Book Review-The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma

The relationship between our mind and our body is an ever-evolving story. We continue to learn how our mind and our bodies are inextricably linked. In The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma, Bessel van der Kolk walks through the research on how our physiology is changed by the traumas that we experience.

The Relationship

I’m not entirely sold that trauma becomes embodied. There isn’t a compelling case that your pinky – or any other body part – becomes the place that trauma dwells. However, it really doesn’t matter whether the trauma becomes embodied or whether the relationship between our brains and our bodies is so intertwined that the changing neural patterns changes our physiology.

It is clear that our brains are changed by trauma. We literally see the world differently and react differently. Trauma that we can’t fully process can become stuck and make it difficult for us to process any experiences – good or bad. In the attempt to make sense of the trauma, people reapply it to everything they encounter. It colors their perceptions, feelings, and everyday thoughts. While flashbacks are conscious reminders of the trauma, they often live the trauma daily as they may overreact to simple things.


If there’s something stuck in your head that you don’t have the cognitive resources to process, you might try to avoid it. The weapon of choice to blunt the unarticulated pain may be alcohol, drugs, or sex – but these are the solutions, not the problems they’re often portrayed as. Addicts to these things or anything else are often trying to blunt the pain of a trauma they can’t fully understand. The tool of choice allows them to stop feeling for a while – and it is therefore the solution.

Please don’t misunderstand: it’s not a good solution. It’s not a healthy solution. However, addicts use their chosen substance or behavior as a solution, and treating it as the problem may create conflict. This is one of the reasons why Motivational Interviewing can be so useful. It allows us to reframe our perceptions around the perceptions of the person we’re working with.

To move past and heal from trauma, it’s necessary to acknowledge, experience, and bear the weight of the trauma. While this isn’t easy, it is possible. The key is creating safe spaces where people can reprocess the trauma slowly and safely. A lesser form of the kind of processing that needs to be done to escape the kind of boxes we put ourselves in when we’re disingenuous to ourselves as was discussed in The Anatomy of Peace.

Auto Homing

The tragedy that befalls some children is the automatic instinct to return home. Somewhere deep within our psyche, we expect that homes are safe places. We expect that the people who are our parents should care for us and work to keep us safe. Even when it is our caretakers who are harming us, we’ll still seek to come back home. It’s a powerful pull that few can escape.

This makes helping people who are being harmed by the very people who are supposed to be protecting them very difficult. They may find creative ways to disassociate the caretaker’s abuse from their normal expectations of home. You can be scared of daddy – and still welcome him home after his long day at work. Both are incompatible but are held in different compartments within the mind, because it’s the only way to endure the trauma.

Prediction Engines Need Data

Humans are fundamentally prediction engines. It’s what we do, and those prediction engines need data they can process. When a trauma comes, it interrupts the normal flow of processing data and thereby gums up the works for all experiences, both good and bad. Neurologically, our brains cope with an overwhelming trauma by taking parts of the brain offline – to manage how we consume the glucose. However, those areas are the very same areas that we need to be able to make sense of the trauma and convert it into the story that our prediction engine brains need.

The Rise of Superman explains how our brains have a fixed capacity for consumption of energy. To reach flow, some areas are switched offline. In trauma, different areas are switched offline, including Broca’s area – the one that’s responsible for the syntax of language. The result is we have problems explaining the trauma because the parts of our neurology that do this are quite literally unavailable to use.

Tragically, because the trauma isn’t processed, it gets stuck. When it’s run back through the processing the next time, if the variables for fear aren’t constrained, the trauma fails to be processed again, and it’s in the queue for the next day. This process can continue endlessly until the trauma can be processed either naturally or with the help of someone.

Desensitization and Safety

Albert Bandura popularized the use of desensitization as a tool for treating phobias. The idea is that you gradually expose people to situations that more closely resemble their fears. This gradual escalation allows people to come to terms with their fears and feel safer. (See more of his work in Moral Disengagement.) The problem is that for those who have experienced trauma it may not be possible to gradually move people closer to their fears. They all too quickly trigger and thereby overwhelm them.

As a result, strategies to deal with trauma are more frequently focused on revisiting the trauma in their mind – without reintroducing the specific circumstances. More importantly, the strategies that are most effective focus on pushing people into their trauma but only to the extent that they can continue to feel safe.

An opposite response to hyper activation is disassociation. That is, the trauma victim completely disconnects from their emotional selves and thereby avoids the pain of needing to deal with emotion. Unfortunately, disassociation is a rather blunt instrument, and as such, it’s not just the emotions surrounding the trauma that are deadened but all emotions to everything. In short, while people who disassociate with the trauma may lead otherwise productive lives, they bear an unimaginable weight themselves in their inability to connect with others and sustain the life-giving relationships we all need.


Those who have suffered trauma often overreact to the things that happen naturally in day-to-day life. A smell or sound may trigger a flashback to the trauma – an instant state of fear and confusion – and as a result may cause them to react in powerful ways that are unexpected and unpredictable to those around them. The key is to create self-awareness to the degree that people know they’re triggered and give them tools to work through the effects of the triggering.

The truth is that the key to responding to being triggered is a quick awareness and response. The natural tendency when triggered is the shutdown of higher-order reasoning – but this takes a few seconds. If the neocortex – more specifically, the medial prefrontal cortex – can downregulate the triggering enough, then it can prevent the person from becoming totally flooded and losing their ability for rational thought.

Emotional Stuffing

The goal in responding to triggering isn’t to prevent emotions or deny they exist. It’s better to think of this from the perspective of accepting the emotions for what they are and trying to place them in a broader context. Stuffing the emotions or denying them has negative consequences to the body and the long-term mental health of the person.

One can accept emotions – without allowing them to overwhelm oneself.

The Elephant and the Horse

I’ve stated repeatedly that my favorite mental metaphor is Jonathan Haidt’s Elephant-Rider-Path model. (See The Happiness Hypothesis and Switch.) However, what I learned here is that this is really more derivative than I might have first expected. Paul MacLean – the same guy that developed the three part description of the brain (where others, like Daniel Kahneman in Thinking, Fast and Slow, use two parts) – apparently first described the rational brain as a rider and the emotional brain as a horse.

Since horses are much more common in the US – and particularly in the Midwest, where I live – I always tell a story of my father riding a horse through a fence to explain why the elephant is really in charge. While I love the alliteration of the emotional elephant, it’s much more practical to think in terms of a rider on top of a horse, since I’ve myself seen that – and I’ve also ridden horses.


Desensitization is only one route to the true goal. The true goal is to integrate experiences, integrate the feelings with the rational thought. Connecting experiences into a story-like narrative that makes things make sense. While desensitization works for most people, it’s not the solution for everyone. Even cognitive behavior therapy (CBT), which is widely regarded as the most effective psychological technique, doesn’t appear to work with PTSD patients.

CBT is designed to reshape thinking patterns, but its roots in desensitization leaves it susceptible to the limits of preventing the patient from becoming emotionally triggered or flooded which, is particularly challenging when working with people who have a history including trauma – which is, unfortunately, many of us. As a result, there needs to be great care taken to create and recreate safe spaces. It’s necessary to have constant vigilance around feelings of fear and be willing to step back as many times as necessary until the process of reexperiencing the trauma is safe enough to be processed and integrated into our thinking.

Writing It Down

In Opening Up, we learned of the therapeutic effects of writing and how writing conveys positive health benefits. The question might rightly come whether it’s the expression of the trauma that results in improvement or if there’s something magical about writing it down that leads to results. The answer seems to be that there’s something about the writing process that conveys the benefits.

Breaking this down a bit, there doesn’t seem to be controlled study of interventions related to verbally communicating a solution versus not. As a result, it’s hard to say whether writing or talking about a traumatic experience would be better; however, Opening Up explains the paradoxical relationship where people were more likely to be open when they were being recorded when compared to being face-to-face with someone. If we step aside from the conversation of whether it must be written or can be spoken, we can look at the broader question of whether it’s the conversion into language that is important.

As it turns out, it seems that dance, painting, and other artistic forms don’t seem to convey the same results as writing does. As a result, we can say that writing it down matters – without forgoing the possibility that talking about it may be just as valuable. This is particularly true of folks who may find it difficult to write because they become overwhelmed and there’s no one there to help them downregulate when their self-regulation capacities are overwhelmed.

Helping Your Younger Self

It’s been reported by many that one of the ways that recovering people seem to relieve the trauma is by visualizing their current self reentering the trauma and protecting the younger version of themselves from the trauma. While this cannot be a literal representation of the truth, conceptually, it’s powerful.

Bandura was also known for his work on self-efficacy. Martin Seligman and Steven Maier worked on learned helplessness – and the importance of the belief of some degree of control or influence over circumstances. (See The Hope Circuit for more.) Ultimately, the consensus seems to be that one’s belief in their ability to influence their environment is important to mental health. The idea of protecting oneself bends the arc of influence back on itself.

By recognizing their power today and using it as a tool to support their image of their younger self, they’re leveraging their own power to heal the old wounds that were inflicted upon them. Psychically speaking, that young boy or girl is still inside the adult versions of ourselves. That child version can either feel safe or they can feel fear. If they feel fear, it will continue to express itself in terms of our health. (See Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers for more.)


The other way that you can avoid feeling helpless is through the benevolence of others. You can avoid being stuck if someone or something will bail you out. Many religious beliefs have an all-powerful being who is capable of rescuing believers from any situation. The result of believing in religion has been well studied and has a confirmed positive effect – even if there has been some difficulty separating the effect due to the religion itself and the effect caused by having a cohesive group of relationships.

We are, and always have been, social creatures. We need others to survive, and when we feel isolated from others, we’re the most susceptible to depression and suicide. The isolation need not be physical – it’s more frequently the result of feelings of social isolation.

One of the challenges with traumatized people is that they trauma they face was most frequently inflicted by others. Whether the trauma is war, physical abuse, or sexual abuse, trauma is most often caused by others – and as a result, it can reorient our perspectives on relationships and trust. We can find that we feel as if we can’t trust anyone, so we isolate ourselves. (See Trust=>Vulnerability=>Intimacy, Revisited for more.)

Abuse inflicts not only the initial trauma, but it also robs them of the ability to develop and maintain the kind of intimate relationships that will improve their long-term health and allow them to be more mentally stable. Learning to trust is a long road, particularly when you’ve been betrayed.

Hurting People Hurt People

One of the truths that you’ll hear in recovery circles is that hurting people hurt people. That is, those who are hurting you are likely hurt themselves. Whether you hurt them or they were hurt by others before you arrived, the results are the same. People who are hurting tend to lash out at others and harm them. Unfortunately, when this happens, The Body Keeps the Score, and they go on hurting others. Perhaps you can break the chain and stop the cycle.

Book Review-Real Time Strategic Change

In the game of buzzword bingo, this book has it all. Real Time Strategic Change has all the words that people want. They want the change to happen now (or in real time), and they want it to be strategic. Wouldn’t it be nice if all change could be that way? However, there’s a big commitment that’s required to make this work – and it’s one that most organizations aren’t willing to make.

