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Book Review-The Cry for Help

One of the things that people often say about those who attempt suicide is that it’s just a cry for help.  While this isn’t true – every attempt should be taken seriously – The Cry for Help covers suicide attempts and death by suicide as it was known in 1965.  It was a time of serious condemnation for those who attempted or died by suicide.  Society was even quicker to blame parents, siblings, and spouses for a death by suicide – or an attempt – than today.

The Presuicidal Phase

As Joiner points out in Myths about Suicide, you can’t tell who will die by suicide by looking at them.  There aren’t tell-tale signs that anyone can pick up.  Joiner’s position (at the time of that writing) was that there are signs that predate a suicide attempt.  He challenges the research with attempters that they hadn’t considered suicide more than a few hours before their attempt.  The challenge – a fair one – is that attempters and those who die by suicide are an overlapping but distinct group.

Increasingly more research is added to the pile that, while some people who die by suicide have a presuicidal phase where they’re considering it and sending signals, some do not.  The latest research puts well over 50% of people not considering suicide prior to a few hours before the attempt.  That research wasn’t available in 1965 so the perspective is one where all suicides have a presuicidal phase with detectable signals that suicide is eminent.

Our experience today with the predictability of screening and assessment tools shows the same challenges.  We simply can’t use these tools to predict who will attempt suicide or not.

To add further challenge is the fact that even if signals are sent, they may be too low to be detected.  They may fall into the category of normal variations that people don’t detect.  Behavior changes are often cited as a suicidal signal; however, people change their behaviors every day in a variety of ways based on reasons to numerous to count.  Thankfully, few people who change their behaviors are truly suicidal.

Should we ask people if they’re going to harm themselves or attempt suicide?  Absolutely.  However, that isn’t to say that we’ve got to develop absolute prediction skills.

Suicidal or Accidental

The coroner’s job in determining what is – and what is not – a suicide is a challenging one to say the least.  There are some situations that are clear cut, but many more where it’s not possible to peer into someone’s intent after the fact.  This is why Shneidman started working with the coroner to help tease out the difference between accident and suicide.  (See Assessment and Prediction of Suicide.)  Even with advanced techniques for interviewing those who knew the deceased, there are still many errors that can be made, such as whether the car that crashed into the tree slid on an icy road or whether the driver intentionally pointed the car at the tree.

We may never know whether some deaths were accidental or suicidal – but in the individual case that may not matter.  It certainly will not bring them back.  The value in the distinction lies in our ability to potentially prevent the suicide.  However, as Bryan points out in Rethinking Suicide, suicides are like car crashes in that you can’t predict them at an individual level.  Our goal is to make things safer and in that way we’ll reduce suicides.

Secondary Benefits of a Psychological Autopsy

If we can’t see with clarity someone’s intention, the process of gathering the information in the psychological autopsy may be beneficial as postvention to those left behind.  Postvention is the process of caring for those left behind after a suicide.  (See Suicide and Its Aftermath for more on postvention.)  Many have reported that telling the story of their loved one is therapeutic.

The truth is that we need stories to make sense of our experiences.  Rich Tedeschi explains in Transformed by Trauma that PTSD is really our inability to process something we’ve seen or done.  By helping the family members formulate their story about their loved one, they get a chance to process the experience.  This is similar to the techniques that are explored in Opening Up and The Body Keeps the Score where the story process is encouraged.


In some cases, the underlying drivers for suicide may be an unshakable sense of shame.  That is, it’s not that something that they did was bad (resulting in guilt) but rather that they are bad.  This sense of shame may be persistent if the person believes that they’re irredeemable.  The sense that everyone can be saved from their current state – no matter how bad – creates the window for hope to hold on and to keep people trying to find ways to better themselves – and survive.

No one is irredeemable.  Don’t let The Cry for Help go unheard or unaddressed.

Book Review-Clues to Suicide

If I presented you with a selection of genuine suicide notes and a set of manufactured suicide notes from a matched set of individuals, would you be able to tell the difference?  This is at the heart of Clues to Suicide.  Edward Shneidman famously got interested in suicide by stumbling across suicide notes.  (See Definition of Suicide.)  He and Norman Farberow started the Los Angeles Suicide Prevention Center and edited Clues to Suicide in 1957.  It’s a part of an initial set of research and writing to start the modern period of suicide research.


Even in the 1950s, it was clear that suicide was more prevalent than murder – but that the public didn’t know that.  Even today, mass shootings are far more newsworthy than suicides.  We focus on gun violence as if it’s only murder.

Real or Imagined Loss

The fluid vulnerability theory of suicide (developed decades after this book was published) explains that people have a baseline risk for suicide, and then are driven by triggering events into a different stratum of risk.  (See Brief Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy for Suicide Prevention.)  Often, that trigger can be classified as a risk.  Sometimes, the risk is a relationship, and sometimes the loss is a sense of safety.  Clues to Suicide makes the important point that the loss that triggers ideation about suicide need not be real.  It can be either real or imagined.

Consistent with Sapolsky’s work in Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers, we as humans have the capacity to predict the future.  That allows us to experience stress that hasn’t happened.  Instead of being confined to immediate threats to our survival, we can predict a loss of job or a loss of love and experience a stress response immediately.  The problem is that our predictions are notoriously bad.  (See Superforecasting and The Signal and the Noise.)  This is particularly true of our happiness, as Gilbert explains in Stumbling on Happiness.

Less Trouble to Everyone Concerned

Sometimes, people believe that they’re a burden; consistent with Joiner’s Interpersonal-Psychological Theory of suicide, burdensomeness is a predictor of eventual suicide.  To be clear, there are probably two different modalities of suicide.  One is planned and the other impulsive.  In both cases, the cognitive processing may consider the degree to which someone is a burden to others.

The challenging aspect of this burdensomeness is that it’s measured from the perspective of the person and may or may not reflect the actual degree to which others perceive them as a burden.  However, in some cases, the concept of burdensomeness shows up as a desire to minimize the amount of pain those left behind will feel.  As a result, they may choose to attempt suicide in a way that they believe will be the least painful for those they leave behind.

Of course, most of this is fallacy, because the loss will be immense when someone dies by suicide, and people rarely perceive their burdensomeness to others equitably.

Socioeconomic Status and Suicide

Even in these early times, it was clear that suicide was occurring at higher rates in those who were privileged.  Today, we think about this in terms of socioeconomic status (SES).  Certainly, suicide occurs in all levels of SES, but there seems to be an odd concentration of suicides at higher levels.

As I’ve suggested in previous reviews, this may be due to maximization and/or the expectation gap.  (See The Noonday Demon.)  When people constantly have higher expectations than are possible, they are necessarily disappointed.  This disappointment can lead to burnout.  (See  Sometimes this disappointment doesn’t find an outlet or develops into hopelessness, and suicide seems like a good solution.  (See The Psychology of Hope for more about how hope is built, and The Hope Circuit for more about its impact.)

Many of the threads that research has followed for decades are laid out in Clues to Suicide.  Despite its age, it may be a good place to start to see where we’ve been.

