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

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

Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder

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

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

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

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


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

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


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

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

Story Telling

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

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

Therapeutic Benefits

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


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

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

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

Social Isolation

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

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

The Only Thoughts to Fear are Those You Deny

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

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

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

Of Two Minds

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

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

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

Ziegarnik Effect and Trauma

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

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

The Physiological Impacts of Psychology

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

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


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

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

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

Forced Conversations

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Book Review-Strategic Management: A Stakeholder Approach

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

Serving More Than One Master

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

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

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

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

Serving Stakeholders

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

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

Customer Service

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

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

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

Negotiation and Escalation

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

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

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

Understanding Irrationality

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

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

Short and Long Term

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

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

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

Our Actions Impact Others

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

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

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


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

Steel Axe Heads

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

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

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

Compliments and the Backhand

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

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

Take a Chance

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


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

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.

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

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

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

The Four Stages

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

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

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


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

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

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

Respect and Paternalism

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

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

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

Respecting Growth

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

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

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

Intellectual and Social Friction

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

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

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

Social and Emotional Poverty

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Christian Disclaimer

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

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

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

Language, Faith, Pray, and Worries

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

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

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

Viewing Personal Growth

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

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

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

Getting Unstuck

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

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

One Life

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

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

Cruel and Clear

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

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

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

Pain, Hurt, and Suffering

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

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

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

Relationships, Accountability, and Growth

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

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

The Other Side

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

The Disagreements

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Whack on the Side of the Head

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

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

Why Games Work

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

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

Components of the Game

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

The Opening (Act 1)

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

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

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

The Exploration (Act 2)

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

The Closing (Act 3)

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

Game Listing

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

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

In Summary

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

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-Trust Rules: How to Tell the Good Guys from the Bad Guys in Work and Life

Trust is fundamental. It’s essential. It weaves together not just trust but also trustworthiness and, unfortunately, betrayal. Trust is a bet that the benefits of the trust are going to be more than the cost of betrayal. It’s based on the belief of the other person’s trustworthiness. Like horse race handicappers, we’re constantly looking at other people and judging the degree to which we should trust someone else. It would be a big benefit if we could learn what factors might lead to people being more trustworthy and what things might lead to betrayal. With that information, we can make better decisions about who to trust, to what degree, and when. That’s the root of Trust Rules: How to Tell the Good Guys from the Bad Guys in Work and Life. It’s a guide to knowing when to trust.

Morality in these Times

What would you think if you did a survey that revealed that 60 percent of students had cheated on a test in the past year? Would you conclude, as Michael Josephson, the director of the Josephson Institute of Ethics, that we have a hole in the moral ozone? Would you conclude that we’ve given up honor in the name of expediency? (See Who Am I? and The Normal Personality for more on honor and its opposite.) What can you say about the erosion of trust in people and institutions when the data seems to suggest that the trust isn’t well placed?

One could argue that there’s even less reason to trust in others and the world we think we see around us. Counter arguments are equally easy to make by simply selecting different data points. There’s no chance that a review, or the book itself, could safely settle this issue. However, what the conflicting data can tell you is that in either case we can improve our ability to discern when – and when not – to trust.

The Only Way Out is Through

The first way you can find a trustworthy person is to look for the person who doesn’t steer clear of trouble and instead braces themselves and then tackles the problem directly. Directly confronting problems and accepting the consequences of poor decisions, mistakes, and mishaps is a key characteristic of someone whom you can trust.

It’s simple really. If someone is willing to do the right thing and do the hard work when it really is hard, then the chances that they won’t live up to the trust you place in them is small. It’s still possible that your trust is misplaced, or the struggle will become more than they can cope with; however, it’s less likely than placing trust in someone who isn’t interested in doing the hard work.

Criticism and Accepting Fault

The trustworthy person is always seeking to better understand themselves and the world around them. As a result, they accept criticism and seek to use it as fuel to better themselves. That is not to say that they always accept criticism or that the criticism is always warranted. However, a person who is willing to consider the potential validity of the feedback is likely more self-aware and therefore more likely to behave consistently.

Similarly, trustworthy people accept fault. They accept that they’re not perfect and they’ll need to apologize from time to time, not because they’ve intentionally disappointed or harmed someone but because they cannot be perfect. That is not to say that trustworthy people instantly jump to an apology. Trustworthy people focus on understanding the harm before acknowledging their role in it – and carefully avoiding taking responsibility for something that isn’t theirs to own.

Handling Standards with Care

Trust Rules says that “Trustworthy people hold themselves to the same standards they establish for others and they genuinely consider others in their lives.” I disagree. However, I do agree that untrustworthy people are unwilling to hold themselves to the standards that they have for others. What I know about the most trustworthy people I am acquainted with is that they hold themselves to higher standards than they hold others to.

The problem is that if you hold yourself to the same standards as others, differences in perceptions will creep in. When you believe you’re within the line, someone from a different perspective may rightfully believe it’s over the line. As a result, the most trustworthy people I know hold themselves to higher standards – not the same standards. I believe that Linda Stroh is, again, fundamentally correct in the converse. Untrustworthy people won’t hold themselves to the same standards. They’re somehow special, different, or apart from the standards of other people.

For Better or Worse

Have you ever wondered why wedding vows often include the phrase “for better or worse”? There will be good times – times when you want to share the experience with your friends, colleagues, and partner. There will be bad times, too, when you don’t want to share your misery with your friends, colleagues, and partner but when you need them to help support you. Trustworthy people will be there when things are good and when things are bad.

The “for better or worse” language emphasizes the kind of relationship marriage should be – one where the partners can count on one another no matter what happens. The kind of people who remain with you when things are bad – not to share in the joy but also in the burden – are the kind of people to keep around you.

Holding Everyone Accountable

It seems like holding everyone – themselves and all others – accountable might not be a very likeable characteristic and therefore not the kind of thing you’d want to surround yourself with. However, when people are willing to have difficult conversations and hold everyone accountable, they’re willing to be honest with you – and thus more trustworthy.

It’s not that people who hold others accountable are callous or uncaring. They are in fact, quite concerned with how they interact with others. It’s not uncaring, it’s clear. It’s clear where they stand and what they believe. (See No Ego for more.)

If you want to understand more about who to trust – and who not to – you should read Trust Rules and apply a few to your world.

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.