Alternate Facts

It’s a euphemism. It’s a way of saying that people don’t believe in the same reality. It’s the extreme form of confirmation bias, and it’s hurting all of us.


For some, it’s the largest conspiracy that the world has ever known. Pharmaceutical companies paid off government leaders and health care workers to create a fake disease so they could sell their fake vaccines. No one will admit it, but somehow the big pharma companies pulled it off – together. This is a compressed form of a message I received today. A longtime friend is convinced that the vaccines are a biological weapon that we’re willingly injecting into ourselves.

My facts include a brother-in-law who died of complications related to COVID-19 and a daughter who was off-work for five weeks because of COVID-19 and the resulting lack of energy. During the first week of that time – when she wasn’t in the hospital – I was appropriately concerned that I might walk over to her house and find her dead because of lack of oxygen. I’ve got direct, tangible experience that COVID-19 is not a hoax.

Despite my experience, I listen as others explain that coronavirus is a hoax. I try to explain that I’ve seen its effects firsthand and prepare myself for the inevitable dismissal that happens because this doesn’t fit with others’ views. I try to get to the root of their beliefs only to get stopped at the wall of “some guy on the internet said.” No evidence. No proof. No research. Not challenging. Belief because it’s what they wanted to believe.

Black Lives Matter

The people who were arrested were shipped in from other states. They were coming to town to intentionally cause a riot and destruction. The movement may have value, but it’s been taken over by people who are using it for a political agenda. They don’t want Trump reelected, and they’re willing to do anything to prevent it from happening.

There remains a serious and important inequality in the way that people are treated that deserves our attention and concern. I’ve heard experiences from a friend whom I respect that confirms the fear with which (some) black people live due to nothing other than their race. Whether it’s an artifact of slavery like the Jim Crow laws, an attempt to keep down those who are economically disadvantaged, or the result of the over-militarization of the police doesn’t matter. It’s something that we need to collectively work to resolve.

Here, there are no answers. It may be that both sides are right. It can be that there are forces that are manipulating important movements in the hopes that they can destabilize the government or disrupt events. Few deny that there are serious social issues in America related to race that have yet to be resolved.

Some would argue that when the message is changed to All Lives Matter – instead of Black Lives Matter – that it somehow weakens the movement and the power to heal what’s broken with race equality in America. Others point to research and religion to support their belief that the only way that we can move past this is to more universally value all lives – and all people. However, the arguments become polarized, leading to radical solutions.

Defund the Police

The police are bullies that don’t care about people – particularly black people – and we need to defund them, so they’ll learn that things need to change. If there are no police, then there will be no more oppression.

We care deeply about the people we serve. There are some bad apples – like in every group. We are called in to address the kinds of things that most people never have to see or think about. It can make even a compassionate person hard. It’s hard to see people hurting each other and disregarding other humans.

I’m deeply concerned with the plight of economically disadvantaged and the realities of their day-to-day life that I don’t have to contemplate. I’m sure that they feel oppressed by the police. I’m certain that there are cases where the police – those called to protect and serve – have unnecessarily harmed these poor citizens. I’m also aware of the kinds of calls that these humble servants must respond to. Domestic situations that make you want to weep at the suffering that one human brings on another.

The problem here is acknowledged by both sides. Both agree it needs to stop. However, one side has proposed a solution that can have no good outcome. The defunded police won’t be around to protect people from each other and that results in greater harm.

There are solutions – like improving alternative services and additional training that can more quickly identify the bad apples and empower those soulful individuals with the tools they need to help others not only address the current situation but to learn techniques to avoid it in the future.

The Problem

The problem isn’t that people see things differently or believe in different moral standards. The problem is that we’re unable to listen to one another and see the other point of view. We leap to solutions that are based on our perceptions and our values without challenging either.

The founding fathers of the United States built in structural conflict to help keep the power from becoming to centralized. These balances of power are far from perfect, but they have kept the country from reverting back to a monarchy. Through often painful conversations, we learn to more completely see the problem by viewing it from multiple perspectives. More than that, we learn to acknowledge others’ values even when they’re not in complete alignment with ours.

The path forward from alternate facts is simple: listen. You don’t have to believe what the other party is saying, but you do have to listen to them and respect their ability to hold different values while inquiring to better understand their perspective.

We have alternate facts because we’re not able to listen and give everyone the benefit of the doubt. We need to fix that.

Book Review-Think Again: The Power of Knowing What You Don’t Know

The man born as Samuel Clemens but better known as Mark Twain has a famous quote: “It ain’t what you don’t know that gets you into trouble. It’s what you know for sure that just ain’t so.” Our certainty that we know how things work and what the right answers are gets us into far more trouble than the things that we don’t believe we know. Think Again: The Power of Knowing What You Don’t Know seeks to encourage us to remain curious about the things that we do know and to learn how to relearn when things change. We all know the rate of change is increasing, and the ability to reconsider our truths is critical to our continued ability to survive and thrive.

Surviving a Fire

It was 1949 when a lightning-ignited fire was spotted in a remote part of Montana known as Mann Gulch. It was the policy at the time to extinguish any fire no matter whether it was a threat to human life and commercial property or not. Fifteen smokejumpers loaded into a single plane and were delivered to the fire. Smokejumpers are an elite group of purportedly fearless individuals considered firefighters at their core.

When the fire blew up and began chasing the smokejumpers, it may have been their identification with their profession that got thirteen of them killed. They ran up the slope to escape the fire with their heavy packs of tools. They might have looked at their retreat from the fire as a temporary setback instead of as a loss. They had never lost to fire, and it seems unlikely that they were willing to let that day be the day. They clung onto their tools in the belief that once they got to the top of the ridge, they could again take the offensive against the fire.

The leader of this group, Wagner Dodge, couldn’t give up his identity either but was willing to look at the problem differently. He knew he was being pursued by a big, out-of-control fire that he couldn’t compete with. However, he reasoned that he could create a small fire, burn out the fuel the larger fire needed in an area, and then survive by staying in that area as the larger fire passed him. He was right – and he was lucky. All save two other fearless heroes lost their lives in the fire.

The Meaning of Heat

In the mid-eighteenth century, every scientist seemed to subscribe to a theory of heat called the caloric theory. It suggested that it was an invisible fluid called caloric that was present in all matter. The amount of heat in an object was the result of this caloric fluid. The problems of the theory were many, from a lack of mass change when an object heated or cooled and the inconsistent heating of different kinds of matter to the lack of explanation for the heat generated by friction.

By the mid-nineteenth century, James Joule was able to validate the kinetic theory of heat proposed by Benjamin Thompson in the late eighteenth century. We now believe that heat is the result of atomic vibration – kinetic energy. The idea that heat was an invisible substance would seem laughable.

Around the World

Understanding the objects of the night sky was a source of fascination for centuries. We found patterns in the arrangement of the stars that surround us. We created constellations and elaborate stories of how the formation of stars came to be. As we sought to understand the motion of the heavenly bodies, there were two competing views from about 300 BC. One was geocentrism – that the Earth was the center of everything. With much less recognition was the idea that the Earth – and all the planets – circled the Sun. In Europe, it was a fact that the Sun and planets orbited Earth.

That was until 1514 when Copernicus published mathematical formulas of the movement of the planets. Only then did people seriously consider that the Earth might revolve around the Sun. Most dismissed Copernicus as a self-promotor or a crackpot until, in 1610, Galileo Galilei discovered moons around Jupiter, and he realized that Copernicus was right.

By 1616, there was an inquisition, and the Pope banned all materials related to the heliocentric model. By 1633, Galileo would be sentenced to prison for his refusal to adhere to the papal decrees regarding heliocentrism. His sentence was commuted to house arrest where he spent the rest of his days. It wouldn’t be until 1758 that the papal decree would be lifted, and we could officially recognize the order of the solar system as we understand it today.


In the world of computer databases, the language is still that transactions are atomic. That means they’re either completed together or not. It’s an important aspect of how to keep data integrity, but it exposes another place where our thinking has changed. Atomic used to mean indivisible. It wasn’t possible to break the atom down. It was as small as we could go. We know now that this is not true, as we’ve learned about quarks and even smaller particles called bosons that make up the Higgs field. Haven’t heard of them? You’re not alone. Nerds have heard about these experimental edges of science where it’s believed all objects get their mass, and thus their attraction to other matter, from.