The Event

Real Time Strategic Change is based around the idea of an event where you gather a substantial portion of the organization and you engage them in the change design process. It can be the entire organization, an entire plant, or an entire division, but the whole point is that it’s a substantial percentage of the people impacted by the change. Even when it’s not practical to bring literally everyone in, the recommendation is to bring in many people.

The sessions are planned, but more than that, they’re designed as facilitated sessions, where the conversations are supported and guided but not scripted. The result is, after the event, everyone feels like they’re on the same page, the leadership has listened, and everyone is in it together. I have no doubts that the results of the approach are impressive. When you make that sort of an investment, people are quite clear that you’re serious, and they’re clear that something different is happening. That means the organization is going to see some degree of positive results from the change.


Most people who write about change are clear that executive leadership is key. They must be bought in. They must support the change with both their words and their deeds. Equally important is the ability for the leadership to listen to the needs of the people. Jim Collins in Good to Great highlights this ability to listen and to stay the course as the Stockdale Paradox.

While changes are easier when there is leadership support, it’s not the only way to get change done. It’s just the easiest way. Of course, that means the likelihood of success goes up. When your organization makes a commitment to a real time strategic change, even the commitment is big, the risk is high, and the results are more likely to be positive. While the event itself may be effective, the signal that the investment in the event makes may be a more powerful message to the organization that “this time, we’re serious.”

Everett Rogers explained in Diffusion of Innovations that once you get past the innovators, everyone else needs proof – and progressively more of it. The event provides a great deal of proof, very rapidly.

Not Invented Here

One of the key things that is addressed by the event is the tendency towards not invented here (NIH). This is the natural tendency of people to resist things that they weren’t consulted on, or at least informed of, ahead of time. It has been talked about in business books for decades. By engaging everyone in the process of designing the new strategies and change, they necessarily feel like they’re a part of it, and this side-steps the NIH problem.


Solving NIH fits neatly into the communications problem that is often cited as the second most important aspect of a change endeavor. Solving NIH solves both the understanding of where things are going and the conversation about what the impact will be to the employee. The conversations and concerns about the person’s role in the new organization are most frequently addressed, because they feel like they’ve already been a part of the change, so they’ll continue to be a part of it. That’s good news, since the conversations about whether they will be a part of the new structure often require a substantial amount of trust.

Above or Below the Line

In my work on adoption and change over the past few decades, one subtle difference has stood out as being powerful for whether the change would be successful or not. If the required change was inside the person’s normal scope of work, the change would normally take hold. If, on the other hand, the change was something that required additional effort for the person, it rarely worked.

Said differently, if the changes were above the line of requirements – thus not required – they’d be ignored or deferred. If they couldn’t get their job done without it, well, obviously it worked. In information management projects, getting users to enter metadata is always challenging. However, when entering the metadata is a natural part of the work that someone does, it just happens. If on the other hand, you’re asking them to go back later and do something different, special, or additional, it rarely happens.

The required change needs to be seen as a part of the person’s “real work.” If it’s not seen this way, if it’s perceived to be something they do only when they have time, then it’s not likely to get done. Getting folks to accept changed behaviors as a part of their real work is more than changing a job description or telling them, it’s about how they perceive the work.

Change is Personal

All change is personal. All change happens at an organizational level through individual changes at a personal level, and sometimes those changes are hard. Consider the truths from Change or Die, which exposes us to the fact that few people change their eating habits even after a heart attack. Or perhaps you’d prefer to consider The Power of Habit or addiction via Chasing the Scream. Change is hard, because individually changing is hard.

Most executives have come to their level in the organization through a string of successes. Their skills, intuition, and capabilities have led them thus far. The idea of changing them to get better is hard. However, as Marshal Goldsmith says, What Got You Here Won’t Get You There. It isn’t always easy to convince folks of this simple truth. They may need to change (and become uncomfortable) to reach the next level.

Putting Things Together in Different Ways

If you consider innovation and transformation back from the Renaissance (see The Medici Effect) to the current age, you’ll find that the key to change was in the ability to connect different ideas. (See Creative Confidence, The Innovator’s DNA, Extraordinary Minds, Beyond Genius, and Group Genius for more on current innovation.) One of the benefits of having a large number of people working on things is that you get extra time for lots of potential combinations and approaches. You can sometimes leverage The Wisdom of Crowds to get to a better answer than would be possible with the leadership alone.

All Effective Strategy Degenerates into Work

One of the largest challenges I see in organizations with their grand strategies is the conversion of those strategies into a series of tactics and, ultimately, actions and behaviors. A strategy that’s beautifully printed and placed in a binder is useless. It’s true that the devil is in the details, and the conversion of the strategy into tactics and tactics into behaviors is hard, grueling work. However, it’s also true that the strategy is useless without it.

The event engages people into practical answers that degenerate more easily into the work that needs to be done, and there are fewer of those “and then the magic happens” spots in the plans. Real people doing real work are really engaged with converting the idea into a reality.

Constant Corrections

No matter how great the strategy work is and regardless of the skill at which it is degenerated into tactics, because the future is unknowable, there will be a need to make constant course corrections and adjustments. What we know about real time strategic change is that it doesn’t end when the event ends. Change needs to become a part of the ethos of the organization. Maybe it’s time to start by reading Real Time Strategic Change.

Book Review-The Effective Change Manager’s Handbook: Essential Guidance to the Change Management Body of Knowledge

Ideally, there’s a body of knowledge that defines a profession. It’s what you should know if you’re a member of the profession. The Effective Change Manager’s Handbook: Essential Guidance to the Change Management Body of Knowledge seeks to be that for change management. While it goes far towards this end, it has the problems that all bodies of knowledge have – too much breadth but not enough depth. It’s a great way to learn about the things that the authors believe you should know but not enough to learn it. It also suffers from the biases of including some things that may not be necessary and missing other critical tools that effective change managers need.

A Tale of Two Organizations

A good starting point for understanding the body of knowledge is understanding that there are two organizations seeking to become “the” change management association that everyone belongs to. There’s The Association of Change Management Professionals (ACMP) and Change Management Institute (CMI). ACMP is organized out of the US, and CMI is out of the UK. They’re similar in their mission and quite different in their approaches. ACMP has “The Standard,” which identifies the standards that change professionals should understand. It’s not quite as prescriptive as it sounds, but it’s definitely a process-driven model with steps and artifacts.

CMI, on the other hand, is focused on the body of knowledge, which is more of a collection of things than a process or approach. They initially published the body of knowledge as a separate volume before allowing it to get collected up into The Effective Change Manager’s Handbook.

Both organizations offer certification as one would expect, and both offer training, though CMI has chosen to only endorse training from one provider. I personally believe this is a very bad move, because it constricts the industry by limiting the trainers who can become certified to teach about change management. However, both organizations are fundamentally focused on increasing the awareness of the discipline which is a good thing.

A Body of Knowledge

The idea of a body of knowledge was popularized by the Project Management Institute (PMI) and their PMBoK. If you’re Project Management Professional (PMP), then you’re walking around with the PMBoK as a sort of Bible. PMPs are certified by the PMI as project manager. After a few decades, the certification is recognized and has value if you’re looking for work as a project manager.

However, even PMPs will criticize the PMBoK, because it isn’t always practical. Because it has everything in it, it’s too heavy for all but the most massive super projects. Historically, it’s been focused on waterfall-type projects, with one start and one end. It’s also been focused on projects that are more algorithmic and less heuristic. That meant that it didn’t work well for software development projects.

The PMBoK faced real pressure in software development, first with CMMI thinking and more recently with agile (iterative) approaches. It took many years before the PMBoK acknowledged the validity of these approaches.

Thus, there are two problems with a body of knowledge – first that it’s too exhaustive. It’s more than anyone would ever use. Second that it’s non-inclusive: the good practices are excluded for a long time after they’re useful.

In the case of The Change Manager’s Handbook, there’s a lot of the former and only a little bit of the latter.

In Full Bloom

Benjamin Bloom and his colleagues set out to explain a hierarchy of learning objectives. The idea was to come up with a way of explaining and categorizing the differences in approaches to teaching and learning. Though they never really finished, their start was the completion of the cognitive domain of learning. As a result, we have an ordered hierarchy of learning objectives, from the very low-level awareness and recall to the very high-level synthesis and creation of new knowledge in the domain.

Most of the time, educators and learners shoot for somewhere in the middle. They want to be able to apply what they’ve learned and analyze a situation based on their knowledge. However, works on a body of knowledge almost always fall short of this spot. They’ll create awareness, recognition, and sometimes recall, but rarely do they help people apply the learning.

That is the case with The Change Manager’s Handbook. It’s like a listing of the things that you need to learn without the depth or the examples that lead to the ability for someone to apply the information. If you’re looking for an overview of what skills you need as a change manager, it’s great. If you’re looking for a guide for doing further research, it’s good. If you’re looking for something to teach you what you need to know and how to use it so that you can be an effective change manager, well, it’s not so good.

Change Management Successes

It’s been widely quoted that 70% of change management initiatives fail to deliver. (See Leading Change for John Kotter’s take.) With the exception of professional baseball, those statistics are awful. Who wants to think that two out of three change initiatives they work on are going to fail? No one, obviously. That’s what the profession of change management and the development of the body of knowledge is designed to solve.

Some, like William Bridges in Managing Transitions, even suggest that change is the wrong way to think about the initiative. Change doesn’t, he believes, properly recognize the human component and the losses that we encounter, personally. While most people still use the word change rather than transition, the point he makes about change being about people isn’t lost on those who are interested in success.

The size of the initiative had a great deal of impact on the probability of success. The larger the project, the less likely it is to be successful and the greater effort and skill that will be required to make it successful. This is the same as the PMI’s guidance regarding projects. Everyone is clear that the problem of success gets exponentially harder based on the scope and scale of the effort. As a result, one of the big considerations for change management success is how you frame your project and how you break it down, so that you can accomplish a series of smaller changes and build on those wins.


To accomplish change, you need to motivate others to join you in the journey of change, and that requires motivation. However, the research on motivation has had a checkered past. Back in 1968, Fredrick Herzberg wrote an article, “One More Time, How Do You Motivate Employees?” for the Harvard Business Review. It turns out it’s the most requested article reprint of all time. How can it be that an article with such a snarky title can be so popular? The answer is in the insight Herzberg shared that the things we think of as motivators aren’t all as motivating as we think.

Some things that we think of as motivators Herzberg have an element of what he called “hygiene.” That is, once you had enough of them, the addition of more had little impact. The other aspect was motivation. Each of the things we think of that motivate people are built from these two components. Effective change is knowing which is which. When dealing with a hygiene-based motivator, when do you know how to stop and try different approaches.

It turns out that the go-to motivator of compensation turns out to be mostly a hygiene-based motivator, and salary after a certain point isn’t that powerful a motivator. This aligns with both the work of Kahneman and how we have decreasing utility for increasingly large benefits. (See Thinking, Fast and Slow.) It also aligns with the work of Edward Deci on intrinsic motivation, but Deci goes further to explain how increasing salary can make the behaviors worse.

