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.

Information Governance and Water: The Results of Control

Some information governance programs are focused on command and control. Thou shalt do this or that. Thou will not do something else. And while, on the surface, these tactics seem to work, they drive behaviors underground and expose information to more risks and simultaneously reduce productivity. While, on the surface, control looks like a good solution, it typically fails in the end.


Pressure vessels are a marvel of the modern world. We can compress a gas and keep it contained. The release of pressure is what drove the industrial age through steam engines that increased in pressure and drove us forward. The problem is that pressure vessels fail. Early in the Industrial Age, there were numerous deaths due to the spontaneous destruction of a pressure vessel. Steam engine boiler tanks burst and killed people.

Every pressure vessel that we create has a point at which it can no longer contain the pressure and fails. The problem is not so much that there is a point of failure. The problem is that, when there is a failure, it’s unpredictable and so destructive. That’s why applying too much pressure in your information governance program in the form of control can lead to some disastrous consequences.

Information Governance Pressure

How, one might ask, does information governance apply pressure to an organization? The answer lies in the pressure that is exerted between the normal and desired behaviors and the behaviors that the governance plan tries to enforce. Like a dam holding back water, there is pressure against the policies to allow the individual and the organization to do their normal work. Like a dam, these policies hold back the normal flow, which may cause useful reservoirs, but those dams have limits.

We’ve seen stunning examples of dam failures. One moment, everything seems fine. The next moment, there’s a wall of water flowing down. In most failures, the problems start well before the final moment of failure. There’s some erosion in an earthen dam. Water slowly seeps through and erodes the base that the dam needs until it fails, and that failure causes the remainder – or a substantial portion – of the dam to fail.

Information governance programs do need to shape the flow of the information in an organization, but to do so without recognizing the limits is inviting people to subvert the official processes and do something less secure.

Escaping Pressure

Like water finding its way to and through weak spots in a dam, so, too, will users find ways to do their jobs even when the information governance program prevents such activities directly.

Consider password rules. NIST (The National Institute of Standards and Technology) has changed their guidance on passwords, because the degree of complexity in managing passwords necessitated that people start writing them down and storing them in places that made them less secure than simply having a single password that never changes – or a password that never changes plus a second factor authentication. There’s the tacit acknowledgement that the password complexity rules and change frequency forced people into behaviors that actually reduced rather than increased security.

What about sharing rules? Organizations want their workers to collaborate with external partners and consultants, but when users are prohibited from sharing the documents directly, they place corporate information in personal cloud storage and share with third parties from those locations. Not only does this break the intent of the guidance but it also removes corporate information from the boundaries of the corporation, so it’s not available for others to search and may be lost when the person leaves the organization.

Some organizations have approached these problems with more aggressive controls that block access to private file sites – which only causes users to start saving copies of their files in their emails and making it more difficult to manage the information.

Much like water will always find a way to get lower eventually, even the craftiest of strategies to block users from doing bad behaviors will fail if you don’t design in a way for them to get their work done.

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.

Explaining What Information Governance Is

Information governance is a set of words thrown around as if they have some deep, profound, and universal meaning. However, the truth is that there isn’t a clean and globally accepted definition to what information governance is – and is not. As a result, professionals in many disciplines are confused as to what it is, why they care about it, and how to implement it.

The Principle

Behind information governance is a single principle. It’s a single guiding strategy that drives why everyone should care. The principle is to maximize the value of information in an organization. While this is a seemingly short and straightforward principle, the multiple ways it’s interpreted creates confusion about what information governance is. As a principle, it defines what – not how nor why. The why is self-explanatory. Getting value both personally and organizationally is what we all want.

What is Information?

The tricky part about information governance – and its relationship to both data governance and knowledge management – is the line between what we call data, what we call information, and what we’d call knowledge.

There are varying definitions of the distinction between data and information about the degree of added meaning. However, as this is context dependent, it makes little sense to entertain this as a part of the definition. Most folks have settled for an imprecise but acceptable answer that data exists in rows and columns. It’s structured. Unstructured data is called information. This division is reasonable and allows us to confine our efforts to improve utilization to things outside of the rows and columns of the core transactional system.

The other side of the continuum is knowledge and wisdom. While knowledge has some useful criteria, they’re not perfect either. Knowledge is often divided by the differences between explicit and tacit information. Explicit information can be written down and is contextless. Tacit information, on the other hand, resists being translated into explicit knowledge, which is written down and captured. The conversion between tacit and explicit is fraught with challenges, and some insist that tacit knowledge can never be removed from its context and made fully explicit.

While knowledge managers struggle with the difference between connecting people to get to knowledge versus connecting people with the explicit knowledge, we can constrain the principles of information governance to that knowledge which knowledge management would consider explicit. That doesn’t mean it’s easy to work with – it’s just easier than tacit.

To Steer

The other aspect to address is the idea of governance. In many organizations, governance committees control and prescribe instead of collaborate and suggest. Instead of helping people make the best decisions, they respond by stopping projects and blocking things that maybe should have never been started in the first place. However, the problem is that this isn’t what governance is supposed to be about. Governance is supposed to be steering – like the rudder of a ship.