What we seem to find is that the world is much more complex than we’d like to believe. Every time we believe we’ve got something nailed, we learn about a whole new world that had not yet been uncovered. Every time we uncover something new, we have to reevaluate all we know – and that can be very scary.

Fundamental Shifts

These examples represent fundamental shifts in thinking – and may explain why they take so long to eventually become accepted. There are a variety of cognitive biases (see Thinking, Fast and Slow, Superforecasting, and Sources of Power) and ego defense mechanisms (see Change or Die) that attempt to keep our current perspectives intact even in the face of irrefutable evidence that they’re wrong. The slow, defensive posture for protecting what we’ve worked so hard to learn is a reasonable thing in a world that changes very little. However, our world is far from unchanging.

In 1950, it took about 50 years for knowledge in medicine to double. By 1980, medical knowledge was doubling every 7 years. By 2010, it was doubling in half that time. What 70 years ago would take 50 years to double takes less than 10% of that today. Consider that it was 68 years for aircraft to get to 50 million users. It took Pokémon Go 19 days. In other words, we’re living in a world of change that is unlike anything in history. (See Focused, Fast, and Flexible for more.)

Cognitive Flexibility

Superforecasting explains that if we want to be good at forecasting, we must be willing to consider multiple perspectives. When Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi studied eminent scientists, he concluded that it was their cognitive flexibility that separated them from their peers. (Csikszentmihalyi is more well known for his work on Flow.) They had bucked the trend of becoming locked into a single perspective and instead embraced multiple views as the situation required. Walt Whitman, in “Song of Myself” section 51, explains, “I am large, I contain multitudes.” He, like the eminent scientists that Csikszentmihalyi studied, wasn’t afraid of contradicting himself.

This willingness to be cognitively flexible may combat one of the most challenging aspects of knowledge. The more we know, the more resolute we become about what we know. Instead of discovering what we don’t know, we turn inward to protect what we do know. In so doing, our convictions lock us in prisons of our own making.

Confidence and Humility

The Dunning-Kruger effect is the name given to why those that know the least about a topic are the most willing to believe in the importance of their knowledge and their command of the topic. Grant draws a graph with “Mount Stupid” – the place where we’re most likely to be subjected to the Dunning-Kruger effect and therefore comment upon our intelligence while exposing our ignorance. At some point, we discover we don’t know as much as we think we did on a topic, and we suddenly fall silent, aghast at what we don’t know.

What we’ve come to learn is that our confidence isn’t solely a measure of the validity of our words. While great leaders can be both humble and confident, it’s a difficult place to reach. It’s too easy to believe that humility is about thinking less of yourself, but my friend Ben says it’s not about thinking less of yourself but rather thinking about yourself less. Humilitas says that humility is “power held in service of others.” I like that, because it makes it difficult to believe that we could possibly confuse self-deprecation and humility. Jim Collins in Good to Great describes this as the Stockdale Paradox. It’s unwavering faith and relentless reexamination.

The Joy of Being Wrong

It’s always a tense moment. It’s the moment when, sitting in the audience, you know the presenter missed something. It can be that they missed something small or something important. It’s tense, because every fiber of your being is at war with itself. You wonder whether you should tell them – privately, quietly, respectfully – or whether you should ignore it. If you ignore it, you deprive them of the opportunity to learn and to be better. You also protect yourself from learning that perhaps you’re not right.

The problem is some people take great offense at even the slightest hint that they may have made an error, a mistake, or an omission. Their response can be direct and abrupt. At least this response allows you to learn what they really believe. Their response can be silent or sullen. It’s rare to encounter someone who says that they appreciate the feedback or that they need to further consider the point – and it’s a mark of excellence.

Grant shares a story about Daniel Kahneman being in the audience while he presented data that contradicted Kahneman’s beliefs and the resulting exchange afterwards. Danny was thrilled. He, wisely, recognized that being wrong is necessary, and it’s when people point out that he is wrong that he has the greatest opportunity to learn. Danny says, “My attachment to my ideas is provisional.” He embodies the perspective we all need to take to survive in our changing world to look for ways to change our opinion and work with the best and most recent facts we have.

The Need for Conflict

We want to believe that it’s possible to consistently get it right on the first attempt. We hear success stories where people seem to have stumbled across the right idea immediately. Brene Brown would say that we’ve gold-plated grit. (See Rising Strong.) We somehow missed the missteps, struggles, and challenges that made the path more winding, dangerous, and uncertain as the retrospective might seem to imply.

In our quest to remove the pain from others’ lives, we often forget that conflict and struggle are essential for everyone’s growth. Baby sea turtles must struggle to find their way to the ocean to calibrate their internal sense of direction. Chicks must break from their shell on their own to understand how to struggle and succeed. That’s why The Psychology of Not Holding Children Accountable is so tragic. While thinking they’re doing what is best for their children, parents are harming them.

An African proverb says, “If you want to go quickly, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.” (The Titleless Leader is the source of this reference.) When we’re working with others, there is bound to be conflict. They’ll see things differently or have different values. However, these differences in perspective allow us to become better – to rethink our perspectives – and to develop clarity.

The key challenge with conflict is not the conflict itself. It’s when the conflict is not managed well. Poorly managed conflict leads to hurt feelings and broken relationships. Having had these experiences, many of us fear the poor outcomes from conflict. When we learn to manage conflicts well – and we interact with others who manage conflict well – we can find conflict rewarding rather than debilitating.

A Weak Argument Dilutes a Strong One

When trying to win over another to a new way of thinking, we often load both barrels of our gun and give them everything. The problem with this approach is that it generates resistance. (See Motivational Interviewing for a better approach.) However, it also means that we’re loading up every argument regardless of its strength. The problem with this is that the overall strength of the argument is weakened by weaker points.

Instead of arguments adding to one another, they average each other. Because of this, focusing only on the strongest of the arguments for change gives you a better chance of success.

Persuading the Unpersuadable

Humans have a natural aversion to being persuaded. The moment I detect that you’re trying to persuade me, I’ll start the process of digging in my heals. That’s another reason why multiple arguments may be challenging. It triggers awareness of an attempt at persuasion and thus a reluctance to proceed.

Once this switch, has been tripped it may be that the person becomes unpersuadable. It can be that people are so firmly entrenched in their beliefs that they won’t change their mind no matter what evidence is provided. An important question to ask is “What evidence would change your mind?” If the answer to this is nothing, then there is no point in continuing.

The Greatest Hostility

One of the paradoxical things that happens in any sort of persuasion resistance is that we most violently defend those things which we know deep down aren’t true. We’ve got a natural tendency to defend our positions, but the ones that make us angry are those that we know are the most true. This creates a challenge.

Those people who are defending their beliefs the most vigorously are the same ones who deep-down know the truth. Somewhere along the line, they may have had someone try to convince them that they were wrong, but those people failed – and now the belief became stronger.

So, the internal conflict exists between a deep-seated knowledge that they are wrong and the need to protect themselves from further attempts at persuasion. This is one of the reasons why getting change initiative success is so hard once the organization has failed a few times.

Craving Certainty

As humans, we’re prediction machines, and we want certainty. We want to know that our predictions will come to pass. We don’t like the possibility of error or the chance of catastrophe. There’s always an internal pull that drags us from the understanding that the world is probabilistic rather than certain. (See The Halo Effect.) We know instinctively that nothing in life is certain – except “death and taxes,” as the saying goes. Despite this, we delude ourselves into believing that there are certainties. The certainties make us feel better about our world and reduce our fears. (See Change or Die for more on this phenomenon.)

It’s one of the reasons why when people appear to exude confidence, we’ll follow them more readily. We’d rather listen to “the sage on the stage” than someone who is aware of the limitations of their knowledge. We don’t often reward curiosity. We look at it as a reason to not be certain – and we don’t want that.

