking suggests a fifth level, return on investment (ROI), is necessary to demonstrate the financial value of training. Both level 1 and level 2 outcomes (reactions and learning) are collected at the completion of training, before trainees return to the job. Level 3 outcomes (behavior/skills) can also be collected at the completion of training to determine trainees’ behavior or skill level at that point. To determine whether trainees are using training content back on the job (i.e., whether transfer of training has occurred), level 3, level 4, and/or level 5 outcomes can be collected. Level 3 criteria can be collected to determine whether behavior/skills are being used on the job. Level 4 and level 5 criteria (results and return on investment) can also be used to determine whether training has resulted in an improvement in business results, such as productivity or customer satisfaction” (Noe, 2017, p. 252).

“A useful taxonomy of content and design dimensions for assessment was provided by Lee and Pershing (1999), and is shown in Exhibit 11.1. The exhibit lists ten potential assessment dimensions, along with the specific purpose for the dimension (what is to be learned, and how that information is useful), and sample questions” (Kraiger, 2002, p. 344).

Avoiding Leadership Training Mistakes

One important tip to always remember is this: Not all participants who attend leadership development training will be successful after training and this is to be expected. The reason is because of two things:

(1) The motivation, attitudes, and expectations of the learner are absolutely critical to training effectiveness (Tannenbaum & Yukl, 1992). If an employee is unmotivated to learn, doesn’t believe in their own abilities, and is not goal-oriented during training then the chances of this employee learning and applying the knowledge and behaviors taught will be negligible (Salas, Tannenbaum, Kraiger, & Smith-Jentsch, 2012).

(2) The support and encouragement from the employee’s supervisor is also key to training success. Research shows that one of the biggest determinants to whether training is successful or not is the amount and degree to which each participant’s manager will provide support and offer a chance to practice once the participant is back in his/her role after training (Salas, Tannenbaum, Kraiger, & Smith-Jentsch, 2012). So be sure to ask and have the answers to these post-training questions: (a) How much support and encouragement will they get from their managers/supervisors once they return to their roles after training? (b) Will there be on-the-job training to further support their growth?

It’s very demoralizing for an employee to return from leadership development training to a boss who doesn’t support, encourage, or provide an opportunity for that employee to put into practice the things he or she learned in leadership development training. Indeed, one of the major reasons employees leave an organization is due to the lack of growth and advancement opportunities (Branham, 2012).

Therefore, make sure that the culture of the overall organization and within each department is one that values, supports, and encourages growth of each employee. I would recommend surveying leaders and employees throughout your organization about the amount and level of support they believe they get for training and employee development learning from the overall organization and from within their own teams and departments.

Conducting a “PreMortem” Exercise

A great way to anticipate problems, prior to implementing a leadership development program, is to use what’s called a PreMortem. The purpose of a PreMortem is “to find key vulnerabilities in a plan” (Klein, 2004, p. 98). In a PreMortem, the group tries to anticipate a plan’s weaknesses through the simulations of different disaster and failure scenarios. The group’s job is to then find “ways to counter the weaknesses they have pinpointed” (Klein, 2004, p. 99).

“PreMortem begins with the assumption that the plan has failed. The attitude of complacency and the false sense of security is punctured, at least temporarily, and is replaced by an active search aimed at preventing trouble later on” (Klein, 2004, p. 101).

The PreMortem is designed to provide a safe “format that supports a productive critique of a plan” (Klein, 2004, p. 99). In a PreMortem, the team members independently list everything that worries them about a new plan or project. This method challenges the complacency of the group which can sometimes masquerade as harmony (Klein, 2014).

The PreMortem is used in a project kickoff meeting. The project team has reviewed the plan the members developed. “In the PreMortem exercise, the team is told to imagine that it is now some time in the future — say 6 months from now. We are looking in a crystal ball, and what we see is terrible. The plan has been a disaster. Each person in the room has the next two minutes to write down all the reasons he/she can think of to explain what went wrong. Once the two minutes are up, the facilitator captures what the team members wrote down — a blueprint for failure” (Klein, 2015).

“As a by-product of using the PreMortem exercise, team members will become better at mentally simulating how a plan or project is likely to play out. They will learn from each other about ways that plans can fail, and thereby increase the patterns they can recognize and their mental models, which in turn strengthens their intuitions. These skills enable people to produce better plans and avoid pitfalls” (Klein, 2004, p. 99).

Leader Self-Development

There are various ways to develop a person’s leadership capacity. One type of leader development is leader self-development. “Leader self-development refers to activities that leaders take upon themselves in order to develop their leadership capacity” (Simmons, 2017).

Here’s something to think about:

“Although learning and training are related, they are not the same. Some training fails to produce any learning, and a great deal of learning occurs outside of training. Learning is a desired outcome of training—a process of acquiring new knowledge and behaviors as a result of practice, study, or experience. It involves relatively permanent changes in cognition, behavior, and affect” (Salas, Tannenbaum, Kraiger, & Smith-Jentsch, 2012, p. 77).

What this means is that, even after a weeklong “training” program, a person might not “learn” much or even anything at all. A trainee’s motivation, attitudes, and expectations strongly influence training effectiveness (Tannenbaum & Yukl, 1992). What’s more, only 7 to 9 percent of skill acquisition comes from formal training. Instead, leaders (both formal and informal) are key factors in learning—as they greatly influence what people actually do on the job. Obviously, trainees must continue to learn on the job after they’ve attended “training” (Salas, Tannenbaum, Kraiger, & Smith-Jentsch, 2012).

Self-development is learning beyond the classroom and individuals who commit to this learning mindset will grow as a leader (Scisco, Biech, & Hallenbeck, 2017).

Leader Development Is Personal Development

“[A]ll people can learn and grow in ways that make them more effective in the various leadership roles and processes they take on” (McCauley, Velsor, & Ruderman, 2010, p. 3). Leader development is about the process of personal development that improves leader effectiveness (McCauley, Velsor, & Ruderman, 2010).

I like the Center for Creative Leadership’s view that leader development is synonymous with personal development (McCauley, Velsor, & Ruderman, 2010): “developing the individual capacities needed for effective leadership—such as self-management, social skills, and work facilitation capabilities—is synonymous with what is often labeled ‘personal development'” (McCauley, Velsor, & Ruderman, 2010, p. 26).

A suggestion I share with leaders (when they seek my advice about self-improvement) is to choose what they want to work on and focus on just that one thing or two things. You don’t need to be perfect and you don’t need to be everything to everybody. You just need to be you, not a “perfect” you, just a “better” you.

“You can’t set goals for every leadership competency you want to develop. Narrow your goals to those that you feel passionate about, those that benefit you or can reduce mistakes, and those that are not too difficult to achieve but still stretch your abilities” (Scisco, Biech, & Hallenbeck, 2017, p. 349).

Marshall Goldsmith (2007) has similar advice: “Pick one issue that matters and ‘attack’ it until it doesn’t matter anymore. If you’re a bad listener, choose to become a better listener—not the best listener in the world” (p. 192-193).

Takeaway: Everyone in an organization — from rank-and-file employees to mid- and senior-level, and C-suite members — needs to understand that leadership development is self-development and requires taking an honest and humble examination of yourself. Leader self-development means adopting a “learning beyond the classroom” mindset. Remember, you do not need to be a “perfect” you, just a “better” you. Each of us must continually learn, own up to our mistakes, acknowledge that we do not know enough, and accept that part of learning means to change something about ourselves, even changing something we don’t think needs changing.