Intrinsic Motivation

Studying what makes people want to do something is interesting and challenging. Deci ultimately discovered that our intrinsic motivation is driven by our desire for autonomy, mastery, and purpose. These factors drive us towards wanting to do something. However, there’s a challenge: if we apply an extrinsic motivator – like compensation – to something that we’re intrinsically motivated to do, we may find that the intrinsic motivation is stunted. When children were paid to play with a toy that they previously enjoyed playing with – without compensation – they suddenly wanted to play with the toy less when they weren’t compensated.

This has huge implications and obvious evidence all around us, we just have failed to see it. Take, for instance, children. They love to study, and you reward that studying with some sort of monetary compensation for grades. Maybe $1 for an A and $0.50 for a B. The problem is that you’ve now made the motivation dependent on the extrinsic reward. What happens when the reward is taken away? The behavior stops. More challenging is the fact that the long-term pull of the intrinsic motivator may be more powerful than the extrinsic one. Consider Simon Sinek’s recommendation to Start with Why and the power of getting everyone aligned to the same mission.

But what about flow? Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi researched this state of balance between challenge and skill that seemed to be intrinsically rewarding and discovered a set of factors that lead to it – as well as some of the far-reaching effects. Flow is internally rewarding. We don’t do it because others ask us to or that we’re being compensated for it; we enter the state of flow because it’s rewarding. It’s substantially more productive than normal work (5x), and it induces a sense of timelessness. The focus on the task eliminates some of the normal background noise that flows through our head. (See Flow, Finding Flow, and The Rise of Superman for more on flow.)

Ultimately, our goal as change managers shouldn’t be to find the magic external motivators that will allow us to manipulate others into doing what we want them to do, but rather to look towards the goal of how we can align their internal motivators in ways that support them wanting the same things the organization wants. (See both Why We Do What We Do (Deci) and Drive (Daniel Pink) for more on intrinsic motivation.)

Our Views on People

There are two basic views of people. We can either assume that people are lazy and stupid – or we can assume that people are intelligent and hardworking. These correspond to the Theory X and Theory Y of management that we’ve heard about. Historically, most management was designed around the idea that people were lazy and stupid. However, more recently, it has been recognized that this isn’t necessarily the best approach.

Consider, for a moment, the communism vs. capitalism debate that occurred in the 20th century. The Marxist ideas drove the creation of societies based around the idea that everyone was entitled to basic rights and the government was responsible for providing these to everyone. The result was a top-down, centralized hierarchy that depended upon the masses as hands to move and create things, but only those things that the hierarchy told them to make. The problem was that this approach, noble as it was, failed miserably. People were deprived of their drive and creativity, and as a result, there were many economies that were ruined and people who suffered with a lack of essentials because the society couldn’t produce what was needed for everyone. (See One Minute to Midnight for some exposure to this problem.)

The transformation that is happening in business has been gradual but pervasive. Carl Rogers believes that you should have an unconditional positive regard for all people, and that’s hard to do if you fundamentally see them as lazy and stupid. (See A Way of Being.) The list of books I’ve reviewed that have a focus on seeing people differently isn’t short: An Everyone Culture, Reinventing Organizations, Red Goldfish, Leadership for the Twenty-First Century, Seeing Systems, Multipliers, Creativity, Inc., Servant Leadership, and more.

Views on Organizations

While our views on people have changed, at some level, we’re also reconfiguring our views on organizations. We’re starting to look at them less like machines with interchangeable parts and instead we’re looking at them like they’re organisms, brains, cultures, and other structures that describe pieces that come together as a whole – but don’t fit neatly into the kinds of gears and mechanisms you would expect to find in a machine.

However, some of the views of the organization can be troubling. When they’re viewed as psychic prisons or instruments of domination, the resulting expectations don’t lead to good places. There’s a lot that can be said of prisons and Phillip Zimbardo – of the Stanford Prison Experiment fame – describes his perspective in The Lucifer Effect. From a more positive perspective, Amy Edmonson explains in The Fearless Organization how to avoid the kinds of organizations that feel like psychic prisons.

Two Voices

Sometimes the person that sends the message impacts the message that is received more than the words or actions used. When it comes to change, there are two key messages and two key people who need to send the message.

The first message is the strategy and the organization’s vision. This message is best delivered by the executives. It’s believable when delivered by the organization’s executives – it isn’t necessarily believable from a person’s direct manager.

Conversely, what people need to know about their role being okay and how it will change comes from their managers. Anything that the executives say in this regard is perceived to be a platitude that will change just as soon as it’s convenient. Employees need the relational context that they have with their manager to accept the message of safety that may be provided to them. Despite the best intentions, a manager speaking about the overall strategy for the organization isn’t believable, because the employees have seen their best intentions get run over before.


In the 1990s, the US military started speaking in terms of VUCA – Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity, and Ambiguity. We live in that VUCA world. The rate of change isn’t slowing down, by all measures it’s getting faster. It’s not just the changes that you want – it’s the changes that are happening around you.

A set of responses to the VUCA world that we live in were proposed by Bob Johansen and are referred to as VUCA’ (or VUCA Prime, as in inverse derivative): Vision, Understanding, Clarity, and Agility. These are excellent characteristics of your change initiative. Developing a clear vision and communicating clearly based on your collective understanding of the world and the changes is a great start. The agility to adapt as you learn more and as the situation evolves improves your chances for success.

Heroic Leadership

One of the most powerful things that I learned from Heroic Leadership was to separate the important from the unimportant. The Jesuits were clear about their faith and the things that were required of them to remain in their faith. They were equally aware of the customs and rituals that they had grown comfortable with. Knowing how to separate these two proved invaluable as they navigated new worlds.

There are some things inside a change initiative that are going to be non-negotiable. However, most things are open to discussion and exploration. Few things in any change are truly beyond our ability to evaluate.

It Starts with Strategy

The truth is that all change is the response to the environment we find ourselves in. Either we believe that we’re able to take advantage of an opportunity, or we feel the need to mitigate a threat. This response to the environment – or, more likely, the set of responses to the environment – is collectively our strategy for navigating the real world that the organization and we live in.

If you’re going to initiate any kind of a change, you’ll need to understand both the factors that are driving the opportunity or threat and what strategies – or tactics – you believe you need to use to capitalize on the opportunities and mitigate the threats. In short, your change starts with clearly understanding your strategy and the environmental factors that have led you to the proposed approaches.

It’s All About Behaviors

All change is individual change. Organizations change through the actions – behaviors – of its members. There is no changing the organization without changing the behaviors of the members. Thus, all change is individual change. All change is about how you change the behaviors of individuals in ways that creates the kind of change you want to see from the organization. If you’re not converting the big-picture strategies into the individual tasks and behaviors, it’s not very likely that it will be successful.


I worked very hard, and when I turned 25, I bought myself a Mitsubishi 3000GTVR4. It was a low, wide, heavy, and, in many ways, amazing car. The engine was 320 horsepower, and it was all wheel drive. It was a monster of a car with a problem. The transmission had a habit of breaking. The torque the engine produced would throw you back in your seat, and in the process, it would weaken and eventually break the drive shaft. The result for me meant more than a few transmission repairs. The engine was fine, the tires were fine, it was just getting the power between the two that was the problem.

This is the key issue that most organizations face. They have a strategy, but they don’t know how to convert it into something that will cause people to change. Some of that can be based on having too few people involved with the development of the strategy and, as a result, a limited amount of buy-in. It can also be caused by unrealistic expectations about how the organization functions.

Whatever the cause, if you can’t convert the strategy to the behaviors, you won’t see change.

The Wisdom of Crowds

One approach to address this transmission problem is to involve a large number of people in the planning process. While this does create challenges about giving everyone space to feel heard and the need to coalesce the responses into a set of key approaches, it has the benefit of substantially increasing buy-in. When done across the organization, you can develop a greater buy-in within the organization. However, you get something more. You get the wisdom of crowds.

If I asked you to guess the number of jellybeans in a jar or the weight of a bull, it’s likely that your guess won’t be exactly right. You’ll overestimate or underestimate. That’s not news. The news is that, as you add more and more people with their individual biases together and you average them, you begin to get to answers that converge on the right answer. Somehow the process of averaging takes the errors and biases out of the process, and the result is better. That’s what happens when we involve more people in our change process. We begin to work past the biases and errors. We move towards a wisdom about the situation that can’t be developed by a single person. (See The Wisdom of Crowds for more.)

Stakeholder Categories

George Egan recommends putting stakeholders into the following groups:

  • Partners are those who support your agenda.
  • Allies are those who will support you given encouragement.
  • Fellow Travellers are passive supporters who may be committed to the agenda but not to you personally.
  • Fence sitters are those whose allegiances are not clear.
  • Loose cannons are dangerous, because they can vote against agendas in which they have no direct interest.
  • Opponents are players who oppose your agenda but not you personally.
  • Adversaries are players who oppose both you and your agenda.
  • Bedfellows are those who support the agenda but may not know or trust you.
  • Voiceless are stakeholders who will be affected by the agenda but have little power to promote or oppose and who lack advocates.

I prefer a slightly different categorization process based on power, urgency, and legitimacy, but this approach encourages you to more deeply consider and understand your stakeholders and whether they collectively bring you what you need to accomplish your objectives with the change.

Control and Manipulation

In Compelled to Control, J. Keith Miller explains that we all want to control, but none of us want to be controlled. This is a fundamental understanding of our human condition. We want to perceive a great deal of control of our situation and a low degree of others controlling us. As we seek to involve more people, develop their buy-in, and engage them, we must be conscious both of their need to feel a degree of control but also in the degree to which they perceive that they’re being manipulated.

We are all manipulated. An easy example is the fact that almost all of us wear seatbelts. No one thinks that wrinkled clothing and confinement is good, but we’ve been conditioned to accept these things so that our chances of injury or death during an accident are reduced. We’re being manipulated into the behaviors that the government wants with laws and advertising campaigns. It’s not that the reasons aren’t the right reasons or that we shouldn’t wear our seatbelts – we absolutely should. However, we need to recognize this for what it is. It’s a manipulation of our basic behavior while driving and riding in a car, and it’s a manipulation that we’ve accepted.

Put the Song on Repeat

The process of manipulation was subtle. It was the same message played over and over again punctuated by changes. This process of manipulation can be done for both good and evil. Albert Bandura in Moral Disengagement explains how Nazi Germany made the unthinkable not just something to be considered but something to be done. It wasn’t just one message that the Jews weren’t humans, it was the same message over and over again.

In our corporate change worlds, we like to believe that we can tell people once and that’s enough. They read their email, we think. They’ll see the posters. The truth is, however, that our communications are far less effective than we’d like to believe. The Organized Mind explains how our brains are trying to cope with the amount of information that we’re getting, and for the most part, we’re doing it by filtering. If we can’t get through the filter, then there’s no chance of anyone changing their perception (or even awareness).

A Picture is Worth a Thousand Words

It’s an old cliché, but it’s true. A picture, or more precisely a diagram, is worth a thousand words. The ability to convey visually what the new organization will look like and what the behaviors are that will be required is extremely valuable. It’s more than an updated organizational chart. It’s about what life will really be like. It’s a way of engaging emotions into topics that are sometimes dry, abstract, and analytical.