When to Commit and When to Think Again

The greatest challenges in life is the Stockdale Paradox. It’s learning when to commit to a course of action and learning when it’s time to Think Again.

Article: Block the Burnout

Organizations are facing unprecedented numbers of employees who are struggling with mental health issues, including burnout.  The global pandemic did more than disrupt our work, it disrupted the way that we communicate, connect, and remain productive.  However, these disruptions don’t need to ignite a wildfire of burnout.  Here’s what you can do to stop it.

From ATD’s TD magazine July 2021 issue. Read more:

Book Review-Team Genius: The New Science of High-Performing Organizations

How do we get productive work out of a group of people? Team Genius: The New Science of High-Performing Organizations seeks to answer this complex question. Instead of focusing on the big picture corporate strategy like Strategic Management, which seeks to organize the big picture of the organization, Team Genius seeks to focus on the level that work gets done. Like Richard Hackman in Collaborative Intelligence, the focus is on the way that small teams get work done. But unlike Hackman, Team Genius starts with having the right number of people.

Dunbar and the Numbers

The size of the team matters. Too small, and you can’t get enough done. While Range talks about the value of a generalist capable of doing many things and filling gaps, at some level, there are times when you just need sheer numbers of people. Conversely, when the “team” is too large, it descends into a lack of trust and bureaucracy that eats all the performance. That’s where the work of Robin Dunbar comes in. Dunbar is an anthropologist who studied the size of stable social relationships in primates and came up with the correlation between neocortex size and the number of relationships.

I first spoke of Dunbar’s work in my post High Orbit – Respecting Grieving. While often simplified to a single number, his work includes different rings of orbit around us, from our closest friends (3-5) and our friends and family (12-15) to our camping group (50) and the number of social relationships (150). Even these numbers are simplifications – but they’re good enough.

David Snowden, of Cynefin fame, is quoted as describing the latest number as “the number of identities that you can maintain in your head with some degree of acquaintances that an individual can maintain. It does not necessarily imply that you trust them, but it does mean that you can know something about them and their basic capabilities. In other words, you can manage your expectations of their performance and abilities in different contexts and environments.”


Because of Dunbar’s work, we can say that evolution is tied to our ability to manage social relationships. Whether it’s the need for social relationships that drove the size of the neocortex or vice-versa doesn’t matter. What we know is that there is a relationship. We also know some of what binds us together in groups.

Our rituals – and particularly our rhythmic movement, often to music – help us bind ourselves into like groups. We believe that we’re in the same group, because we’ve moved together in unison. This is one of the many points that Robert Cialdini makes in Pre-Suasion. While our evolutionary clocks are wired for connection and techniques to make those connections, our technology is busily spinning out of control.

Shery Turkle points out in Alone Together that we’re subjecting ourselves to new patterns of electronic interaction that we’ve never had and the rate at which it’s happening has never before been seen. Robert Putnam in Bowling Alone and Our Kids describes the kinds of shifts that we’re seeing as a society in part because of these technological changes. While these changes may disrupt our patterns, our thinking, and our evolution, they do give us new and better ways of collaborating if we can find them.


It’s an odd word designed to capture the struggle of the internal entrepreneur. Entrepreneur literally means “risk bearer.” (See Originals.) The risk to an internal employee isn’t necessarily financial ruin. It may, however, be loss of job, which may feel like the same thing.

Organizations must take care in their formation of teams to combat the natural resistance to risk taking and push every team to take appropriate risks. Chris Argyris in Organizational Traps speaks about the dangers of a lack of risk-taking including both the financial performance implications as well as the implications for team dynamics.

Tall Poppies

It’s an Australian reference. Tall poppies—those people who “get above themselves” – should be cut down to size. It’s also the idea that when people get outside the norm, when they distort or disrupt the whole, they should be cut down to protect the whole. Few organizations that I’ve ever been connected with have openly stated this as an operating philosophy while silently engaging in these behaviors.

Rebels at Work is open about the need to be a rebel. Radical Candor is similarly provocative inside its pages without using the word “rebel” (anywhere in its pages). However, Radical Candor does create clarity about how to be disruptive in your thinking, to step from the norm, while building healthy relationships.

My own experience is that there’s a tension created when someone offers a dissenting perspective. That tension can’t be too great, or the person will be cut down – eventually, if not in the moment. The degree to which someone can create and sustain this tension is based largely on the degree of trust they’ve developed with their team and in the organization.

Staying in the Shadows

Some of the teams that Team Genius speaks of aren’t what we think about when we think of a team. In many cases, the team is two people that work together to be productive, and some of those relationships are very asymmetric. Consider the leader and their executive assistant. The leader is the one who receives all the credit – financially and non-financially. The executive assistant may be just as critical as a pair of glasses, but dismissed almost as easily.

The truth is that, in these relationships, one person stays in the shadows – a place they may be perfectly content with. When you look carefully at great leaders, you often find that they have at least one if not more people behind them, supporting them and making them more successful than they could be on their own.

Smarter Together

Iron sharpens iron. Some teams are places where people can develop their own skills to contribute to the team or become better for what comes next for them. At their best, teams not only make people smarter while they’re in the team, but they leave the individuals with a residual positive outcome that stays with them.

Diversity Matters

When you speak with most folks about diversity, they see it as the first part in a diversity, equity, and inclusion department or program. However, when most biologists, sociologists, and psychologists speak of diversity, they’re not speaking about gender, race, or sexual orientation. They’re talking about who people react, respond, and process the world around them. The Difference makes the point that having a diverse group doesn’t mean representing various tangible groups based on protected classes. Instead, it’s about finding people that think different (à la Apple’s old advertising campaigns).

The truth is that the best collaborations – those that win Nobel prizes – are about interdisciplinary collaborations that bring together two or more different views of a problem and meshes them together into a finely tuned machine that explains the workings of the problem and creates opportunities for solutions. When we’re looking to form our team, the worst thing we can do is stock it with people who agree with each other on everything.

A Word on Conflict

Team Genius doesn’t dedicate any time to conflicts, but it’s such a critical aspect of team formation and operation that I felt the need to interject it into this review. First, it’s important to recognize that conflict is essential for team productivity. The problem is most people perceive conflict as a negative. The most poignant memories they have of conflicts are those that are handled poorly. However, there are plenty of examples in nature of how we need struggle (and thus conflict) to allow us to succeed. In adult learning, it’s called desirable difficulty. (See The Adult Learner and Efficiency in Learning.)

When you’re designing your team, I’d encourage you to design in a bit of appropriate conflict through differences in perspective and values.

The Need for Lead(ership)

A famous quote from Top Gun is, “I feel the need… the need for speed.” Teams need a sense of urgency – a need for speed. However, perhaps more importantly they have a need for leadership. They need to have the gentle guiding and that keeps them on track to the objective and ensures that the conflicts are appropriately managed.

Types of Tasks

Group productivity, according to Ivan Steiner, is the potential productivity minus the process losses. He believed that the process losses differed based on the type of task. He broke the types of tasks into three categories:

  • Component – The degree to which the broader goal can be broken into component parts.
  • Focus – The direction of the effort.
  • Interdependent – The degree to which individual contributions are interrelated.

The types of tasks are:

  • Additive – The output of every member is more or less directly added, as in tug-of-war.
  • Disjunctive – The entire team is solving a single problem that does not require the special skills of every member. As a result, the team performs at the level of the most competent member.
  • Conjunctive – All members are required to solve a single problem but where each member must contribute. As a result, the team performs at the level of the least competent member.
  • Compensatory – All members can help to compensate for one another. As a result, the team performs at the average performance of the members.
  • Discretionary – Tasks that individual members decide to integrate into the whole. Here the performance is based on the ability of the members to add their work to the whole.
  • Configural – A mixture of the preceding.

It’s important to note that Hackman substantially extended Ivan Steiner’s work including criteria for being a real team and lenses for measuring team efficacy. (See Collaborative Intelligence.)