Written By: Steve Nguyen, Ph.D.
Leadership & Talent Development Consultant

References

Branham, L. (2012). The 7 Hidden Reasons Employees Leave (2nd ed.). AMACOM.

Davies, E. (2007). The Training Manager’s Desktop Guide (2nd ed.). Thorogood Publishing.

Day, D. V., Fleenor, J. W., Atwater, L. E., Sturm, R. E., & McKee, R. A. (2014). Advances in leader and leadership development: A review of 25 years of research and theory. The Leadership Quarterly, 25(1), 63-82.

Goldsmith, M. (2007). What Got You Here Won’t Get You There. Hyperion.

Klein, G. (2004). The Power of Intuition: How to Use Your Gut Feelings to Make Better Decisions at Work. Currency.

Klein, G. (2014). Different Tactics for Making Discoveries: Each path to insight calls for its own techniques. Psychology Today. https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/seeing-what-others-dont/201403/different-tactics-making-discoveries

Klein, G. (2015, October 21). The Pro-Mortem Method: Creating a blueprint for success. Psychology Today. https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/seeing-what-others-dont/201510/the-pro-mortem-method

Kraiger, K. (2002). Decision-based evaluation. In K. Kraiger (Ed.), Creating, implementing, and maintaining effective training and development: State-of-the-art lessons for practice (pp. 331-375). Jossey-Bass.

Lacerenza, C. N., Marlow, S. L., Tannenbaum, S. I., & Salas, E. (2018). Team development interventions: Evidence-based approaches for improving teamwork. American Psychologist, 73(4), 517-531.

Lacerenza, C. N., Reyes, D. L., Marlow, S. L., Joseph, D. L., & Salas, E. (2017). Leadership training design, delivery, and implementation: A meta-analysis. Journal of Applied Psychology, 102(12), 1686-1718.

McCauley, C., Kanaga, K., & Lafferty, K. (2010). Leader Development Systems. In E. V. Velsor, C. D. McCauley, & M. N. Ruderman (Eds.), The Center for Creative Leadership Handbook of Leadership Development [3rd ed.] (pp. 29-61). Jossey-Bass.

McCauley, C. D., Velsor, E. V., & Ruderman, M. N. (2010). Introduction: Our View of Leadership Development. In E. V. Velsor, C. D. McCauley, & M. N. Ruderman (Eds.), The Center for Creative Leadership Handbook of Leadership Development [3rd ed.] (pp. 1-26). Jossey-Bass.

Noe, R. A. (2017). Employee Training and Development (7th ed.). McGraw-Hill Education.

Salas, E., Tannenbaum, S. I., Kraiger, K., & Smith-Jentsch, K. A. (2012). The science of training and development in organizations: What matters in practice. Psychological Science in the Public Interest, 13(2) 74-101.

Scisco, P., Biech, E., & Hallenbeck, G. (2017). Compass: Your Guide for Leadership Development and Coaching. Center for Creative Leadership Press.

SHRM (Society of Human Resource Management). (2020). Developing Organizational Leaders. https://www.shrm.org/resourcesandtools/tools-and-samples/toolkits/pages/developingorganizationalleaders.aspx

Simmons, M. J. (2017). Leader self-development: An emerging strategy for building leadership capacity. [Doctoral dissertation, Kansas State University]. K-State Research Exchange. https://krex.k-state.edu/dspace/handle/2097/38200

Tannenbaum, S., & Yukl, G. (1992). Training and Development in Work Organizations. Annual Review of Psychology, 43, 399-441.

3 Reasons Physical Offices & Face-to-Face Meetings Are Not Going Away

The traditional, physical office is not going away any time soon despite advances in technology allowing people to work remotely, either at a home office, coworking space, virtual office, or another remote location (such as a coffee shop, library, or bookstore). Similarly, face-to-face meetings will not disappear, even though we can use email, phone, text, or virtual conference calls to conduct business meetings.

The COVID-19 (coronavirus) pandemic reignited the debate about remote work, with some suggesting that it will be the new normal even after COVID-19 (Verbeemen & D’Amico, 2020).

There are 3 reasons why remote work will not be the new normal and why physical offices and face-to-face meetings will stick around:

  1. The reactive response of companies to initiate a temporary work-from-home solution resulted in a bad experience to long-term remote work.
  2. Companies won’t invest time or money to address remote work structurally in their organizations.
  3. Our brains are wired to connect with others because humans have a need for meaningful social connection.

Reason #1 – Companies’ Haphazard Response to Initiate a Temporary Work-From-Home:

Shifting the workforce to remote work as a haphazard and forced reaction to COVID-19 will leave a bad taste in many people’s mouths about their experience working remotely. This GitLab article, titled “What Not to Do When Implementing Remote” is a fantastic resource:

“Remote work isn’t something you do as a reaction to an event — it is an intentional approach to work that creates greater efficiency, more geographically and culturally diverse teams, and heightened transparency.

What is happening en masse related to Coronavirus (COVID-19) is largely a temporary work-from-home phenomenon, where organizations are not putting remote work ideals into place, as they expect to eventually require their team members to resume commuting into an office.” -GitLab

In a Forbes article titled, “Remote Work Advocates Warn Companies About COVID-19 Work-From-Home Strategies,” Laurel Farrer wrote: “all of this unexpected remote work adoption has telecommuting experts concerned instead of celebrating.”

Reason #2 – Companies Not Willing to Invest Time & Money:

Most companies are not investing and will not invest time and money to tackle remote work structurally in their organizations.

Verbeemen & D’Amico (2020) wrote that remote work “will only be a real success if companies start tackling remote working structurally.” Organizations must secure the infrastructure for remote work and implement remote work in a structural way:

“Companies that see salvation in a fast adoption of tools without structural adjustments, risk a loss of efficiency and frustration among employees and stakeholders. It is not enough to simply provide the necessary infrastructure and tools. Some companies already had the infrastructure and tools available at the start of the crisis, but are only now realizing their full potential. Tools are important, but a successful migration also requires leadership, clear guidelines and real commitment” (Verbeemen & D’Amico, 2020).

Here are some findings:

  • At a global level: 56% of global companies allow remote work, but 44% of global companies don’t allow remote work (Owl Labs Global State of Remote Work Report 2018).
  • At a company level: Only 30% of senior managers feel their organization is well prepared for the rise of remote work (Future Positive Report).
  • At a leadership level: While 82% believe that leaders in the new economy will need to be digitally savvy, less than 10% of respondents strongly agree that their organizations have leaders with the right skills to thrive in the digital economy (The New Leadership Playbook for the Digital Age).
  • At a worker level: 38% of remote workers and 15% of remote managers received no training on how to work remotely (Owl Labs State of Remote Work Report 2019).

Werk (a people analytics company) conducted a comprehensive study [The Future is Flexible – Werk Flexibility Study] on the state of flexibility in corporate America. “According to [the] research, there is a significant gap between the supply and demand of workplace flexibility. 96% of employees in the U.S. workforce need some form of flexibility at work, yet only 42% have access to the type of flexibility they need, and only 19% have access to a range of flexible options. This gap is even more pronounced for women, where only 34% have access to the flexibility they need.”

Even though organizations are becoming aware that they need to adopt a more human-centric view, one that supports the employees’ needs (e.g., remote work, wellness programs, etc.), “innovation in terms of how the workplace and jobs are structured has been slow. If companies are going to truly adapt, stay nimble, and poise themselves for growth in the Human Era, they must reconsider the fundamentals of how jobs are designed and how, where, and when work gets done” (The Future is Flexible – Werk Flexibility Study Report).