Implemented as a back-end enforcement process – which is the way many governance programs are implemented – diverges from the original intent of the word and the best use of governance. To be fair, information governance includes regulatory compliance and some things where the guidance is quite rigid and does need to be enforced. This should be the last resort reserved for things that are unable to be addressed with guidance.

The Conflict

There is, in information governance, a fundamental conflict. The conflict is between retaining information too long and thereby exposing the organization to additional risk of disclosure and discarding information too soon, thereby depriving the organization of the value of the information. The key to good information governance lies in identifying which information must be retained and which information should be disposed of.

Regulations often require that information be retained for a minimum amount of time, thereby forming the lower bounds of how long the information must be maintained. Other regulations related to individual privacy focus on the maximum timeframe that information may be held by an organization. In between these two boundaries, organizations are free to decide what their retention schedule is.

The limitation is that organizations are required to maintain retention policies that are defensible. This means it’s well understood and consistently applied. While this seems like an obvious thing, courts don’t want to see a large amount of information disposed of immediately before they order the disclosure of that information to opposing council in a case.

The Sorting

Retention of important information is only the tip of the iceberg, but it surfaces the need to be able to meaningfully classify information. Different kinds of information have different value over time. To be able to keep and dispose of information properly, it must be categorized appropriately. The problem is substantially harder than it may at first appear. It starts with the ability to identify the major areas of information that you have in the organization.

This process is easy enough for transactional type data but gets more complicated when you wander into the world of things that are done rarely – or even once. It’s not feasible to capture every one-off thing that the organization has ever done, yet to build proper categories, this is exactly the kind of information that’s needed.

Humans are hard-wired to categorize things. That’s why we have such a hard time avoiding stereotypes – it’s how we’re made. Even with the innate ability to categorize and group things, we don’t always pick the right groups at first. We create too many categories in one area and not enough in others. Even the famed Dewey Decimal System reserved nine of ten spots for variants of Christianity, leaving only one category for all other religions. Dewey’s beliefs and experience caused him to bias his system toward Christianity at the expense of other religions.

The categorization process often reflects our own quirky experiences rather than an absolute best way to do things. As a result, the best categorization schemes are ones that reflect the unique way the organization views the world.

Finally, assigning items to categories can be challenging, as there may be no clear option that relates to the item the person is trying to store – or retrieve. It seems odd, but all too often, users store things in places in the system that were never intended for that kind of information.

The Value

To get value from information, it must have been retained, and it must be findable. Findability can be accomplished through navigation to the valuable information or through using the search system. Both of these, however, require that the categories are set up correctly and, in the case of search, correct metadata has been applied. Getting users to enter the correct and complete metadata about the things they’re doing is hard. This is in part due to the barriers of reminding them to provide the information and in part due to the additional burden it places on them.

To get to the value of information governance, we must find ways to motivate all users to file things properly and enter the metadata that will make the item findable again when it’s needed. That’s why information architecture is a keystone skill for information governance and it’s one that few people are taught.

Buy The Six Keys to Confident Change Management Book

When we released the Confident Change Management course earlier this year, we got a lot of feedback that it was a great comprehensive offering, but people wanted something that was more bite-sized.  Something they could read and understand quickly to help them be better at change management.  The result was we built a short book to quickly put the six keys to confident change management into everyone’s hands.

The book is short – 60 pages – and it’s designed to give you the six keys to be successful at change management and digital transformation as quickly as possible.

Here’s my personal plea.  Please help us become #1.  For Outlook, click here to download the calendar appointment, then open and accept the appointment.  For Google calendar, click here. Both give you a short appointment to buy the book at 12:00PM EDT on Wednesday, September 23rd.  The direct link to Amazon to order the book is in the appointment.  If you can order the book during our launch event, send us your receipt, and we’ll send you a special gift. (If you’re on mobile and the calendar link isn’t working, you can get the book by clicking here or revisit this page on your PC.)

If you can’t wait to see some of the content until the book’s release date, check out the free introduction to change management course that we offer – and then come back and help us by buying the book during the launch promotion.

Book Review-Overcoming Job Burnout

I fundamentally disagree that burnout is limited to the job. Burnout is a condition that impacts people in their personal lives as well as in their jobs, no matter what definition the World Health Organization has adopted (for political or structural reasons). However, Overcoming Job Burnout doesn’t say that burnout can only occur in a job context, it’s just the context that Beverly Potter is talking about.

One might wonder why a year after the publication of Terri and my book, Extinguish Burnout: A Practical Guide to Prevention and Recovery, I’m still reviewing other people’s burnout books. The short answer is to better understand others’ perspectives and find new pieces that I can take from them to bring to people that are struggling. Overcoming Job Burnout had a few of those nuggets that I can share.

What’s the Point?

Central to the burnout problem are the feelings of hopelessness. (See The Psychology of Hope for more about hopelessness and hope.) While most definitions of burnout center around exhaustion, cynicism, and inefficacy because of the Maslach Burnout Inventory, inefficacy is different – and causal. You see, we’ve all been exhausted and totally not in burnout. We’ve completed the climb to the top of the proverbial mountain and have found ourselves with nothing left to give. We collapse to recharge and recover, not in burnout but in triumph. Cynicism happens not in burnout but any time we don’t feel like we can change the situation any longer. Cynicism is a result of the feelings of inefficacy, not a cause of burnout.

Inefficacy, our painful wondering “What’s the point?” is at the heart of burnout. Our feelings like we’re not good enough (see The Gifts of Imperfection for more) drive us to feeling like nothing we do will matter – and this is the dangerous place to be that has signs naming it both burnout and depression depending on which side of town you enter from. If you enter from a clinical point of view, depression is the likely name; if you enter from the wisdom and ignorance of popular culture, this place goes by the name of burnout.

Right Radio, Wrong Station

I was reminded of Star Trek: The Motion Picture, in which an alien race of machines captures our Voyager space probe and helps it by returning it. The probe, in the movie, can receive a command that indicates that it’s made it home. However, the receiver was intentionally burned out. To satisfy the dramatic needs of the movie, it was necessary to go directly to the probe and enter in the message. While this is just a movie, I was reminded of it, because there are some times when people desperately need to know that they’re loved, and they’re valuable, and they matter – and then they actively avoid accepting the very thing they crave when it comes to them.

Potter is speaking about a woman, Ann, who isn’t getting the supportive feedback that she needs. I was struck by the alternative conclusion that she wasn’t letting in what she needed. One can be in Boston or New York and get wrapped up in the hustle and bustle of the city. One could argue that there is no place to just relax, connect with nature, and recharge. However, that’s simply not true. Both cities have vibrant park systems that create adequate green space for people to connect with – if they choose.

I’m not trying to deny that some people don’t get the encouragement and positive affirmation they need. Tragically, not everyone does. However, I’m left to wonder how much of burnout isn’t about feeling appreciated as much as it is failing to recognize how you’re appreciated. This walks dangerously close to blaming the victim, but that’s not the intent. The intent is to say that sometimes the thing people need most isn’t more affirmation but rather a way to accept the affirmation they’re getting already.

Burnout Isn’t the Result of Personal Weakness or Inadequacy

Shame and stigma still surround mental health issues in the world today. (See Brené Brown’s work regarding the caustic effects of shame in I Thought It Was Just Me (But It Isn’t).) While it’s societally acceptable to not be able to bench press 300 pounds, it’s not acceptable to succumb to the weight of emotional issues related to the loss of life, love, liberty, or livelihood. I’ve been told repeatedly that we should talk about thriving instead of burnout, because burnout is perceived as a weakness, and people don’t want to admit to it. The skills that we teach in Extinguish Burnout are thriving skills – but that framing doesn’t help the people who need it most.

It’s possible, and societally appropriate, to view burnout as a weakness. However, the truth is that it’s more likely than not a simple lack of skills that can be taught, the result of which aren’t just recovery but revival. Burnout is – but shouldn’t be – more shameful than not knowing how to sew your own clothes. We all need clothes, but few of us know how to sew them anymore. We don’t blame or shame people for their lack of clothes-sewing skills.

Small Goals and Small Improvements

If you want to find your way out of burnout, the path is filled with many steps – but all of them are small. The best way to escape the grip of burnout is to set small goals and meet them. Set one small goal and meet it, then set the next small goal and meet it, and so on. The result is a feeling of accomplishment – no matter how small – and the awareness that you’re not completely ineffective. Efficacy in the small things over time adds up to efficacy in large things.

No One Ever Truly Accomplishes Things on Their Own

Even the solo pilot or the sprinter has someone that they needed to become what they are. The pilot needs the mechanic to take care of the plane – or the designer to design it. The sprinter has a coach who taught them how to be a winner. To believe that we’re supposed to be successful alone is to deny reality. We are a society of people that are interdependent, needing one another for the support that we can’t do for ourselves.

Providing Your Own Structure

The human body is supported by a structure. Our bones allow us to stand and walk – and be something other than a puddle of skin on the ground. We all need structure – but sometimes we can become too reliant on structure. When it’s missing, we can believe that we’re not effective simply because there’s no structured thing for us to accomplish.

A critical factor to resisting burnout is our ability to accept ambiguity and a lack of structure. Thus, if we want to find ways to escape burnout, the simple tactic is to add structure to our world. The more we can structure our world, the more we demonstrate our ability to shape and control it – and also the more tangible feedback we can generate that we are getting something done – and thereby see that we are effective.

Difficult is not Impossible

If you spend your life avoiding difficult things, you’ll begin to see them as impossible. After all, your experience – the loudest teacher you have – says that you’ve never achieved something that’s difficult. If you’ve never attempted anything difficult or you’ve never persisted until the difficult thing is done, then the perception that they’re impossible is entirely reasonable. However, there’s a completely different experience you get if you try difficult things and sometimes, or even most of the time, fail.

Despite the failure, you learn that, occasionally, you’re able to accomplish difficult things. In doing so, you demonstrate your self-efficacy in the face of difficult things, and that can make all the difference in the world when it comes to avoiding or recovering from burnout.

Reading Overcoming Job Burnout is neither difficult nor impossible. It’s a solid book on burnout when you can’t read Extinguish Burnout.