Pairs and Their Types

Team Genius outlines several different kinds of teams:

  • Got Your Six – These short-lived teams protect one another.
  • The Magic Moment – These are teams formed by a magic moment where their talents are helpful to one another.
  • Chained Together by Success – These teams are successful together but unsuccessful apart, and though they may not like each other believe they need each other to succeed.
  • Here and There – Geographically distributed teams that work together to extend their collective reach geographically and intellectually.
  • Together, We’re More Than Two – Pairs created because both can be more successful together than apart.
  • Castor and Pollux – Perfect pairings where the two members can take on each other’s duties. Perhaps the rarest of pairings.
  • Lifeboats – Pairings where one or both are trying to rescue the other.
  • Yin and Yang – Two complementary skills coming together to form a competitive force.
  • The Artist and the Angel – Investment partnerships where one has resources and the other has the idea and drive.
  • Counterweights – Character and personality trait opposites that tend to provide counterweight to balance both out.
    • Inside/Outside – One member is focused outward and the other inward.
      • Finder and Grinder – One member finds new business and the other services that business.
      • Pitcher and Fielder – One member works on short term concerns and the other works on longer term opportunities.
      • Explorer and Navigator – One member driving towards a goal and the second one ensuring alignment.
  • Remember the Force – Unequal pairings of mentor and mentee.
  • The Distant Idol – An individual following another person who is inaccessible or even dead.
  • The Sword and the Shield – A protection pair (like Got Your Six) where one member is weaker.

Trios and their Types

There are also several forms of trios that are identified as well:

  • 2+1 – This is a pair with one additional member that is less essential.
  • Parallel – Two pairs sharing a common member.
  • Serial – Shared pairings that are separated in time.
  • Instrumental – Carefully designed roles working on a defined task.

Friendly But Not Friends

Perhaps the most telling statement from Team Genius is that many of the people who were involved in a team – even a wildly popular team – were friendly but not friends. Maybe the secret to creating high performance teams isn’t in getting everyone to be friends. Maybe being friendly but not friends is how you create Team Genius.

Book Review-The Coaching Habit: Say Less, Ask More & Change the Way You Lead Forever

It’s an uncomfortable conversation. There is a group of change practitioners who believe coaching is required to accomplish change. I’m not convinced. However, to investigate the premise a bit, I picked up The Coaching Habit: Say Less, Ask More & Change the Way You Lead Forever. Along the way, I discovered why it’s possible that I’m not so convinced that coaching is essential yet others are.

Good Leadership

Leadership isn’t easy to describe. Joseph Rost spent the better part of his book, Leadership for the Twenty-First Century, just trying. However, there are aspects of leadership that many believe are important. Robert Greenleaf is known for his work on Servant Leadership. Daniel Goleman and his colleagues make the case for emotional intelligence in leadership in Primal Leadership. Liz Wiseman talks about the way that leaders bring out the best in others in Multipliers. Patrick Lencioni lays out his perspective in The Advantage. Everyone seems to have their own perspective on what good leadership is.

There are, however, common threads that run through the conversation. In Heroic Leadership, Chris Lowney explains how the Jesuits listened to the environments they were in and demonstrated behaviors rather than relying on rules. It turns out that good leaders are leaders that listen.

Motivational Interviewing

For me, every leader and manager should be taught Motivational Interviewing. The skills are based on listening and are designed to help even the most stubborn resistors to accept that there are changes in their life that can make their lives better. The rub between this and coaching is that motivational interviewing starts with listening and recognizes that the person is the expert in their lives.

Coaching provides the appearance of listening before giving advice – but that’s the rub. The expectation is that the coach will provide their advice and expertise. Built on the wisdom of Carl Rogers, motivational interviewing respects the individual. (See A Way of Being for more.) So perhaps my issue with coaching isn’t that I don’t believe it’s valuable – it’s that I believe it’s often not done well. Anyone can call themselves a coach without understanding how people are effectively moved to better performance.

Victim, Persecutor, and Rescuer

The triangle goes by different labels. In my Hurtful, Hurt, Hurting post, I explained the triangle with the labels of victim, villain, and the rescuer. Whatever labels are in use, the power dynamics remain the same. The dysfunctional system is fueled by the relationships and the need to see people in one of these key roles. One of the best functions of a coach is to break people out of these sick cycles and get them to higher levels of functioning.

The trick may be to view the roles differently and to see how the dysfunction of the systems impacts our ability to see ourselves. (See Beyond Boundaries for more.)

Performance Coaching

Coaching does add value. Anders Ericsson and Robert Pool make this clear in Peak. However, at the same time, the ability to assess the value of the coaching is difficult. Because we have no expertise in what it takes to get to coaching quality, it’s hard for us to determine if our coach is good or not. This is the same problem that we have with finding an appropriate counselor. (See The Heart and Soul of Change for the challenges.)

So, I think that there is value to coaching when done well. Perhaps the best way to generate value with coaching is to turn your leadership into The Coaching Habit.

Book Review-Images of Organization

Subtly, under our conscious thought, we have models for organizations. The way that we see the organization colors how we interact with it and shapes our thinking. In Images of Organization, Gareth Morgan exposes the different kinds of models that people use for organization and their implications – both positive and negative.

All Models Are Wrong

George Box, a famous statistician, said, “All models are wrong. Some are useful.” Morgan clarifies that all models are useful in some ways and unhelpful in others. Metaphors allow us to process complex ideas and situations, but in doing so, they obscure and hide aspects that may be relevant. They can also distort our view of the organization in ways that can cause us to operate ineffectively with them.

It’s not that we should stop using models of organizations but rather we should understand the limits of the model and should be willing to change models when the distortions exceed the value generated by the model.

The Mechanical Model

Perhaps the oldest and most prevalent model of organizations is that of a machine. Fredrick Taylor and scientific management is the epitome of this model. People are but cogs in a giant machine. Even successful adaptations of this model, like the ones used in the Toyota Production System, treat humans as an extension of the great machine. (See Taiichi Ohno’s Workplace Management for more.) The tradition goes back to Adam Smith and The Wealth of Nations. Specialization, compartmentalization, and deskilling are the name of the game.


Henry Ford may have revolutionized production with the assembly line, but his 380% annual turnover did nothing for the bottom line. It wasn’t until he offered his famous $5 a day wages that he was able to get his turnover under control. It was perhaps the first time that golden handcuffs became used. People stopped quitting, because though they didn’t enjoy the repetitive nature of the work, they were getting paid handsomely for doing it.

One of the persistent criticisms of the assembly line is the deskilling of the workforce. It was easy enough to train the “farm boys” to work the assembly line, because not much training was needed. By focusing on a single tiny role, the training was minimal. The result was that instead of craftsmen, the factory was filled with people who only knew their one small part of the broader picture.


Work in a machine model is also dehumanizing. People don’t get the chance to interact with others and build the kind of relationships that they used to form when they were working together in a small village as craftsmen and community members. The research at the Hawthorne Works was noticeably disturbed by the desire of the test subjects to have more control of their work and to talk amongst themselves as they worked. (See Management and the Worker for more.)


When you view the organization as a machine, you look for ways to optimize the machine. Instead of optimizing the individual pieces or departments, organizations shifted to a view of the processes. The flows that added value to the organization were optimized, thereby addressing gaps and challenges among the various pieces and departments of the organization.

Despite some successes and a lot of fanfare, reengineering often failed to produce the value that it promised. To be sure, there were efficiencies to be gained by addressing the handoffs and the overall experience, but they still paled in comparison to the promises. Often, this was because people didn’t want to work that way.

Underestimating People

Perhaps the greatest challenge with the mechanistic view of organizations is that they underestimate the richness of the human experience. Humans are not simple cogs in a big machine but are instead complicated by their values, emotions, and aspirations. Failing to account for this has often resulted in a failure of the organization.

Working to the rules should be a good thing. If the organization and the bureaucracy are set up correctly, then working to the rules should make everything more efficient. That is, unless you’re a British railway worker. When the union wants to apply pressure to the company, they don’t do so by creating a strike or a work stoppage. Instead, they apply a “work to rule” approach. The system grinds to a halt as the workers stop providing the workarounds that have kept things functioning.

Taiichi Ohno and his mentors had it right. Humans are naturally more adaptable and capable of solving problems than the machine metaphor gives them credit for. Organizations are substantially more complex than even some of our most complex machines. A failure to realize the complexity of an organization necessarily strains the model of a machine.