In the Owl Labs’ State of Remote Work Report 2019, remote employee managers were asked about their biggest challenges and concerns when it came to managing their remote employees. Here’s what they said — They are most concerned about reduced employee productivity (82%), reduced employee focus (82%), lower employee engagement and satisfaction (81%), and whether their remote employees are getting their work done (80%).

Somewhat troubling in that Owl Labs’ State of Remote Work Report 2019 was what remote managers said were their least concerns: Managers are least concerned with employee loneliness (59%), the career implications of employees working remotely (65%), employees overworking (67%), and difficulty managing them (68%).

Gallup research suggests there are three areas in which managers struggle to engage their remote workers (Mann, 2017):

  1. Not recognizing or praising good work.
  2. Not talking to remote workers about career goals and personal growth.
  3. Not providing opportunities to connect with coworkers.

“While remote work is a valid strategy to maintain business continuity in times of crisis like the outbreak of COVID-19, suddenly allowing remote work with no clear policy or processes in place will not have the same positive outcomes as investing adequate resources into preparing leaders and employees for success in a remote environment.” -Tammy Bjelland, CEO Workplaceless

What I see happening—and I believe this trend will continue—is a semi-hybrid company [in which most employees are co-located/on-site and a handful who work remotely] that uses a semi-flexible schedule approach requiring significant time onsite [for co-located employees] and some time offsite/remote. In this semi-flexible schedule approach, organizations require most of their workforce to work and attend meetings onsite but will allow some leaders and staff (at the discretion and whim of their managers) the flexibility to occasionally work and/or attend meetings remotely.

Reason #3 – The Human Brain is Wired to Connect to Others:

The third and my strongest argument why remote work won’t be the new normal is that human beings have an innate and basic need for in-person interactions and the bias toward and preference for face-to-face interactions.

A Futurestep poll of 1,320 global executives in 71 countries found that 61% of senior managers think telecommuters are not as likely as conventional office workers to be promoted, despite the fact that over three-quarters also think teleworkers are equally productive as (42%) or more productive than (36%) their office-dwelling colleagues (Vickers, 2007 citing Bridgeford). Managers might recognize that teleworkers are productive, but they are still accustomed toward face-to-face interactions.

Indeed, remote workers are at risk of getting lower performance evaluations, smaller raises and fewer promotions (even if they work just as long and hard) due to what is called, “passive face time” or the notion of just being “seen” in the workplace even if we don’t interact with anyone in the office (Elsbach & Cable, 2012).

Face-to-face meetings are crucial to business success (Goman, 2016). Even those who make a case for remote work must concede that, “collaborating face-to-face probably is better than collaborating remotely” (Clancy, 2020). When extensive collaboration is required, remote work “may be less productive than colocation [where coworkers are physically clustered together in the same physical workplace]” (Clancy, 2020).

Michael Massari, Caesars Entertainment’s Senior Vice President of National Meetings and Events and Chief Sales Officer, shared some sage advice about the value and advantage of face-to-face meetings:

“No matter what industry you work in, we are all in the people business. Regardless of how tech-savvy you may be, face-to-face meetings are still the most effective way to capture the attention of participants, engage them in the conversation, and drive productive collaboration.” -Michael Massari (Caesars Entertainment’s Senior Vice President of National Meetings and Events and Chief Sales Officer)

Contrary to the belief that making a phone call saves time over a face-to-face meeting, Massari said this:

“If I have to go outside my division to ask for resources from someone I don’t know, I can usually get what I need in a five-minute in-person conversation. If I have to rely on a phone call, it is going to take over 30 minutes to explain who I am, why my request is important, and why the other person should help me. That’s because it is so much faster and easier to establish trust when people physically meet.” -Michael Massari (Caesars Entertainment’s Senior Vice President of National Meetings and Events and Chief Sales Officer)

Researchers have found that, “people tend to overestimate the power of their persuasiveness via text-based communication, and underestimate the power of their persuasiveness via face-to-face communication.” (Bohns, 2017). As a matter of fact, a face-to-face request is 34 times more successful than an email (Bohns, 2017).

In a survey of 760 business executives conducted by Forbes Insights in June 2009, respondents were asked to choose the meeting method that was most conducive to fostering a certain business action or outcome. “Executives preferred face-to-face meetings when the decision-making process was fluid, requiring the kind of give-and-take typical of complex decisions and sales” (Forbes, 2009).

“Surprisingly given the advances in information technology, CEOs today spend most of their time in face-to-face meetings. They consider face-to-face meetings most effective in getting their message across and obtaining the information they need. Not only do meetings present data through presentations and verbal communications, but they also enable CEOs to pick up on rich nonverbal cues such as facial expressions, body language, and mood, that are not apparent to them if they use e-mail or Skype” (Rothaermel, 2016, p. 43).

Beyond the business desire to close a deal, “the benefits of in-person social interaction—from bonding with co-workers to using time at the pool or café to cement a client relationship—are among the more subtle, less measurable advantages executives cited” (Forbes, 2009).

The COVID-19 pandemic and the importance and need for social distancing and remaining indoors and away from others exacerbated our experiences of cabin fever, isolation, and loneliness.

Research has provided consistent evidence linking social isolation and loneliness to worse cardiovascular and mental health outcomes (Leigh-Hunt, Bagguley, Bash, et al., 2017). Indeed, “social isolation [not being alone but one’s experience of feeling lonely] has an impact on health comparable to the effect of high blood pressure, lack of exercise, obesity, or smoking (Cacioppo & Patrick, 2008, p. 5).

Although people claim that their goal is to be able to work from home, when they actually have to do their work from home, those individuals reported higher levels of stress (Scott, 2020). For a great article on what’s stressful about working from home (e.g., lack of structure; lots of distractions; difficulty setting boundaries; social isolation; and lack of focus) see How to Handle the Stress of Working From Home.

“Those who work at home may find that the solitude can be a double-edged sword. It is, of course, easier to focus when you’re in your own home with no co-workers coming by your desk to chat at random times. But while this solitude can feel blissful at times, when we have no mandate for social interaction during the workday—when we don’t automatically run across people outside of those we live with—we can become lonely before we realize it” (Scott, 2020).

As evidenced, during the COVID-19 pandemic, by the boredom, loneliness, and isolation—with some people even going so far as paying money to join virtual Zoom parties (starting at $10 and going up to $80 for a private room in Club Quarantee to virtually party alongside Instagram-famous DJs and burlesque dancers)—human beings desire, indeed we need, human connections, and in particular in-person interaction and connection.

There’s value in face-to-face interaction & collaboration. Human beings crave human connection and interaction. “[O]ur brains are wired to connect with other people” (Lieberman, 2013, p. x). Lieberman says human beings are wired in a way such that our well-being depends on our connections with other people. “We depend on the most complicated entities in the universe, other people, to make our food, pay our rent, and provide for our general well-being” (2013, p. 238).

“Everything we have learned about the social brain tells us that we are wired to make and keep social connections, that we feel pain when these connections are threatened, and that our identity, our sense of self, is intimately tied up with the groups we are a part of” (Lieberman, 2013, p. 248-249).

But these interactions are not just about the number of people you spend time with. Rather, these connections need to satisfy our need to have close, satisfying relationships. Indeed, “loneliness is typically rooted in the quality rather than the quantity of social interaction: Lonely people spend plenty of time with others, but they do not come away from these interactions feeling satisfied” (Baumeister & Bushman, 2014, p. p. 410).

Loneliness is a state of mind and causes us “to feel empty, alone, and unwanted. People who are lonely often crave human contact, but their state of mind makes it more difficult to form connections with other people.” (Cherry, 2020).