The simple addition of visuals to your change messaging can make them feel more personal and friendly. Careful selection of a metaphor can provide some continuity to the discontinuity of change.

Making Use of Micro Signals

During change, people will need more affirmation and confirmation that their behaviors match the new trajectory of the organization. For that reason, small acknowledgements of the progress that is being made to transform the organization is critical to reinforcing the new behaviors and helping to establish them as new habits.

Accentuating “bright spots,” those places where people are exhibiting the best of the new behaviors, help others understand that they want to replicate these behaviors. In the book Switch, Dan and Chip Heath make the point that following the bright spots can help people make a change much easier than simply guiding them away from the things they should not do.

The Importance of Learning

The importance of learning as a far leading indicator was made by Richard Hackman in Collaborative Intelligence, but its use as a tool for change is sometimes overlooked. We forget that new behaviors mean new learning, and the more that we can instill learning into the culture of the organization, the more agile the organization will be. Learning is a powerful force when lined up with the compounding nature of sustained effort.

Einstein said that compounding interest was the 8th Wonder of the World, but it’s not just financial interest that compounds; learning and our ability to learn compounds as well. The more we’re willing to focus on our performance and seek to improve it, the more our performance will improve. Anders Ericson and Robert Pool explain in Peak that it’s purposeful practice that makes the difference to our long-term success. The more willing and persistent we are at practicing towards specific goals, the more likely we’ll be at the peak of our industry. (For the persistence aspect, see Angela Duckworth’s Grit.)

The Hawthorne Works are famous for the Hawthorne effect. That is, measuring people – not the actual change being measured – is responsible for improvement. However, this obscures the truth that people are focused on their performance because they know they are being watched. This pushes them into purposeful practice and an attempt to improve their performance. That focus does increase their performance even when the conditions deteriorate (like the lighting being turned down).

When you sustain the perception of monitoring and a desire for improvement over a long period of time, the improvements become staggering. In The Rise of Superman, Steven Kotler explains that even a 4% increase over a long period of time makes it appear that what the person is doing should be impossible.

Our View of the Problem is the Problem

When we’re evaluating why our change initiatives haven’t been successful, it’s important to accept the realization that our view of the problem – the change itself or the problem the change is designed to address – is the problem. The better we understand a problem and the more we know, the more equipped we are to potentially solve the problem. That’s the reason why it might be a good idea to read The Change Manager’s Handbook.

Book Review-The Leadership Machine

There’s an old I Love Lucy episode where Lucy and Edith are workers at a chocolate factory, and they can’t keep up, so they start eating the chocolates and stuffing them in their clothes. Laverne and Shirley are standing in front of an assembly line in the opening starting with a slow pace and ending with a rather overwhelming pace. The idea of an assembly line is neither foreign to me personally nor, I think, to most people. However, most people don’t think of talent development or leadership development as an assembly line. However, this is the perspective of The Leadership Machine.

It’s called a talent development pipeline, but that only thinly veils the perspective that you start young professionals in one end of the machine, and out the other end of the machine is supposed to pop out highly skilled and qualified leaders. There are so many problems and breakdowns in most organizations’ leadership machines. The Leadership Machine seeks to both address the common breakdowns and to lead you towards building your own leadership development pipeline.

One Size Fits All

If you’re a small or even medium-sized organization, you may think that you don’t have much of a machine for finding, developing, and retaining employees. You may believe that you have little capacity to build the kind of sustainable infrastructure that’s required to make the system work, and you may more importantly be concerned about how you manage the short-term demands on your business that may make an effort in such a long-term program pointless. Certainly, there’s truth to this when taken to the extreme. Smaller organizations cannot afford to spend tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars training people hoping they stay with the company after the investment has been made and the employee can contribute.

However, there is a way to leverage the learning from a big system and integrate the best parts into smaller organizations. It’s possible to use the work that has been done to identify and categorize key skills to refine your thinking about positions and what they need to be good at – even in organizations that aren’t that large.

Talent Development

It gets a bad rap. In many organizations, talent development inside an organization is seen as boring, ineffective training that is required. Too many talent development organizations are stuck delivering mandatory OSHA and sexual harassment training – and not enough of the kind of leadership development training that makes a real difference. (Hopefully, they’re delivering on anti-sexual harassment training, but that’s another story.) Because of this, most managers and leaders don’t even think to approach their talent development team with the kinds of skills building necessary to build tomorrow’s leaders of the organization.

This gulf between the tactical execution of mandatory training and the kinds of leadership development training that’s possible is something worth crossing for both the business and the talent development professional.

Seeking Skills Models

If you want to develop anything, you need to know what you’re shooting for. You need to know what’s important to the organization and, by extension, what isn’t. There are so many skills that can be trained, how do you focus your limited time and resources on the skills that are going to matter? Of course, there are some variations to every organization, but in truth, leadership is the same across organizations. The skills that make a leader good in one organization are likely going to make them good in another organization. That’s why Lombardo and Eichinger don’t recommend that you reinvent the wheel. They recommend a model called Leadership Architect® developed by the Center for Creative Leadership. A summary of the model (pulled from the book) follows:

With a model for skills in place, it’s important to understand the number and types of skills needed both in general and specific to roles or levels in the organization.

Number of Skills

The answer, in terms of what skills should the ideal leader have, is always answered with “All of them;” however, as the outline implies, there are more skills than anyone can be reasonably expected to excel at – or even to be proficient at. Instead, the leader needs a basic toolkit, with deep skills in a few areas and no deficiencies in others that are barriers to their career advancement.

They break down skills into groupings:

  • Price-of-Admission – These skills are necessary for and expected of everyone, so they won’t help differentiate candidates in the talent pipeline.
  • Competitive Edge – These skills deliver differentiation between average performers and high performers.
  • Competitive Edge by Level – These skills differ by level in the organization, with some skills being needed by managers but not by executives and vice versa.
  • Competitive Edge for Superior Performance – These skills seem to only be found in superior performers at any level of the organization.

The answer to the number of competitive edge skills by level seems to be 5 skills for managers and 8 skills for executives, but the tricky part is that the skills aren’t all the same.

Better Hiring

One of the things you might expect from a book about how to develop a leadership machine (or a leadership pipeline); however, the view is more organic. The expectation is that there is so much competition for the best people that, if you want to develop a pipeline of leaders, you had better plan to do it yourself rather than hire it from the market.

Competitively, the best (read: most expensive) offers go to the candidates who show the highest GPAs – or at least meet some arbitrary GPA cutoff. There are not enough of these candidates to go around, and the demand has driven the cost up. A better investment, supported by research, is to build effective training programs that allow you to develop the leadership skills through your internal development process.

Effective training programs aren’t all in the classroom or online. Effective training programs are designed to nurture the candidates through challenging them appropriately. Nicholas Taleb in Antifragile explains how we need challenges and how the right challenges at the right intensity with the right recovery time make us stronger. The training programs we develop internally should progressively challenge candidates without overwhelming them or pushing them too hard – and that is very hard to do.

Returning to Defaults

Left to our own devices, we’ll fall back on a few of our core strengths – things that we learned during our journey into adulthood or soon after we entered the corporate world. These strengths are great until they’re misapplied or applied too much. When these core skills come out, it can be a sign that someone is under too much stress. The result of the application of these skills are problems rather than solutions, because even executing on skills that you’re good at when you’re supposed to be doing something else is a bad thing.

In our office, I have a real, full-sized stoplight. It’s just to the right of my desk and it’s a constant and visible reminder that just because I can do something (I have the skill or capability) doesn’t mean I should do it (it’s the right thing). “Can do” aren’t green lights, they’re yellow. If I’m exceptionally good at crafting introductory language and start to sink my teeth into it, it could mean that I’m addressing something that requires finesse for a high-profile client. Conversely, it might mean that I’m avoiding a difficult personnel discussion that I need to have – perhaps with the person who should be doing this work. When I’m doing something I can do – but shouldn’t – I’m depriving myself, my team, and my world of the more challenging or rare skills that I’m being asked to execute on.

The Secret of Success

It’s learning. It’s learning how to learn. It’s learning how to hunger for additional skills. When Stan Lee put the call out for people to become the next superhero in a comic and on the big screen, he got a lot of entries. People wanted to see their personal brand of superhero come to life. Most of the superhero ideas were duds, but one was just unique enough. The character Domino had the capability to influence luck. The degree to which this is played out in Deadpool 2 is ridiculous, even by superhero movie standards – but it represents an intriguing argument. What skill – like the ability to influence luck – would be more useful than anything else?

While none of us can influence luck, we can influence learning. The ability to learn and the world of information that we live in today means nothing is out of reach for someone ingrained with the metaskill of learning. It’s not quite as slick as downloading new skills into someone’s brain, like they did in The Matrix, but it is the ability to expand beyond the normal limits of humanity.

Learning is Risky Business

Everyone wants to know the secret of success, and here it is – be continuously learning. It’s simple. However, most people don’t do it. Why? Because learning is risky business. It means you must admit that you’re making mistakes and you’re vulnerable. It means you must admit that you don’t have all the answers, and in most business situations today, that’s risky.

Showing vulnerability is inherently risky, because the person you exposed the vulnerability to may choose to exploit it (or at least try). However, learning is risky for another, more profound reason. Learning allows you to change your world view, and in doing so may threaten everything that you believe. So, when it comes to the key to success, the answer is simple but not easy. It takes courage to stay focused on learning, even when it might hurt.

High Performer but not Highest

If you wanted to predict the best leaders in your organization ten years from now, who would you choose? Would you choose those with the absolute highest performance for the last quarter or the last year? Obviously, you want successful performers, but do you want the absolute top performers? Curiously, the answer is no. What you want are solid performers who are making long-term investments in their learning and development.

Richard Hackman, in Collaborative Intelligence, explains how he measures the effectiveness of teams on multiple levels, and short-term performance is the simplest but poorest predictor of long-term performance. The highest level is learning and growth. The same is true for individuals. If they’re focused only on short-term results, they’ll be a brighter star than their peers at the expense of their long-term performance.

Ideally, if you’re looking to find your highest potential future leaders, you’ll look for someone who has learned to balance short-term results with long-term development. If they can do this in themselves, they’ll likely be able to deliver this balance as a leader.


There has a been a greater focus on the idea of agility as the world seems to be changing more rapidly than ever before. Entire industries are under siege from startups with a new way of doing things. The venerable Kodak lost its hold on the photography market during the digital disruption of digital cameras that ironically, they helped to create. Taxi companies are struggling against Lyft and Uber. The automobile and energy industries have been confronted with the fact that electric cars are becoming a reality and both industries are trying to determine how they’ll cope.

Sometimes agility is couched on the language of innovation. If we just learn how to innovate, we’ll leapfrog the competition. This neglects the reality of Kodak’s situation. They demonstrated innovation in the introduction of digital cameras but were ultimately overcome by the reality of an organization too married to chemical photographic processes to fully adapt to the new electronic world.

Learners are agile because of their capacity to connect diverse ideas and to pull from different places to create new combinations of solutions that can be applied to their company and their industry.