Good and Bad

The machine model is good in that it allows for standardization, à la Michael Gerber in The E-Myth Revisited and in the case of franchise systems. It’s bad in that it can lead people to accept the standard number of errors, levels of inefficiency, and general slack that they may not need. In the end, it’s the lack of human spirit that brought down communism that can be found in organizations that operate like machines.

Organizations as Organisms

If machines aren’t complex enough, then perhaps we can think of organizations with all of the complexity of an organism. Instead of the clean lines of a gear, perhaps organizations are more akin to the flowing lines of cells as they work together?

Systems Theory

Morgan’s perspective is that systems theory, which originated out of MIT, is really thinking about systems as organisms. While there are some similarities, Donella Meadows in Thinking in Systems: A Primer provides a different dimension to the perspective. As Kurt Lewin commented, it’s one thing to observe an organism or a system but it’s quite a different thing to change it. (See A Dynamic Theory of Personality and Principles of Topological Psychology for Lewin’s work.)


Organisms are boxes inside of boxes. You can think about an organism as one level – say systems of a body – which contains other components. Systems, for instance, contain organs. Organs contain cells. Cells contain proteins. The way that these components are broken into component parts is its own paradigm, and therefore the way that we deconstruct the organization as an organism influences the way that we think about it.

However, as Gary Klein explains in Sources of Power, our ability to make progressive levels of abstraction in our models gives us the power to simulate very complex things with our quite limited brainpower. It’s only when there are emergent properties that we don’t expect or when our model doesn’t include all the variables that we run into trouble.

There’s a whole discipline around optimal organization and breakdown of information that can inform the way that we navigate into deeper and deeper levels of understanding. (See Intertwingled and Pervasive Information Architecture for more on this.)


One of the other benefits of considering organizations as organisms is the opportunity to view some aspects of the organization as ad hoc and temporary. Adhocracy is the tendency for an organism to create temporary –ad hoc – structures that are often replaced with other, more permanent, structures. Consider baby teeth and permanent teeth. One gives way to the other.

It can also be said that one metaphor of an organization can give way to another, like moving from the idea of the organization as a whole organism to the organization being only the brain.

Organizations as Brains

The human brain is an amazing, if not well understood, thing. Its power to shift time, perceive others, and create is amazing. It’s no wonder that one metaphor for organizations is that they’re a powerful brain seeking to coordinate various parts of the world to their will and transform the environment into what they desire. Considering how little we actually know about brains, it’s a bit of a stretch to compare organizations to them, but compare we do.


One thing we do know about brains is that thoughts and functions aren’t completely isolated to one tiny area of the brain. While we know there are processing centers that typically process different kinds of signals, our research of those with brain defects has led us to the amazing ways that our brain can adapt. We also know that there’s no one area of the brain that encodes memories. Instead, memories seem to be the result of coordinated activity from multiple neurons. Studies of rats taught to run a maze are remarkably resilient to substantial quantities of brain tissue being removed.

It’s sort of like holography – or the creation of holograms. They’re created throughout the substance, not just in one small area. As a result, there’s no one place to remove a hologram. Instead, as more and more of the material is removed, the image retains less and less clarity.

Organizations often exhibit this extraordinary behavior as well, resisting changes even as more and more of the organization becomes changed.

Bounded Rationality

We’ve learned that humans aren’t rational creatures, they’re rationalizing creatures. Even when we’re rational, we’re only rational to a point. We’re rational with the information that we have; however, it can be that our decisions make no sense when viewed from a broader perspective. Herbert Simon was fascinated with the need for information to make decisions and the reality that, in most cases, the information acquisition wasn’t worth the improved decisions. He suggested that we mostly satisfice ourselves with good enough rather than objective completeness. (See The Paradox of Choice for more.)

By satisficing rather than maximizing, we make decisions based on the information we have and our considerations that we can’t or don’t want to accept the costs of acquiring more information.

Defensive Routines

In my review of Dialogue, I explained how we settle into routines. We mindlessly respond or respond in defensive ways that aren’t appropriate to the situation. One of the challenges of viewing an organization as a brain is that it should then follow the same unhelpful routines as well as those routines that are helpful, and that makes it subject to defensive routines.

We’ve all seen organizations recoil at the idea of change, ignoring it until it can no longer be ignored and then fighting back against it as if there’s an option to prevent it. Consider the case of Blockbuster: they were mired in the idea that they rented video cassettes and DVDs instead of thinking about how they could deliver the best entertainment experience to the customer. They were locked into the revenue source of late fees, and as a result they lost their core business to Netflix. As the market transitioned to internet based video streaming, they couldn’t recover.

Defensive routines may serve to protect us at times, but other times, they close us off from learning and growth.

Organizations as Cultures

There are organizational cultures – the way that the organization behaves – and there are the cultures that exist around the organization. For multinational organizations, they’ll necessarily confront multiple environmental cultures with organizations that have multiple locations experiencing the same phenomenon to a lesser degree. What’s more interesting is to understand how cultures behave, how those patterns of behavior interact and continue to create ever more intricate patterns.

Work and Service

Many rice farmers lived at a subsistence level. That is, they were barely surviving. Around this developed a culture of mutual support. It’s the same kind of community that you find in Amish cultures in the United States – everyone helps one another for the common good. Samurai were protectors, but also they were servants. They depended on those they protected to provide them with the essentials they needed like food to survive.

This describes a culture built on hard work, mutual cooperation, and service. This picture could equally apply to an organization focused on the same values and patterns of behavior.

Legends and Lore

One of the ways that cultures are formed is around legends and lore. Every large organization abounds with stories how the founders and leaders clearly communicated values. Whether it’s Bill Hewlett (of Hewlett-Packard) chopping a padlock off a supply closet and leaving a note or some of the antics of Steve Jobs or Steve Balmer, the message is a clear expression of the core values and therefore culture of the organization.

Viewing the organization as a culture allows you to focus on the big picture values that drive many downstream behaviors – behaviors that the book Change the Culture, Change the Game explains you can’t control anyway.

Resistance to Change

There will always be resistance to change. Resistance can be conflict and therefore a difference of perspective and values, or, more frequently, it’s simply a result of the grief that comes from the sense of loss associated with the change. However, resistance to change need not become dysfunctional. A degree of resistance – a struggle for healthy understanding and alignment – is appropriate. It’s only when the resistance becomes calcified and resistant to efforts to move forward that resistance becomes a problem in change.

Attempts to move past resistance and move forward without properly addressing the resistance itself can result in a variety of resistant behaviors that collectively look like sabotage. They may be as simple as an internal value that is in conflict with the requested change (see Immunity to Change), or there may be a legitimate sabotage as a result of a lack of respect or vengeance on the part of those being changed.

Organizations as Political Systems

Organizations can also be viewed as political systems filled with conflict and power struggles. Before delving into the specific aspects that viewing the organization as a political system brings to the surface, we must first strip political systems of their contemporary baggage.

Greek Politics

Going back to the way that the Greeks saw political systems helps us to strip the idea of a political system of the baggage that it’s developed as we see politicking at its worst. If we rewind the clock, we find that we have the option of a dictatorship or a democracy. As Winston Churchill put it, “Many forms of Government have been tried and will be tried in this world of sin and woe. No one pretends that democracy is perfect or all-wise. Indeed, it has been said that democracy is the worst form of Government except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time…” In short, democracy – and the required politicking – is bad, but it beats the alternative.

When we view organizations as political systems, we’re not accepting that they’re perfect but rather that they are the best way of organizing people towards a common objective. Without some sort of mechanism to coordinate people, there would be chaos. Politicking is the fuel that the democratic engine runs on.

Politics Are Not a Side Effect

Edward Deming said, “Every system is perfectly designed to get the results it gets.” When we look at organizations and the politics, it’s easy to discount them as some unintended side effect. However, as you look more deeply, you realize that it’s the system of politics that allows ideas to be evaluated by multiple people and in multiple lenses. It’s the system of politics that can inform better decisions at its best. At its worst, it devolves into a network of quid pro quo trades. (See Personality Types for more about good and bad in each approach.)