Experts contend that humans are social creatures and we function better when we are around other people (DiGiulio, 2018). Even more strongly, a case can be made that our need to connect with others is as strong and fundamental as our need for food and water (Cook, 2013). Physical connection between humans is so strong that the power of touch can even create an analgesic, painkilling effect (Lamothe, 2018).

During this COVID-19 pandemic, it is more important than ever to foster relational connection to curb the rise of loneliness (Stallard & Stallard, 2020). “Research suggests that the majority of individuals today lack sufficient social connection. This connection deficit may exacerbate the negative effects of stress and diminish physical and emotional resilience that people will need to fight the COVID-19 virus” (Stallard & Stallard, 2020).

In his TEDx Talk, neuroscientist Matthew Lieberman said: “Our urge to connect and the pain we feel when this need is thwarted, is one of the seminal achievements of our brain that motivates us to live, work, and play together. You can have the greatest idea in the world, but if you can’t connect with other people nothing will come of it. You can’t build a rocket ship by yourself.”

“To the extent that we can characterize evolution as designing our modern brains, this is what our brains were wired for: reaching out to and interacting with others. These are design features, not flaws. These social adaptations are central to making us the most successful species on earth.” (Lieberman, 2013, p. 9).

According to social psychologists, our need for affiliation or connection to others is universal and all human beings have this need. “Some individuals claim that they have little or no need for affiliation—for connections to other people. But research findings indicate that even such persons really do have affiliation needs. How do we know that’s true? When such people learn that they have been accepted by others, both their moods and self-esteem increase. That would only be expected to happen if such acceptance satisfied a basic need for affiliation. . . . In short, all human beings—even people who claim otherwise—have strong needs for affiliation—to feel connected to others. They may conceal these needs under a mask of seeming indifference, but the needs are still there no matter how much such people try to deny them” (Baron & Branscombe, 2012, p. 218).

Researchers examined the emotional experience of connectedness between pairs of close friends in digital (text, audio, and video) versus in-person environments. They recruited 58 female university students aged 18-21 years (consisting of 29 pairs of close female friends). Although adolescent and emerging adults’ digital communication is primarily text-based, the researchers discovered that the greatest bonding actually occurs during in-person interaction, followed by video chat, audio chat, and instant messaging (Sherman, Michikyan, & Greenfield, 2013).

“Despite our remarkable ability to utilize tools and technologies to improve our lives in many ways, humans are constrained by the evolutionary context in which human social interaction developed” (Sherman, Michikyan, & Greenfield, 2013).

Takeaway: Traditional physical offices and face-to-face meetings are here to stay and remote work will not be the new normal as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. There are three reasons why. First, most people’s introduction to and experience with remote work occurred as a direct, but reactive response of companies to initiate a temporary work-from-home solution. Second, most companies will not be spending the time and money to tackle remote work structurally in their organizations. Third, the human brain is wired to connect with other people and human beings have a need for meaningful social connection. It’s a beautiful, defining quality of being human.

Written By: Steve Nguyen, Ph.D.
Leadership & Talent Development Consultant

References

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Baumeister, R. F., & Bushman, B. J. (2014). Social Psychology and Human Nature (3rd Ed.). Wadsworth, Cengage Learning.

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Bohns, V. K. (2017, April 11). A Face-to-Face Request Is 34 Times More Successful Than an Email. https://hbr.org/2017/04/a-face-to-face-request-is-34-times-more-successful-than-an-email

Cacioppo, J. T., & Patrick, W. (2008). Loneliness: Human Nature and the Need for Social Connection. W. W. Norton & Company.

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Clancy, M. (2020, April 13). The Case for Remote Work. Economics Working Papers: Department of Economics, Iowa State University. 20007. https://lib.dr.iastate.edu/econ_workingpapers/102

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Scott, E. (2020, March 17). How to Handle the Stress of Working From Home. https://www.verywellmind.com/the-stress-of-working-from-home-4141174

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Verbeemen, E., & D’Amico, S. B. (2020, April 9). Why remote working will be the new normal, even after COVID-19. https://www.ey.com/en_be/covid-19/why-remote-working-will-be-the-new-normal-even-after-covid-19

Vickers, M. (2007). Adapting to Teleworker Trends. American Management Association’s Moving Ahead Newsletter, 2(10). http://www.amanet.org/training/articles/Adapting-to-Teleworker-Trends.aspx

Werk. The Future is Flexible – Werk Flexibility Study. https://werk.co/documents/The%20Future%20is%20Flexible%20-%20Werk%20Flexibility%20Study.pdf

Workplaceless. (2020, May 1). Preparing for Emergency Remote Work. https://www.workplaceless.com/blog/emergency-remote-work

How to Work Remotely During COVID-19 and Maintain Your Emotional Health

I have been asked about tips and strategies to help individuals be effective in working remotely during this COVID-19 (coronavirus) pandemic. Here are my thoughts.

Tips for Effectively Working Remotely:

1. Technology & Tools: Make sure you have the technology, equipments, and softwares to continue to be productive and get your work done. Practice and become comfortable with the various tools that your team and/or company requires you to use. For instance, for videoconferencing, be sure to know how to use the applications that your team uses (e.g., Zoom, WebEx, etc.). Also, even if you are familiar with the app, learn to use it and understand its limitations. Many videoconferencing tools are good to use for video through your laptop or computer’s built-in camera. However, the audio can, and is often spotty. So many times, it is best to “dial in” to the video call, and also call in on your cell phone for the audio portion.

Another thing to consider are the restrictions placed on you by your company’s IT department when you use your work laptop to work remotely. Some companies will require you to use a secure two-factor authentication process by going through an app, such as Duo Mobile, to log into your work laptop. Depending on how reliable the app and service is, this process can be quite cumbersome.

When doing video calls, preparation can go a long way in making your calls more tolerable for you and your colleagues (Chen, 2020). You will want to check your webcam, microphone, and internet speed. Also, be aware of what is in the background behind you (pets, kids, personal or identifiable items, etc.) and, as much as possible, minimize distractions and be sure that you can pay attention.

Equally important is to remember that when a video call will not work (newsflash: not everyone is comfortable using or being on a video call), try something else — like calling them on the phone.

*For Leaders:* If you are a leader leading a team, don’t forget that the virtual tools and technology serve to help you connect with your team. They aren’t meant to replace you in communicating and connecting with your team members.

I love this message from Patrick Lencioni reminding leaders to be exceedingly human:

“Demonstrate your concern for the very real fears and anxieties that your people are experiencing, not only professionally and economically, but socially and personally. Even though you don’t have definitive answers to all of their questions, don’t let that keep you from listening to them and empathizing with their fears.” -Patrick Lencioni

Here’s a great reminder that remote teams need real communication:

“You are a human manager learning to communicate with other humans aided by the power of technology. These efforts should allow you to think about the value of the human experience as supported by the best version of technology we can leverage for the goal. The power really is in your human hands; the technology just helps it virtually travel around the world” (Bisbee & Wisniewski, 2020).

2. Workspace: You need to set up a work office environment. Setting up a workspace will mentally prepare you and can be a good way to help separate your work & home space.

3. Rituals, Structure, and Breaks: You will want to develop rituals and be consistent about how you will start and end your day, as well as give yourself time to eat lunch and take short breaks throughout the day. You’ll also need to create a system or devise a method so that both you and those around you understand and know your work schedule.

4. Watercooler Conversations: When you are physically at the office, you can and do run into colleagues in the break room and are able to catch up with them or even solve or work through a challenge just by engaging in an unplanned watercooler conversation. When you work remotely, this is not possible so be sure to design a way to engage with your coworkers and/or your boss. Some teams use an instant messaging app like Microsoft Teams, Skype, or Slack to stay connected.

5. Chunk Your Time: Block times throughout the day that will work with your schedule, while trying to balance working at “home”. For instance, being at home and especially currently with many of the school children also in the home, you might not be able to follow a strict 8-5 schedule as you would normally follow in your office. In that case, break that up or chunk it into smaller chunks of time. For example, you might schedule 6am – 8am; 10am – 12pm; 2pm – 4pm; and 7pm – 9pm or 8am – 11am; 1pm – 3pm; 6pm – 9pm.

6. Be Prepared to Work More or Longer Hours: Make no mistake, working from home requires MORE (not LESS) of your time. As a matter of fact, people who telecommute, especially those who have done so for an extended period of time will tell you that it actually requires you to work more, not less.

Tips for Maintaining Your Emotional Health & Mental Sanity:

1. The COVID-19 (coronavirus) pandemic has created a unique scenario because it is the reason why this forced social experiment of remote work is suddenly on everyone’s mind. Indeed, many companies are suddenly requiring their employees to work from home to help contain the spread of the virus. It is important to understand and acknowledge some of the things you may experience as a result of this disruption to your regular routines (i.e., if you typically come into the office to work), such as fear and anxiety; depression and boredom; and anger, frustration or irritability.

2. To better handle and cope with this situation, try the following:

  • limit the amount of news you consume; get news from reliable sources
  • set up and follow a daily routine
  • stay connected to your coworkers, friends, and family
  • adopt a strong internal locus of control; realize there are things within your control & things outside of your control
  • take breaks and make time to unwind
  • practice gratitude and try to look for the positives
  • try meditation, mindfulness, or other relaxation exercises
  • get enough sleep, eat well, and exercise

Written By: Steve Nguyen, Ph.D.
Leadership & Talent Development Consultant

References

American Psychological Association. Keeping Your Distance to Stay Safe. https://www.apa.org/practice/programs/dmhi/research-information/social-distancing

American Psychological Association. (2020, March 16). Seven crucial research findings that can help people deal with COVID-19. https://www.apa.org/news/apa/2020/03/covid-19-research-findings

Bisbee, B., & Wisniewski, K. (2020, March 18). Remote Teams Need Real Communication. Association for Talent Development. https://www.td.org/insights/remote-teams-need-real-communication

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Manage Anxiety & Stress. https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/prepare/managing-stress-anxiety.html

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Taking Care of Your Emotional Health. https://emergency.cdc.gov/coping/selfcare.asp

Chen, B. (2020, March 25). The Dos and Don’ts of Online Video Meetings. NYTimes.com. https://www.nytimes.com/2020/03/25/technology/personaltech/online-video-meetings-etiquette-virus.html

Neeley, T. (2020, March 15). 15 Questions About Remote Work, Answered. Harvard Business Review. https://hbr.org/2020/03/15-questions-about-remote-work-answered

Nguyen, S. (2015, August 22). The Pitfalls Of Telecommuting. https://workplacepsychology.net/2015/08/22/the-pitfalls-of-telecommuting/

Overcoming Obstacles: Attitude and Approach Are Answers to Pains and Problems

“There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.”
―William Shakespear

In his book, The Obstacle Is the Way, Ryan Holiday (2014) shares the wisdom of Stoicism* (a Greek philosophy) and ancient Stoics to help readers “accomplish the very specific and increasingly urgent goal we all share: overcoming obstacles. Mental obstacles. Physical obstacles. Emotional obstacles. Perceived obstacles” (Holiday, 2014, p. 5).

*Stoicism is “about acknowledging our emotions, reflecting on what causes them, and redirecting them for our own good. It is about keeping in mind what is and what is not under our control, focusing our efforts on the former and not wasting them on the latter. It is about practicing virtue and excellence and navigating the world to the best of our abilities, while being mindful of the moral dimension of all our actions” (Pigliucci, 2017, p. 2-3).

“The Stoics realized that we have considerable flexibility in how we frame the situations we experience. They discovered, more precisely, that by thinking of setbacks as tests of our character, we can dramatically alter our emotional response to them. We can, in particular, develop our ability to stay clam, even in the face of very significant setbacks, and this in turn can have a dramatic impact on our quality of life” (Irvine, 2019, p. 17).

Holiday’s book teaches us: “How to turn the many negative situations we encounter in our lives into positive ones—or at least to snatch whatever benefit we can from them. To steal good fortune from misfortune” (2014, p. 5).

“We’re dissatisfied with our jobs, our relationships, our place in the world. We’re trying to get somewhere, but something stands in the way. So we do nothing. We blame our bosses, the economy, our politicians, other people, or we write ourselves off as failures or our goals as impossible. When really only one thing is at fault: our attitude and approach” (Holiday, 2014, p. 2).

But not everyone is stuck like this. Some people are able to turn their obstacles and trials into triumphs. What’s more, many of these individuals faced unimaginable challenges and frustrations and despite those obstacles, or perhaps thanks to those obstacles, they overcame and succeeded. Great individuals, like great companies, find a way to transform weakness into strength. They are able to take what should have held them back and used it to move forward (Holiday, 2014).

“Like oxygen to a fire, obstacles became fuel for the blaze that was their ambition. Nothing could stop them, they were (and continue to be) impossible to discourage or contain. Every impediment only served to make the inferno within them burn with greater ferocity” (Holiday, 2014, p. 4).

There are a few things to keep in mind when faced with a seemingly insurmountable obstacle. We must try (Holiday, 2014, p. 18):

  • To be objective
  • To control emotions and keep an even keel
  • To choose to see the good in a situation
  • To steady our nerves
  • To ignore what disturbs or limits others
  • To place things in perspective
  • To revert to the present moment
  • To focus on what can be controlled

“This is how you see the opportunity within the obstacle. It does not happen on its own. It is a process—one that results from self-discipline and logic” (Holiday, 2014, p. 18).

Take Helen Keller, the first deaf and blind person to ever graduate from college. Can you imagine losing one of your senses, let alone two? Many people know about Keller’s successes and accolades, but not many are familiar with the struggles she had to overcome to get there. For instance, Keller was such a temperamental, wild, and unruly deaf-blind child that even family and close friends didn’t think she could be taught. It took Helen’s mother, Kate Keller, and her unrelenting quest for a teacher (one who would be willing to travel to rural Tuscumbia, Alabama to teach Helen), and a teacher (Anne Sullivan), who was both qualified and willing to travel to Alabama. Under Sullivan’s tutelage, the young Keller thrived ― learning how to fingerspell, read Braille, and write. Helen Keller eventually graduated from Radcliffe College. Keller could read English, German, French, Greek, and Latin in Braille! She also learned to speak (McGinnity, Seymour-Ford, & Andries, 2004).

“Keller hit, pinched and kicked her teacher and knocked out one of her teeth. Sullivan finally gained control by moving with the girl into a small cottage on the Kellers’ property. Through patience and firm consistency, she finally won the child’s heart and trust, a necessary step before Keller’s education could proceed” (McGinnity, Seymour-Ford, & Andries, 2004).

