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Book Review-Uncharitable: How Restraints on Nonprofits Undermine Their Potential

It’s heretical.  What would happen if we applied free market capitalist ideas to charities?  What would it be like to have non-profit organizations operate with the same (or similar) rules as commercial organizations?  Uncharitable: How Restraints on Nonprofits Undermine Their Potential explores this from the perspective of a former fundraiser – someone who used the power of marketing to gain funds for charities – but in the process spent a lot of money.

Changing the Rules

The way that charities are ranked, rated, and evaluated isn’t based on their results.  It’s on their efficiency.  We’ve confused effort with effect.  Instead of asking the hard questions about whether they’re effective, we simply ask what percentage of their income goes to programs.  In addition to not being the best measure, it may be fiction.

If you want a universal measure that applies to all non-profits, efficiency – how much is spent on programs as a percentage – makes sense.  It’s universal.  It sounds good.  The problem is that it doesn’t tell you anything.  I can spend 99% on programs with minimal infrastructure.  I can also fail to accomplish anything meaningful for anyone.

Consider an organization that spends 50% on programs – but is incredibly effective and transitions people from food scarcity to abundance.  Compare that to an organization that spends 99% on programs but only serves to address the current food need of people daily.  They can’t meet demand, and the demand keeps getting bigger – because they never help people find ways to eliminate their food scarcity.  Which is the better organization?  From the metric, the second.  From the outcomes, the first.

In addition, when everyone is pressed for the magic number of what they spend on programs, they’ll necessarily put more into that bucket than should be there.  Take accounting fees, which 27 percent of non-profits categorized as program expenses despite IRS rules telling them not to do so.  What about grant writing or proposal writing?  How do you account for an executive director’s time if they’re also running programs?  The answer is that in many – but not all – cases, the answers are biased towards programs.

Of course, it’s a bit of a misnomer, because everything is ultimately in service of the programs – it’s just a matter of how directly or indirectly those funds are used.

Short-Term and Long-Term

We know that in the long term, long-term investments will do better than short-term investments.  It’s a tautology.  We know the best way to create the best societal outcomes is to focus on the long-term problems – but there are people in need today.  Charities are penalized – and sometimes vilified – when they invest funds to improve the situation in the long term if they can’t serve today’s needs.  Consider the example from above, with the organization that spends 50% of its money on programs that transitions people out of food scarcity.  If this process takes a year or two, and significant investment in training them for better skills, it may be that the organization is vilified because they’re focusing too many resources on too few people.

In the corporate world, we look for organizations that are capable of producing consistent results and that transform their industries.  For charities, we look for those who are processing the most people today – regardless of whether they’re solving the real problems or not.

Financial Efficiency

A 2008 Ellison Research study found “most Americans believe non-profit organizations and charities are not financially efficient in their work.”  This may be in part based on the guidelines for what should be devoted to program operation versus overhead.  It may be in part because nonprofits are unable to make long-term investments to reduce their operational costs.  Whatever the source of the concern, it’s one that nonprofits need to take seriously.

Strangely, the effort to be cost efficient – accepting donated computers, furniture, and more – may lead to the inefficiency that so many of the public are concerned by.

Selfless and Selfish

At the root of financial problems for charities is the tension between the completely selfless and the completely selfish.  We expect that corporations are filled with people who are entirely selfish.  (See The Selfish Gene.)  We expect that charities are completely selfless.  Neither is true.  The movement towards corporate responsibility and B Corps is one way that we see that corporations aren’t entirely selfish.  (See Red Goldfish for more.)  Conversely, most people who are working for nonprofits need to make some money to support their lifestyles.  They need to make something to contribute to their family’s needs and dreams.

Donor Absolution

Certainly, donors contribute to a nonprofit because they believe in them.  They believe that the mission that the nonprofit is on is a worthy one.  However, there’s also a hidden challenge lurking in the shadows of most people’s consciousness.  The challenge is that people don’t believe that they should have so much money or that they’ve made decisions that have unintentionally hurt others.  Donating is at least in some small part a way to pay penance for sins.

The Puritans who started America believed that financial success meant God’s favor and living right.  However, at some level, they also believed that it was sinful to amass worldly goods when they’re supposed to be working for heaven.  This dichotomy has plagued us ever sense.

Tactical Morality

Most people haven’t given deep consideration to their morality.  Certainly, there are works like How Good People Make Tough Choices, The Righteous Mind, Choosing Civility, and Trust Rules that offer a detailed view of morality.  However, most of us don’t consider that there are three different approaches to morality.  Do we care about the results (ends-based, utilitarianism), the rules, or the intent (care)?  (This whole conversation is reminiscent of feeling, meaning, and power perspectives in Dialogue.)

This creates a problem when we’re talking about funding options for nonprofits.  Consider a fundraiser that raises $5 million but costs $3 million to do.  The net – utilitarian – view is $2 million in the coffers of a good cause.  This would seem on the surface to be a good thing.

However, those more concerned with the rules might wonder whether such a “wasteful” approach makes sense when $3 million would do a lot of good.  In the view of Uncharitable, this is not the right way to think about it, since the $2 million wouldn’t be available for good if the $3 million hadn’t been spent on the event.  The cries of efficiency echo.  Instead of looking at the outcomes that can be had with the additional money, we challenge the way it was raised.

Bowling Alone decried the loss of social capital, because instead of investing in relationships in groups, we started paying our dues.  We didn’t look at fundraising based groups the same way that we did the ones we participated in – and that may hold the kernel of our concerns for large scale, but high cost, fundraising.

Hiring a Service for the Poor

In some ways, a donor is hiring a person or service on behalf of those served.  The donor wants to be compassionate and thereby resolve the pains of those who the nonprofit serves.  This view isn’t the common thinking about donations, but it helps to change the conversation from one of efficiency to effectiveness.  There’s an opportunity to negotiate on costs at the start of the donation process.  It’s during this time that the nonprofit can set expectations about what the impact should be.  The donor can make $100,000 available with the expectations that 10,000 people will be reached and supported (or whatever the numbers are).

This changes the conversation to the efficacy.  Did you do what you said you would do – yes or no?

Failure Is Not Accepted

In the long term, it may not be acceptable to fail – but in the short term, are there incentives for bold initiatives that can make a real change?  In most cases, there’s not.  When donating, people want certainty – even if that certainty offers marginal benefits.  A venture capitalist knows that many of the companies that they invest in won’t make it.  They’ll fail.  They’ll break even.  However, there will be the occasional break out success.  The success will earn them 10x or 100x or even 1000x on their investment, and in doing so, they’ll make the whole portfolio of investments work.

However, a similar sentiment doesn’t exist in the nonprofit space.  First, there are fewer investments being made in nonprofits.  It lowers the threshold for risk.  You want to know that your donation made an impact – you don’t want a one in seven chance of making a 10x impact.  It doesn’t make emotional sense.

Investors and Donors

What if we gave investors an opportunity to invest in nonprofits – and to make a return on those investments.  It’s a radical and uncomfortable idea where we’d allow investors to participate in fundraising capital with the idea that they could take some percentage of the outcome from the event.  It feels wrong – but it might make the capital that nonprofits need to be able to get more donations easier to get.

There are many forms of how this investment might happen and the potentially promised returns might be structured.  For many, myself included, it “feels” wrong even if it might be morally right.

In all, that’s the challenge of Uncharitable: how do we get past our simple evaluations of morality and look to the broader good – even if it’s uncomfortable?

The Way It Really Is

In the end analysis, I struggled with the gap between what really is today and where Dan Pallotta would like to see the world.  I do think that we need to have a bold vision for making things better.  I believe in better metrics.  I accept that better marketing means more total dollars and a lower percentage.  I accept that, to get more capital than what donors are willing to provide, we need to find other approaches.  What I don’t see is the path from where we are today to where we want to go.  Uncharitable sets out a bold vision and explains the problems, but it feels short on solutions.  Pallotta claims that his subsequent works address this gap – we’ll see.

Book Review-Healing Developmental Trauma: How Early Trauma Affects Self-Regulation, Self-Image, and the Capacity for Relationship

What does it mean to have our development interrupted by trauma – and what do we do about it now?  These are the questions that Healing Developmental Trauma: How Early Trauma Affects Self-Regulation, Self-Image, and the Capacity for Relationship answers.

If you need a quick introduction to what trauma is before understanding what you can do about it, see The Body Keeps the Score or Transformed by Trauma.

NeuroAffective Relational Model (NARM)

The book is focused on a model called the NeuroAffective Relational Model (NARM).  The model is concerned with how our development may or may not lead to dysregulations, disruptions, and distortions.  These lead to difficulties in living our lives and ultimately reduce our ability to thrive.

The model suggests that we have five biologically-based core needs:

The model further suggests that if these needs aren’t met, they will need to be addressed, because they will create barriers to a fulfilling life.


Our bodies are amazing machines that allow us to achieve wide ranges of self-regulation.  From the mundane regulation of temperature, oxygen status, states of arousal, and the rest to the more complicated regulation of our emotions, we’re wired to achieve stability.  Of course, there are limits.  You can’t keep cool when you’re in intense heat.  However, overall, our systems are widely effective at the process of keeping us in states of homeostasis – relative balance.

When these systems are impaired, we experience it as a barrier.  Commonly, people who have been exposed to trauma have difficulty regulating emotions.  To be clear, as Jonathan Haidt explains in The Happiness Hypothesis, emotions are really in charge.  (See also Switch.)  Our ability to regulate our emotions is just an attempt to understand them and shape our responses.  Haidt’s model of a rational rider on an emotional elephant makes it clear that the elephant always wins when it wants to.

I prefer to position the work of regulating emotions as the perspective of the relationship between the elephant and the rider.  The degree to which our emotions are responsive to the requests and influence of reason can be harmed by early developmental trauma.  While Healing Developmental Trauma describes managing our emotions, I believe that this is too strong of a statement based on what we know about neurobiology.


NARM calls for mindfulness as a technique.  However, as they use it here, mindfulness is a catch-all term for a variety of approaches including more formal meditation techniques.  (See Altered Traits).  One of the specific approaches recommended is Somatic Experiencing (SE).  Somatic Experiencing is an approach developed by Peter Levine.  Healing Development Trauma and the NARM approach pulls key techniques from this work, including grounding, orienting, titration, pendulation, and discharge.  (See In an Unspoken Voice for more.)

Another component that is included in NARM is gestalt, which is a therapeutic approach developed by Fritz Perls, MD.  It’s focused on being aware of the current state – particularly, the current state of the body and what sensations are being felt.  This, too, is a part of the broader family of mindfulness.

Cognitive Distortions

“Cognitive Behavior Therapy (CBT) does not address the nervous system imbalances that drive cognitive distortions.”  It’s a problematic statement for me, because it’s not well supported in the rest of the text, and it’s not precisely true.  CBT does have some aspects of reality grounding in the overall suite of tools.  But the more challenging aspect of the statement is should it?  Cognitive distortions are just a separation of our perception from reality.  Some of these distortions are adaptive.  For instance, we know that depressed people have a more accurate – and negative – view of the world and their capability to impact it than non-depressed individuals.  Thus, non-depressed individuals see the world more positively than they should – but it’s adaptive.  (See How We Know What Isn’t So for more.)

Some cognitive distortions allow people to maximize their capacity for hope and self-agency.  (See The Psychology of Hope for more about hope.)  We shouldn’t limit those cognitive distortions.  We should be concerned about those distortions and those adaptations that are no longer working.

For Another Time

Each of us picks up a series of quirks about the way that we interact with the world.  They are adaptations and accommodations that we make either because a human in our life requires it from us or because the way that we see the world requires us to adjust.  We see this in the stereotypical differences between men and women in the way that they interact.  (See Radical Candor and No Ego for more.)

These adaptations and accommodations can be positive for the time that we adopt them.  It can be that they’re incredibly effective at helping us navigate the world.  However, over time, these may get progressively less effective or even become harmful.  They can begin to limit our growth as adults and our ability to navigate in the world of today.  That’s why we need to be aware of these adaptations and evaluate whether they’re still appropriate.


Sometimes those adaptations deprive children of their childhood.  Chaotic lives and parents who fail to plan sometimes find children creating the structure, organization, and planning that is necessary for the children to get what they need – like food and shelter.  (For some examples, see The Years That Matter Most.)  The problem this causes is that the child doesn’t feel safe allowing others to be themselves and often results in over controlling in their adult lives, because to not do so is too dangerous and scary.


Too frequently, we believe that if we share our entire selves with someone else, they’ll stop loving us – or they’ll leave us.  Too often, we hear about people who believe that others don’t know who they are and wouldn’t like them if they did.  (See How to Be Yourself for more.)  It’s one thing to do that with others – to deny a part of ourselves – but it’s a different thing when we do it to ourselves – hiding or limiting parts of who we are to become acceptable to others and to ourselves.

In No Bad Parts, we learned about the Internal Family Systems model, which explains that we have exiles (parts of ourselves that we deny) and protectors (parts of ourselves that are over expressed to protect us from harm).  In trauma, we find dissociation, which can cause the creation of the exiles and the protectors.

Degrees of Dissociation

In my reviews of The Body Keeps the Score and In an Unspoken Voice, I spoke of dissociation, but Healing Developmental Trauma identifies the gradations of dissociation.  Specifically, they use the analogy of a switch.  Some people dissociate with a dimmer switch, turning up their degree of numbing or muting their experience.  Others have a breaker switch, where they shut everything off completely and often experience the situation as if they’re outside their body.

So, the trick when working with people who have had trauma is to look not just for the complete dissociation but also the self-numbing that may be maladaptive.

Holding Framework

NARM proposes that “emotions are experienced and contained.”  I’d call it a holding space.  (See more in my review for Alone Together.)  A holding space is an environment that is capable of holding the emotion.  The goal is to create a space that is sufficiently safe, calming, and reassuring that the person is able to gradually experience the emotion without becoming overwhelmed.  You can see how I recommend this for small groups in my post, Small Group Safety Rules – Before, During, and After.

The key – as with Peter Levine’s approach in Somatic Experiencing – is to allow people to move into the experience and emotion to the degree that they’re capable of doing it and feeling safe.  (See In an Unspoken Voice for more.)

Unleash the Kraken

For some, the process of creating a holding space and offering a place for them to express their emotion is like asking them to unleash the kraken.  They fear that they’ll never be able to put their emotions back in a box.  They’ve been taught that emotions aren’t safe, and they’re not sure how to dance with experiencing emotions without being overwhelmed.  However, that’s what the holding space is for – to make it safe enough to experience the emotions and to learn that they don’t have to be overwhelming.

If you’re ready to help others – or yourself – work through your trauma and move forward with it in the past, start the process by reading Healing Developmental Trauma.

Book Review-The Basic Laws of Human Stupidity

It’s a short book.  It is perhaps the shortest book that I’ve reviewed.  However, there’s something profound about The Basic Laws of Human Stupidity, which is both hidden from view and inherently true.  We’ve been told not to back a wild animal into a corner, since they have nothing left to lose and will do anything to escape.  So too, should we be concerned about stupid people.

The Matrix

The primary model of the book is a matrix.  The dimensions are self-outcomes and other-outcomes labeled from negative to positive.  This forms four quadrants.  The quadrants are labeled helpless, intelligent, bandit, and stupid.  The helpless create negative self-outcomes, but positive other outcomes.  The intelligent create positive outcomes for everyone.  The bandit creates positive self-outcomes but negative other-outcomes.  The stupid creates negative outcomes for both themselves and others.

This isn’t the typical definition of stupid – but it’s one that works well.  The people who are the most unpredictable – and therefore risky – are those who are willing to apply a “scorched Earth” approach where everyone loses.  Much like the cornered wild animal, you just don’t know what they’ll do.

The Laws

The laws tell us how to navigate a world with stupid people.  They are:

  1. Always and inevitably, everyone underestimates the number of stupid people in circulation.
  2. The probability that a certain person is stupid is independent of any other characteristic of that person.
  3. A stupid person causes losses to another person or group of persons while themselves deriving no gain and possibly incurring losses.
  4. Non-stupid people always underestimate the damaging power of stupid individuals. In particular, non-stupid people constantly forget that, at all times and places and under any circumstances, to deal and/or associate with stupid people infallibly turns out to be a costly mistake.

Impoverished Society

Many people encounter the book and wonder if Carlo Cipolla was serious.  Most come to the conclusion that the work is a serious one intended to highlight a challenge with humanity.  It’s exposing the truth of humanity and sharing a warning, because stupid people are always gumming up the works.

The basic premise of the book is that stupid people are impoverishing society.  By definition, they are reducing the gains for everyone.  By knowing that stupid people are everywhere, we can begin to fight against The Basic Laws of Human Stupidity.

Book Review-Right Kind of Wrong: The Science of Failing Well

It’s hard – if not impossible – to like being wrong.  However, being wrong is sometimes inevitable.  In Right Kind of Wrong: The Science of Failing Well, Amy Edmondson encourages us to fight our urge to hide our failures or berate ourselves for coming up short.  Instead, she encourages us to distinguish between the intelligent failures that help us make progress in new territory and the basic and complex failures that can be wasteful and even destructive – but fortunately are also often preventable.  In her previous work, The Fearless Organization, Edmondson encouraged us to create organizations where people were free to speak up openly about aspects of the work, willing to experiment, and indeed felt able to quickly report failure.  Here, she expands upon the need to understand errors and failures – and what to do with them.


To understand why failure is always a possible outcome, we must first accept a fundamental truth that we’ve all heard before.  To err is human.  Said differently, there’s no way of avoiding human error entirely.  Even those who are disposed to perfectionistic traits cannot be perfect.  (See Perfectionism and The Paradox of Choice for more.)  Once we accept that errors will happen, we are better able to disrupt the relationship between errors and failure.  Far too many failures happen because an error isn’t corrected.  The result of failure can be shame and a lack of learning – or it can result in learning.

Learning opens the opportunity to prevent similar errors in the future and to reduce preventable failures. It has the potential to prevent harm and loss.  At their best, failures are small, meaningful, and instructive.  Failures can be a good thing when they lead to learning and actions that result in better long-term outcomes.

We can learn from all kinds of failures, but what Edmondson calls “intelligent” failures are the only ones that provide genuinely new knowledge that helps advance progress in new territory.

Failure is Not Fatal

I concluded my review of The Fearless Organization with a key observation.  Failure is inevitable if you try.  I explained that I failed all the time.  Years later, as I write this, I’ve got a number of 3D printed part iterations on my desk.  Each one teaches me how not to make something.  They’ll be thrown away soon enough to make room for more parts with different errors.  The beauty of the 3D printer is it allows me to test designs with minimal cost and risk.  I can play with an idea, test it, learn, and move on.  That is the very essence of what Edmondson calls “intelligent failure” – it’s small, the stakes are low, and the learning is real.

Edmondson suggests that we need to be “learning to dance with failure.”  We need to not just embrace failure but also learn how to pursue intelligent failures so that they’re not fatal – nor too costly.  It’s important to take risks and be courageous – but within limits.  (See Find Your Courage for more on courage.)

Failure Types

Not all failures are the same.  There’s a mantra in startups, “Fail fast,” which also exists in agile software development.  However, in both contexts, it misses the important second part: “…to succeed sooner.”  It’s critical, because it’s that piece that matters.  No one needs to fail – we need what failure offers us in the way of learning so as to succeed.

Edmondson proposes that there are three categories of contexts in which failure can occur:

  • Consistent – There is well developed knowledge about how to achieve the desired results. Think recipe.
  • Novel – Creating something new. There is no roadmap or recipe that reliably leads to results.  Think exploration.
  • Variable – Discontinuities where existing knowledge appears consistent or inside a skill set but for which the conditions have changed to make the existing knowledge insufficient. Think COVID-19.

Before I expand on these, I need to acknowledge that these contexts are reminiscent of Dave Snowden’s work on Cynefin.  Though he describes more contexts and liminal areas between them, they echo the same core truth that some things are knowable, and some are not.

For me, the contexts seem like those where I know how to solve the problem and those where I don’t.  Variable contexts are where I mistake one for the other.  It’s a place where I believe I have what I need, and I discover I don’t.

We often fail to realize the limits of our knowledge and the conditions under which something we know works.  In my review of The Cult of Personality Testing, I commented on the narrow bands under which chemical reactions will occur.  Without an awareness of the limitations, we can be surprised when a reaction doesn’t occur.  I find this particularly troubling when we seek to get good feedback.  We’re seeking feedback from others whose experience shapes how they model and simulate (or, more simply, view) the world.  (See Sources of Power and Seeing What Others Don’t for more on modeling.)  However, if our conditions are too far outside their experience, their feedback may be less useful or even harmful.  (More on that in the section Feedback Revisited below.)

Failures in the category of consistent contexts can be intelligent – that is, filled with learning – but only if we use the opportunity to change the system so that it detects and corrects errors before they become failures.  (See Thinking in Systems for how to make changes to systems.)  Appropriate risks in the novel territory often lead to learning.  Failures in the variable space can lead to intelligent failures if we discover the limitations of our knowledge.

Liking to Fail

Edmondson says, “Nobody likes to fail.  Period.”  By default, I agree.  I’ve never met anyone who has volunteered a desire to fail.  No one likes to be wrong.  However, I diverge from her thinking in that I believe one can condition themselves to like failure.  Adam Grant in Think Again shares a story when Daniel Kahneman was in the audience for one of his talks.  Grant was explaining findings that contradicted Kahneman’s beliefs.  Grant says, “His eyes lit up, and a huge grin appeared on his face. ‘That was wonderful,’ he said. ‘I was wrong.’”  While I think that this is far from the standard response, it’s clearly a response that is possible.  This is what Edmondson hopes to make easier for the rest of us mere mortals, who may not yet have developed Kahneman’s wisdom and genuine joy in discovery.

Careful readers will notice my substitution.  Kahneman was happy that he was wrong – not that he had failed.  This is where it gets tricky.  Edmondson defines failure as “an outcome that deviates from desired results.”  If learning is always one of the desired results, then even intelligent failure achieves at least some of the outcomes – thereby invalidating that it’s a failure in the first place.

This elevates us back to the chief purpose being learning.  It’s inherent in Kahneman’s response that he learned something.  While no one likes to fail by default, if you can elevate learning to being the chief purpose, then you can learn to like – or at least better accept – failure.

Barriers to Failing Well: Aversion, Confusion, and Fear

Edmondson explains that failing well is hard because of our aversion to failure, our confusion about what type of failure we’re experiencing, and fear of social stigma and excessive consequences.

While aversion is natural, there are ways to minimize it through reframing failure as opportunities for learning.  Confusion is addressed with clarity around the types of contexts and the type of failures.  Fear often looms largest of all – but it, too, can be addressed.  Not just by using the techniques to shape the amount of risk taken but by better understanding fear.

Focus on Fear

When discussing fear, it’s important to recognize the relationship between stress and fear.  Though often treated as distinct entities, they are the same phenomenon.  We are fearful of something.  If we weren’t, we’d call it anxiety – which is fear without a specific, targeted concern.  With stress, we’ve encountered a stressor, and we’re afraid of the impact we believe is possible or probable.

If we want to reduce fear, we can take what we know about stress and fear to clarify its sources and adjust our cognitive biases.  (See Thinking, Fast and Slow for a primer on cognitive biases.)  Richard Lazarus in Emotion and Adaptation shares a model where stressors are evaluated, and from there we can become stressed.  This is consistent with other researchers, such as Paul Ekman, who separates the startle response from other emotions because it’s unprocessed.  (See Nonverbal Messages and Telling Lies.)  Simply, the model is that we evaluate the potential impacts based on their degree of impact and their probability.  We divide or mitigate this based on our coping resources – both internal and external.  The result is our degree of stress or fear.

Biases exist in all three of these variables.  We often systematically underestimate both our own resources and the resources of others that they’re willing to provide in support.  We often overestimate the degree of impact.  A failed experiment, company, or attempt doesn’t make us a failure.  Hopefully, it means that we’ve learned.  Finally, we often overestimate the probability.

It’s important to acknowledge that failures are common.  The failure rate of businesses in the US in one year are 20%, 2 years 30%, 5 years 48%, and 10 years 65%.  Failure in change projects (and all large projects) is around 70%.  (See Why the 70% Failure Rate of Change Projects is Probably Right for more.)  It’s quite possible that failure is the natural result – but often with percentages that are skewed, we’ll amplify them a bit more.  (See How We Know What Isn’t So for more.)

The net of this is we can have an impact on our degree of fear around failure if we’re willing to delve into what we’re afraid of – and why.

The Relationship Between Effort and Success

In context, Edmondson shares how efforts to reduce errors and success at reducing errors aren’t the same.  The relationship is “imperfect.”  This is true.  Just ask hospitals that are in a constant battle to increase handwashing rates.  No one is startled to find out that handwashing reduces the spread of diseases.  Providers and clinicians working in hospitals are educated people who are aware of how germs work and that handwashing is an effective strategy for preventing their spread.  However, in most organizations, the best we get for sustained handwashing at appropriate times is around 80%.  Decades of research and hundreds of millions of dollars haven’t resulted in a material change in behavior – a behavior that should be natural and automatic.

Similarly, seatbelt use in the United States isn’t 100% (it’s slightly over 90%) despite all the marketing campaigns, laws, and pressure.  Effort alone doesn’t always drive behavior – and it doesn’t drive behavior consistently.  When we’re working on reducing errors, we can’t expect that effort alone is enough.  (See Change or Die for more on the difficulty of changing behaviors.)

Underground Failure

One of the riskiest things in an organization is when the feedback system is broken, and the leaders are deprived of the signals they need to make adjustments.  Like the Titanic in the fog, a lack of visibility can lead to tragic consequences.  Leaders who state unequivocally that failure is off-limits don’t prevent failures.  They prevent hearing about failures.

Antifragile, Nassim Taleb’s book about growing from challenges, explains our need for feedback and the opportunity to make many, compounding, changes to improve.  Deprived of feedback, we must make wild – and therefore riskier – changes.  If we want to create conditions for our probable survival and growth, we need constant feedback.

“A stitch in time saves nine” is a very old saying with a simple meaning.  If you can make the right corrective actions at the right time, you can save a lot of work.  That means knowing about errors, mistakes, and failures quickly so you can address them – not when they’re so large they can no longer be hidden.

Intelligent Failure

Edmondson qualifies a failure as intelligent if it has four key attributes:

  • It takes place in new territory.
  • The context presents a credible opportunity to advance toward a desired goal (whether that be scientific discovery or a new friendship).
  • It is informed by available knowledge (one might say “hypothesis driven”).
  • The failure is as small as it can be to still provide valuable insights.

Here, I have a slightly different view.  While Edmondson describes a set of conditions, I think the emphasis should be on results (as I implied earlier).  I believe a failure is intelligent if:

  • There is the possibility of real learning.
  • It informs future work or results.

The shift is subtle but important.  I allow for stupid errors in consistent contexts – as long as it is used to change the system so that the errors are less frequent.  Consider the fate of TWA Flight 800 on July 17, 1996.  It was a routine flight.  It used a standard Boeing 747-100 with an excellent safety record.  It was a well-established route.  There is no doubt that the failure was tragic.  However, the resulting investigation focused on the probability of a main fuel tank fuel-air mixture being ignited, triggering a fuel-air explosion.  The results of this tragedy – and the learning – are more frequent inspections of fuel tanks, revised anti-spark wiring, and injection of inert gas (nitrogen) into empty or partially empty fuel tanks.

While Edmondson’s categories are useful for designing situations that allow for failure to be intelligent, they disqualify the opportunity to convert an unplanned failure in a routine operation to something from which good can come.

Designing Failures

No one would ever want to design their failures – or would they?  Entrepreneur literally means “bearer of risk.”  Edmondson is encouraging us to fail in the right way – a way that encourages learning.  It’s designing experiments that are most likely to result in learning – and in ways that aren’t overly impactful.  In short, failure is okay, but if you expect that it’s going to happen, you should consider that, in your trials, failure is an option you can live with.

Persistence and Stubbornness

Move too quickly to accept failure, and you’ll be told that you don’t have enough Grit (Angela Duckworth’s term that encompasses persistence).  Linger too long, and you’ll be told that you’re too stubborn to accept what the market has been telling you.  Finding the balance between the two is perhaps the most difficult thing that we must navigate.

Edmondson shares the story of the Eli Lilly drug, Alimta.  It failed Phase III trials.  It could have ended there except for the physician that noticed in the patients for whom the drug was ineffective there was also a folic acid deficiency.  When the renewed trial was done with folic acid supplements for those with the deficiency, efficacy was established.  In this case, the dogged pursuit of the goal of getting the drug to market worked– but that isn’t always the case.

Jim Collins in Good to Great describes the Stockdale paradox – of knowing when to stick to your guns and when to listen to the market.  Adam Grant leads us over this familiar ground in Think Again and Originals.  Robert Stevenson addresses it in Raise Your Line.  It’s a challenge for Irving Janis and Leon Mann in Decision Making.  The conceptual challenge surfaces repeatedly in dozens of books and contexts.  Knowing when to accept failure and walk away – and when to persist – is a central challenge for all of us.

Feedback Revisited

Getting quality feedback is perhaps the most challenging aspect of life.  Learning when to listen and when to say thank you and move on is a puzzle for the ages.  In The Power of Habit, Charles Duhigg explains how Febreze was blown off track by bad feedback.  The truth is that feedback can fall into a few basic categories:

  • No Feedback – This vacuum makes one wonder if anyone is listening.
  • Good Feedback – Specific, actionable, experience, data based, and validated.
  • Bad Feedback – Unclear, unvalidated, or with limited experience, this kind of feedback leads you away from your goals without being malicious.

Unfortunately, the norm for the world today isn’t good feedback.  It’s either no feedback or bad feedback.  Most people provide no feedback – even when asked – and those who do often fail to recognize the limits of their experience and whether the feedback could be useful.

When we ask for feedback, we’re often not asking for clear enough feedback to be actionable.  Even in training, we default to satisfaction or sentiment instead of whether we changed behavior.  (See Kirkpatrick’s Four Levels of Training Evaluation.)  Similarly, when we’re looking for feedback on our failure, we fail to create safety and do after-action reviews that lead to real insights and learning about what happened.  (See Collaborative Intelligence for more.)


Feedback leaves both the person giving and the person receiving vulnerable.  The sender of the feedback is always worried about how the receiver will react.  We’ve all been exposed to people who want feedback only to be shunned or attacked when the feedback is given.  We’re naturally wary of giving it.

I was walking with a friend and her co-presenter after they gave a talk at a national conference.  My friend said, “I’d love your feedback.”  The friend I knew I could be honest with – but the co-presenter, I wasn’t so sure.  I asked for clarification about what feedback they wanted as a way of ensuring I could speak into the specific area of consideration.  They wanted feedback on a scenario they had demonstrated on stage, where my friend was a difficult person.  The co-presenter had responded (admittedly) harshly in the scenario.  I explained that I always start soft and move to harshness if required.  That was the end of the conversation and an uncomfortable walk followed as we walked the rest of the way to the co-presenter’s book signing.

Here’s the funny part.  Objectively, the co-presenter agreed.  That didn’t stop her from having her feelings hurt.  Given the situation, she didn’t lash out – but we’ve all seen that happen even when we’ve given good feedback.

The receiver is, of course, more obvious.  Opening up to feedback leaves us vulnerable to whatever they want to say.  They can use it as an opportunity for personal attack, or they can be gentle in their nudge towards better results, and we sincerely don’t know which with most people.

Vulnerability has a curious property – one that goes hidden for most.  Those people who are the least vulnerable as people are the most likely to make gestures to become vulnerable.  Said differently, the person most likely to take an investment risk is the person for whom a loss of the investment doesn’t matter.  The more secure someone is in who they are, the more likely they are to invite others to provide feedback, to put themselves in appropriately vulnerable situations, and to allow their real self to be seen.

Perhaps that’s why we take people who are openly vulnerable as a source of power and strength.  It’s paradoxical that those who appear the most vulnerable are those who are the least likely to be harmed – but when you recognize that it’s those people who make themselves appropriately vulnerable, the pieces can fall into place.


In a world of probabilities and no single cause, accusation, blame, and criticism make little sense.  We live in a world of probabilities where no one thing is solely responsible for an outcome.  (See The Halo Effect.)  We want this.  We want the simplicity of attributing a failure to a bad actor or a bad behavior.  However, the truth is much more complicated.

The quality movement started by Edward Deming was constantly seeking root causes.  Root cause analysis is a part of many cultures – even very good, high performing cultures.  The problem is that, at its core, it’s flawed.  One could easily cite the O-rings on the Space Shuttle Challenger as the root cause of the tragedy.  However, that’s only one of hundreds of technical design issues that led to its destruction.  Different choices for propulsion, the shape of the booster rocket, and innumerable other things all played a factor – as did the weather on that fateful day.  The decision to launch in the unusually cold Florida weather played a factor, as did the failure to listen to the engineers who warned the teams of a potential problem.

Blame, of course, lands on people.  It’s not the O-ring that’s to blame.  It’s the manager who failed to delay the launch when concerns were raised.  The Tacoma Narrows bridge failed because the decking wasn’t attached well enough to cope with unexpected aerodynamic forces.  The engineer is to blame for not planning for those forces.  He got off better than the engineers from the Hyatt Regency walkway collapse in Kansas City.  The engineer, Jack Gillum, accepted the blame for the failure.  However, the truth of the situation was that a change had been made after his original designs – one that he hadn’t recognized the true impact of until after the disaster.

The process of design change reviews and the urgency of the project factored into the failure.  Gillum accepted responsibility but there’s more to learning than just that someone made a mistake.  It’s something that Gillum has spent the rest of his life working on.  How do we find and correct errors so that we can fail with fewer consequences and better learning?  We need to fight the urge to attribute everything in a failure to a single factor – or person – and instead focus on extracting the maximum learning from every failure.

Accepting responsibility for a failure is different than someone assigning blame.  We find the Right Kind of Wrong when we’re willing to learn – but not blame.

Book Review-How Not to Kill Yourself: A Portrait of the Suicidal Mind

“I believe for a vast majority of people, suicide is a bad choice.”  It’s not the first highlight in the book, but it’s close.  In How Not to Kill Yourself: A Portrait of the Suicidal Mind, Chancy Martin exposes his thinking after a lifetime of suicidal thoughts and attempts.  He shares the losses and poor choices that led to his extreme suicidal thoughts and his rationale.  This isn’t the first book I’ve read written from the perspective of a suicidal person attempting to illuminate the mental machinery of the chronically suicidal, but it is perhaps the most direct and raw.

The World as It Is, Not as I Would Have It

Most people stop the serenity prayer before its conclusion.  They recognize, “God give me the courage to change the things I can, the serenity to accept the things I can’t, and the wisdom to know the difference.”  It continues, “…taking the world as it is, not as I would have it.”  It’s a constant source of challenge for humans, whether addict or not.  We all want the world to be the way we want it – not the way that it is really.  It’s easier when the world conforms to our beliefs and expectations than when we need to shift our expectations and behaviors because of the world.

We’re eager to ascribe a reality on the world when it’s just our perception.  We assume that our friend overdosed rather than died by suicide.  We would prefer to believe that our friend got distracted rather than ghosting us.  It’s easier to take our predictions and believe they are reality.

The End of Unhappiness

It’s not a novel idea that people consider suicide to eliminate the pain in their lives.  Shneidman called it “psychache.”  (See The Suicidal Mind.)  However, the degree to which this desire to end unhappiness drives not just the suicide attempt but also suicidal thinking cannot be overstated.  When we’re in intense pain of any kind, our natural response is to end the pain.  Since emotional and physical pain are almost indistinguishable to the body, there’s no limit to the approaches we may try to eliminate the pain.

Survivors often ponder whether the person who has died by suicide thought of them or what the loss would mean to those who remained.  The short answer is no.  The longer answer is complicated.  In the long answer, they thought about those they’d leave behind, but it happens in a way that is not nearly as important as the need to end the pain.

Psychological pain is different.  It’s hard to quantify and hard to understand when others seem to have everything going well.  It’s hard to understand how the longings of their heart cannot be quieted or how they blame themselves for something they’ve done or the current state of their life.  These pains are often hidden from the view of others.

Emotional Pressure Vessels

For some people and some families, emotions aren’t safe.  Somewhere in their history, they’ve learned that emotions aren’t to be trusted.  If you expose anger to the light of day, it may lash out and harm others.  If you express fear, sorrow, or longing, you may infect others and the infection may consume them.  Like a Chinese finger trap, the inability to deal with emotions becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.  There’s no opportunity to learn how to have healthy responses to emotions, because it’s not possible to experience or share them.  (See Descartes’ Error for more.)

Over time, we know that the pressure of not having emotions builds, and it can do severe damage to psyches and relationships when emotions finally force their way to the surface.  Invariably, when emotions are contained, they’ll find their way out.

In the world of suicide, we realize that unresolved, unexpressed, and unmanaged emotions can be the source of suicidal impulses.  Like the proverbial white bear that can’t be considered, so to do the things that we deny get bigger.  (See White Bears and Other Unwanted Thoughts for more.)


Many are quick to describe suicidal thoughts as irrational or the result of mental illness.  However, as Dan Ariely explains in Predictably Irrational, we’re all, well, predictably irrational.  This, however, isn’t always a bad thing.  Martin explains how he was afraid of a gun and not afraid of death.  It might be more accurate to say that he had a different fear relationship with death than most.  (See The Denial of Death and The Worm at the Core for more about the fear of death.)  No matter what his fear of death, he explains that he was afraid of his gun.  This seeming contradiction makes sense when you evaluate the fear of guns as a tool for violence separately from death.

Shifting the Hand of Fate

To this point, I’ve written as if Martin’s perspective was one of always wanting to die, always wanting to silence the voices of unhappiness, but that’s not fair.  Like everyone, Martin struggled with a desire to live and a desire to die.  It’s ambivalence, not knowing whether it is better to live or to die.  (See The Suicidal Mind for more on ambivalence in suicide.)  It’s quite possible, as Martin asserts from his own experience, that the person doesn’t know for sure whether they want to die or not.  It can be that there is no clear winner in the battle to live or die.

One way to bias towards death without overtly making a suicide attempt is to make risky decisions.  Risky choices can be thrill-seeking rather than a wish to die.  It’s more socially acceptable to die in an accident than to die by suicide.  (See The Rise of Superman for many deaths that were connected to risky behaviors.)

Consider for a moment an automobile accident where a car runs off the road and strikes a tree.  Was the person asleep at the wheel and drifted into the tree – or was the turn towards the tree intentional?  We cannot know.  Was it carelessness and risk-taking to drive while extremely sleep deprived?  Was this, as Menninger describes, “suicide by degrees?”  (See Clues to Suicide for more.)

One way to bypass internal prohibitions about suicide is to set up situations where death is a possibility rather than to directly make an attempt.  Who would be the wiser?

How to Speak with a Suicidal Person

Martin embeds clues to how to speak with a suicidal person.  He shares the widely held belief that you should be direct, specific, and fearless.  There’s absolutely something to be said for fearlessly asking whether someone is considering suicide.  There’s more to be said for the person who listens and hears yes but doesn’t run away.  It’s scary for everyone.  You don’t want to be responsible for someone else’s death, and even though you wouldn’t be, it doesn’t make the fear go away.

Martin is right that it’s the secrecy of the thoughts that provide the energy, and simply holding space for the thoughts can move towards resolving them.  What’s harder to see is that you shouldn’t directly try to contradict their perceptions that lead to the desire.  If they say that they feel unloved, you cannot tell them they’re wrong, you need to invite them to discover the cognitive constriction of their thinking.  (See Capture for more on cognitive constriction.)

The tools in Motivational Interviewing are particularly useful here.  Rather than trying to convince them they’re wrong, you can and should ask them for evidence supporting their conclusion – and for the evidence that contradicts their conclusions.  The process itself unwinds the thinking that leads to poor conclusions.

Heritage and Legacy

Martin shares some of this family history of mental illness and violence not as a way to justify his struggles but for further context.  These stories are startling because of their raw nature.  I’m not sure how I could respond to learning that my mother was the woman with whom my father was dancing at prom after he had tried to kill his own mother just hours before.

We all have a heritage we’ve inherited from our ancestors, for better and for worse.  The question is always what legacy we leave for others.  Perhaps Martin’s legacy is teaching people How Not to Kill Yourself when you want to.

Book Review-The Four-Fold Way: Walking the Paths of the Warrior, Teacher, Healer, and Visionary

I’m blessed by a wide variety of people in my life.  Their experiences and perspectives are so different and rich.  One of those whose path has intersected with mine responded to my question about books about facilitation with The Four-Fold Way: Walking the Paths of the Warrior, Teacher, Healer, and Visionary.  In retrospect, it may have been a way for her to get me to read something that was important to her experience – even though it’s at best tangentially related to the question I raised.  That being said, it is a good way of connecting with ancient wisdom about the various roles that people can and do take.

New World Order

For the most part, we believe in a new world order.  We turn from the historic beliefs that people belonged to the land to one where we consider that humans own the land.  In doing so, we’ve lost some connectedness to where we are and where we come from.  Robert Putnum in Bowling Alone explains our loss of relationships with others, and Sherry Turkle explains the loss of connection to reality in Alone Together.  This isn’t the complete story though.  It misses our connection to nature and the broader world around us.

As I write this, I’ve stepped out of our office, which is designed to be connected to nature with natural light, plants, and a decidedly outdoor feel, into the sanctuary of the back yard.  Surrounded by plants and trees, I get some sense for nature buzzing around me.

The Four Ways

Angeles Arrien’s research led her to believe that there were four ways of proceeding in all shamanic traditions.  They are:

  • Warrior – Shows up and is present.
  • Healer – Pays attention to heart and meaning.
  • Visionary – Speaks the truth without blame or judgement.
  • Teacher – Open to the outcomes, not attached to them.

The Way of the Warrior

Warriors are disciplined.  They continue even when it’s hard.  (See Grit.)  They use their power in ways that are right.  This can be the approach of Servant Leadership in serving others, and it can be in finding ways to hold fast to critical ideas while letting others go as in Heroic Leadership.

By showing up, being present, getting back up again, and continuing to try, warriors share their original medicine – that is, the uniqueness that they bring to the world for the benefit of the world.  Warriors at their best are leaders who are rooted in knowing who they are and flexible enough to adapt to the world around them.

Warriors share their power in three key ways.  First, their presence is a power.  I can remember the effect of sitting among Cub Scouts.  I said nothing.  I did nothing.  However, it changed the dynamics.  Second, communication is a powerful force.  Rhetoric has been a powerful tool that leaders have used to engage their followers.  Powerful speeches can bring about change.  Third, position can signal to others what is important to the warrior.

Presence is more than just physical presence.  Sharing mental, emotional, and spiritual space with someone can be an empowering experience for them.  Our innate human desire is to be heard and understood.  Our physical presence signals this – but not as strongly as clearly being in the same mental, emotional, and spiritual space.

The Way of the Healer

There is rest built into every heartbeat.  Every song is composed of notes and spaces.  The way of the healer is a journey towards wholeness that includes everything in life, including both activity and rest.  The primary tool of the healer is love.

The framing of love is in the context of the people involved in the relationship, including familial, community, and romantic interests – as well as self-love.  Love is a catch-all for many different experiences.  The Greek have three words for what we call love: philos, eros, and agape.  (See The Four Loves.)  Anatomy of Love goes into a longer discussion of pair-bonding and love-based relationships.  More broadly, the concept of compassion is global, or agape, love and has been the subject of much philosophizing as people tried to understand how cooperation and collaboration came about.  (See SuperCooperators for more.)

Sometimes, we learn about the love that we have for one another through the study of our companions.  How Dogs Love Us walks through how our brains process love – and how man’s best friend may have similar and different structures.

The Way of the Visionary

The world that we live in today is louder and more random than at any time in history.  We’re faced with an overwhelming amount of information, much of which we’d define as noise.  (See Noise.)  However, even in previous times, there was value in those who could make it easier to see and focus on the important, and that’s the role of the visionary.  They take what has been hidden and make it visible to everyone by focusing attention and clarity.

Sometimes, the vision of the visionary comes from an internal intuition – a sense for how things work.  (See Source of Power for more.)  Sometimes, it comes from a keen sense of perception – the ability to see into the shadows where others can’t see.  Other times, it’s seeing how the pieces fit together behind the scenes and, critically, what that means to everyone.  Finally, sometimes, it’s simply generated from what the visionary knows is possible.

The Way of the Teacher

The visionary focuses us on one aspect of reality, and the teacher reminds us to be open to what may come our way in the universe.  While in the Western world, we often consider disengagement as something bad, rarely do we find the value in detachment – being detached from outcomes.  Doing what you can do and not getting wrapped up in whether the results come or not can be immensely freeing.

While detachment is an easy concept, it’s hard to live.  When confronted with failure and loss, it can be hard to keep going.  One of the ways that shamanic cultures have learned to deal with this is through the introduction of rituals.  Rituals provide strong signals of before and after and thereby help us make sense of our loss.  (See The Rites of Passage for more.)

I Contain Multitudes

Walt Whitman famously said, “I am large, I contain multitudes.”  (“Song of Myself” 51.)  Each of us has some part of the four ways in us.  It’s up to us to find a path that winds through The Four-Fold Way.

Book Review-Terror, Love, and Brainwashing: Attachment in Cults and Totalitarian Systems

I don’t think about it as my cult experience.  I don’t process the interaction with Scientology as a near-miss with a cult.  However, Terror, Love, and Brainwashing: Attachment in Cults and Totalitarian Systems helps me to realize how close I really was.  (See my review of The Paradox of Choice for more on this interaction.)  I learned more about the recruiting methods, the progressive disconnect from reality, and the isolation that occurs as a part of a cult.

The Reason

It’s an appropriate question to wonder what prompted my interest.  The interest is tangential.  I recognize that cults must create environments where beliefs aren’t questioned.  In a cult, the leader’s word is the truth – whether it’s connected to reality or not.  The problem I’m trying to solve is how to get people to question their beliefs.  We live in a world of divisiveness.  (See Going to Extremes for more.)  We’re living in a world where people are no longer interested in social capital (see Bowling Alone and Our Kids).  People don’t want to work through and resolve issues with others.  (See Why Are We Yelling?)  Families are ripped apart because of disagreements and misunderstanding.  (See Fault Lines.)

The key question is how do we get people to question their beliefs?  Thomas Gilovich in How We Know What Isn’t So explains that people ask the question “can I believe?” when they agree and “must I believe?” when they disagree – and the second is a much higher standard.  How do we get people to question their beliefs?  Famously, the Wason Selection Task asks people to test how their beliefs might fail – and only 10% of people will do it.  (See The Black Swan, The Righteous Mind, and The ABCs of How We Learn for more.)

While Terror, Love, and Brainwashing doesn’t have an immediate answer, it provides more context and insight.

Built on Attachment

The system that drives the unwavering support of a leader is based on the psychological concept of attachment.  Bowlby first described attachment styles, and his work was later extended by others, including his student, Mary Ainsworth.  (See The Secret Lives of Adults, Words Can Change Your Brain, How People Learn, and The Satir Model for more about the work.)  Fundamental to the operating of the cult is not that people have a disordered attachment style to start but rather that the cult leader can induce a new attachment style.  Since attachment styles aren’t fixed and can be changed even in adults, it’s possible to take someone from a healthy attachment style to something disordered.

The disordered attachment style is one of conflict.  The person to whom a person is attached is both a source of comfort and connection as well as someone who induces fear.  This creates a tendency for both moving towards and away from them.  The result is a fundamental basis of fear and power that keep followers in an anxious and disoriented state making them susceptible to control.


Normal, healthy adults will naturally move away from a disordered state if presented with healthy models of attachment.  In fact, this restructuring of attachment styles is a part of twelve-step groups.  (See Why and How 12-Step Groups Work for more.)  Attendees at a twelve-step group are offered a community – other attachments – which can be used to reorder their attachment style.  This natural recovery process is intentionally subverted in cults.  As a result, the experience of being in a cult is one of loneliness rather than community.  (See Loneliness for more on loneliness.)

The isolation process from the outside world is rather obvious.  It means reducing – or eliminating – contact with families and friends who aren’t a part of the cult.  Internally, the mechanisms are a bit more challenging to explain.


In twelve-step groups, they say, “You’re only as sick as your secrets.”  In cults, the idea of secrecy is cultivated.  Just as a predatory human tells their prey not to tell anyone about their acts, groups make you suspicious of everyone and everything.  Arranged marriages reduce the bond of the marital union and pit one spouse against the other when it comes to challenging the word of the leader.  Both may struggle with something, but they fear talking about it because they’ll be turned in – by their spouse.

Alternate Relationships

A part of the exploitation can sometimes be termination of normal spousal relationships all together – or just that they’re controlled by the cult.  Certainly, I can accept that there are many approaches to sexuality that humanity has used over the course of history.  (See Anatomy of Love.)  However, the cult leader moves people into polygamy, promiscuity, and even pedophilia as a part of controlling the relationships in ways that prevent them from forming strong bonds.  By preventing strong bonds from forming, they can prevent the natural reorganization of attachment styles and simultaneously prevent alternate power bases from forming.

In the larger context of both internal and external relationships, it helps to believe that the leader controls them – and that you have no right to your own relationships because relationships are dangerous.

Fright Without Solution

One of the powerful motivators is creating a sense of fright without a solution.  When the group is locked in a virtuous struggle with the rest of the world, to lose means the destruction of the world as the followers understand it.  This creates a bonding force for the group and a fear that the world as they know it is in jeopardy.

We know from watching suicide rates that people become more involved and engaged in a group in times of crisis.  Consider how suicide rates went down after 9/11 or how rates decrease during world wars.  (See Assessment and Prediction of Suicide.)  If you want to drive group consistency, fear is a way to do it.

One might believe that the leader would be attached to these feelings of fear, but a righteous cause leads followers to believe that their fears are because of the outside world or even to events in their past that set them on the wrong road.

Voices in My Head

In a state of fear, the idea that the voices would become silent is a gift.  Much like those who die by suicide do so to silence their inner critic, those in cults treat the silence of their inner critic as tacit approval.  (See Stealing Fire for more on the inner critic, The Suicidal Mind for suicide as a method of silencing.)  However, the reason for the silence may not be approval at all but rather a complete shutdown of cognitive processing and decision making.  That’s okay, the followers are told, the cult will make their decisions for them.

Shutting down cognitive processing isn’t particularly easy – but it can be accomplished.  If you overload processing centers like the orbitofrontal cortex and prefrontal cortex, you’re left with someone who can’t tell right from wrong and doesn’t know how to process their intuitive sense for things.  (Bandura explains the processes in non-neurological terms in Moral Disengagement.)  Asch accomplished this in a test of line lengths.  By presenting people with confederates (actors) giving the wrong answer, he convinced people that two unequal lines were actually equal.  (See Unthink for more on Asch.)

Torrent of Misinformation

Today’s world is a torrent of misinformation.  It’s not just controversial leaders who are spewing misinformation.  Many of the “news” outlets report in a biased way that their journalism professors at universities would be appalled by.  Instead of reporting in a balanced way with research, the press, to hit a deadline, causes too many people – with and without journalism degrees – to take shortcuts.  The downstream impacts are a reduced trust in the news, people, and society.  However, this torrent of information – both internal and external to the group – gets us to information overload.  (See The Information Diet.)

Not only do we face this with people who are brainwashed as a part of their cult experience, but we also see this in the general population as we struggle to understand what is true and correct – and what is just noise.  (See also Noise.)

If you want to understand cults, maybe it’s time to get a better understanding of the Terror, Love, and Brainwashing.

Book Review-Trauma and Memory: Brain and Body in Search for the Living Past

There’s a complex relationship between Trauma and Memory: Brain and Body in Search for the Living Past.  This is in no small part because traumatic memory isn’t in the past – it’s a part of the current reality of those who have been traumatized.  It’s also in part because traumatic memories are different than our regular, explicit memories.  Trauma and Memory is by Peter Levine – the same one who wrote In an Unspoken Voice.  In fact, he mentions he’ll be focusing on this work immediately after that one.

I won’t go into what trauma is here; you can see Peter’s other work or Transformed by Trauma for a basic understanding of trauma.

Traumatic Memory is Memorex

In my review of Mistakes Were Made (But Not by Me), I included a heading that explained that memory isn’t Memorex – that is, identical to the original event.  That’s true of our explicit memories – those that have been processed.  However, unprocessed memories, those of a traumatic nature, are in fact immutable, exact copies of the experience of the moment.  They’ve not been processed through Broca’s area of the brain to be made explicit and are therefore somehow immune to the natural shift that happens as we recall memories.

Memory Formation

The actual formation of long-term memory is a complicated process.  It can be disrupted in several ways.  First, most memory consolidation and conversion happen during sleep.  If we interrupt sleep at the wrong moment, we can effectively prevent learning.  (See How We Learn for more.)  We can also disrupt learning by creating an event that is too emotionally charged.  This creates a situation where critical portions of the brain are not active when they should be, presumably due to overactivity in other areas.  Broca’s area is commonly thought of as the linguistic processing portion of the brain, but that’s not the complete story.  Broca’s area is responsible for syntax – in other words, ordering and orienting – and appears to play a key role in conversion of physical sensations into meaningful explicit memories.

To understand the mechanics that cause areas of the brain to reduce activity, it’s important to recognize that there’s a maximal rate of glucose (power) transfer across the blood-brain barrier.  When we engage our brains most fully, we necessarily create a power deficit, and the brain responds by taking components offline.  (See The Rise of Superman for more.)

As I mentioned briefly in my review of The Body Keeps the Score, traumatic memories overload the emotional centers of the brain, and this causes the breakdown of the conversion process.  The problem is that the brain will continue to attempt to reprocess these memories repeatedly until it finds an acceptable way of integrating them.

To Predict

Inside Jokes proposes that the primary function of consciousness is prediction.  To perform its function, it processes input and uses it to create models that are then used to predict future events.  Gary Klein in Sources of Power shares his experience with fire captains who couldn’t articulate the way they were making decisions.  The theories at the time were along the lines of Decision Making, where decisions are made slowly, thoughtfully, and sequentially.  What he observed was that fire captains weren’t doing this – and they couldn’t articulate how they were making their decisions.  (See also Seeing What Others Don’t for Klein’s work in this area.)  The discovery was that they were building models of how the fires work, including all the variables necessary to predict the source of the fire and the factors feeding its growth – or inhibiting its growth.  They built this model by integrating their experiences from hundreds of other fires.

Because these models are so important to navigating the world, our brains will continue to try to make sense of – process – experiences until they complete their work of integration.  This means that unprocessed traumatic memories will intrude into daily life.

Memory Types

Before continuing, it’s important to note that there are different kinds of memories.  They are:

  • Explicit
    • Declarative
    • Episodic/Autobiographical
  • Implicit
    • Emotional
    • Procedural
      • Learned Motor Actions
      • Emergency Response
      • Response Tendencies: Approach/Avoidance

The knowledge management discipline sees these slightly differently but does acknowledge the array of memory types.  (See Lost Knowledge for more.)


We use our explicit episodic memories to help us orient in time and space.  We use them to help us understand where we are and where we’ve been.  However, this requires the conversion into explicit memory, which is missing for traumatic memories.  As a result, traumatic memories are quite literally experienced as if they’re happening in the present moment.  Our brains cannot tell the difference between a traumatic memory and currently occurring facts.  It’s no wonder that people with traumatic memories feel overwhelmed and unsafe – because, to their brains, they are.

Erasing Memories

It’s the subject of science fiction, but too few people realize that it is a scientific fact.  The study was testing what would happen if a key protein needed for memory retrieval was blocked at the time of memory recall.  Mice were trained with classic conditioning to fear a sound.  The protein inhibitor was injected, and the sound was played.  They, predictably, didn’t experience fear.  The memory was blocked.

However, the spooky result was that they no longer feared the sound even after the protein inhibitor had worn off.  Somehow, accessing the memory at a time when the protein to allow for retrieval wasn’t available had caused them to unlearn the behavior – permanently.


It’s not clear the total implications of this; some researchers and clinicians have observed children exposed to trauma in their preverbal time to repeat or reenact the traumas they experienced even without conscious knowledge of the trauma.  Even mice taught to run a maze seem to pass along that memory of the maze – at some level – to offspring, as was demonstrated with a creative experiment where mice were taught a maze in Australia and then offspring were presented with the same maze (pattern) in New York.  The offspring were statistically faster than they should have been at solving the maze.  The same thing happened when the pattern was reversed – it wasn’t just the city that made them faster.

This was further validated experimentally by using a cherry scent to precede a shock.  Great-great grandchildren of the original mice in the experiment had a stress reaction to the scent – even though they had not themselves been exposed to the scent or the training.

For all the things that we know about Trauma and Memory, we don’t know enough yet.

Automatic Redirection of Email to an External Domain

There are documented reasons why sending an email message to one email address would be redirected to another.  These are all mail-flow related to the recipient of the message.  If Bert sets up a forwarding rule to Ernie, then Ernie will get Bert’s mail.  Similarly, there are mail-flow settings for administrators that forward all mail from one mailbox to another.  However, this isn’t the only way that mail can get redirected.  First, we need to understand external records in your Azure Active Directory.

External Users

If you invite external users to your SharePoint or OneDrive resources, a user record will be created in your Azure Active Directory (Microsoft Entra ID).  This record will have the at sign (@) in the name replaced with an underscore and will be suffixed with #EXT#@primarytenantdomain.

So, for the domain, [email protected] becomes

Thus, there is a record when Exchange goes to look up [email protected].  It does this without notification.  When that record has an email property set, the email will be redirected.  So, for instance, if you set the email address to [email protected], the messages sent to [email protected] will be transparently redirected to [email protected]

Only One

The confusing bit is, because this is configured in the sender’s domain, it’s hard to track down why one particular sender tenant/domain is redirecting messages.  However, take a look at what happens if you run a message trace:

Note that the resolve happens prior to the message being sent to the target.  It’s all because of the Email setting in the user record:

If you find mail is getting delivered to the wrong place – it’s worth checking the user’s record in Entra ID.

Book Review-Designing Dynamic Organizations

I never got to meet Jay Galbraith.  His first work was published just months after my birth.  However, Galbraith’s perspectives on organizations and change have reverberated over the years, and I finally got a chance to read some of his later work – Designing Dynamic Organizations.  Galbraith published many works over the years, nearly all about creating structures for organizations that would perform and adapt.

The Model

The primary contribution to the literature was the introduction of a five-part “star” model:

In Designing Dynamic Organizations, Galbraith and his co-authors walk through steps designed to create clarity around each of these components of the model.  The model starts with a strategy – and then the other four components of the model, which have no specific order, have an interconnected nature that means they’re likely to be worked simultaneously.


The starting point for an organization and for a change effort is to develop the strategy.  What is it that you believe will work to propel the organization forward?  Often, approaches like SWOT and PESTLE are used to do this current state analysis.  (See our SWOT and PESTLE resource book for more on how to do this current state analysis.)

In Galbraith’s perspective, the other part is about clarifying limits and assumptions.  This is the same process that Immunity to Change seeks to unlock.  By clarifying what is in the way of changes and success you’re better able to define a strategy that will work.


An organization has a set of resources to deploy, and structure is the question about how to best deploy them.  Over the years, many have tried to define a single structure that is best for every organization.  Edith Penrose outlined a complete approach in The Theory of the Growth of the Firm.  Contemporary theorists, like Frederic LaLoux in Reinventing Organizations, challenge even the concept of structure as Galbraith considers it in his model.  Gareth Morgan exposes multiple ways of looking at the structure problem in Images of Organization by examining different ways of thinking of organizations.  The Heretic’s Guide to Management questions whether the structure is as meaningful as everyone assumes.

Ultimately, structure starts with the dimension across which you’ll primarily organize.  Are you organizing sales by geography or by product lines?  Historically, we saw many geographical organizations, but with better travel and virtual options for meetings, there’s a shift towards more product focused organizations.

Processes and Lateral Capability

Here, Galbraith is focused on how the organization works around the structure that’s put in place.  Some of it is the way that teams are formed.  Richard Hackman and Greg Oldham wrote Work Redesign to directly address the gyrations necessary to create more effective processes.  (See also Collaborative Intelligence for more on Hackman’s thoughts about effective teams.)  More than that, Galbraith is talking about fostering communities in the organization.  (See Digital Habitats for examples.)  Organizations aren’t made up of the official structure alone.  Instead, they’re the network of connections that are started by the structure and enhanced by the internal spirit of collaboration and working spaces.

Reward Systems

Recognizing people appropriately is a complex struggle for every organization.  It starts with the challenge of intrinsic motivation and the real possibility of explicit rewards disrupting that motivation.  (See Why We Do What We Do for more.)  Motivating employees is more than just money.  (See 365 Ways to Motivate and Reward Your Employees with Little or No Money.)  Influencing others – building reward systems to systemically influence them – has a good deal of research, since it’s such a challenging and important task for organizations.  For instance, The Titleless Leader, Influence, Pre-Suasion, Influence Without Authority, and 42 Rules of Employee Engagement all provide clues to reward approaches that are effective.

However, the question about who you should reward is often overlooked.  The unfortunate reality is that most organizations don’t know what metrics would be appropriate their employees – and what values the metrics should have to indicate the need for recognition and reward.  (See our Metrics & Indicators resource book for more on setting the right metrics and targets.)


Organizations move forward because of the people they attract, screen, motivate, and retain.  These processes aren’t necessarily easy, but there are things that you can do to improve the people in the organization – and therefore what you’re capable of.

Greater attention is being paid to brand awareness – not just from the customer perspective but also because it impacts the degree to which people will want to work with an organization.  Building a strong brand is a cornerstone of attracting the right talent.

Screening the applicants is a process.  It’s a system that starts with a pool of applicants and ends with hiring one or more of those people for the available roles.  (See Who for more on this process.)  One of the key capabilities of people in today’s world is their ability and desire to learn, because it’s almost impossible to identify all the skills that an employee will need to be successful in today’s rapidly changing world.  (See The Adult Learner for more.)

Once they’re on board, it’s important to provide effective feedback for the employee.  (See Radical Candor for an integrated approach to feedback.)


Collectively, Galbraith explains that these components can make – or break – an organization.  With his guidance, he believes that you can be good at Designing Dynamic Organizations.

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