Politicking is therefore the fuel upon which democracy runs. It’s the way that ideas are evaluated and there by performs an essential function for democracy – or the variation of democracy that exists inside of an organization, which might be better described as an oligocracy. An oligocracy is rule by the few. Otherwise, democracies and oligocracies are similar – the only question is the scale of those involved in making the decisions.


It’s natural for there to be conflict inside of any organization of people. Viewing organizations as political systems elevates awareness of the function of conflict in organizations – in a positive way. I’ve studied conflict for a long time and landed on an awareness that all conflicts are caused by only two causes: a difference in perspectives or a difference in values.

Organizations as Psychic Prisons

The idea originated with Plato’s The Republic. We’re trapped in our cultures. The words and rituals of daily life structure the prison for us. We only see the reflections of what is around the corner. The self-insulating properties of the organization create the possibility that it may become the prison that contains us.

Fredrick Taylor’s work and the scientific management movement that he spawned was preoccupied with the idea of control. If you can control the workers, then you need not worry about how they may be seeking to sabotage or get back at you. Ironically, Taylor was reported to have suffered from fearful nightmares and insomnia. Perhaps his desire to control others was about his unsuccessful desire to control his own thoughts and fears.

Our fears, more than anything else, keep us prisoner. Nothing is more pervasive than the fear of death and the twin fear of irrelevance. (See The Worm at the Core for more.) However, humans are filled with other fears, so much so that we’ve developed a long list of psychic defenses. (See Change or Die for more.) These defenses are sometimes quite adaptive and functional but suffer from the real possibility to degenerating into maladaptive behaviors. These maladaptive behaviors keep us trapped into the very situation that initiated the cycle of maladaptation.

Organizations as Flux and Transformation

The stability of an organization is an illusion. People join. People leave. New policies are created. The environment changes around the organization. Organizations by their nature and by the nature of their environment are always changing. They’re always adapting to new internal and external realities. Instead of being poured in concrete, they bend with steel. David Bohm explained the transformation process by which an acorn becomes an oak tree as an aperture. (See On Dialogue.) No one would argue that the acorn is an oak tree nor an oak tree an acorn. However, no one could deny that the acorn can become a tree over time with the right environment and the passage of time.

From this view, organizations are just their current state, and they’re always in a state of flux and transition. They’re the lines surrounding Lorenz’s attractors as they simultaneously capture a particle and cause it to trace ever-varied patterns around the attractors. There is, at the same time, change, flux and transition, and a relative stability. From the outside, it looks like a stable pattern. It looks like it’s constant – but when you look more deeply, you see the variation and change. It’s like fractals where there are seemingly infinite variations on patterns as you look deeper and deeper. (See Fractal Along the Edges.)

Here, the view of systems iterating endlessly in their variations gives you the feeling that organizations are subject to predictable patterns of behavior when they encounter a force. (See Thinking in Systems for more on systems thinking.) When you take a gyroscope and apply a force to it, the resulting force comes out as a force translated 90 degrees in the direction of rotation. This is predictable, but it’s also the result of the rotational energy in the gyroscope. When the energy is gone, the translation no longer occurs.

The complex interactions between the systems in an organization are infinitely harder to predict in detail but in general they settle into patterns. The result is a way of seeing the organization that is both dynamic and stable at the same time.

Organizations as Instruments of Domination

It was Karl Marx that demonized capitalism and its army of organizations as being oppressive to the masses. Organizations were seen as the instruments that were being used to keep the masses down. We’ve seen the failure of communism in places like the USSR and recognize that Marx’s approach has its own limitations. We formed unions to protect the employee from the organization. We developed labor laws to prevent organizations from executing their dominion over workers. Still, maintaining the balance between the return on investment from the owners and the value of the labor is difficult. (See Human Capital.)

We need these safeguards, because it is possible for organizations to lose their respect for human life and the worker. The unethical decision to pay compensation for accidents instead of addressing the core problems, because addressing the core problems that cause the accidents are perceived to be more difficult or too costly, is a reality in some organizations. It was Paul O’Neill who transformed Alcoa to a safety culture, because it was the right thing to do – whether or not it was cost effective. (See The Power of Habit for more on this story.)

Capital in the Twenty-First Century speaks at length about income inequality and how to try to minimize it. We continue perceive income inequality as a serious social issue. There are reasons to believe that it’s poor organizations that keep the income inequality in place. As such, it makes sense to view them as instruments of domination.


Perhaps the greatest learning from Images of Organization wasn’t a specific view of the organization but instead was the idea that we need multiple views of the organization to support our understanding. I’d encourage you to take a look to see what are your Images of Organization.

Book Review-Quiet Leadership

There are a lot of noisy leaders in our world today. There are too few people who have the courage and desire to demonstrate Quiet Leadership. The book is interesting, because, ostensibly, it’s introducing you to a six-step process for transforming performance. However, I found that it was hard to hold a line through the book and follow a straightforward path. Each step was clearly marked, but the path to the step and why it’s important was at times difficult to discern.

Lofty Goal

To be clear the idea that you’d be able to have someone read a book and through the reading suddenly be transformed in their performance into a more powerful leader is a good one. It’s the basic framework for any leadership book. The author says, “Follow my path to success.” The problem with this is that the author rarely followed the path they lay out themselves, and even if they did, they don’t describe the individual steps with sufficient clarity that they can be followed.

David Rock makes solid points in Quiet Leadership, but in the end the points feel more disjointed than a straight line down a path. So, this book is less likely to be a map and is more useful as a tip guide that shows you a few interesting points without necessarily transporting you to the destination.

The Business of Change – 1970s Style

If you’re a manager of the 1970s era, you were taught that employees needed to be managed. They would take advantage of the organization in any way possible, and your job as a manager was to prevent this from happening. The basic tension had existed for almost as long as organizations. Management and the Worker explains how it impacted the Hawthorne Works in the 1920s and 1930s.

More recent thinking and writing about management, including the works of Robert Greenleaf in Servant Leadership and Fredrick LaLoux in Reinventing Organizations, suggests a different view, one that focuses on how to unleash the power of employees. That’s the opening quote by Richard Florida from The Rise of the Creative Class: “People don’t need to be managed, they need to be unleashed.”

This is just one of many changes that would have the 1970s manager feeling as if they were on a foreign planet if they were to try to manage an organization today. It’s like The Planet of the Apes. The place is the same, but the rules are different. More importantly, the rate of change is so high that the 1970s manager wouldn’t be able to cope.


“Prediction is not just one of the things your brain does. It is the primary function of the neocortex, and the foundation of intelligence,” says Jeff Hawkins. Think about that for a moment. Of all the wonderful things that a brain can do, it’s prediction that’s at the core. Jonathan Haidt said something similar in The Righteous Mind. It was our ability to have a theory of mind – a prediction about what others were thinking – that allowed us to work together and to conquer the planet. Mindreading seems like a parlor trick until you realize that it’s a game of attempting to predict what others are thinking.

One of the key problems with our predictions is that they’re subject to numerous biases, as pointed out in Thinking, Fast and Slow. Simple things like the anchoring effect, described in Superforecasting and How to Measure Anything, cause us to fail to correct our predictions sufficiently in the face of new evidence – and this can be catastrophic. (See The Signal and the Noise for the statistical approach to revision in the form of Bayes Theorem – which is the basis of machine learning.)

Comfortable Being Uncomfortable

Josh Waitzkin was a chess wiz and the subject of the movie Searching for Bobby Fischer, and he’s also an accomplished martial artist. However, he believes that his greatest skill is in learning. In The Art of Learning, he explains how he does it. The answer in short is, “My instinct is not to avoid the discomfort but to become at peace with it.” What discomfort? All discomfort.

For my son, I used to play Pokémon. I lost a lot. The national competition was in town, and I’d lose over and over again in random matches because I didn’t really understand the game. It sucks to lose so frequently, but at the same time, I could do it, because the real goal wasn’t winning the game. The real goal was to find a way to connect with my son. Over time, we’d do local and regional tournaments, and I got better – but never competitive in either sense of the word.