Career Freedom Option Accounts

On the one hand, you’ll hear that you should do something that you love, and you’ll never have a day’s work in your life. On the other hand, you hear that you’ll have to pay your dues. You’ll have to keep your nose to the grindstone and work for years before you start to enjoy the fruits of your labor. How can both be true?

The answer lies in flow. Flow is the high-performance psychological state that balances challenge and skill that is itself rewarding. (See Flow, Finding Flow, and The Rise of Superman for more about flow.) In flow, you’re working hard, and you’re not really seeing the rewards in the tangible sense, but the intrinsic rewards are enough to keep you going. (See Why We Do What We Do for more on intrinsic rewards.) Still, this doesn’t mean if you can’t find flow and find the intrinsic rewards that you should immediately quit your job; you should first check your career freedom options.

The choices we make in terms of learning, persistence, and savings can help us drive up the balance in our career freedom accounts. The more skills be have (learning), the more results we can demonstrate (persistence), and the more resources (savings) we have, the greater the opportunities for us to safely quit our current career and start another career that may be more appealing for its intrinsic and extrinsic rewards.

Someone who is an accomplished carpenter and an accomplished plumber clearly has more options than someone who has only one or the other of these skills. When they decide they want to do something new or work for someone new, they can make the leap quickly and easily. Someone who fails to finish high school and has no specific skills is stuck working entry level jobs in manufacturing or service. They can’t afford (figuratively) to make a change, even if they don’t like their current situation.

Someone who didn’t finish high school, college, a trade school, or anything that grants a certificate of completion (which is what a diploma is) isn’t in a position to provide any marker of their value to a new perspective company or client. Without these markers of persistence, many organizations won’t give you a chance.

You’ve probably heard about the people who retire in their 40s. They’ve saved enough money that they don’t have to work any longer. The interest on their savings are enough to cover their modest needs, and as a result they’re not going to work. They’re going to spend their time doing what they want. At some level, we’re all trying to do this. We’re looking to acquire enough assets that we can make the absolute decision to walk away from working. Whether we call that retirement or FU money, the goal is to be able to have ultimate freedom in our careers including what we do and don’t do.

The War for Talent

While the market changes due to COVID-19 may make the war for talent a thing of the past for a time, the fundamental issue remains unchanged. The war for talent is framed in the perspective of not enough people. However, that framing is fundamentally flawed. It’s not that we don’t have enough people to do the work. The reality is that we don’t have enough skilled and persistent people to do the work.

The challenge isn’t one of absolute numbers but rather ratios of the number of people who are occupying the planet and the percentage of those that possess the skills that we need for the positions that we have created. Certainly, we need to try to create positions in ways that minimize the depth and diversity of skills required to increase the chances that we can find people to fit the role, but we must simultaneously find ways to encourage the development of skills. This includes not just access to the tools necessary to develop the skills but also the tools of motivation to create a desire for people to learn those skills.

People Development

The sad fact is that only 7% of managers are held accountable for the development of their people, according to a McKinsey study. In a world of management by objectives, dashboards to hit, and a continuing increase in the general pressure, developing the people under your care gets lost in the shuffle. (See Servant Leadership for more on the idea of the people you lead being under your care.) Because it’s not measured, it’s not happening.

In my personal world, I can tell you that I left my corporate job and started Thor Projects because I felt like I wasn’t receiving career development. My journey since then has been eclectic, but it’s been good. I know that I didn’t know what I was doing for my career development – and still don’t. It would have been good to have someone who has been through the challenges that I was and am facing, who could guide me through developing the skills that I need to be successful, but sadly that almost never happens in an organization.

Whether your organization is good about your development or not, you can take your own steps to become a leader by reading The Leadership Machine.

Book Review-Opening Up: The Healing Power of Expressing Emotions

I’ve made no secret that reading on paper has become harder. Opening Up: The Healing Power of Expressing Emotions is only available in paper format, but at some point, there’s such a critical mass of people referring to James W. Pennebaker’s work that you’ve got to break down and read it. I’m glad I did, because it gave me a way to reconcile the differences around Critical Incident Stress Debriefing (CISD) (also called Critical Incident Stress Management (CISM)) between those that believe it should always be used and those who are critical of its benefits (see Science and Pseudoscience in Clinical Psychology). It also helped me to organize my thinking around post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder

Some people, when confronted with something they can’t process, become caught in the trauma and are unable to escape the feelings of fear and dread. They end up stuck in a state of hyper vigilance either continuously or when provoked into reliving the trauma in the form of a flashback. Tragically, many of those who suffer from PTSD have served their country in war or their community as first responders. However, that doesn’t minimize the PTSD of other people who discover horror arrived at their doorstep through their hands or the hands of another.

The key revelation to Pennebaker’s work is the discovery that the problem with PTSD is that the trauma never gets processed. It’s captured. Our ability to recall things when stressed is heightened, however, they are so overwhelming that the brain can’t integrate them into a coherent story. Because the brain hasn’t integrated them into a coherent story, the fragments keep coming back in the form of flashbacks.

Martin Seligman in his book, Flourish, explains how it is possible to see post-traumatic growth (PTG) – instead of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). He explained that some characteristics, assessed before the trauma occurred, could predict who would suffer PTSD and who would benefit from PTG. In the context of Nassim Taleb’s work in Antifragile, this makes sense. We grow when the break occurs in the right interval and at the right level for our skill. Seligman was effectively identifying those who had greater capacities for dealing with the horrors they’d experience.

Pennebaker’s work centers around the release of emotions through writing, but that writing is more than a release. It’s a framework for creating a story – a narrative of what happened – and in doing so, it can release people from the trauma’s grips.


The Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) study is a landmark study that pointed us to the downstream impacts of childhood trauma and the lifelong impact that is has (see How Children Succeed for more). Never before had we known the outcomes that childhood trauma brought upon our society, and never before had we realized the degree to which children had been abused. However, Pennebaker’s work kept tripping over it. He saw that those study participants who were able to open up about past abuse were substantially more healthy than those in the control group who wrote about nothing much at all.

Pennebaker hadn’t believed that people would write down their deepest, darkest secrets, but that’s what they did. Many of them wrote of their abuse – abuse they claim they had never revealed to anyone else.


Pennebaker unintentionally created a nearly ideal situation for the expression of these pent up emotions. The study involved a novel environment where the participant had no preconceived ideas. There was no one watching the participants work, and they were told they could keep or destroy their writing if they would like to.

The result is a new environment with no judgement. It was an environment where they could get things out on paper without worry about what others would think of them. As it turned out, that was important.

Story Telling

When you have a trauma that you can’t get over, you can’t tell the story, because you don’t experience the trauma as a story. It’s experienced as an overwhelming wave of senses and feelings that can’t be separated from the present. These memories intrude on the present like an unwanted guest – and they’re just as difficult to get to leave.

By writing down their traumas, they were momentarily less happy, but in the long term, their self-assessment of their mental state and the objective measure of their health status went up. Despite the initial depression about having revealed the event, the long-term impacts were good.

Therapeutic Benefits

The therapeutic benefits seemed to be broadly based, including a lower instance of visits to the health center on campus (most of Pennebaker’s participants were students). For the most part, these benefits seemed to last about four months and not longer, as the participants returned to their baseline rate of visiting the health center roughly four months after their writing exercise.


Our ego is an amazing thing. In Change or Die, we learned how well defended our ego is. It will insist that we have control of a situation when we clearly do not. The truth is that we live in a volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous world. However, this truth is carefully hidden from our egos and consciousness. Studies have shown that we believe we have more control than we really have – often by a wide margin.

Sometimes, the trauma we experience is the intrusion of the volatility into the perception of our safe world. For instance, when my brother died in a plane crash, I was instantly and undeniably reminded of the fragility of life and, ultimately, how bad outcomes can happen even when you do everything right. I was forced to confront the world that we live in – rather than the world that I wanted to live in.

For some, these losses are irrecoverable. The idea that the world can change at any time is too much for them to handle. However, for others, it’s a loss that they can learn and grow from – and move on.

Social Isolation

The worst problem of losing someone is that people don’t know how to deal with their own pain and emotions, so they pull back from you. The result can be a social isolation that results in a double loss event. It’s been widely reported and validated that social relationships – deep social relationships – are a good insulator from the damages associated with trauma. However, Pennebaker points out that this insulation only happens when people are willing to open up and talk with these close connections – that isn’t always the case.

Sometimes, particularly in the case of sexual abuse, the family relationships closest to a person aren’t able to accept that it happened, because accepting that it has happened would mean that they’ve in some way allowed it to happen. The net result is that the person is doubly harmed. First by the act and then second by the attempts to bury it.

The Only Thoughts to Fear are Those You Deny

It’s not the odd, taboo thoughts that you must worry about. It’s the fact that you’re unwilling or unable to accept their existence. The research shows that parents who are more open with their children about sex have lower incidence of teen pregnancies (see Dialogue). In twelve-step groups, they say that you’re only as sick as your secrets. (See Why and How 12-Step Groups Work for more on the way that the groups function.)

When people are taught meditation, they’re taught that their thoughts will wander. They’ll stray from their focused task. That’s normal. The trick is to gently accept the thought and then return to the place thinking about the focal point. This gentle acceptance of the thought and moving on doesn’t trigger shame or reinforce the thought. It’s just a thought, and it will pass. (See Happiness for more.) This perspective doesn’t give power to the thought as is done when it’s banished. This fits into David Richo’s concept of acceptance from How to Be an Adult in Relationships. We accept the thought and move on.

Ultimately, if you deny your feelings – like your thoughts – you’ll create a great deal of damage to your psyche as well as your body, as I summarized in my post, I’ll Have Some Emotional Stuffing With That.

Of Two Minds

In addition to the benefits of creating a story or narrative from trauma, writing may have another powerful mechanism in its ability to help synchronize the thinking between our emotions and our rational thought. Daniel Kahneman, in Thinking, Fast and Slow, explains a two-system model of the brain, and Jonathan Haidt explains his model for how our thinking works in The Happiness Hypothesis with the Elephant-Rider-Path model. Emotion and Adaptation and How Emotions Are Made both explain how emotions are created – and how they’re separate from rational thought. When you pull this work together, it becomes clear that we are of two minds – our rational mind and our emotional mind – and we work best when the two are in harmony.

Writing happens from Broca’s area and others in the brain that are a part of the logical or rational processing. Broca’s area is specifically used for syntax construction of speech – both written and verbal. (See The Tell-Tale Brain for more on the various areas of the brain and their known functions.) Those with PTSD – and those who are struggling to move past traumatic events – are often unable to coordinate the activity between their emotional responses and their rational riders. Writing, it seems, brings these two together and causes them to reach more harmonious states.

Having harmony in your brain’s functioning has rather obvious positive impact on affect (or feelings) even if the explanation of it borders on tautology. In simple terms, even though the rational rider is sometimes capable of commanding the elephant, the elephant sometimes has to show the rider who the real boss is.

Ziegarnik Effect and Trauma

In simple terms, the Ziegarnik effect says that you’ll remember something that is incomplete more clearly than something that is complete. It seems that there’s some sort of a boost to memory that happens for the incomplete that is removed when it’s completed. Trauma is one place where you don’t want to have anything incomplete – like incomplete processing of it.

By writing it out, bringing the parts of the brain in harmony, and converting it from individual fragments into a coherent story, we “complete” the event and we are able to move on – instead of being stuck in the endless cycle.

The Physiological Impacts of Psychology

Many people would prefer to say that our thinking doesn’t impact our physiology, but it clearly does in a statistical sense. Consider the city of Dallas, where John F. Kennedy was shot – a city that felt some collective shame from the event. If psychology has no impact on our physiology, then I beg you to explain why overall heart attacks dropped 3% over the five years following Kennedy’s assassination – except for Dallas, where they rose by 4%. Memphis, where Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated, saw a similar condition of a 3% rise of heart attacks while the rest of the country – including Dallas – saw a 4% drop.

In short, our individual psychology – and our collective psychology – has an impact on our health. As such, we must consider how we take care of our minds as much as how we take care of our bodies.


Safety isn’t an absolute thing. It’s a perception. We’ll confess our secrets into a recorder with greater ease than telling one other person even if we don’t know what will happen with the recording. Objectively telling one person without a recorder is safer – but it doesn’t feel safe.

When it comes to using writing to overcome trauma, you have to create enough safety that the person trying to process their memories can remain feeling relatively safe – so that they can get through the process of processing them. If you can’t create a safe feeling in the present, you have no business potentially opening old wounds in the past.

Writing as a tool for helping people learn how to process their trauma is powerful – but only when it’s used in a way that leaves the person feeling safe. This is the heart of the challenge with CISD/CISM.

Forced Conversations

If you don’t have family members who are first responders, then you don’t know how unwilling to talk they are in general – and more specifically about their work. Separating HIPAA laws and professional ethics, they’ll likely not talk about the things that don’t even approach these boundaries. They know they see things that other people can’t understand and can’t process, so they’ve stopped talking about it – consciously or unconsciously.

The problem with CISD/CISM done incorrectly is that it tries to force people to speak in situations where they don’t feel safe. They believe what they say will end up on a fitness evaluation and can prevent them from returning to work. The result is that they feel less safe in the room talking to someone than they may have felt in a shooting or other objectively more dangerous situation.

This is the core problem. CISD/CISM isn’t inherently bad. It’s not that creating a safe space for people to be able to talk about a trauma. Similarly, initiating the creation of the space isn’t bad. It’s good to create a safe space for the conversation – the critical piece is creating the safe space.

It occurs to me that, without this safe space, you can do more damage than good. The self-reinforcing delusions will kick in. Like, “I knew that counselor had it in for me,” when they report back that the person wasn’t forthcoming in sharing their perspectives on the situation.

They may not accept that some people will really roll with the punches and be okay while others may clam up, suppress their emotions, and fail to feel. There’s nothing inherently wrong with taking a pause from overwhelming emotions – however, those emotions shouldn’t be bottled up forever. They’ll do too much damage.

So, I remain skeptical of the CISD/CISM in so much as I’m unsure that proper emphasis is placed on creating a safe space and therapeutic alliance. (See The Heart of Change for more about how to make psychotherapy work better.)

I am, however, sure you’ll find that Opening Up is a great way to live a more healthy psychological life.

Book Review-Strategic Management: A Stakeholder Approach

Some things are just obvious. They are just the way that things have always been – except that they’re not. To me, the idea that you’d manage to your stakeholders seems like it should be the thing that has always been done, but I realized that it hasn’t always been that way. So it was time to take a look back at when the idea of managing to stakeholders was new and different. That meant reading Strategic Management: A Stakeholder Approach.

Serving More Than One Master

We’ve been told that we can’t serve more than one master, but in reality, we all must do it every day. We’ve got different stakeholders in our lives. We’ve got people who want to see us succeed – parents, mentors, teachers, and coaches for instance. We’ve got people whom we want to help be successful themselves, like our children. It used to be that organizations didn’t see themselves as having more than one master. Executive management worked for themselves. Employees, stockholders, customers, vendors, and others really didn’t matter.

However, that changed. Stockholders, instead of selling stock when they didn’t like the management, bought more of it – enough to develop a controlling interest. The result was the ability for stockholders to fire management – and that meant management had to start paying attention to the stockholder demands – and, in some cases, whims.

At the same time, consumers became able to choose alternatives, meaning that they, too, needed to be a group of people that management and the organization had to cater to. Don’t forget the quote attributed to Henry Ford: “They can have a Model T in any color they like as long as it’s black.” Whether he said it or not, it’s clear that he didn’t care what the customer wanted, he was working on efficiency.

More recently, employees could choose to work elsewhere, and that means employees, too, have to be considered. The abundance of groups eventually converted the term “stockholder” as someone literally holding stock in the organization to “stakeholder” – which more figuratively means that they had a stake in the organization.

Serving Stakeholders

Organizations survive and thrive to the extent that they serve their stakeholders. If they serve their stakeholders well, they’re rewarded with growth. If they fail to serve their stakeholders well, they’re faced with extinction. While true, this hides the deeper truth that not all stakeholders are created equal. Some stakeholders – for example, customers – may be more important than other stakeholders, like vendors. In business, you’re faced with inevitable tradeoffs, and sometimes the needs of one stakeholder must be prioritized over another.

The key to strategic management is in identifying what an acceptable minimal level of stakeholder service is. That is, what can you make investments in, and what stakeholders can you hold your existing commitments to serving their needs – or even lower them? How do you find the balance when there are so many stakeholders? It may be that this is what separates the excellent companies from the “also ran.”

Customer Service

If you want to be a premium brand, you don’t have to have a great product. It helps, to be sure, but it’s not required. What’s required is exemplary customer service. Years ago, when I was working for Woods Wire, we developed a brand called Yellow Jacket. If you ever had a problem with one of those extension cords, you could send it back and we would send you a replacement. It didn’t matter if you ran over it with a lawn mower or used it to tow a truck, we’d send you a replacement. The economics of it worked, because the margins on the product were much higher than standard commodity margins, and a very small number of people actually got replacements.

Craftsman tools were legendary with the public because they had a lifetime replacement guarantee for hand tools. (This has become the standard for most premium hand tools.) The truth is that few people ever returned a hand tool for a replacement, but those who did became raving fans of the brand. The investment in a small percentage of people in one stakeholder group paid off enormous dividends for the brand.

This is played out in hundreds of premium brands that differentiate themselves on customer service, even though, at first glance, they’re differentiating on product. The reason that we don’t see through the smoke screen is because they are addressing any product issue with a wealth of customer service.

Negotiation and Escalation

Strategic Management advocates the idea that we should negotiate rather than escalate. In general, this is a sound principle. Decisions can be made through command (dictatorship), consultation (benevolent dictatorship), vote (democracy), or consensus (agreement). What happens when you can’t reach a decision? One answer is “petition the king.” This strategy turns over the decision to a higher authority. It makes the problem the higher authority’s problem. On the surface, this sounds like a great plan.

The plan falls apart when you realize that the higher authority may not side in your favor, or they might create solutions that are – intentionally or not – worse than what the parties might have come up with on their own. Consider King Solomon and the two prostitutes who were fighting over one of the prostitute’s children (who both claimed was theirs). The solution was to cut the living child in half and give each a half (1 Kings 3:16-28). The story has a happy ending in that the mother who could not bear to see her child killed offered to give up the child, and the King ultimately sorted things – but the initial solution would have served neither party.

Having been in life and business for many years, I recognize this isn’t a binary situation. There are absolutely times when escalation is the right answer – but the number of times is very, very small.

Understanding Irrationality

When one is tempted to exclaim that a stakeholder group is responding irrationally, I’m reminded that we don’t live in a world of absolute rationality. We live in a world of bounded rationality. We do what’s rational to us based on our beliefs and perspectives. We live in a world where our decisions may lead us individually to greater good but collectively to ruin. If we were to exploit natural resources to the point of exhaustion or extinction, we serve no one. However, these extinction/exhaustion events don’t happen through a single individual actor. They happen as many people apply behaviors that are rational to them and their well-being.

If you ever think that a stakeholder group is being irrational, it just means that you don’t understand them.

Short and Long Term

Perhaps the hardest thing to do in business is managing the balance between short-term and long-term investments. If you don’t survive, your long-term investments are wasted. However, if you don’t make long-term investments, you’ll always be stuck in a world of constant struggle. Others will become more efficient than you through their long-term investments, and the result will be that you’ll enter a spiral of short-term decisions that are you never able to avoid as you spend all of your resources just surviving day to day. Maybe the first long-term investment you should make is a small one – in reading Strategic Management.

Book Review-Choosing Civility: The Twenty-five Rules of Considerate Conduct

In a world where the slightest provocation seems to send us spinning out of control, it’s critical to find a force that can stop the escalation and turn the tide on the waves of fear and anger. That force may well be civility. In Choosing Civility: The Twenty-five Rules of Considerate Conduct, P.M. Forni lays out a set of guidelines to increase civility in our organizations and in our lives.

Our Actions Impact Others

The truth at the heart of civility is that our actions impact others. The impact we have on others can be positive, negative, or mixed. We can decide that our negative impacts on others are justifiable, or we can decide that we want positive impacts on others whether or not we see those positive effects reflected to us or not.

In The Evolution of Cooperation, Robert Axelrod explains how his computer simulation games led to the conclusion that cooperation is supported by evolution. That is, we want to find solutions that are the best for everyone rather than just for ourselves. In Drive was my first exposure to the ultimatum game, where people would give up their own (small) monetary gains to teach others fairness. The Righteous Mind has a great coverage of how we evolved to morality and the forces that help to keep the anti-societal forces in check. We seem to know inherently that we have the ability to impact others through our words and actions, and we must sometimes use these actions to hold society together. (For another perspective, see Trust: Human Nature and the Reconstitution of Social Order.)

The real question is the degree to which we must and should consider others in our actions. There are the legislated requirements for consideration of others that are codified in laws. There are social norms and expectations that further define those times when we’re expected to consider others. However, beyond the social and societal norms, we have a great deal of flexibility in the degree to which we consider others. On one end of that spectrum, we’re seen as particularly considerate, and on the other end, we’re seen as inconsiderate.


Morality encompasses both the legislated expectations of behavior as well as the social norms. Albert Bandura speaks at length about how our morals can be disengaged in Moral Disengagement, and Phillip Zimbardo walks us through examples where this has happened in The Lucifer Effect. This end of the spectrum is the opposite of civility. It’s a place where you’re aware that you’re harming others, and you don’t care – or worse yet, you derive joy from it.

Steel Axe Heads

Tucked away in pages near the end of Diffusion of Innovations is a cautionary story. It’s a journal article that recounts what happened to Australian Aborigines after missionaries started offering them steel axe heads. The desired impact was one of improvement to the standard of living for the individual and the tribe. The actual impact was quite different, as it served to break down the fabric of society. Their society relied upon the relationship to elders and the stone axe heads they lent to younger men.

Steel axe heads meant that there was no longer a need for the younger members of the tribe – or the women – to respect the elders. The result led to a breakdown of society, including prostitution. (I still can’t wrap my head around how this came to be.)