Spring Suicide Prevention

Last year, we started a tradition.  We mark the first week of spring with suicide-related book reviews as a reminder that suicides peak in the spring.  It’s also a call for you to reach out to your friends and loved ones to reconnect and, if necessary, ask them if they’re considering suicide.  We want you to have gentle reminders to be on the lookout (like the bird in the image).

This year, we’ll be posting two solid weeks of suicide-related content.  Every weekday at 8AM Eastern Daylight Time (GMT-4) beginning Monday, March 20th, we’ll post a new book review for a suicide-related book – except for March 31st.  On March 31st, we’ll be posting as review of People in Crisis – which provides things that you can do to support people who are in crisis of any kind.

We’ll end on April 3rd with Stacy Freedenthal’s great book, Loving Someone with Suicidal Thoughts, as our encouragement to find ways to keep loving those who are struggling with the threat of suicide.

If you can’t wait, there’s a library of suicide-related book reviews on our site.  Feel free to browse the reviews and learn more about what you can do to help prevent suicide.

Book Review-Choosing to Live

A long time ago, I was told that no one is interested in a negative review.  I was reviewing technology at the time, so a few of the products I set out to review never got a story.  I’ve mostly carried that through in my book reviews.  However, Choosing to Live: How to Defeat Suicide Through Cognitive Therapy is different.  There are some good things to learn, but more importantly, there are some commonly repeated myths that need addressed – so let’s do that.

Myth: Treatable Psychiatric Disorder

There’s often quoted statement that most people who die by suicide are mentally ill or have a diagnosable and treatable psychiatric disorder.  There’s some variation to the myth, with people adding rates like 90% or 95% to make it seem more real.  However, the problem is that there’s no root research to support this.  In fact, modern research and thinking doesn’t believe this at all.  Certainly, some percentage of people do have a treatable psychological disturbance – but the number isn’t 90-95%.  There’s no credible research I’ve seen that even supports the idea that it’s a majority.

It seems to be a holdover from the idea “you’d have to be crazy to kill yourself.”  Of course, Shneidman and others have demonstrated that people die by suicide for a variety of reasons, but often because there’s some sort of psychological pain that is unbearable (see The Suicidal Mind) or because they’ve become hopeless (see The Noonday Demon).

Myth: Invariably Clinically Depressed

The exact quote from the book is, “Studies also show that suicidal individuals, terminally ill or not, are almost invariably clinically depressed.”  Except there is no research that says that – and the author didn’t respond to a request for him to clarify this statement.  Is there a correlation between depression and suicide?  Absolutely.  There’s a stronger correlation between hopelessness and suicide.  There’s an even stronger correlation with substance use disorder.  It is true that some are depressed?  Yes.  Here’s the real problem: that says very little, since a non-trivial amount of the population meets criteria for depression – at least to the level of being given a prescription for an SSRI.

Myth: Self-Destructive Behaviors Are Suicidal but Won’t Admit It

Another direct quote: “Indeed, some suicide theorists have proposed subintentioned suicide to explain such self-destructive behaviors in people who may not be depressed and who deny that they wish to die.”  There’s a long distance between self-harm and suicide.  Again, a correlation exists.  However, it’s too much to say that all self-harm is a desire for suicide.  For instance, we know that people who do self-harm are often trying to achieve a pain they can experience and control due to emotional disconnection or suppression.  One can be inflicting self-harm and not be suicidal.  Admittedly, the ability to do self-harm makes it easier to die by suicide later – but it doesn’t mean that’s where they are now.

Myth: Half the Population Has Had Suicidal Thoughts

Another direct quote: “Some studies have indicated that half of the population has had such thoughts at one time or another.”  The problem is that these numbers far exceed the accepted research that places the number at somewhere between 1 in 5 and 1 in 6.  Yes, people think about suicide much more frequently than we admit they do – however, it’s not 1 in 2 people unless the incidence rate is substantially under reported.

It’s appropriate to acknowledge that many more people consider suicide than we believe, but it’s too far to say that it’s half the population.

Myth: One in Six Untreated Depressed People

This quote is, “Left untreated, one depressed person in six will commit suicide.”  Not only is there no research support for this, but there’s no effective way to do this research.  How do you find untreated people who have depression?  If you found them, no review board would let you leave one group without “treatment as usual,” which is probably CBT or DBT.  As was mentioned above, people who die by suicide are more likely to have depression—but there’s no way to know how many would die by suicide.

Retrospective studies and psychological autopsies don’t have the precision to make these kinds of determinations.

Myth: The Drugs Made Them Do It

Here, the quote is, “Abuse of drugs and alcohol can lead people to become so chemically addicted that they develop another problem (the addiction) that they are unable to beat.”  This is the pharmacological view of suicide.  It’s been disproven but remains popular.  (See Chasing the Scream, The Globalization of Addiction and Dreamland for more.)  The truth is that substance use disorder (SUD) is a result of a coping strategy that has taken control over the person.  They leaned on the coping strategy in the first place, because there’s some aspect of their lives that is unsatisfying.  Much of what we were taught about drugs was simply false.  The programs, like DARE, didn’t work – they made things worse.  And we’re still fighting our way out of it.

Myth: Surfacing Subconscious Can Be Brought to Consciousness Easily

The direct quote is, “Depressive thinking patterns, while usually outside of a person’s awareness, can be brought into awareness fairly readily.”  Most professionals would say that subconscious thoughts can sometimes be easy to surface but some are more difficult to surface.  In fact, in Immunity to Change, we discover how persistent some beliefs can be.

Long String of Failures

With the list of myths out of the way, it’s time to highlight some of the good that the book has to offer.  One of those is the recognition that suicidal people can come to see their lives as a long string of failures.  Whether this is due to unrealistic or perfectionistic perspectives about what they should be able to accomplish, the disappointment is tangible.  It’s also, of course, possible that they’ve encountered a long string of difficult circumstances beyond their control.  However, in either case, when someone believes it’s hopeless that they’ll start meeting expectations, it can mean a suicide attempt.

Not Selfish

Suicidal people are, most frequently, not being selfish in their death.  In many cases, the person dying by suicide is so focused on their situation, their pain, and their circumstances that they don’t consider other people.  It’s not that they’re inconsiderate in general but rather the cognitive constriction (see The Suicidal Mind) and the intense pain make it difficult for them to consider the impact to others.

A Permanent Solution to a Temporary Problem

The research seems to indicate that most suicidal crises are short-lived.  Said differently, the decision to die by suicide is a permanent decision that’s made in a rather short moment of pain.  What we know is that even small deterrents that block their chosen means can make a large difference in the rate of suicides.  If we’re encountering someone who may be suicidal, the best thing we can do is just keep them talking.  Between the benefit of the connection and the probability that you’ll be speaking with them beyond their period of suicidality, it’s a great strategy.

Struggles and Love

No one has a perfect life.  We’ve all got things that we struggle with – things that we believe are difficult and challenging.  However, just because life is difficult doesn’t mean that there aren’t positive aspects, and it doesn’t mean that we’re not loved.  For all of the bad information in Choosing to Live, a reminder that you can be loved while struggling or being imperfect is a pretty important way to end.

Now Available: Joining a Teams Meeting Guide

In our world of remote and hybrid work, it’s critically important to stay connected. The various virtual meetings can become a juggling act as we inevitably run into technological issues or confusion about the multitude of buttons and symbols. Whether it’s using Teams through the web browser or having difficulty connecting to the right device, we’ve found that many of our clients could use a guide to help them navigate Teams so they can stay productive and engaged in their virtual meetings.

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That’s why we’ve put together the Joining a Teams Meeting guide. It walks you through the process of joining a Teams meeting, whether or not you have the desktop application installed, and what to do when things go awry. With screenshots of all the different buttons to help you orient yourself and a few common troubleshooting tips just in case, we can’t guarantee your meetings will be more exciting, but we can help them run more smoothly.

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Book Review-American Suicide: A Psychocultural Exploration

Every country seems to have its own unique quirks as it relates to suicide.  Some have higher rates and some lower, but more than that, each culture views suicide just a bit differently.  American Suicide: A Psychocultural Exploration (originally printed under the title, Self-Destruction in the Promised Land: A Psychocultural Biology of American Suicide) walks through the changing American beliefs about suicide and how they related to other beliefs across time.

It’s Not New News

At some level, we might believe that suicide didn’t exist, or it didn’t exist in the distant past at the same levels it does today.  Because our records aren’t incredibly accurate past the last 100 to 150 years, there’s very little way of knowing the actual prevalence of suicide in society – nor its drivers.  While there are historic studies of suicide, getting to accurate numbers is hard.  There were very real criminal, shame-based, and financial reasons to hide suicide.  Many suicides were likely categorized as accidents.  In fairness, suicide numbers are hard to get today as well, as stigma still surrounds the death certificate that says “suicide.”

However, perspectives were a bit warped as well.  For instance, the 1845 American Journal of Insanity warned against the dangers of “protracted religious meetings, especially of those held in the evening and night.”   It seems that they may have viewed any degree of passion or rapture as a mental illness – or insanity.  They believed that those who had mental illness needed to be controlled like beasts.  Perhaps it’s no wonder that we evolved from this thinking to warehousing those who were struggling in state-run institutions.

Our Immortal Soul

Earlier thinking was that, somehow, the way we interacted with others, our behaviors, and our thoughts related to our immortal soul.  That left little room for biological challenges to influence our behavior.  In short, if you were behaving poorly, it was your fault.  It wasn’t that you were struggling, healing, or hurting, it was believed that you had some sort of character defect.

It’s not exactly unheard of, as people used to shun those who had cancer because of the belief that somehow the person must have brought it upon themselves.  It’s a natural progression.  When things are mysterious, we assign mysterious causes.  We believe the Devil did it when we can’t point to the process that caused it.

As we improved our diagnoses and treatments for cancer, it became both less of a death sentence and less of an indictment about someone’s poor character.  We acknowledged it as a tragic reality of modern life.  Similarly, we had discomfort around HIV and AIDS until it became treatable as a chronic condition instead of something unknown and untreatable.

Reticular Activating System and What You See Is All There Is

Our reticular activating system (RAS) is responsible for our sleep-wake cycle as well as for what we pay attention to.  It’s why when we buy a new car, we see many more of that type of car on the road than we ever did.  It doesn’t mean that the car is more prevalent – it means that we’re suddenly paying attention.  (See Change or Die for more on RAS.)  Daniel Kahneman in Thinking, Fast and Slow spoke of a related tendency in humans, which is to believe that what we see is all there is.  The more that we research a topic or the more it’s reported, the more prevalent it is.  Anthro-Vision explains that murders aren’t more prevalent than they used to be.  Rather, there’s simply better coverage of them in the media.  This creates the perception that they’re more prevalent.

If you’re new to researching suicide, you may think that it’s a new thing.  However, the more you look back into the past and the odd perspectives that people had – and the rituals that evolved around the bodies of those who died by suicide – the more you realize that this isn’t new at all.  We can go back to the statistics of the 1800s, or we can look at the news stories that warned of epidemics of suicide – in the early 1900s.

There’s little argument that suicide statistics are increasing – and probably the rate is increasing.  However, there are questions about the limitations of the statistics we have.  With a history of criminalization and church condemnation, there’s little question that suicides were frequently under reported.  Is some of the climb in suicide rates that we’re seeing today the result of better statistics and greater reporting?  We don’t know.

The idea comes from the work of Amy Edmondson and is recounted in The Fearless Organization.  It’s the paradoxical finding that medication errors increased after psychological safety training that was designed to make it safer for people to report issues – and therefore be able to address the root causes.  When the rates on the unit rose, it got everyone’s attention until they realized that the rates didn’t rise – the reported occurrences did.  In the pre-safety culture, some events were simply not being reported.

Pathological Condition of the Brain

The first five editions of Medical Jurisprudence of Insanity (1838-1871) claimed that suicides were the result of “those who have been affected with some pathological condition of the brain.”  This with the circular logic that only someone who was insane would attempt suicide has led to a persistent – and incorrect – belief that people who die by suicide have a mental illness.  Frequently, this is quoted at 90%.  The number ends in a zero, so we know it’s an estimate (since statistics are rarely so clean).  However, it’s still widely cited as fact or research supported.  (Complicating this are “research” articles that seem to back this up but have substantial methodological issues.)

Shneidman in The Suicidal Mind puts forth the idea that suicide is a solution to solve psychache – psychological pain.  This makes sense in the broader context, because people in pain often behave in ways that are difficult to understand – and our brains make very little distinction between physical and psychological pain.  (See The Neuroscience of Suicidal Behavior for more.)

Social Capital

Robert N. Reeves wrote in Popular Science Monthly (June 1897), “Where the population is dense and the law of health neglected, where dirt is common and vice flourishes, where the poor are concentrated, and where fortunes are made and lost in a day will always be found the highest rate of suicide.”  Reeves has a point.  The point is that in places where there is the least stability, there will be more opportunities for loss, and that loss can drive suicidal behaviors.  Some of the aspects of this are obscured.

“Where population is dense” leads to a variety of situations that can lead to loss.  Competition is greater with higher density – and that can itself lead to loss.  More broadly, however, the social glue that causes more altruism in smaller settings begins to give under the intense strain of larger groups.  We stay together for our own survival.  If we can begin to release a few people, they’ll experience loss while the broader group may not.

If we want to reduce suicide, one aspect of this should certainly be the development of safety nets that catch people when they’re the most vulnerable and help them to make their way through difficult situations.

The Gap Between Statistics and the Individual

One of the challenges that exists in any sociological challenge is that the statistics that power identification of opportunities fall short of the capacity to predict outcomes on an individual basis.  Research has demonstrated a correlation between alcoholism and suicide.  A percentage of people who are alcoholics will die by suicide.  We can say that the percentage is greater than in the general population.  What no one can tell you is whether Bob or Suzi or Jim will die by suicide because they’re alcoholics.  This represents a problem for suicide prevention.

We amass more research that explains the variations, and we still end up with screening and assessment tools that do little better than chance at correctly identifying those people who are going to die by suicide.  That’s a problem.


In Pathways to Suicide, Ron Maris attempts to lay out a set of transitions that the suicidal person goes through.  Ideally, it’s a pathway from sane, mentally-healthy living to making the decision to take their own life.  There are numerous problems with the approach, no matter how valiant the attempt.  Not the least of which is the data that says that more than 50% of suicides are impulsive.  That is, they weren’t considered more than a few hours before their act.  (See Joiner’s Myths About Suicide for a discussion about this controversial idea.)

However, if the other group was on a suicidal path, then we’d expect to see that those who walk further down the path become progressively more likely to die by suicide.  It’s not clear that this is the case.  Of course, one can accumulate risky factors, but the degree of overlap between different factors and the direction of the causal arrows between them is such that it’s impossible to say with certainty that one person is – or isn’t – more or less likely to die by suicide.  We simply don’t have the predictive capacity in any of our tools to say for sure.

In Extreme Productivity, Robert Pozen explains the random path that his life has taken – and he’s not alone.  We can’t say that one path leads towards death by suicide, because even if we could, there’s no one path.

Statistical People

The problem that leads to the unpredictability of personal experiences is in an assumption that breaks down at the level of the individual.  Statistics and the math behind it make a fundamental presumption that all of the data is the same.  Statistical Process Control (SPC) was a boon to quality control inside of manufacturing.  The idea is that you can predict when parts are going to start to go outside of tolerance and intervene when they do – or right before.  If you have a machine that cuts widgets, and the machine has a tool that can dull over time, then you can predict when it will fail and thereby learn to replace it at precisely the right time.

This operates at the level of homogeneity.  All the tools are the same, and all the parts are the same, therefore the failure is predictable.  Individual differences will arise due to small fluctuations in the tool itself, but they will be sufficiently small as not to matter.

Humans, on the other hand, are immensely diverse.  Two humans that appear the same may end up on radically different trajectories, as Judith Rich Harris beautifully explains in No Two Alike.  Reiss explains these differences based on motivators in Who Am I?, but others have had other ways of identifying differences as well.

Because humans are fundamentally complex and not the same, the neat models of statistics break down.  (See also How to Measure Anything for more about where statistics work and where they fail.)

The Expectation Gap

In Extinguish Burnout, Terri and I expose the challenge of expectation gaps.  We share that burnout is those feelings of inefficacy we get when we have high expectations that we can never meet.  We begin to feel hopeless that we’ll ever achieve them – rightly so – and in the end, we’ll end up in burnout.  We see this same expectation gap in suicide as well.  Suicide seems to separate into two different groups along the dimension of performance.  I believe that it’s the averaging of these two different groups that sometimes leads to results that aren’t actionable.  (See The Innovator’s DNA for an example of the problems of averaging when there are two different fundamentals in the data.)

Group 1 are those who have low performance drives.  In this group, the conditions lead to a desire for suicide.  There are endless reasons why people in this group are unfairly treated, and how the conditions that lead to their desire to die may be caused by events outside of their control.

Group 2 are the curiosities.  When you look at their lives, they seem to have it all together.  They have high expectations, and for the most part, they meet them.  Consider celebrities in this category.  They are, by definition, popular.  They’re making money and enjoying a life that most people will never get a chance to fully experience, yet they want to die.  What can explain their desire?

The answer may live in the gap between their expectations of their performance and their actual performance.  They expected their album to be double-platinum, and it only became a platinum seller.  With no expectations, this is amazing – but from the expectations, it’s a let down or a loss.  It doesn’t have to be a celebrity.  We’ve seen civic leaders and experts within their field die by suicide.  Sometimes, it’s possible to track their expectation gap, and other times not so much.

What if you bought a house you could afford, went to a job you liked, had a primary relationship that was good, a new dog, and plenty of social connections?  You were recognized for your contributions to others, thereby mitigating any concern that you’re a burden.  (See Why People Die by Suicide.)  In short, it looks like all is going well.  Then, a small disturbance, like the death of a friend, creates ripples on the water of your life.  What could explain your desire to die?

The loss creates an altered trajectory of your life.  That person will no longer be a part of the future.  This may cause you to take stock of your current situation.  With high expectations, it might be that you’ll decide that you’ve not measured up to the standards you had for yourself.


There’s been a great deal of interest in serotonin in recent years.  We’ve built chemicals to prevent its reuptake in the synaptic gap, and they’ve had some degree of success in helping people with depression.  (See Warning: Psychiatry Can Be Hazardous to Your Mental Health for a countervailing view.)  What we’ve learned about the neurotransmitter may explain why we like Thanksgiving so much.

Tryptophan – found in turkey – is a precursor to the development of serotonin, and it’s something that our bodies can’t naturally synthesize.  Serotonin is manufactured in the brain, and therefore we need to get tryptophan from our digestive system through the blood into our brain.  It turns out that the blood-brain barrier is a very competitive space, with many molecules trying to make the transition at the same time.

It also turns out that an increase in insulin – which is the natural response to a large number of calories eaten – makes it easier for the tryptophan we eat to make its way into the brain and to be used in the construction of more serotonin.  It’s a complex, convoluted process, as biological systems often are.  But it’s a pathway that can help us understand why we can feel so good after a big turkey dinner – even if we feel bad that we ate so much.

Depression and PTSD

Konrad Lorenz noticed an odd behavior in geese and ducks.  They’ll search for a missing partner for days.  It seems they can’t seem to make sense of the loss, and therefore they keep at it.  This is not unlike depression, where our brain struggles to accept a truth that it cannot fathom.  This is no different than the challenge of PTSD patients who are seeking to integrate a memory that they cannot accept.  (See Transformed by Trauma for more.)  In the end, it seems that depression and PTSD are both attempts to integrate information about a world that doesn’t match the way we see it internally – or the way we want to see it.

The story of American Suicide is one of change, depression, and trauma that is well worth the read.

Book Review-The Mind Club: Who Thinks, What Feels, and Why It Matters

Whom should we care about?  Whom should we hold accountable, and whom should we defend?  The answer lies at the heart of The Mind Club: Who Thinks, What Feels, and Why It Matters.  If you’re concerned about how people manipulate others towards genocide, or you’re curious about why we hold people accountable – or not – the answer lies in our perception of their experience and in our perceptions of their agency.


If you’re have an inner life, you’re filled with feelings and experiences.  This experience matters.  It separates the inanimate from the animate.  We think of cows as having feelings and inner experience and therefore worthy of our protection.  It’s one of the reasons that vegetarians choose to not eat meat—they can’t bear to consider that they’re causing suffering to the animals.  However, they have no qualms about eating a turnip, a carrot, or a radish.  These are vegetables, not capable of feeling or experience.  This fundamental difference separates what can be eaten and what should not be eaten.

When we look at strategies to dehumanize people – for instance, in Moral Disengagement and The Lucifer Effect – we see that one involves making a group of people become unfeeling monsters.  The effect of this is that we must no longer consider their moral rights.


While control is an illusion, we ascribe moral responsibility to those who have thought and therefore the perception of agency.  (See Compelled to Control for control as an illusion, and How Good People Make Tough Choices for moral responsibility.)  We hold accountable only those whom we believe have thought and agency.  We don’t hold accountable the cow that knocks over the lantern and starts a fire.  We don’t believe the cow had the mental capacity for thought and therefore had no ability to predict its behaviors would lead to fire.


Even in Las Vegas, a bad roll of the dice or a poor flop of a card in Blackjack isn’t cruel.  Even with hundreds of thousands of dollars on the line, the perception of the cards and dice as being random eliminates all agency.  However, when there is a sense of agency, the reactions are quite different.

Consider a random number generator that decides the split of money between two people.  In even remarkably uneven splits, we don’t ascribe cruelty to the random number generator.  However, if we replace the random number generator with a person, we’re quite likely to label them cruel if we believe that the split isn’t fair.

The only difference is the perception of thought, agency, or will.  That’s enough for us to ascribe negative attributes to their character.  (See Bonds That Make Us Free and Trust Me for more.)

Distributed Memory

I’ve talked about the problems with our memory in my review of Mistakes Were Made (But Not by Me).  In short, we don’t have a static memory but rather reassemble memories from pieces.  We can’t think of our memories like a perfect recording.  Instead, they’re approximations of what we originally experienced.  How Emotions Are Made explains how our current state colors our perception of our memories.  Even in relatively non-emotional, work-related topics, our emotions change what we know.  It’s one of the reasons why Job Aids and Performance Support tools are so valuable – they’re always the same, no matter when or how they’re accessed.

However, one of the implications of our imperfect and assembled memory is that it’s not all internal.  We have notes, references, and people that we lean on to enhance our memory.  In my post, Research in the age of electrons, I explained the process I use to take notes to intentionally support my memory with external resources.  When I reassemble my memories – or try to follow a thread – I’ve got an anchor connected to reality that many don’t have.  More importantly, I’ve got a capacity to connect with more resources to enhance my ability to remember.

I also, however, use my wife as a way of enhancing my memory, leaving social calendars and some anniversaries and birthdays for her to remember.  This transactive memory aid allows each of us to focus on a subset of the overall things we’d need to worry about.  This outsourcing of memory is one of the reasons why grief is so challenging – not only did we lose the person, but we’ve lost a part of ourselves as well.  (See The Grief Recovery Handbook.)

The Uncanny Valley

Somewhere between human and non-human lies the uncanny valley.  While we’re perfectly comfortable with humans and comfortable with non-human things, when things are too human – but not quite human enough – we are in the uncanny valley, and it’s unsettling to us.  Because we don’t know where the edges are, we may find ourselves suddenly disturbed without knowing precisely why.

For instance, we’re aware that devices can detect chemicals in the air.  We have replaced canaries with machines to measure air quality.  However, we struggle to think that machines can detect vomit or grandma’s apple pie because these are inherently emotional smells.  (And, hopefully, the second doesn’t cause the first.)  When we start to mingle emotional characteristics with things that we believe aren’t emotional, it’s gets odd.

One in Pain is a Tragedy

Compassion is easiest expressed when we have a singular person whom we can consider helping.  When we’re faced with faceless masses – or even too many people that we do know – we overload our capacity for compassion and often shut down.  Instead of being eight times more compassionate when we discover eight people need help, we shut down.  We can be compassionate to Baby Jessica, the child who fell down a well in Texas.  We can’t be compassionate – easily – for the thousands losing their lives due to special military actions or genocides.  We can believe that genocide is wrong – and still not muster the compassion for the persons and families impacted individually.

Relative Morals

We tend to think about morals as right vs. wrong.  We often fail to consider the influence of culture and beliefs.  We recognize the morals of Muslims, who refuse to eat pigs, but will happily eat a hamburger made of cows.  We acknowledge that Hindus will eat pigs but refuse to eat cows.  Both religions have strong feelings about the sanctity of animals – just not the same animals.  Our morals aren’t just shaped by the big-picture beliefs we have, but they’re also shaped by resource scarcity.

Consider the man who steals groceries.  Stealing is wrong.  However, many, when faced with starvation, will find a way to feed their family through stealing.  That doesn’t make stealing any more or less objectively right, but it does change our perspective on whether it’s acceptable.

Chivalry as Benevolent Sexism

Too many lament that chivalry is dead.  Men don’t hold doors for women any longer.  They don’t open car doors for them.  It seems as if we’ve lost the charming way that men used to care for women.  Most women I know find these behaviors charming – even if they are, in fact, sexism.  We don’t expect the same behavior when two men are out or when two women are out.  That’s why we call chivalry “benevolent sexism.”  It’s a way of respecting and honoring the other sex – as long as it’s welcome and appreciated.

Is Your CEO a Psychopath?

Psychopaths don’t care about the feelings of others.  They also tend to be calm in the face of danger.  Their ability to disconnect from the feelings of others seems to convey a greater sense of calm when facing danger – particularly interpersonal or relational danger.  It seems that CEOs are four times more likely than the general population to meet the criteria for psychopathy.  One can wonder whether it’s being the CEO that causes it or whether the calm that is conveyed allowed them to make decisions that led them to the CEO role.

Parasocial Stereotype Removal

We naturally feel connected to the celebrities that we see.  It’s a parasocial relationship.  That is, it’s a one-way relationship, where we feel connected with them, and they don’t recognize any connection to us.  Because of the perception of a relationship and the perceived power imbalance, there’s a great chance that they’ll motivate our behavior.  That’s why endorsement contracts are so lucrative.  They work.

What if we were to take a situation where we have a negative opinion of a group of people – a negative stereotype – and we were to create characters that were real and likeable on a program that everyone wanted to watch?  The result might be to melt the stereotype.  This seems to have been the case in at least one soap opera designed specifically for this purpose.

There are, of course, limits.  The story of Al Campanis and Jackie Robinson, as related in Mistakes Were Made (But Not by Me), hints at the limits.  Campanis could respect Jackie and, to a lesser extent, any black man.  However, he couldn’t accept that Jackie would be a good baseball manager.  There was no doubt he was a great player, but Campanis wouldn’t make the leap to other areas.  In short, when it comes to changing stereotypes, even direct experience and relationship has its limits.

Sorites Paradox

A grain of sand is one thing.  A sand pile is another.  However, when does a collection of grains of sand become a pile?  Most can’t answer this question.  It lies in a vague space between two seemingly distinct categories.  This problem is why we can’t identify the line between those who are thinkers and those who aren’t – and why we’ll sometimes move the line to fit the circumstances.

It is the problem that Justice Potter Stewart used to describe the obscenity of pornography.  He simply said, “I know it when I see it.”  Even in the case of an important societal definition and a wise and considerate justice, there are sometimes no clear definitions.

As we seek to understand who feels and who thinks, we may find that the answer isn’t as clear-cut as we believe it to be.

Loss of Future

Sometimes losses take on more than the loss itself.  When parents grieve a fetus through miscarriage, they’re not grieving the loss of cells.  They’re not misunderstanding that, depending upon the stage of pregnancy, there is or isn’t feeling.  Instead, they’re mourning the loss of a future.  It’s the birthday parties, graduations, and grandchildren that they envision would result from the birth of their child.  Sometimes, the way that we view things isn’t just from the present tense but from the potential futures that are lost because of the event.

Finding Meaning in Inherent Randomness

We spend a lot of time avoiding the thought of death, as The Worm at the Core explains.  We also expend a great deal of effort to avoid the reality that the world is random.  We ascribe control when we have none.  When we have perceived control, the impacts are much smaller.  (See Opening Up for more.)  It’s no wonder that we seek to find meaning in the randomness of life.  We’re looking for a way to control the situation.  We’re even willing to accept that we could have controlled the outcome – but didn’t – rather than accepting that there’s an inherent randomness to life.  The Halo Effect explains that we can’t process the randomness of life well – so we often ignore or avoid it.

Sometimes, this finding meaning pushes us toward finding blame.  Other times, it’s a desire to find ways to protect from things that are so rare they’ll likely never happen again in our lifetime.  If you accidentally run into a child while driving – because they dart out from between two vehicles without looking – you may find that you’re hypersensitive to parked cars and that you instinctively drive slower.  The probability of another child darting in front of you is low – but the impact is high enough that you’ll expend energy to prevent it happening again.  The real challenge is that even in a hyper-vigilant state, it may not be possible to avoid the same situation again.  The good news is that it’s unlikely enough that you’ll never find out.

Pascal’s Wager

Belief in God is a bit odd.  It’s odd, because those who are the most religious are often the most afraid of death – despite the purported belief in an afterlife.  The wealthy are less likely to believe in God.  The strongly-held belief in God (self-reported) correlates strongly with a suffering index.  Importantly, the larger the society, the more powerful God becomes.  Smaller societies have less powerful Gods.  It’s as if they don’t believe that an all-powerful God is even possible in a world with so much tragedy.

Pascal famously decided that belief in God was the best bet.  His argument was that if you didn’t believe in God and could live your life the way you want, you could perhaps gain a +1 for eighty years of life.  If God did exist, and you missed out on an eternal afterlife, you’d be infinity.  Therefore, the most logical thing to do was to believe in God.  From the perspective of the thinking and feeling dimensions that pervade the book, God is seen as all thinking and not very feeling.

In the end, The Mind Club is a wonderful walk through philosophy that provides a framework for who we should have empathy for and who we should hold accountable – even if we often get it wrong.

Power Automate: Sending Multiple Select Choice Field Options from Microsoft Forms to SharePoint List

We recently used Power Automate to create a workflow (which we’ll call the “flow” in this post) that automatically sends a Forms submission to a SharePoint list. For the most part, this was a straightforward process, since the Form and the List had columns that held the same type of data. The trigger is when a response is submitted for that particular Form; add an action to get the response details; then create the item in SharePoint, with the response details added into their corresponding list column.

The challenge came when we got to a choice field in the Form that allowed for multiple selections. There were two parts to this challenge: first, directly inputting the dynamic content from the Get Response Details action resulted in a string in the choice field in the format [\”Option A\”,\”Option C\”] rather than corresponding to the preexisting Option A, Option C, etc. in the list; and second, we wanted the ability to add, remove, or change options in the choice field without needing to also update the flow.

When we looked up the process online, the answers being given were overly complicated and a bit nonsensical. This post is designed to walk through our process of getting all of the choices in a multi-select choice field from a Microsoft Form into a SharePoint list. We’ll talk about some of the snags we hit along the way.

In this post, we’ve added a few styles to help explain the process. Bolded items are action items; these are typically specific things on the screen you should click or select. Underlined items are what you should read on screen, but not necessarily directly interact with, such as the name of a field or section; use these to help orient yourself to where you should be looking. Courier New font is used to indicate specific things that should be typed.

The Process

First, make sure your Form and SharePoint list contain the same fields. In the case of the SharePoint list, ensure your choice field has each option listed and the Allow multiple selections option toggled On.

Create the Flow

Go to Power Automate and create a new Automated cloud flow. Give a name to your flow. For the trigger, select the Microsoft Forms “When a new response is submitted” trigger, then Create the flow.

In the Form Id field, select the corresponding Form. If it was created directly in the Microsoft Forms interface, it’ll be listed in the drop down menu. This was our first snag: we created our Form in Teams. If you created it via Teams like we did, you’ll need to manually find and input the form ID. Navigate to your Form in Teams, then right-click the tab with the Form, and click Go to website. When the Form appears in the browser, find FormId in the URL, then copy everything after the equals sign (=) – it should be a long string of characters. Go back to your flow and, for Form Id, click Enter custom value, then paste in the Form’s ID.

New step, then select Get response details. Add the form ID as you did above. For Response Id, select the dynamic content Response Id.

Parse JSON

New step, then select Parse JSON. In Content, select the dynamic content under Get response details for the multi-select choice field. To build the Schema, click Generate from sample, then type or paste in the following:


This won’t match the options in your form – that’s okay. This step is to simply teach the Parse operation how the data will be displayed, not necessarily what. Click Done. A JSON schema will automatically be generated. Importantly, you’ll see it will generate an array.

Convert Selection Array to String

New step, then select Initialize variable. This is the first of two variables we’ll create. It’ll be used to transform the array of selected options into a string. Give your variable a name. For Type, select String. Leave Value blank. For this example, we named it ColorInput to indicate the “raw” inputs into the field.

New step, then Apply to each. In Select an output from previous steps, select the dynamic content under Parse JSON for Body. Within the Apply to each step, Add an action, then select Append to string variable. In Name, select the name of the variable you just created. In Value, select Expression, then type in the following formula:


As you type, closing parentheses and apostrophes will be added automatically, so make sure you avoid duplicating characters. What this function does is add a ;# to the end of each choice, which is what SharePoint will use to determine the different options selected. Then click OK.

Trim String Length

Outside of Apply to each, New step, then select Initialize variable. This is our second variable, which we will use to make our final adjustments to the first. This was another snag we found, since the flow won’t allow you to select a variable and then change that same variable. Give your new variable a name. For Type, select String. Leave Value blank. For this example, we named it ColorFinal to indicate that it would hold the final, readable transformation of the raw inputs.

New step, then select Condition. A quirk we found at this point is that the previous step will result in a “blank” option being added into the SharePoint choice field. We use this condition to check to see if any option is selected, and if so, it will trim the last couple of characters off the end, which removes the “blank” item. In the leftmost Choose a value, select Expression, then type the following formula. You’ll need to replace ColorInput (our first variable’s name) with the name the first variable you created.


Click OK. Click is equal to to open the menu, then select is greater than. In Choose a value, type 2.

Move to the Yes side of the condition. Add an action, then select Set variable. In Name, select the second variable created. In Value, select Expression, then type the following formula. Just like with the previous Expression, you’ll need to replace ColorInput (our first variable’s name) with the name of the first variable you created.


Add to SharePoint List

Beneath the condition, New step, then select Create item. In the Site address, select the SharePoint site containing your corresponding list. Then, in List Name, select the corresponding list. For each field except for the multi-select choice fields, you can use the dynamic content under Get response details to match each field in the Form to each field in the list.

Find the box that indicates the multi-select choice field of the list (it will be surrounded by a dashed line). It will read [Field] Value – 1. Click on it, and when the drop-down menu appears, select Enter custom value. Then select Dynamic content, under Variables, choose the second variable created – for our example, ColorFinal.

Save and test your flow. Any number of selected options in the Form’s multi-select choice field should now be correctly transferred into your multi-select field in the list.

Book Review-You Are Not Alone: The NAMI Guide to Navigating Mental Health

Loneliness is a problem for the social creature called human.  The shame and secrecy of mental illness has created a Gordian knot of spiraling issues and reinforcement, the only solution to which is for us to end the silence about mental health in the same way that we no longer shun those who have cancer.  You Are Not Alone: The NAMI Guide to Navigating Mental Health seeks to bring mental illness out of the shadows and into the light.  The idea is that we cut through the shame and secrecy to begin to work on the real issues facing too many people across the globe.

What is NAMI?

Before diving into the book, it’s important to set context.  Part of that is explaining what NAMI is.  The acronym expands to National Alliance on Mental Illness.  Started in 1979 and going through many transformations, NAMI is an organization focused on developing mental health through accepting and addressing mental health issues and facilitating wellness.  (These are my words, not theirs.)  It’s important to recognize that mental illness impacts more than the person with the illness – it impacts their families and friends, and NAMI’s wholistic approach provides resources to support the entire system around the person struggling with mental illness.


There’s a difficult spot in mental health.  It’s between those who believe you can eliminate mental illness in a person – they can be cured – and those who believe you can only manage the symptoms of mental illness – and therefore anyone with a mental health diagnosis will retain their struggle until their death.  My personal belief is that the answer is both.  In some cases, the underlying causes for mental illness are biological.  It’s some imbalance or deficit for which there is only maintenance.  In other cases, mental illness may be a lack of sufficient coping skills, and as such, it may be possible to recover.

Let me expand for a moment into the world of physical health and diabetes with an analogy.  There are two basic types.  Type 1 diabetes patients don’t produce insulin – or produce it in insufficient quantities.  Type 2 diabetes patients have production of insulin, but the cells don’t readily absorb it – they have resistance.  For Type 1 diabetes, there is no “cure.”  They’ll supplement their body’s insulin production (if any) for the rest of their life.  For Type 2 diabetes, there are several management strategies.  Diet and exercise are a start, but this is often layered with various pharmacological tools to reduce the resistance cells have.  For many, but not all, patients with diabetes, losing weight will reduce cellular resistance to insulin and may allow them to regain balance without medications.

So, the same disease can have either a management strategy or a recovery strategy.  Ultimately, of course, even those who have recovered must keep their weight off, or else they’re likely to see the return of the disease and its long-term implications.  One of the interesting quotes from You Are Not Alone is that “recovery was perishable like food in the produce section.”  It points to the varying rate at which one needs to reconsider and tend to the factors that led to mental illness – and mental health.  Whether or not there is a final “recovery” for mental illness, everyone deserves appropriate treatment.

Blame to Shame

When someone struggles with mental health, it’s seen as a weakness.  It’s seen as a problem inherited from parents, either genetically or environmentally.  While we know that the degree to which parents can influence their children is limited, we’re often willing to blame them if their children don’t “turn out well.”  (See No Two Alike and The Nurture Assumption for more on the limits of parental influence both genetically and environmentally.)  Instinctively, we look to blame others for the problems that we encounter in the world.  This serves two purposes.

First, if you blame someone else, then you can quickly and cleanly absolve yourself from blame.  (See Mistakes Were Made (But Not by Me) for more.)  Second, it eliminates the need to confront the probabilistic nature of our world.  That is, there are few certainties, and the uncertainty is disconcerting for us.  (See The Halo Effect for more.)  The real problem is that the probabilistic nature of our world means that our predictions have more error in them than we believe they do.  (See How We Know What Isn’t So for more on our overconfidence.)  Mindreading asserts that our primary reason for consciousness is prediction.  It’s no wonder that our inability to predict what happens next is so uncomfortable for us.

The problem for the recipient of blame around mental illness is that they may need to navigate the waters of acceptance, guilt, and shame.  The first option is for the person who is being blamed to reject the blame.  If they do, there’s no need to accept and process the blame.  However, arguments centered around one person blaming the second person and the second person rejecting that blame are often difficult to navigate.

Presuming acceptance, the next challenge is to decide whether the thing you’re being blamed for means that you did bad – or that you are bad.  It’s the gap between guilt and shame – and for too many people, the hammer comes down on the side of shame.  When it comes to our loved ones, we can’t accept that what we might have done has harmed them.  (See I Thought It Was Just Me (But It Isn’t) for more on guilt and shame.)

Talk to Me

Strange things happen when people talk to each other.  Problems seem lighter.  “You’re only as sick as your secrets” is a common refrain from 12-step meetings.  (See Why and How 12-Step Groups Work for more.)  However, the blame and shame around the topic of mental health keeps too many people from speaking openly about their challenges – whether they’re normal or not.

Amy Edmondson in The Fearless Organization suggests that organizations can make safe environments where employees are able to speak about anything.  In my review, I explain why that’s a utopian idea – and a fallacy.  There are certainly things that we can do to make organizations safer, like some of those shared in Nonviolent Communication, but they’re not enough when you’re faced with the stigma that mental health faces today.  Some books, like How to Be an Adult in Relationships, encourage each of us to become healthy in our relationships with others – but that’s hard to do when others aren’t on board.  Henry Cloud and John Townsend in Safe People and Cloud in The Power of the Other make clear the many things that can go wrong in relationships and what we’ve got to do to protect ourselves.

Sometimes, it’s simply skills that are missing.  It could be that we need to learn some emotional intelligence.  (See Emotional Intelligence and Emotional Intelligence 2.0.)  Sometimes it’s an inability to understand the person we’re talking to.  We might categorize them via Reiss’ 16 factors, as explained in Who Am I?, or the Enneagram, as explained in Personality Types, for the purposes of understanding their perspectives better.  We might need skills developed in Reading the Room, so that we can quickly surmise the other person’s perspective.  We might even need to look for a more specific answer when it comes to the mental health of our children.  (See How to Talk So Kids Will Listen and Listen So Kids Will Talk.)

The goal should always be to find ways to better understand the people you are with so it’s easier to communicate.  However, that’s sometimes easier said than done.  Sometimes, it’s hard to even understand what others believe.

Rational, If You Believe What They Believe

In Going to Extremes, Cass Sunstein explains what causes groups to develop progressively more extreme views.  However, it doesn’t take a group to develop extreme views.  Extreme views are disconnected from reality, and sometimes that disconnect can be the mental illness itself.  If you pretend that you’re watching a movie and suspend your disbelief, you may be able to see the world like they do – at least to an extent.  When we watch the latest science fiction or action movie, we accept that what we’re seeing is real.  We don’t question the levitating heroes or everyone’s flawless execution.  Instead, we suspend our disbelief to experience the story – sometimes that’s necessary when coming alongside people with mental illness.

Often, we can find rationality in seemingly irrational behaviors.  We find that, if you believe what they believe, their behaviors and responses make sense.  That doesn’t make them objectively right or that their responses are okay, but it does make it easier to predict their next behavior – making our world just a bit easier.


Nietzsche said, “He who has a Why can endure any How.”  Too many of those with mental health issues don’t have a purpose – or have their purpose stolen from them by their illness.  With no meaning – no why – they succumb to the tragedy of their circumstances.  (See Start with Why for more about finding meaning.)  In Being Mortal, Atul Gawande reviewed the research that shows that even meaning as little as tending for a plant is sufficient to change mortality of the elderly.  They can’t go if they’re here to tend for something or someone else.

As we seek to serve and be served by those who struggle with mental illness, we can’t forget the sense of burdensomeness that they may feel that will lead them to thoughts of suicide.  (See Why People Die by Suicide for more on burdensomeness.)  Similarly, we should consider how serving others pushes back loneliness.  (See Loneliness for more.)  The other side is the sense of burden that care givers can feel and their tendency to experience compassion fatigue or burnout.  (See Is It Compassion Fatigue or Burnout? for more.) Sometimes the solution to caring for mental health is to realize that You Are Not Alone.

Theory X, Theory Y, and the Hybrid

Douglas McGregor proposed two different approaches to management.  Theory X presumes that people are basically disengaged and lazy, desiring to fill only their most basic needs, while Theory Y managers are focused on empowering and enlightening their employees.  While it’s widely believed that Theory Y is a better approach for productivity, it’s also believed that many executives don’t perceive others as being “driven” or motivated.


What does baseball have to do with organizational management?  Perhaps nothing, but people began to notice what the Oakland A’s did in the early 2000s.  In Moneyball, Michael Lewis explains that Bille Beane and his team replaced hunches and instincts with statistics – and it paid off big time.  If we go back a bit further, we learn of Jackie Robinson’s career and his relationship with Al Campanis.  Robinson was the first black Major League Baseball player, and Al was a fellow player who often defended him when it was uncomfortable to do so.  (See Mistakes Were Made (But Not By Me) for more on the story.)

The story looks like a classic story of Theory Y and the belief in the capabilities of others.  However, there’s a darker side to the story.  Campanis didn’t extend his belief to all black people, nor did he extend his belief of Robinson’s capabilities to baseball team management.  It’s fine, from Campanis view, for Robinson to be a great baseball player – but not a great baseball team manager.  It’s equally normal for Robinson to be a good human and to not change his perception about all black people.

It’s in this that we begin to realize that Theory X and Theory Y are overly simplified perspectives on the dynamic interactions that happen between people and others’ beliefs about their capabilities.

Altruism and Selfishness

Adam Grant in Give and Take describes curious findings.  People who were “givers” ended up at the bottom of the stack – and at the top.  But why?  The answers may lie in the multiple levels of competition.  While Richard Dawkins argued for The Selfish Gene, he was a bit fuzzy about what would constitute a gene.  He simply described it as a unit that replicates, but he didn’t confine it to biology, having coined the word “meme” in the same book.

At the most basic level, when a unit is selfish, it will be more successful almost by definition: to be non-selfish or altruistic means that you’re giving up some of your resources for the benefit of others.  However, odd things happen when you encounter groups of more altruistic replicators vs. those that are selfish.  When altruistic behavior results in a net positive for the group, the individuals that are altruistic within the group are at a disadvantage, but the group itself is at an advantage over other more selfish groups.

The dynamic interplay of the intra- and inter-group forces could account for very good results and relatively poor results.  More than that, the work of Robert Axelrod in The Evolution of Cooperation and others demonstrates that varying approaches to solving the classic Prisoners Dilemma problem could result in sustained oscillations, where more selfish strategies were dominated by more altruistic or forgiving approaches, until the tide turned and the situation reversed itself.

From the Board Room to Bored in the Room

Executives spend countless hours in meetings being briefed, sharing perspectives, and working with teams.  Whether the executive team at the organization is a cohesive, collaborative group, or it’s relatively cutthroat and conniving, it’s unlikely that an executive will see their peers as being passive or content, like Theory X would presume.  Clearly, at the senior management level, Theory Y should prevail.

Even with the pressures of drive and ambition knocking at their door, most executives have built some personal life, and that personal life often involves children.  While, doubtlessly, executives love their children, it doesn’t always mean that they believe their children have the same drive that they had.  Numbers are hard to find, but college enrollment is falling.  (See Collect Enrollment Statistics.)  At the same time, dropout rates for colleges are climbing.  If executives viewed their college career as their ticket to success, they see their children – or the children of others they know – failing to take advantage of it.

There’s another big factor that is often blamed on millennials.  Job hopping is seen as a problem by many employers, who believe that millennials are changing jobs more frequently than Baby Boomers or Generation X.  However, the data doesn’t seem to support that.  The Bureau of Labor Statistics data implies that average job tenure is one-third of the available working years.  That holds relatively true across age groupings and time.  There are differences – but they tend to be small.  So, the perception is that people are job hopping – trying to find a better or easier job – more than their parents, but this is just how it feels.

The net effect is that, in some places, executives see people who are driven – and other places, including their own families, they see people who seem to need to be motivated to do even the basic things.

What About Ralph

In Work Redesign, Richard Hackman and Greg Oldham speak about how to redesign work so that you’re able to get the most out of employees – and they feel the best about their work.  However, in the midst of their work, they speak of the worker they call “Ralph.”  Ralph’s ambitions and beliefs in his ability had long ago been crushed and abandoned.  He was quite content with his role, because he couldn’t withstand the frustration of the gap between his desires and what he was being asked for in the organization.

However, when confronted with challenges to become more engaged – to be more Theory Y – what happened confused Hackman and Oldham.  Ralph resisted the additional responsibilities and freedom, preferring instead to remain in the role as things had been.  They concluded that, had he expanded his horizons now, it would be tacit admission that he shouldn’t have given up in the past and resigned himself to the limited corporate life he had.

So it may be that there are both Theory X and Theory Y people.  It may be that one is treated like the other until they decide to become it, and once they’ve made the decision, it may be hard to get them to change.  It’s not as simple as waving a wand and getting people to step up to greater responsibility – sometimes, it takes helping them accept that previous decisions they’ve made may not be appropriate any longer.

The Training Bellwether

It’s easy to point to training as a bellwether for how management sees the organization.  The question is whether they’re encouraging the continued learning and growth of their employees or whether they’re trying to extract every ounce of short-term productivity that they can.

Henry Ford said, “The only thing worse than training your employees and having them leave is not training them and having them stay.”  For all the perceptions of Henry Ford as a Theory X kind of person, his statement sends a clear message that training is an important part of the development process of employees.  If you’re not training, then you’re trying to extract everything you can.

If you want to see how an organization feels about their employees in general, look to how they train them.

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