I had to get comfortable losing every match. I had to accept that I’d lose again and again if I wanted to be able to converse with my son. He and I got relatively matched in our skills and in the ways that we had our decks configured. It became a way that we could connect. (Read Comfortably Uncomfortable for more examples on being comfortable being uncomfortable.)

The truth is that we need struggle as humans. Even in the animal kingdom, there’s a need for discomfort. I mentioned in my post The Psychology of Recognizing and Rewarding Children and my review of The Book of Joy that helping sea turtles find the ocean dooms them, as they need the struggle to establish their orientation system. Baby chicks similarly need to escape their shells themselves or be doomed. In learning, it’s called desirable difficulty. (See How We Learn.) It can even be heroic.

When Joseph Campbell discovered the Hero’s Journey, he wasn’t expecting it. He didn’t expect that the formation of a hero in lore would follow a predictable 12-step pattern. (See The Hero with a Thousand Faces for more.) What’s most interesting about the journey is that we invariably discover the weaknesses of the hero, including the external and internal struggles. Even heroes, it seems, must struggle before they can become who they need to be.

Quiet Leadership says, “A big chunk of the world’s economy is built around reducing discomfort.” That’s a good thing if it’s directed towards our material needs and safety. We’ve learned to prepare and preserve food to reduce the burden of finding and cooking it. However, when the discomfort that we’re avoiding leads to ultimately unhelpful approaches that lead to addiction, we’re creating our own problems. (See Dreamland for more.)

Quiet leaders are not uncomfortable making other people appropriately uncomfortable. If it’s necessary for people to be concerned, upset, or angry, they’re willing to enter that space. It’s not conflict for the sake of conflict but conflict for the sake of everyone’s betterment.

Getting Personal – Changing Thinking

There’s probably nothing more personal than trying to change someone else’s thinking. Our consciousness is how we define ourselves, and changing our thinking therefore changes us… and that’s dangerous territory. When we implement change in organizations, we’re changing people’s behaviors and hopefully their thinking. (See Change the Culture, Change the Game for more.)

If you want to change your thinking, maybe it’s time to read Quiet Leadership.

Trigger Happy

Roy Rogers had a horse named Trigger. A gun has a trigger. However, neither of these are what we’re talking about when we’re talking about a trigger – an emotional trigger. We’re talking about something that awakens an emotional response in someone else, but it’s fundamentally different than either a pet horse or a gun that has a trigger. The implications of this are that, if you’re telling other people they’re triggering you, then you may be blaming them for your problems.


One of the biggest challenges in statistics – and problem solving – is proving causality. Correlation is a simple statistical formula. Causality is much, much harder to tease out and it’s at the heart of what’s wrong with calling foul because someone else triggered you. It implies that someone else has control of your feelings and therefore you’re a victim.

Feeling Control

Most days, I don’t feel like I’m in control of my feelings – let alone anyone else. They seem to wash over me like waves lapping the shores of the ocean. Sometimes a big wave comes up and catches me by surprise – what my friends in Iceland would call a “Deadly Sneaker Wave.” Other times, the waves are so calm they seem to be rocking me to sleep and perhaps even singing a lullaby from my childhood.

Without a doubt, the environment and, particularly, other people influence us. Kurt Lewin said that behavior is a function of both person and environment. His statement holds true even for our emotions. We have, in ourselves, our history and experiences that lead us towards emotions and behaviors. Our environment can shape how we respond. Neither can be taken in a vacuum, but, ultimately, we must be owners of our own emotions.

Lisa Feldman Barrett took on the challenge of How Emotions Are Made and concluded that how we feel is the interpretation of the events. This is consistent with Richard Lazarus’ view in Emotion & Adaptation that we form our emotions – they don’t come out of nothingness. Together, this means that our emotions aren’t directly the result of external triggers but are instead the result of the complex interaction of our beliefs, our values, our perspectives, and our experiences.

Direct Line

When you think about the path between the trigger of a gun and the rush of lead out of the barrel, there are mechanics involved, but none of those mechanics have the capacity to stop the bullet – presuming that the gun and bullet are functioning properly. It’s the simplicity of logic that A + Time = B. That’s what a trigger is. It’s causal. However, in the case of emotions, it’s not causal at all.

A verbal or visual trigger may create conditions that encourage someone to feel something – but at the end of the day, it’s the mental processing of the conditions that do or do not create the conditions.


It may be an okay place to visit, but it’s a lousy place to build a home. It’s the best explanation I can give for the mental space that Kurt Lewin called topological psychology. (See Principles of Topological Psychology.) Topological psychology is concerned with how people get from one state of mind to another. It’s concerned with how people can move from being a victim to finding strength – and what happens when they don’t.

In victimhood, we necessarily feel powerless. Someone did this to us, and we can’t do anything about it. Therefore, we are powerless. If you look at Marty Seligman and his colleagues’ work over the past five decades, you’ll find The Hope Circuit. When the situation was initially discovered, they called it “learned helplessness.” It was the ticket to victimhood.

When you developed learned helplessness, the story goes, you wouldn’t help yourself out of any situation. Even when you could take actions to reduce or eliminate pain, you wouldn’t, because to do so would be unthinkable. The subsequent research and the ability of enhanced diagnostics led to the awareness that those with learned helplessness didn’t learn something at all. They failed to learn about their degree of control in their situation – and therefore they didn’t learn that they could get out of the situation.

Perhaps one of the reasons why people have become sensitized to potential emotional triggers is the fact that they’ve never learned their ability to manage their emotional responses, or the ability to manage their responses has been taken away.

Addiction, Mental Conditions, and Triggers

Where did the idea of an emotional trigger come from if it’s so different than the direct, causal line that the word was originally intended to mean? The answer is that it came from psychologists struggling to address the challenges of mental illness, including addiction.

The word “trigger” in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), which is the bible for diagnosing mental disease, is always used in reference to initiating an episode. Whether it’s the triggering event for a Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) patient or the latest relapse of an addict, it’s something that almost always causes a negative episode.

Almost always isn’t always, but it’s close enough to borrow a word. It’s close enough to bring triggering to the world of psychology and emotions, and in so doing, it’s close enough to create the feeling that other people shouldn’t be allowed to trigger us – rather than working on healing and growing.


Animals are, by their nature, antifragile. That is, they get stronger with the right kind of stresses and challenges. Our muscles grow as we destroy them. Adversity, challenge, and stressors are necessary for survival. Sea turtles need the struggle to find the ocean. Chicks need the effort of breaking from their shell and we need to find ways to push our emotional boundaries to grow more resilient. Nassim Nicholas Taleb dedicated a whole book, Antifragile, to helping us learn this important concept. However, it was the work of Albert Bandura that connected the idea of antifragility to emotions and mental disorders.

Phobias can be debilitating. It’s one thing to be afraid in a dark alley but something entirely different to be afraid to leave your home in a safe neighborhood during the day, with friends, to a well-known spot frequented by policemen and policewomen. However, there are those for whom the fear of going out is overwhelming. Bandura’s work was with people who had a phobia of snakes. Not the kind that startle you as you are walking in the woods but rather the kind that people keep as pets.

The technique he developed essentially relies on creating zones of safety that move closer and closer to the source of the phobia. First perhaps you talk about snakes, then look at a picture, watch someone across the room with a snake, and so on until you’re holding a snake. (Bandura has other work as well, including Moral Disengagement, that’s interesting.)

Safe Zones

Amy Edmondson has focused her research on creating psychological safety. That is, she tries to make people feel safe in their environments – emotionally. However, the irony of the creation of safety is that it must be coupled with accountability and concern. (See The Fearless Organization
for Edmondson’s work.) Kim Scott in Radical Candor is a bit more direct. She says that holding people accountable isn’t cruel, it’s clear.

In that clarity, there’s the ability to silence the inner voice of doubt. We sometimes confuse safe zones by thinking that they’re not places where you can directly challenge someone. However, the truth is that the way people are challenged is critical in the same way that stresses are critical to any developing animal. It has to be the right time, in the right way, with the right intent. With those pieces, it’s possible to not only create a safe zone for today but to create the kind of healing that Bandura, Taleb, and Seligman are encouraging.