The point is that our desired outcome in our relationships with others isn’t always the actual outcome we get. Instead, we can only be responsible for our intent, our preparation, and our willingness to adapt. We can’t control the outcomes. We only control our responses. More than anything, that makes the process of civility hard.

Compliments and the Backhand

One of the interesting things that seems like a compliment – “You speak very good English” – can be seen as a putdown or insult when delivered to someone who was born in the United States but whose ethnicity is clearly not Western European. It’s not that the person to whom the comment was directed is being sensitive if they respond. Nor is it fair to say that the person who made the well-intended comment was being insensitive. However, the fact remains that the intended complement is received as a backhanded putdown.

In environments of trust, it’s possible for the recipient of the comment to explain the problem to the person who made the comment, so that they become more aware and more sensitive. In this way, the implementation of an open communication improves the relationship between the parties and opens up the comment maker to deeper levels of civility.

Take a Chance

Taking a chance on others may be something that Americans do in greater numbers and to greater degrees than their colleagues from the rest of the world, but that doesn’t mean that everyone can’t learn to do it. The degree of openness and trust are indicators for both economic and societal growth. If you can increase civility, you increase trust, and with increased trust, you achieve increased performance.


If you want to demonstrate civil behaviors, you must have a fundamental respect for other human beings. The more you can learn to respect every human, the greater your civility – and by Choosing Civility, you’ll improve your own life as well.

Book Review-The 4 Stages of Psychological Safety: Defining the Path to Inclusion and Innovation

There are no silver bullets – and even if there were, it wouldn’t be very safe to shoot them. The path to developing psychological safety isn’t easy, but Timothy Clark offers some practical steps and advice on how to build psychological safety in The 4 Stages of Psychological Safety: Defining the Path to Inclusion and Innovation.

In my review of Amy Edmonson’s The Fearless Organization, I shared the competing perspectives that we should move towards fearless organizations, but we’ll never reach that goal as long as we have human employees – because they’ll bring their fears with them. Clark provides practical advice about what to do about creating the safety that you desire.

The Four Stages

Clark’s stages are centered around increasing respect and permission:

  1. Inclusion Safety – We’re a part of the group.
  2. Learner Safety – It’s OK to learn.
  3. Contributor Safety – We’re able to contribute.
  4. Challenger Safety – It’s OK to challenge the status quo.

Clark returns to these points throughout the book as he weaves together a set of truths about safety.


Perhaps the greatest misunderstanding people have is that creating a psychologically safe environment means that you never create any disagreement and you never hold people accountable. However, this isn’t an accurate perspective of what psychological safety is. It’s not that you can’t disagree, hold people accountable, or argue. In fact, it’s the opposite. It’s only when you can make it safe that people will be able to express their disagreement respectfully and openly.

In the desire to escape from the childish back-and-forth, where people attack each other at the slightest provocation to protect their fragile egos, we’ve removed all conflict, all disagreement, and, ultimately, all sense that things are real. Because they’re not real we know intuitively that, at some point, things are going to explode, and as a result, we don’t feel safe. In trying to create a safe environment, we’ve unintentionally made it worse by disrespecting the reality of the situation.

Of course, it’s easier to force the disagreement and accountability below the surface. It’s easier to develop a no-tolerance policy for conflict. It’s a harder thing to find a path of respect that leads towards the right kind of accountability instead of random attacks.

Respect and Paternalism

Respect for someone operates on many different levels. There’s respect for someone’s rights as a human being – in a sense, allowing them to be who they want to be. (See How to Be an Adult in Relationships for more on allowing.) There is also respect for their capabilities—in a sense, a trust in their competence. (See my post Trust => Vulnerability => Intimacy, Revisited for a place to start on learning about competence trust.) Respect is recognizing both the intrinsic value as a human being and their unique value for being who they are.

Respect in a corporate environment is as necessary as trust to lubricate the gears of interaction and make it possible to achieve great results. Without respect and trust, the gears of interaction slow to a halt, and the organization grinds against itself, struggling to get things done against the resistance that seems to come from everywhere.

A lack of respect shows itself in the form of paternalism – that is, when the employees aren’t respected to understand what’s best for them, leadership must coddle them and make decisions for them. As a parent, I must say that not all paternalism is bad – nor is all paternalism good. Sometimes, they – children or employees – can’t yet understand the situation well enough to make their own decisions. However, the key here is the respect for their growth so that they will be able to make these decisions on their own in the future even if they can’t make them today. The key is to have the mindset that they can grow if they’re given the right conditions. (See Mindset for more on what it’s like to have a growth mindset.)

Respecting Growth

While a mighty oak tree is more impressive than the sapling – or even the acorn – that doesn’t mean that we don’t respect them. We respect the oak tree has different stages of life, some more vulnerable than others. We recognize that only through nurturing the acorn and the sapling can the oak tree become what it can become. It’s this perspective that we should adopt with other humans under our care. We should think of respecting their ability to make their own decisions while simultaneously creating the best possible conditions for growth.

Nudge spoke about the subtle changes made with university professors that led to them saving more for retirement. These changes still gave the professors the choice but at the same time made the path easier to make the right choice.

The line between paternalism and providing guidance may be in allowing people – including children – the opportunity to have a choice while encouraging desirable behaviors. Employer matching into a 401k retirement plan is one of those balances. The employer knows that the employee needs to save for retirement. The employer offers a benefit of employee contribution matching in part as a way of enticing people to come work for the organization but in part as a way of encouraging the right behaviors. They make it so that employees believe they’re getting more money by funding their retirement – and that’s truth, they are. The decision is still the employees’ to make, the employer just made the deal sweeter.

Intellectual and Social Friction

No one wants to feel excluded. We still carry with us the unconscious awareness that being excluded from a group is threatening to our survival. The more conflict we feel between the group that we’re supposed to be in and ourselves, the less safe we’ll feel. This happens whether we feel accepted by the group yet different or whether we feel as if we should be a part of the group but are rejected or partially rejected by them.

This creates tension when we have an intellectual disagreement – intellectual friction – and the other person or group threatens our membership in the group because of it. I wrote in my review of The Dance of Connection that sometimes we have to make the choice of being right or being in a relationship. Sometimes, it’s difficult to find ways to exit a conversation where you’ve expressed your intellectual disagreement and at the same time do it in a way that preserves the relationship.

Clark encourages us to avoid the trap of not holding people accountable by simultaneously increasing intellectual friction and decreasing social friction. We increase our ability to disagree with someone intellectually and accept them into our group. (See How to Be an Adult in Relationships for more on acceptance.)

Social and Emotional Poverty

In Alone Together, Sherry Turkle shares the frightening truth that, despite all our communications technologies and ways to connect, we feel more alone than we ever have. Our sense of community and relationships have become so diluted that we’re feeling more depression and other mental health issues as a society. We’ve become technologically wealthy but socially poor. The answer to this is, of course, to be more intentional about our relationships and prioritize ways to maintain them. However, that requires a level of emotional capacity that few of us still have.

In a world where emotions aren’t okay at work, we’ve suppressed and repressed them and they’re leaking out. We’ve become so detached from our emotions that we can no longer use them to help us make and maintain new relationships. We’re disconnected from our compassion and frightened by our fear. We’re alienated by our anger – and we don’t even realize it’s happening.

In Switch and The Happiness Hypothesis is a recounting of Jonathan Haidt’s Elephant-Rider-Path model of cognition. It makes it clear that emotions will always win in the long run. At some point, our reason cannot hold back the power of emotions. Instead of trying to hold them back, it would be better for all of us if we learned to have a relationship between our rational minds and our emotional selves. The research is clear that we make our decisions more emotionally than we’d like to admit anyway – perhaps it’s time to accept our emotions and find a way out of poverty.

I Love You, therefore I’m Going to Hold You Accountable

Clark’s language is “I’ve learned to say, ‘I love you and I’m going to hold you accountable’ in the same sentence and mean it.” However, for me, it doesn’t go far enough towards the ultimate goal of learning how to hold people appropriately accountable inside of the envelope of love and concern for them. It’s not “I love you BUT I’m going to hold you accountable” – it’s that BECAUSE of my respect, caring, concern, and love for you I’m WILLING to hold you accountable.

Holding others accountable comes at great personal risk. To hold someone accountable is to be willing to accept the consequences of holding them accountable, and that’s hard to do.

In the end, it’s only through building psychological safety that someone can learn to hold others accountable and accept the consequences knowing that it’s the only path to growth for everyone. It may not be The 4 Stages of Psychological Safety, but then again, maybe it is.

Book Review-Growth Has No Boundaries: The Christian’s Secret to a Deeper Spiritual Life

It’s difficult to disagree with people you perceive as wiser than you. Your initial response is that there must be something wrong with your thinking. That’s the feeling I had as I was reading Growth Has No Boundaries: The Christian’s Secret to a Deeper Spiritual Life. I’ve got deep respect for both Dr. Henry Cloud and Dr. John Townsend. I refer to their work often. (See Boundaries, Beyond Boundaries, Changes that Heal, Integrity, The Power of the Other, and Safe People for other books by them.) However, I felt like in this book, they’ve moved from empowering people to move with Christ to suggesting that people should take their hands off the wheel and let God “magically” fix things.

The Christian Disclaimer

I consider myself a Christian. That’s easy. The disclaimer isn’t about my faith. The disclaimer is about what people have done and continue to do in the name of Christianity. Just because I am Christian doesn’t mean I don’t respect your beliefs may be different. It doesn’t mean I don’t accept you for who you are. It doesn’t mean I agree with the divisions.

For me, Jesus had a simple message of love and inclusion. That applies to whether you’re an atheist, a Muslim, a Hindu, a Buddhist – or any other faith. It’s not my role to judge as too many Christians have tried to do. I have shaped my view based, in part, on the Jesuits (see Heroic Leadership).

I also believe strongly that we have a responsibility for our own destiny. While God (in whatever form you believe in) is benevolent, we’re expected to participate. I resist when people tell me that all you must do is just pray and God will make it all better.

Language, Faith, Pray, and Worries

If you look up some of the original words that we use today and find their core meaning, it may surprise you. For instance, sin means only to be separated from God. It’s distance, not a condemnation. Of course, being away from your community was, at the time, a life-threatening event, but it didn’t necessarily mean that you were bad – or even that you did bad. (See I Thought It Was Just Me (But It Isn’t) for more.

We like to talk about “ye of little faith,” yet in Greek, faith is always a gift from God. So, someone is effectively telling you that you’ve been cursed if you don’t have faith (because they don’t themselves understand what faith is). Prayer is the exchange of our worries or concerns for faith.

This knowledge drives me to be cautious of people who become too wrapped up in the current definitions for these words and their meaning. One last, frustrating topic is the idea that Jesus said to turn the other cheek to promote pacifism. In the context of the time, it was more likely designed to cause the person to show their true character, so that you would know what to expect of them. However, it’s almost never taught that way.

Viewing Personal Growth

Personal growth has, according to Cloud and Townsend, been viewed from four models:

  • Sin – There is sin in your life preventing the personal growth; to grow, remove the sin.
  • Truth – “The truth will set you free.” There’s some truth that you’re refusing to accept; when you accept it, you’ll grow.
  • Experiential – Find the hurt or abuse in your life and use whatever means necessary to exorcise it from your life.
  • Supernatural – Instant growth and healing are available through charismatic, immediate results.

However, these four models don’t adequately address the breadth of growth that they were seeing in practice. People were growing but not through one of these classical approaches.

Getting Unstuck

Even in more mainstream counseling literature, there’s an awareness that we’re painfully bad at being able to predict what will – and won’t – work in therapy. The Heart and Soul of Change basically admits that, beyond therapeutic alliance – how well you get along with your counselor – very little predicts success or failure at addressing the chief complaint when you approach counseling. While personality tests have struggled to try to find ways of identifying pathologies so that they might be removed, they’ve failed miserably at this task: even the best instruments don’t have the kinds of reliability that one would hope for. (See The Cult of Personality Testing for more.)

Growth Has No Boundaries is an attempt to capture some of the aspects of what was working so that more people could get past their barriers.

One Life

Cloud and Townsend dance around the issue of integrated self-identity by focusing only on the idea of a spiritual life separate from your “real” life. They illuminate the truth that we are one person and we have to accept that the one person we are is the person who shows up wherever we are.

I’ve spoken a great deal about an integrated self-image, most recently in my review of Braving the Wilderness. The concept goes by different names dating back to Albert Bandura’s work and before. (See Self-Efficacy for a primer.) I believe that the ability to accept yourself completely and to behave consistently is essential for mental well-being. (See How to Be an Adult in Relationships for more about acceptance.)

Cruel and Clear

“It’s not cruel, it’s clear.” I’m paraphrasing a part of a parable told in Kim Scott’s Radical Candor. (“It’s not mean, it’s clear.”) The parable is about a dog owner, and the dog trainer that crosses their path. The dog trainer quickly gets the dog to sit by simply being clear and firm. We can’t use the same approach with people, but clarity of the message is valuable.

Too often, we err on the side of not being clear enough when we give feedback to others. We whitewash our response to not offend them, even when what they desperately want and need is radical candor. Those who are the most mature, leaders with the greatest potential, and the most amazing humans crave candid feedback about their ideas and their performance. To fail to respond with the feedback they request is to deny them the very thing they need most – but our fear holds us back and prevents us from being able to be truly present in the moment with them. Our fear for what they’ll think of us trumps their desire and request for feedback.

Feedback when uninvited or not part of a relationship can be cruel. It can be unwelcome and unwanted. We’ve learned that even when people ask for feedback, they don’t always really want it. They want someone to pat them on the back and make them feel good. We’ve learned that it’s safer to not give feedback – even when it’s called for. Somehow, we’ve accepted that the distress that we get from someone who has asked for feedback – and we provide appropriately critical feedback – is our fault. We internalize that we’re being cruel when that is not likely the case.

Pain, Hurt, and Suffering

They call them labor pains, but they’re the signal that a baby is about to come. We experience pain when we exercise, but it’s in the service of improving our health, increasing our endurance, and growing our muscles. Pain is a negative feeling, no doubt. However, much about how we respond to pain is determined by how we view it. The more we view pain as a signal rather than a warning, the more likely we are to listen to it rather than fear or avoid it.

We are, of course, trying to avoid being hurt. We don’t want to believe that we can be hurt – or acknowledge that we must be hurt. We must hurt after an exercise to know that we’ve done it well enough that our muscles will be rebuilt stronger. It’s natural to want to avoid being hurt because of the feeling that it leaves us more vulnerable when, in truth, it only exposes us to the vulnerability that we’ve had all along.

Suffering is the pervasiveness of hurt. It’s holding on to the pain that should be let go of. Suffering is the choice of our response to pain and hurt. We can treat them as opportunities for growth and let go of the pain and hurt when they’ve taught their lesson, or we can hold on to them like a badge of honor. (See The Hope Circuit for more on the difference between post-traumatic growth and post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD.) We suffer when we fail to accept the pain. (Much of this view of suffering comes from Buddhist philosophy, which you can find out more about in The Trauma of Everyday Life.)

Relationships, Accountability, and Growth

Growth requires our ability to be in relationships with others. (See The Power of Other for more.) We need others to help us see what we can’t see ourselves. (See Theory U for more.) Not only do we need them to see what we can’t, but we also need them to help us be what we can’t be. They do that by holding us accountable to be who we say we’re going to be.

While the process of others holding us accountable is painful, it may be necessary to achieve the growth we desire.

The Other Side

The other side of disagreement can be a better relationship. This is the fundamental point of Crucial Conversations and an opportunity for all of us to find ways to make our relationships better through conflict – not worse.

The Disagreements

For the most part in this review, I’ve side-stepped the disagreements that I have with Cloud and Townsend. However, I offer a few quick thoughts here.

I mentioned in my review of Changes That Heal that I felt as if Cloud had confused or conflated shame and guilt. Similarly, I think Cloud and Townsend here confuse suffering – which is optional – with pain, which is essential. Perhaps it’s semantics, but then again, so are emotions, which are broken into their component stimulus and assessment. Sometimes, there’s important clarity in the details.

The other key disagreement is about Matthew 5:39 – where Jesus instructs the listeners to turn the other cheek. I think that when you restore the historical context to his statement, you get the richness of the moment and the awareness of knowing another person’s true intent.

Despite the disagreements, you may want to make it your true intent to read Growth Has No Boundaries.

Book Review-Gamestorming: A Playbook for Innovators, Rulebreakers, and Changemakers

How do you write a review of a dictionary? That’s the question that came to mind as I was trying to write this review. Gamestorming: A Playbook for Innovators, Rulebreakers, and Changemakers is sort of a dictionary, but instead of words, it’s designed to provide definition to the games we play when we’re working to solve hard problems. It’s been in my library for some time now, but other than flipping through it from time to time, I had never really made my way through it. That’s likely for the same reason most people don’t read the dictionary cover to cover: you just don’t process the information that way.

A Whack on the Side of the Head

Sometimes, you need A Whack on the Side of the Head. It’s an idea sparking book that was recommended to me a few decades ago by a boss of mine when we were doing product development. The idea is that you use the book to try to approach problems differently so that you can see new things, including new solutions. The book was not ever particularly useful to me in that sense, but occasionally I still flip through the book when I’m struggling with something and I want to try to jar my thinking. I’m not sure why I keep doing this even though it has yet to work, but that’s a story for another time.

Gamestorming is similar to A Whack on the Side of the Head in that it contains a set of games designed to help people break out of their thinking and produce better results. The book catalogs a list of games that can be used to elicit better input from others. It draws on numerous sources, including Luke Hohmann’s excellent Innovation Games. Coverage in other sources is often more in-depth, but Gamestorming seems to provide enough context that you could run a game with only the information provided in its pages.

Why Games Work

In instructional design circles, gamification is all the rage. The basic thinking is that if you give people badges and points, they’ll automatically start wanting to learn more. That is, unfortunately, not true. Many instructional designers have lost their way trying to embed gamification through such simplified means. Despite the failures, people manage to connect with our competitive natures and accomplish gamification of their instructional programs.

However, the simple rules of achievement and competition are not what drives gamification in the settings of requirements gathering, wicked problem solving (see Dialogue Mapping for more), and general elicitation. What drives games in this context is the ability to suspend the normal rules of business behavior and replace them with a completely different set of rules that are more attuned to achieving the goals. Games work, because they transport us, in whole or in part, to a different world, where the invisible barriers that held us back from being open, honest, and creative are temporarily removed. (See Creative Confidence for how our creativity is inhibited.)

Components of the Game

Games have three main phases: the opening, the exploration, and the closing. There are different activities in each phase.

The Opening (Act 1)

In the opening, the focus is on setting the stage and defining the rules that the game will operate in. It is in this phase that the major themes and ideas are created. It’s where information is shared about how things will happen in the game.

This is the place where excitement is intentionally generated and fueled. The goal is to create the energy that will power the game through to the end. It’s the launch of adventure.

While setting boundaries and guidelines, the opening is expansive and allows people to step through the wardrobe into Narnia – at least their version of Narnia in the form of the game.

The Exploration (Act 2)

In the exploration phase, the game is running. The cycles of the game are happening, and people are operating inside the constraints of the system. This phase might wind down on its own and move towards closing automatically, or it may be necessary for the game master to nudge the game to closing.

The Closing (Act 3)

In the closing phase, the game is being wound down. The conclusions from the exercise are being drawn, and, where appropriate, the decisions about what to do next and who is assigned action items as a result of the game are established.

Game Listing

The bulk of the book is spent cataloging and summarizing the games. A brief list is:

  • Affinity Map
  • Bodystorming
  • Card Sort
  • Dot Voting
  • Empathy Map
  • Forced Ranking
  • Post-Up
  • Storyboard
  • WhoDo
  • 3-12-3 Brainstorm
  • The Anti-Problem
  • Brainwriting
  • Context Map
  • Cover Story
  • Draw the Problem
  • Fishbowl
  • Forced Analogy
  • Graphic Jam
  • Heuristic Ideation Technique
  • History Map
  • Low-Tech Social Network
  • Mission Impossible
  • Object Brainstorm
  • Pecha Kucha/Ignite
  • Pie Chart Agenda
  • Poster Session
  • Pre-Mortem
  • Show and Tell
  • Show Me Your Values
  • Stakeholder Analysis
  • Spectrum Mapping
  • Trading Cards
  • Visual Agenda
  • Welcome to My World
  • The 4Cs
  • The 5 Whys
  • Atomize
  • The Blind Side
  • Build the Checklist
  • Business Model Canvas
  • Button
  • Campfire
  • Challenge Cards
  • Customer, Employee Shareholder
  • Design the Box
  • Do, Redo, & Undo
  • Elevator Pitch
  • Five-Fingered Consensus
  • Flip It
  • Force Field Analysis
  • Give-and-Take Matrix
  • Heart, Hand, and Mind
  • Help Me Understand
  • Make a World
  • Mood Board
  • Open Space
  • Pain-Gain Map
  • The Pitch
  • Product Pinocchio
  • Post the Path
  • RACI Matrix
  • Red:Green Cards
  • Speedboat
  • Staple Yourself to Something
  • SWOT Analysis
  • Synesthesia
  • Talking Chips
  • Understanding Chain
  • Value Mapping
  • The Virtuous Cycle
  • Visual Glossary
  • Wizard of Oz
  • The World Café
  • $100 Test
  • 20/20 Vision
  • Ethos, Logos, Pathos
  • Graphic Gameplan
  • Impact & Effort Matrix
  • Memory Wall
  • NUF Test
  • Plus/Delta
  • Prune the Future
  • Start, Stop, Continue
  • Who/What/When Matrix

In Summary

If you’re familiar with some of the above list, you’ll realize that they’re not all games. Some are activities or even approaches. The point is less that the idea is a game in particular but more that it’s a different way of confronting a difficult challenge so that you can find novel solutions to the challenges. Maybe the next time you are confronted with a difficult problem, you can start by Gamestorming.