What’s perhaps more remarkable is that Anne Sullivan (Helen Keller’s teacher) herself experienced much more extreme hardships growing up. When Sullivan was about five years old, she contracted trachoma, an eye disease caused by bacteria. Trachoma causes repeated, painful infections, making the eyes red and swollen. Over time the recurring irritation and scarring of the cornea causes severe vision loss. Sullivan dealt with the effects of trachoma throughout her life. After her mother died (Anne was eight years old), her father struggled to raise the family and soon abandoned his children. Anne and her younger brother Jimmie were sent to Tewksbury Almshouse, a home for the poor. Sadly and very tragically, the conditions there were so deplorable that three months after they arrived, Jimmie Sullivan died. Early in her stay at Tewksbury, Anne realized that her best chance at a better life was to get an education at a school for blind children. This became her central focus. She heard about a commission coming to investigate the conditions at Tewksbury, and on the day of their visit, she followed them around waiting for her time to speak up. As the tour was wrapping up, Anne approached one of the inspectors and told him she wanted to go to school. That moment changed her life. On October 7, 1880, Anne Sullivan entered the Perkins School for the Blind (McGinnity, Seymour-Ford, & Andries, 2004).

And even after she got into the school, many of the other girls (most from wealthy families) made fun of her because, at the age of 14, she was unable to read or write her name. And she had never owned a nightgown or hairbrush. “Anne Sullivan’s recollections of her early years at Perkins were mainly of feeling humiliated about her own shortcomings. Her anger and shame fueled a determination to excel in her studies” (McGinnity, Seymour-Ford, & Andries, 2004).

“Not everyone looks at obstacles—often the same ones you and I face—and sees reason to despair. In fact, they see the
opposite. They see a problem with a ready solution. They see a chance to test and improve themselves. Nothing stands in their way. Rather, everything guides them on the way” (Holiday, 2014, p. 178).

Anne Sullivan’s life experiences, like so many of the great history changers and makers before and after her, were “tested in the crucible of adversity and forged in the furnace of trial” (Holiday, 2014, p. 178).

“People seldom see the halting and painful steps by which the most insignificant success is achieved.” ―Anne Sullivan

“Character cannot be developed in ease and quiet. Only through experience of trial and suffering can the soul be strengthened, vision cleared, ambition inspired, and success achieved.” ―Helen Keller

Takeaway: “You will come across obstacles in life—fair and unfair. And you will discover, time and time again, that what matters most is not what these obstacles are but how we see them, how we react to them, and whether we keep our composure. . . . [T]his reaction determines how successful we will be in overcoming—or possibly thriving because of—them” (Holiday, 2014, p. 16).

Written By: Steve Nguyen, Ph.D.
Leadership & Talent Development Consultant

References

Holiday, R. (2019). The Daily Stoic. What Is Stoicism? A Definition & 9 Stoic Exercises To Get You Started. https://dailystoic.com/what-is-stoicism-a-definition-3-stoic-exercises-to-get-you-started/

Holiday, R. (2014). The Obstacle Is the Way: The Timeless Art of Turning Trials into Triumph. Portfolio.

Irvine, W. B. (2019). The Stoic Challenge: A Philosopher’s Guide to Becoming Tougher, Calmer, and More Resilient. W. W. Norton & Company, Inc.

McGinnity, B.L., Seymour-Ford, J. and Andries, K.J. (2004) Anne Sullivan. Perkins History Museum, Perkins School for the Blind, Watertown, MA. [Also from https://www.perkins.org/history/people/anne-sullivan]

McGinnity, B.L., Seymour-Ford, J. and Andries, K.J. (2004) Helen Keller. Perkins History Museum, Perkins School for the Blind, Watertown, MA. [Also from https://www.perkins.org/history/people/helen-keller]

Pigliucci, M. (2017). How To Be a Stoic: Using Ancient Philosophy to Live a Modern Life. Basic Books.

Steve Jobs Had Moderately Low Emotional Intelligence

I thought this might be an interesting case study. I’ve come across many articles where writers (both lay and scholars) have stated that they believe Steve Jobs had high emotional intelligence (EQ).

Let’s start by defining emotional intelligence:

Emotional intelligence is the “ability to perceive and express emotion, assimilate emotion in thought, understand and reason with emotion, and regulate emotion in the self and others” (Mayer, Salovey, Caruso, & Cherkasskiy, 2011, p. 532).

Emotional intelligence is “a set of emotional and social skills that influence the way we perceive and express ourselves, develop and maintain social relationships, cope with challenges, and use emotional information in an effective and meaningful way” (Multi-Health Systems, 2011).

Here’s my position: Steve Jobs’ emotional intelligence was very unbalanced, so much so that I believe his overall EQ score was moderately low to moderate.

In this article, I have included extensive passages, statements, and stories and quoted them verbatim from the Steve Jobs biography by Walter Isaacson as well as from a few other sources to support my viewpoint. This is done intentionally as rewording or paraphrasing would dilute the writings and storytelling and I didn’t want to do that.

There’s no doubt that Steve Jobs was a visionary genius who, over three decades, brought some incredible products (e.g., Apple II, Macintosh, iPod, iPhone, iPad, and many others) to market, and who transformed entire industries (Isaacson, 2011).

While he was very effective in some leadership areas, he was extremely lacking in others. Therefore, I would argue that Steve Jobs had a very unbalanced emotional intelligence which contributed to his moderately low overall emotional intelligence.

I will use the Emotional Quotient Inventory (EQ-i) 2.0. The EQ-i 2.0 measures emotional intelligence. More specifically, the EQ-i 2.0 measures a set of emotional and social skills that influence the way individuals: (1) perceive and express themselves, (2) develop and maintain social relationships, (3) cope with challenges, and (4) use emotional information in an effective and meaningful way.

The EQ-i 2.0 is made up of 5 composites: Self-Perception, Self-Expression, Interpersonal, Decision Making, and Stress Management. Each of the composites contains 3 subscales.

    1. Self-Perception: Self-Regard, Self-Actualization, Emotional Self-Awareness
    2. Self-Expression: Emotional Expression, Assertiveness, Independence
    3. Interpersonal: Interpersonal Relationships, Empathy, Social Responsibility
    4. Decision Making: Problem Solving, Reality Testing, Impulse Control
    5. Stress Management: Flexibility, Stress Tolerance, Optimism

If we’re going by the EQ-i 2.0 and its 15 subscales, Jobs had extremely high self-regard, self-actualization, and self-awareness. He was also very assertive and optimistic.

However, a strength overdone or overused can become a weakness. In FYI: For Your Improvement (a guide for coaching and development), Lombardo and Eichinger (2000) cautioned that, “Sometimes a strength used to extreme turns into a weakness” (p. vi).

Too much Self-Regard can be or look/sound:

    • Arrogant
    • Vain & conceited
    • Narcissistic
    • Over-confident
    • Burdensome with thoughts of superiority

Too much Self-Actualization can be or look/sound:

    • Perpetually dissatisfied with the status quo
    • Overly goal-driven—too intense
    • Overly exuberant with your activities and points of passion
    • Self-centered—blind to the needs and interests of others

Too much Emotional Self-Awareness can be or look/sound:

    • Self-consumed—seeing things unrelated to you only through your own emotional filters
    • Self-centered and self-indulgent
    • Hypersensitive to your own emotions
    • Insensitive to others’ needs

Too much Assertiveness can be or look/sound:

    • Aggressive
    • Abusive
    • Militant or bossy
    • Self-centered (commanding the spotlight and excessive air-time)

Too much Optimism can be or look/sound:

    • Blind to reality and danger
    • Prone to viewing bright sides and opportunities that do not actually exist
    • Known to let an unrealistic belief in a positive outcome take the place of effort

On the opposite end, Jobs had very low interpersonal relationships, low empathy, low impulse control (even describing himself as “mercurial”), low flexibility, and low reality testing.

Low Interpersonal Relationships can be or look/sound:

    • A loner
    • Socially withdrawn
    • Cold and unfriendly
    • Hard to like or get to know

Low Empathy can be or look/sound:

    • Inattentive
    • Uncompassionate, unfeeling, or inhumane
    • Emotionally detached or distant
    • Selfish and self-centered

Low Impulse Control can be or look/sound:

    • Lacking in self-control
    • Impulsive
    • Explosive
    • Overly talkative—monopolizing conversations
    • Short fused, quick to anger

Low Flexibility can be or look/sound:

    • Rigid in your thinking
    • Set in your ways and opinions
    • Lacking curiosity
    • Change-resistant
    • Slow to start new project or efforts

Low Reality Testing can be or look/sound:

    • Unrealistic and overly dramatic
    • Impractical & untrustworthy
    • Dishonest—prone to exaggeration

For Steve Jobs, his Emotional Expression was much higher than his Empathy. He focused much more (almost exclusively) on the expression of his emotions, thoughts, and feelings than on being empathic toward others. Balancing these facets required that Jobs listened carefully to the ideas of others and be attentive to their feelings. Because these facets were often out of balance, Jobs was never able to gauge whether the intensity and timing of his expression was appropriate for the situation.

Job’s Assertiveness was also quite high compared to his low Empathy score. Because these scores were out of balance, people viewed and experienced him and his behaviors as abrasive.

Finally, another area where Jobs’ emotional intelligence was out of balance was related to his low Empathy and high Emotional Self-Awareness. This meant that although he understood how he felt about a particular situation, he had the tendency to not spend enough time uncovering how others felt.

Steve Jobs used the handicap parking space as his own personal parking spot (Isaacson, 2011). He frequently berated and yelled at others and threw temper tantrums. He also tended to distort reality and was well-known for his reality distortion field (“He has his own way with the truth” [Isaacson, 2011, p. 185]). It was the key people in his life who helped to soften his unpleasant treatments of others as well as soothe his volatile behaviors.

For his Steve Jobs biography, Walter Isaacson conducted more than forty interviews with Jobs over two years. Isaacson also interviewed more than a hundred family members, friends, adversaries, competitors, and colleagues of Steve Jobs.

Here are some passages from Isaacson’s Steve Jobs biography:

“Ann Bowers became an expert at dealing with Jobs’s perfectionism, petulance, and prickliness. She had been the human resources director at Intel, but had stepped aside after she married its cofounder Bob Noyce. She joined Apple in 1980 and served as a calming mother figure who would step in after one of Jobs’s tantrums. She would go to his office, shut the door, and gently lecture him. “I know, I know,” he would say. “Well, then, please stop doing it,” she would insist. Bowers recalled, “He would be good for a while, and then a week or so later I would get a call again.” She realized that he could barely contain himself. “He had these huge expectations, and if people didn’t deliver, he couldn’t stand it. He couldn’t control himself. I could understand why Steve would get upset, and he was usually right, but it had a hurtful effect. It created a fear factor. He was self-aware, but that didn’t always modify his behavior”” (Isaacson, 2011, p. 121).

“[Steve Jobs] had always been temperamental and bratty. At Atari his behavior had caused him to be banished to the night shift, but at Apple that was not possible. “He became increasingly tyrannical and sharp in his criticism,” according to Markkula [the first big Apple investor; also a father figure to Jobs]. “He would tell people, ‘That design looks like shit.’” He was particularly rough on Wozniak’s young programmers, Randy Wigginton and Chris Espinosa. “Steve would come in, take a quick look at what I had done, and tell me it was shit without having any idea what it was or why I had done it,” said Wigginton, who was just out of high school” (Isaacson, 2011, p. 81-82).

Many people who worked at Apple “were afraid of Jobs “because of his spontaneous temper tantrums and his proclivity to tell everyone exactly what he thought, which often wasn’t very favorable”” (Isaacson, 2011, p. 113).

Jobs never apologized for treating people, especially those around him and people who worked for him, poorly. He thought it was his “job to be honest” because “I know what I’m talking about, and I usually turn out to be right” (Isaacson, 2011, p. 569).

There’s a useful Management Blind Spots Self-Evaluation created by Michael Timms of Avail Leadership. Out of the 15 common undesirable management tendencies (and their associated behaviors), Jobs easily checked off 13 of the 15 undesirable management tendencies!

    • Micromanage
    • Know-It-All
    • Dictatorial
    • Impersonal
    • Fail to Develop Others
    • Untrustworthy
    • Blame Others
    • Steal Credit
    • Provide Unclear Direction
    • Demanding Taskmaster* (Timms used the term “Slave Driver,” but I renamed it)
    • Emotionally Volatile
    • Overly Negative
    • Play Favorites

“Research has shown that people are five times more sensitive to their manager’s unconscious negative actions than to their manager’s efforts to motivate them. In other words, much of what managers do to motivate their staff is being undone by their thoughtless negative actions” (Timms, 2016).

The reason why people tolerated Jobs was because they “realized that despite his temperamental failings, Jobs had the charisma and corporate clout that would lead them to “make a dent in the universe”” (Isaacson, 2011, p. 112).

And to be very clear, Steve Jobs was successful despite his moderately low emotional intelligence because he had people around him [like Joanna Hoffman (his right-hand woman), Ann Bowers and her husband Bob Noyce (who were surrogate parents to Jobs) and Laurene Powell Jobs (his wife)] who had a strong, commanding, and/or calming influence on Jobs and who kept him in line.

Isaacson described Laurene Powell in this manner: “Smart, yet unpretentious. Tough enough to stand up to him, yet Zen-like enough to rise above turmoil. Well-educated and independent, yet
ready to make accommodations for him and a family. Down-to-earth, but with a touch of the ethereal. Savvy enough to know how to manage him, but secure enough to not always need to” (Isaacson, 2011, p. 267).

According to Joanna Hoffman, one of Steve Jobs’ right hand woman, Jobs can be very obnoxious because he thinks he can “get away with anything” (Isaacson, 2011, p. 184). While on a business trip in Italy, he became so nasty and was so mean to the waiter at a restaurant that Hoffman threatened that if Jobs didn’t calm down that she would pour hot coffee on him (Isaacson, 2011).

Apple’s manager in France, Jean-Louis Gassée said this about Steve Jobs: “The only way to deal with him was to out-bully him” (Isaacson, 2011, p. 185). “I remember grabbing his lapel and telling him to stop, and then he backed down. I used to be an angry man myself. I am a recovering assaholic. So I could recognize that in Steve” (Isaacson, 2011, p. 185).

Andy Hertzfeld, who worked with Steve Jobs at Apple in the early 1980s said: “The key question about Steve is why he can’t control himself at times from being so reflexively cruel and harmful to some people” (Isaacson, 2011, p. 5).

This part aptly summarizes Steve Jobs as a leader:

“There were some upsides to Jobs’s demanding and wounding behavior. People who were not crushed ended up being stronger. They did better work, out of both fear and an eagerness to please” (Isaacson, 2011, p. 121).

“Was all of his stormy and abusive behavior necessary? Probably not, nor was it justified. There were other ways to have motivated his team. Even though the Macintosh would turn out to be great, it was way behind schedule and way over budget because of Jobs’s impetuous interventions. There was also a cost in brutalized human feelings, which caused much of the team to burn out” (Isaacson, 2011, p. 123-124).

When Walter Isaacson, the biographer, asked Jobs: “Why are you sometimes so mean?” Jobs replied, “This is who I am, and you can’t expect me to be someone I’m not” (Isaacson, 2011, p. 565).

What Ann Bowers said about Steve Jobs is my main argument for why I believe Steve Jobs’ emotional intelligence is moderately low: that although he was very self-aware (i.e., he knew exactly what he was doing), he really didn’t care how he acted or treated others.

Walter Isaacson, who interviewed Jobs extensively and interviewed many of his friends, colleagues, and family for the Steve Jobs biography, concluded that Jobs “could have controlled himself, if he had wanted. When he hurt people, it was not because he was lacking in emotional awareness. Quite the contrary: He could size people up, understand their inner thoughts, and know how to relate to them, cajole them, or hurt them at will” (Isaacson, 2011, p. 565).

“Most people have a regulator between their mind and mouth that modulates their brutish sentiments and spikiest impulses. Not Jobs. He made a point of being brutally honest. “My job is to say when something sucks rather than sugarcoat it,” he said. This made him charismatic and inspiring, yet also, to use the technical term, an asshole at times” (Isaacson, 2011, p. 564).

These stories and descriptions do not describe a person with high emotional intelligence. On the contrary, they describe some with low emotional intelligence.

Some have claimed that emotional intelligence is “not about being nice. Rather it’s about the ability to use the right emotion at the right time to get the right result. It requires the ability to read the other person, know how far you can push their buttons, and knowing when to back off and when to persist. If it is done with good intentions, even though unpleasant at the time, the payoff can be rewarding” (Stein, 2017, p. 49).

This sounds an awful lot like people who know how to read others and then use that knowledge and skill to manipulate others into doing what they want. When you are selfish and you use your talents to manipulate others, that’s not emotional intelligence. That’s just being manipulative.

As Isaacson wrote (2011, p. 312): “Jobs could seduce and charm people at will, and he liked to do so. People such as Amelio [Apple’s CEO who brought Steve Jobs back to Apple officially in January 1997 as a part-time advisor] and Sculley [Pepsi executive recruited by Jobs in 1983 to be Apple’s CEO; he clashed with and ousted Jobs in 1985] allowed themselves to believe that because Jobs was charming them, it meant that he liked and respected them. It was an impression that he sometimes fostered by dishing out insincere flattery to those hungry for it. But Jobs could be charming to people he hated just as easily as he could be insulting to people he liked.”

While it’s true that Steve Jobs inspired Apple employees to create ground-breaking products and instilled in them a belief that they could do what seemed impossible at times, the result was that many people experienced burnout and left. Those who worked for and/or with Jobs stated that it was one of the most stressful times of their lives.

Even Jony Ive admitted this about Steve Jobs:

“He has this very childish ability to get really worked up about something, and it doesn’t stay with him at all. But there are other times, I think honestly, when he’s very frustrated, and his way to achieve catharsis is to hurt somebody. And I think he feels he has a liberty and a license to do that. The normal rules of social engagement, he feels, don’t apply to him. Because of how very sensitive he is, he knows exactly how to efficiently and effectively hurt someone. And he does do that” (Isaacson, 2011, p. 462).

A Wired article talked about a reunion of former Apple employees. More than 1,300 ex-Apple employees showed up. Not surprisingly, many people shared stories about Steve Jobs as a demanding and hot-tempered leader. “Everyone has their Steve-Jobs-the-asshole story,” one of the attendees said (Kahney, 2003). “Everyone dreads getting caught in an elevator with him,” said another attendee (Kahney, 2003).

Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak said that Steve Jobs drove away some of Apple’s most talented employees (Bauter, 2014; Gibbs, 2014):

“Some of my very best friends in Apple, the most creative people in Apple who worked on the Macintosh, almost all of them said they would never, ever work for Steve Jobs again,” said Wozniak in an interview with the Milwaukee Business Journal. “It was that bad.”

Katie Savchuk (2019) wrote that narcissistic CEOs weaken collaboration and integrity, and while some may be bold leaders, they nevertheless create a dangerous corporate culture. “Success for such leaders is often attributed to their bold vision, extreme self-confidence, and determination to win at all costs. Less palatable qualities of the narcissistic personality type — including entitlement, hostility when challenged, and a willingness to manipulate — are seen as part of the package,” writes Savchuk.

Having high emotional intelligence does not mean being manipulative, mistreating others, deriving pleasure from hurting others, or justifying your own bad behaviors.

In an influential article that became the hallmark of the emotional intelligence theory, professors Peter Salovey and John Mayer (1990) wrote:

“The person with emotional intelligence can be thought of as having attained at least a limited form of positive mental health. These individuals are aware of their own feelings and those of others. They are open to positive and negative aspects of internal experience, are able to label them, and when appropriate, communicate them. Such awareness will often lead to the effective regulation of affect within themselves and others, and so contribute to well being. Thus, the emotionally intelligent person is often a pleasure to be around and leaves others feeling better” (Salovey & Mayer, 1990, p. 201).

Therefore, a person who is “smug, willful, brazen, demeaning, volatile, vindictive and manipulative” (Wasylyshyn, 2011), someone who’s a jerk, throws temper tantrums (Jobs’ temper has been described as “legendary” [Isaacson, 2011]), is childish and takes license to hurt others (Isaacson, 2011), and doesn’t care how he treats others or his “negative effects on others” (Wasylyshyn, 2011) is not a person with high overall emotional intelligence. In fact, anyone who engages in behaviors like these—regardless of being moderately emotionally intelligent or not—isn’t a very nice person.

Written By: Steve Nguyen, Ph.D.
Leadership & Talent Development Consultant

References

Bauter, A. (2014, Jun 24). One-on-one with ‘Woz’: Steve Wozniak talks Steve Jobs (Video). https://www.bizjournals.com/charlotte/news/2014/07/02/one-on-one-with-woz-steve-wozniak-talks-steve-jobs.html

Gibbs, S. (2014, Jul 8). Steve Wozniak: No one wanted to work under Steve Jobs ever again. https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2014/jul/08/steve-wozniakr-steve-jobs-apple

Isaacson, W. (2011). Steve Jobs. Simon & Schuster.

Kahney, L. (2003, September 15). Apple Memories Not Sweet as Pie. https://www.wired.com/2003/09/apple-memories-not-sweet-as-pie/

Lombardo, M. M., & Eichinger, R. W. (2000). FYI: For Your Improvement: A Development and Coaching Guide (3rd ed.). Lominger Limited, Inc.

Mayer, J. D., Salovey, P., Caruso, D. R., & Cherkasskiy, L. (2011). Emotional Intelligence. In R. J. Sternberg & S. B. Kaufman (Eds.), The Cambridge handbook of intelligence (pp. 528-549). Cambridge University Press.

Multi-Health Systems (MHS). (2011). EQ-i 2.0 User’s Handbook. Multi-Health Systems.

Salovey, P. & Mayer, J. D. (1990). Emotional intelligence. Imagination, Cognition, and Personality, 9, 185-211.

Savchuk, K. (2019, November 4). Narcissistic CEOs Weaken Collaboration and Integrity. https://www.gsb.stanford.edu/insights/narcissistic-ceos-weaken-collaboration-integrity

Stein, S. J. (2017). The EQ Leader. John Wiley & Sons.

Timms, M. (2016). Management Blind Spots Self-Evaluation. Avail Leadership. https://www.availleadership.com/wp-content/uploads/2016/04/Avail_Leadership_Management_Blind_Spots_Self-Evaluation.pdf

Wasylyshyn, K. M. (2011, November 1). The Real Lessons from Steve Jobs’ Career. https://chiefexecutive.net/the-real-lessons-from-steve-jobs-career/