But what about boundaries? Shouldn’t I be able to say what other people can and cannot do to me? This is perhaps the fundamental misunderstanding of Cloud and Townsend’s work in Boundaries. People have confused the idea of boundaries, which was intended to discuss what someone themself will and won’t do, with what we believe that others should and should not do to us. When someone says, “Well, he can’t talk to me like that, I’m drawing a boundary,” they’ve missed the point. They’re trying to control someone else’s behavior. (For controlling other’s behavior, see J. Keith Miller’s work Compelled to Control.) A similar statement would be “If you continue to talk to me, I’m going to hang up.” In the second case, the person is describing their behavior, not someone else’s.

This reversal is at the core of the problem with people who believe that others are triggering them and that they must stop.

Unknowable Results

It was a twelve step-based program designed to help teach people life skills. It collected people who had officially recognized addictions and those addictions that aren’t officially recognized. It also included those who were struggling with a major life event, including things like divorce, estrangement or death of a child, and any form of human suffering you might imagine.

I was supporting the audio and video production when the manager of the program came to me to talk about triggers. Stacy is an amazing individual who could balance the needs of people and recognize when things had gone too far. Someone had complained about a music choice and some of the words that were upsetting to them. (The irony was that we were in a church, and the music was from a Christian artist.)

We discussed it as she made me aware of how someone had interpreted the music, and then we both moved on. Unlike what’s happening in too many places, we acknowledged the concern and recognized it as a function of this person’s dysfunction, and as a result made no changes. Stacy could go back and tell the person that we had discussed it – because we had – and she could move into the place of talking to the person about how to heal from their hurt.

When I started the song – even if I had paid attention to the particular lyrics – I couldn’t have predicted how one woman in the crowd could have responded. There was no way of knowing how her unique pain and experiences would be translated into her emotions.

I don’t know whether the woman continued to participate in the program – but either way, she did the right thing for her. She had to figure out how to better manage the emotions that were being stirred inside of her or not be there.

It wasn’t our responsibility to prevent people from feeling emotions or to suppress every possible trigger. It was our responsibility to be respectful and continue on – inviting her to set her boundary to not come or to decide to become more antifragile and desensitized by experiencing a safe space that had the occasional troubling, but not harmful, thought.

Book Review-Human Capital

These days it’s relatively common to hear employees described as “human capital.” However, that wasn’t always the case. The term began to become popular in 1964 with the publishing of Human Capital, the work of Gary Becker. Before that, capital was limited to the things that could be accounted for in the accounting system. As it became clearer that not all increases in company performance could be accounted for through the allocation of capital in the form of machines and plants, the return on investing in people became more interesting.

Human Return on Investment

It started as a study to understand the return on investment for college students. Would they recoup their investments in college as they went through their lives and careers? The answer, it turns out, is yes. The short version is that college educations is – on average – expected to return 11-13 percent on the investment. That’s a good return in almost any market.

However, the math behind this simple statement isn’t necessarily easy. The first challenge is that most of the cost of college isn’t the money you pay to the institution. About 74% of the cost of college comes in the form of forgone earnings. If you’re going to college, you’re not working or not working as much, and that has a huge impact on your cash flow, as any college student can attest to. Thus, the problem of calculating return isn’t the greater income received post-college minus the cost of the institution – most of the costs come with time investment.

On the plus side, the greater the education that you have, the less likely you are to become unemployed – and the length of your unemployment is likely to be shorter. So not only do you earn more but your earnings are more stable. That’s great news when safety and security become more important as you begin to raise a family.

Investing in the Family

There are dynamics to investing in education. Families with a larger number of children must, by the nature of dividing assets among children, invest less in each child than smaller families. However, there’s an educational lensing effect that causes families with higher educations to have more financial resources – and fewer children.

Because educated parents tend to have fewer children and higher resources, they tend to spend substantially more on each child’s education than those families that have less resources and more children. This is the educational equivalent of the “to the victor go the spoils” problem with systems. (See Thinking in Systems, Change Masters, and The Rise of Superman.)

It is for that reason that societies need to build counter-balancing loops into the educational system to ensure that everyone has a fair chance. Paul Tough speaks extensively about the college decision in The Years that Matter Most but focuses somewhat more on the connections and relationships than the quality of the educational experience.

Subsidies, Loans, and Scholarships

Student loan default rates are – to quote Becker – “shockingly high.” The importance of government guarantees remains critical to ensure that banks are willing to lend for education. Compared to other loan types, the default rates are substantially higher. It makes no difference that the government has many ways to recover the loan amounts and they are difficult to discharge in a bankruptcy. Structurally, student loans remain risky propositions for the lender.

However, there are also non-loan options, including grants and scholarships, that may apply based on a student’s financial need or their academic or athletic talents. These can offset some, but often not all, of the expenses that a student can expect to face.

From College to Corporation

While it’s a fine answer to say that individuals, students, should invest in their education and that this has a marketed change in the capacity to make money, there’s a challenge that corporations face with education that individuals do not. Individuals always reap the rewards of educational investment. The question is whether corporations can reap the rewards of training employees, since employees can leave.

Don’t Train Them, and They Stay

The original quote is attributed to Henry Ford: “The only thing worse than training your employees and having them leave is not training them and having them stay.” Richard Branson’s approach is, “Train people well enough so they can leave, treat them well enough, so they don’t want to.” While Branson separates training them well and treating them well, they’re related. The more people recognize that their personal improvement is important to the organization, the more that they will feel valued and not want to leave.

The heart of the concern for corporations is what happens when the capital – their human capital – walks out the door – for good. This concern has spawned great expenditures in knowledge management with the idea of maintaining the knowledge in the organization even if the employees leave. (See Lost Knowledge and The New Edge in Knowledge.) The classic modeling provided by Becker presumes that employees are being paid less during their training and the amount that the lower pay factors in the investment that the company is making on training. At the time of their graduation, the scales may not be equal but over time, the organization makes back its investment in the employee (owing to lower rate and now greater productivity). When that payback is complete, in theory, the organization raises the employee salary to one more commiserate with the productivity of the employee.

Another consideration for ensuring that the knowledge doesn’t walk out the door is to implement a delayed vesting system for pension or retirement accounts, so that employees are encouraged to stay with the company until they’re fully vested.

Emotional and Physical Health

A different type of investment in employees is to invest in their physical or emotional health. Physical health programs – called wellness programs – are beginning to be more common but are most often implemented to help defray higher healthcare costs. While companies offered physical health benefits prior to this, including on-site gyms and stipends for gym memberships, they were nowhere near as prevalent as they are today.

Emotional – or mental – health is often overlooked. While many larger organizations have employee assistance programs, the statistics indicate that less than 5 or 10% of employees use those benefits. The benefits themselves are also structured as break-fix rather than wholistic care. While some organizations are improving their wellness programs into emotional health, this is still a rarity. We know that up to 80% of our healthcare costs are driven by poor behaviors – often emotionally compensating behaviors – and yet we focus very little time on mental health. (See Change or Die for more on the impact of mental health on physical health.)

The Illiquid Asset

In accounting, illiquid assets are ones which cannot be sold easily. Cash is completely liquid. Stock in a public company is mostly liquid. Stock in a private company is mostly illiquid. A property that no one wants is illiquid.

The problem with the development you put into humans is it’s completely illiquid. You cannot extract the information out of their brains, and we outlawed slavery some time ago. As a result, we must accept that, while we have human capital, it’s different than other kinds of capital. Perhaps the best thing that you can do to invest in your own capital is to read Human Capital.

Article: Charting Communications Channels

As you’re finishing a meeting, your phone chirps. You’re not sure whether it’s an email notification, a Microsoft Teams message from a colleague, a Facebook Messenger message from your mom, or a text from your dad. You pick it up off the table and head down the hall as the new digital signage lights up the hall more than the overhead lights. Arriving at your desk, you notice that someone has thrown the latest copy of the company newsletter in your chair as you login in and the corporate intranet opens in the web browser.

From’s Human Experience Excellence June 2021 edition. Read more: