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Book Review-Noise: A Flaw in Human Judgment

We’ve all seen things that aren’t there.  The stick that looks like a snake.  Shadows that move in the darkness that look eerily like the monsters of our childhood.  Sometimes, we’ve also failed to see what is clearly there.  We’ve missed stop signs and warnings that can keep us out of danger.  Noise: A Flaw in Human Judgment is a study of the things that we do see, those we don’t, and how we can get to a more reliable understanding of the world around us.

Two of the authors of Noise, Daniel Kahneman (Thinking, Fast and Slow) and Cass Sunstein (Nudge), are highly respected, including by me.  It was in an email conversation with Kahneman that I realized that Noise had been published and that I had to read it.

Bias and Noise

A lot of attention has been focused on bias in recent years.  We look for bias in artificial intelligence, in our hiring practices, how we promote, and a million other ways where we may subtly (or not so subtly) prefer outcomes.  Bias, from a statistical point of view, is a systemic deviation from the truth in a direction.  Noise, on the other hand, is random scatter around the truth.

What makes noise interesting is that, in some cases, it may account for more of the overall error than bias.  This means that if we want to move towards better justice, we may be better served to address the noise than attempt to correct the biases that we may be facing.  That isn’t to say that biases aren’t important and we shouldn’t seek to eliminate them, but our experience is that biases are remarkably persistent, and it may be easier to reduce noise than to try to address bias.

Finding the Target

Perhaps the most challenging places where noise appears are where we have the greatest trouble defining the target.  For instance, psychiatry is notoriously noisy.  While the American Psychological Association (APA) has invested great efforts into the development of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual, now in its fifth edition (DSM-5), the criteria for diagnosing a disorder are sufficiently vague that it’s difficult to get agreement between psychologists on a diagnosis.  More disturbing, it’s difficult to get the same professional to make a consistent diagnosis when presented with the same facts.

While there are techniques that can be used to systemically reduce noise, the lack of a clear target will always involve noise.

Predictions are Noisy

Other places where professional judgement is involved are also necessarily noisy.  In Superforecasting, Phil Tetlock explains how forecasts (predictions) are difficult to get right and the factors that allow some forecasters to be more effective than others.  This is because predictions, by their nature, don’t involve clear criteria, and cause-and-effect relationships are inherently noisy.  Some will over-prioritize factors and will therefore swing their projections too abundantly in response to that factor.

Errors Don’t Cancel

In The Wisdom of Crowds, James Surowiecki explains how, in many situations, the errors (noise and bias) cancel themselves out.  From the weight of a bull to the number of jellybeans, the average of the guesses often is very close to the actual number.  Certainly, Enrico Fermi’s techniques for breaking down a problem into numbers that can be easily guessed or estimated stands as a testimony that people can work together to come up with accurate answers.  His class at the University of Chicago famously predicted the number of piano tuners in Chicago.  (See How to Measure Anything for more.)  However, this stands in contrast to the Drake equation.  The Drake equation is designed to estimate the number of detectable extraterrestrial intelligent species.  Because it’s the straight multiplication of a large number of factors that are not knowable, the results are very wildly divergent, from countless extraterrestrial intelligences to zero.

The key thing to recognize about noise is that it often does not cancel itself out – and certainly doesn’t cancel itself out when a single, noisy decision is unjust to the person affected.  Consider mental diagnosis (or lack of diagnosis), child protection, child custody decisions, and criminal judgements.  Each decision impacts the individual or individuals in irreversible ways.  There’s no solace for the convicted criminal (who is innocent) that some other guilty criminal has been set free.  Though a mathematical average is right, it’s not fair to the incorrectly convicted criminal, nor the victim of the person who goes free.

The Noise Audit

In recent years, with the advent of big data, statistics, and computing power, we’ve seen more and more datasets get processed to observe the noise and biases that have gone undetected.  Daniel Pink in When explains that you want to come in front of a judge after lunch rather than before, because you’re much more likely to be paroled.  While these studies often operate at the scale of massive data sets, it’s possible to do a more focused examination of individuals’ behavior at different times or how one individual compares to others.  Once you get “enough” data, you can see how one individual may be overly harsh or overly compassionate compared to the average.  (How to Measure Anything is a good resource for knowing how much is “enough.”)

Jerry Muller called it The Tyranny of Metrics, yet metrics and measurement are the only way that we can know what is and what is not working.  The Heart and Soul of Change laments the lack of quality and consistency in psychotherapy largely due to a lack of consistent measurement.  So, while it’s possible to overdo the desire to measure what is happening, it’s often the opposite problem that people find themselves fighting.

Systems and Cognitive Biases

Sometimes the systems that we build and our cognitive biases play into our inability to detect noise.  Even the detection of noise represents a conflict.  After all, if there are multiple perspectives on the same situation, there is necessarily disagreement – and conflict.  An increasing number of people are conflict avoidant – particularly when in groups and committees.  Collectively, these forces push us away from getting the data and awareness that we need to discover and minimize the noise in our decisions.

We build systems and metrics that lead us away from an awareness of where our opinions differ and in ways that minimize the data that could surface the fact that there is noise in our systems.  Metrics that are easy to measure and evaluate are selected, because to pick difficult metrics just means they won’t be collected or, when they are collected, evaluated.

The Uncomfortable Truth

In How We Know What Isn’t So, Thomas Gilovich explains the persistent delusions that we all have.  Whether it’s an impossible number of college professors who believe they’re better than average or the students who believe in their leadership abilities more than they should, we systematically believe we’re better than we really are.  Our ego actively deflects the feedback that could allow us to calibrate and reset our expectations.  Believing that we’re better than we are allows us to feel safer in a world of volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity (VUCA).  As Alan Deutschman explains in Change or Die, there is always the possibility that the world as we know it will be wiped out by an asteroid – but we don’t think about it, because to do so would immobilize us in fear.  (See Emotion and Adaption for how fear develops – and, indirectly, why a fear of asteroids destroying the planet is hard to avoid.)

Values, Perceptions, and Facts

Much of the problem with building systems to detect noise comes in the form of confusion about what causes conflict and why it can be a good thing.  Conflict, in my opinion, is caused by only two reasons.  The first reason is that the person holds a different set of values.  The second reason is that the other person has a different perspective.

There are many ways of assessing the values of another person.  However, Steven Reiss’ work on the sixteen basic motivators, as shared in Who Am I? and The Normal Personality, provides a way of seeing what others value.  A more fundamental and basic model for motivation in morality comes from Jonathan Haidt’s work in The Righteous Mind.  It’s the interaction of these factors that can lead us to different conclusions even if we have the same data.

The second reason is our perspective, which is shaped by our experience and what we pull up to be relevant or salient to the topic.  These perspectives aren’t facts, but we often trust them like facts because we hear them in our own voice.  We believe that we wouldn’t lie to ourselves – but we do.  In Telling Lies, Paul Ekman draws the conclusion that we must know something is wrong for it to be a lie.  When we’re talking to ourselves, we don’t know what we’re lying.

Of course, there are some verifiable facts – things that can’t be refuted, like the Sun rises in the East.  Unfortunately, these irrefutable facts are few and far between.  We often find conflicts where the perspectives are different, but both perspectives are treated like facts.  Values, too, can be treated like facts – like universal constants – when everyone’s values are different.

Even parents find that the values that their children hold are different.  Some of those differences are likely generational (see America’s Generations for more).  However, many of these differences are due to the experiences the child has irrespective of the parent’s guidance.  (See No Two Alike and The Nurture Assumption for more about the impact of parents and others on a child’s values.)

I Contain Multitudes

In “Song of Myself,” section 51, Walt Whitman says, “Do I contradict myself? / Very well then I contradict myself, / (I am large, I contain multitudes.)”  However, most people don’t recognize their own contradictions.  They’ll decide A in some circumstances and B in other circumstances – but when faced with the same data.  Objectively we should make the same decisions irrespective of the time of day or the degree of our hunger, but in reality, we don’t.  Instead, we make ad-hoc decisions based on little more than whim, and when asked, we will justify them.

When the bridge between the two hemispheres of the brain – the corpus callosum – was surgically severed people would see things in one eye but be unable to consciously explain what they saw – however, they’d still act upon this information and make up stories about their actions to explain them.  (See Incognito for more.)

The Wisdom of One

Even though noise doesn’t always average out, sometimes it does.  The conditions under which the wisdom of crowds works best – primarily independence – isn’t always necessary.  It’s even possible for one person to harness Whitman’s multitudes and make two guesses that reduce the noise.  This is the same sort of result that Phil Tetlock found with Superforecasting.  The best forecasters intentionally looked at problems from multiple points of view so they could average out the errors in their own estimates.

So, it turns out that with the right prompting – and even without complete independence – it’s possible to get better answers.  It may be that people who have a range of skills – the foxes – are better at this than others.  (See Range for more on foxes vs. hedgehogs.)

Integrating Information

The more expertise you amass, the more you believe that you can integrate information – but experts are “distressingly weak” in this regard.  At some level, this makes sense.  If you think about Gary Klein’s work and the awareness that we build mental models in which we simulate our situations, we can see that as long as the information we’re taking in is congruent with our model, all is well.  (See Seeing What Others Don’t and Sources of Power for more on Klein’s work.)  Efficiency in Learning calls this way of processing information “schema.”

While many experts believe that they’re good at integrating information, we have to recognize that most are not – it’s only those who focus on remaining open to new ideas and new perspectives that can continue to integrate new information – and adapt when things change.

Frugal Rules of Mechanical Aggregation

It was the year 2000, and I was a small part of an effort to improve care for patients with diabetes.  Primary care providers weren’t specially skilled in how to take care of them, so care was spotty at best. The solution I developed took a set of rules and did risk stratification of patients and went so far as to recommend actions for the providers based on best-practice thinking.  It wasn’t complicated, and it didn’t have any artificial intelligence in it.  However, it made a statistically significant reduction in the key lab metric for diabetes care – it worked.

The rules were “frugal rules,” simple guidelines and thresholds that could guide behavior without being overly complex, and they worked.  Research shows that mechanical rules are better than clinical judgement in most cases.  No one wants to trust the computer to predict the best care – but it’s what they should do.  This isn’t to discount the advanced AI techniques – it’s to say that you can get close to the best results with some simple guidelines.

Even individuals armed with simple guidelines and checklists perform better.  It’s not the automation that does it, it’s removing some of the ambiguity around the correct thresholds and actions.  (See The Checklist Manifesto for more about the value of checklists.)

Similarity and Probability

When we’re estimating the probability of something happening, in many cases, our brains are silently transforming the question for one that’s easier to process.  (See Thinking, Fast and Slow for more on how System 1 does this substitution blindly so that we’re not even aware.)  We trade the question of how probable is something for how similar are the conditions to something else that happened – and what happened in those circumstances.  The result is we systematically make errors when we’re asked to predict probability instead of looking for similarity.

I Don’t Like It, So I Won’t Believe It

“I reject your reality and substitute my own” is a popular quip in modern culture most recently associated with Adam Savage of MythBusters.  It’s what happens when someone doesn’t like the reality that they’re presented with, and as a result, they refuse to believe it.  While on the surface, it sounds ludicrous, it happens more often than one might imagine.

It’s hard to believe that people believe the Earth is flat – and yet that’s exactly what the International Flat Earth Research Society believes.  They’re founded on the premise that we’ve all been lied to, and the Earth is really flat – not round.  There are a number of things that you have to start to believe for this to be truth.  They are, however, things that members of the society seem to have no struggle doing.

Many believed all sorts of crazy stories about the COVID-19 vaccines.  Everything from magnetism to superpowers and tracking devices were supposedly associated with the vaccines.  As of this moment, none of these things have been proven true – though I’m looking forward to super-strength if that particular story turns out to be true.  The point is that people will so firmly hold on to what they believe that no amount of dissuasion will break them free of their beliefs.  (There are still plenty of people that believe that ivermectin and hydroxychloroquine are treatments for COVID-19 despite having been thoroughly disproven by research.)

Diagnostically, people who refuse to accept reality can be classified as having a psychosis (detachment from reality) or schizophrenia (different interpretation of reality).  Neither of these is helpful when you’re trying to have a rational conversation about how to reach a common understanding.

Decision Hygiene

Noise ends with a call to decision hygiene based on six principles:

  • The goal of judgment is accuracy, not individual expression.
  • Think statistically, and take the outside view of the case.
  • Structure judgments into several independent tasks.
  • Resist premature intuitions.
  • Obtain independent judgments from multiple judges, then consider aggregating those judgments.
  • Favor relative judgments and relative scales.

In short, use the structure of the way you approach decisions to help reduce noise – rather than create it.  The first step is to find a place to study the Noise.

Book Review-No Time to Teach: The Essence of Patient and Family Education for Health Care Providers

Sometimes you pick up a book because someone recommends it, and it changes the way that you view a topic – and it changes the way you view the person who recommended the book.  No Time to Teach: The Essence of Patient and Family Education for Health Care Providers is one of those books.  Fran London is at the end of her career as a nurse educator and wrote the book to implore nurses and other providers to recognize the value of education – and to share what works.


It started early.  I started disagreeing with London’s perspectives.  Not just because it didn’t match my experience, but it also didn’t align with the best practices in training.  Focused on one-on-one, face-to-face communications, London discounted the value of supporting materials.  We know, for instance, from Job Aids and Performance Support that it’s worth assessing what is needed and what the best answer to that is – whether it’s training or a tool for getting the job done.  In The Checklist Manifesto, Atul Gawande explains the value of checklists (a kind of performance aid) to the performance of all kinds of tasks.  London tries to explain that you should individualize teaching – which is supported – but in a way that neither recognizes the ability to get leverage nor addresses the fundamental process of assessing what the patient and family know.

In The Art of Explanation, we learn that people can learn within a range.  If the gap between their current knowledge is too great from what is being taught, it will be lost.  That matches Malcolm Knowles et al.’s understanding of The Adult Learner, who needs to connect what they’re learning with what they know.  Efficiency in Learning provides a path for developing materials to support teaching that can be used by people with varying experiences for effective learning – efficiently.

Ultimately, layered learning is the best approach.  Learners’ current knowledge is assessed, and they’re given a set of resources and instructions that match their level – and provide the ability for self-reinforcement.

Assessing Knowledge

Too many professionals lead the witness when they ask if someone knows something.  “You know how to take care of a wound, don’t you?” will lead to the obvious response, “Of course.”  This response has nothing to do with the awareness of the needed skills but rather reflects the desire to not be perceived as stupid.  I learned decades ago the best questions have “no” as the correct answer.  They’re best, because in situations where understanding isn’t good or where shame or embarrassment may be a factor, people will default to a “yes” response.

There’s more to assessing knowledge than just a yes/no question.  The next step is breaking down the knowledge they need to know into a set of specific skills that must be used – including the skills related to decision-making about situations and potential problems.  Simple boundary conditions like “If they have trouble breathing, go to the emergency room immediately” or “If you don’t have a bowel movement in the first 12 hours, start with Miralax, and if you’ve not had a bowel movement in the first 36 hours, call the office to let us know” are great ways to help identify when action is necessary – and what the actions are.

You’re Not Too Stupid

People have a high degree of anxiety when interacting with health professionals.  While they may be competent or even exemplary in their day-to-day jobs, often, the general public knows far less about health than health professionals believe.  (They have the curse of knowledge.)  It’s easy for the patient or the family to slip into thinking that the health professional is saying, “You are too stupid to understand this,” when that’s not what they’re trying to convey at all.

Whenever you’re struggling to communicate a set of skills to a patient or the patient’s family, it’s the teacher that is failing, not the student.  The teacher needs to try harder – and to apologize to the patient for not making it easier to understand.

The Need to Teach

Too often, medical professionals see teaching (or even communicating with) the patient as secondary to their roles.  Nothing could be further from the truth.  The provider or nurse will see the patient for a limited time, but they’ll be with themselves for their entire life – and the families will spend substantially more time with them than they’ll ever get with a healthcare provider.  The more these critical folks know, the less likely they are to have a negative outcome – or need to come back to the healthcare provider.

In the end, it’s only if bad outcomes are desired should someone say that they have No Time to Teach.

Book Review-The Leadership of Organizational Change

Sometimes, paths cross a few times before connections are made.  The Leadership of Organizational Change wasn’t my first interaction with Mark Hughes.  I read it because of the respect I had for a man who has spent his life trying to understand and move forward our ability to implement change.

The 70% Failure Rate

My first encounter with Hughes was only in his writing.  He was critical of the use of a 70% failure rate for change management projects.  His argument is that there isn’t research support for this number.  I agree that there’s little direct support for this number – but the indirect evidence that this is a reasonable number is compelling.  I explained in Why the 70% Failure Rate of Change Projects is Probably Right that large scale projects of all kinds tend to fail at this rate.  So, while Hughes’ point is valid, I’m not sure that it matters.

Post Industrial Leadership Institute Think Tank

Sometime after first discovering Hughes’ challenge to the 70% number, he was invited to join a think tank that I’m a part of.  Hughes is a student of Joseph Rost, and Rost’s work drives much of what is done at the think tank.  Enjoying the conversation, I asked for a one-on-one conversation, which was graciously accepted.  Through the conversations, I got to understand Hughes’ interest in change leadership as a term – rather than change management, as is more frequently discussed.

Rost spends about two-thirds of his book, Leadership for the Twenty-First Century, working up to a definition of leadership.  Rost himself was a student of MacGregor, whose Leadership is a tome of a work that offers the idea of transformational leadership.  Ultimately, Rost lands on “Leadership is an influence relationship among leaders and collaborators who intend real changes that reflect their mutual purposes.”


Hughes asserts that the study of leadership and change are therefore inextricably intertwined.  One cannot think of leadership without the aspect of change (or real change).  One cannot consider change without considering the leadership necessary to reach the destination.  In this intertwining, there are concepts that are difficult to disentangle.

Rost’s initial definitions included the word “follower” instead of “collaborator.”  There is a real belief that everyone is a co-leader, sometimes stepping forward and other times stepping back.  In such a conceptualization, how is it possible to define the one leader or leadership?  In fact, some of this is the point.  Rost doesn’t believe in leadership in the contemporary sense.

When we’re looking for drivers for change, we’re stuck between the need for a leader and the awareness that the leader needs followers – or they’re leading no one.  Unfortunately, there’s no single model of leadership of organizational change that is widely supported.  (See the Change Model Library for some approaches to change management.)

The Rise of Scientific Management

One of the phases of leadership that we’ve transitioned through – or at least are transitioning through – is the work of Fredrick Taylor, who believed everything could be reduced to a most-efficient way of doing things.  Despite his popularity, a review of the work that launched him reveals that it was shaky at best.  The results were simplified, and some observations were erroneous.  Despite this, we find that managers want to squeeze out every last ounce of productivity based on Taylor’s scientific management ideals.  In Antifragile, Nassim Taleb expresses concern about removing the redundancy and capacity from a system.  We’ve seen too many places where removing the “excess” from the system results in a catastrophic failure.


There are numerous philosophies regarding leadership and organizational change, each with their own benefits and limitations.  As Gareth Morgan explains in Images of Organization, no one model is “right” – models will always have benefits and limitations.  Leadership and organizational change philosophies are reflections of the way that we see organizations.

The Myth of Leadership

The Western world, and particularly America, has built up the rise and fall, success and failure, of organizations, industries, and nations on the backs of leadership.  We believe in singular simple reasoning that allows for only a leader who possesses the mythical qualities of leadership and are therefore capable of leading anything to success.  The Titanic could have been led to port if only there was the right leadership to keep the ship afloat after impacting the iceberg.

These simplistic views of success and failure don’t adequately capture the dynamism that we find in the world today.  We know that there’s no one single causal factor for success or failure but rather a set of conditions under which people have found success – including with the help of a participant that others would call a leader.

If you want to get past the myth of leadership and move to a more nuanced view of how organizations can succeed, a good step may be to look to The Leadership of Organizational Change.

Book Review-The Culture Puzzle: Harnessing the Forces That Drive Your Organization’s Success

It truly is a puzzle.  What makes some organizations stellar and others barely able to keep their doors open?  How do you fit the pieces of an organization together to survive in this VUCA (volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous) world?  These are the questions that The Culture Puzzle: Harnessing the Forces that Drive Your Organization’s Success wants to answer.


Seth Godin wrote a whole book on tribes, Tribes: We Need You to Lead Us, which explains how tribes form and what it takes to get them moving.  However, another key concern for organizations is just how many tribes they have inside their walls.  Organizations, particularly those that grew through acquisition, find that they have different tribes in their organization, each with their own goals, rather than one big tribe in which everyone in the organization is a member.

When the Skunk Works was started at Lockheed, it was intentionally separated from the main organization.  What Kelley Johnson was trying to do needed to be different to succeed.  He intentionally created a new culture to replace the fragmented cultures that existed in the main organization.  Inside of the Lockheed walls were multiple cultures.  Engineers and machinists all had their own tribes – and they didn’t really get along with the other tribe.  Kelley Johnson wanted something different.  He wanted one Skunk Works tribe that had a singular mission, not competing tribes.  (See Skunk Works for more.)

Shared Vision

The challenge of multiple tribes inside an organization can be the result of different histories and training, or it can be a failure for the leadership to establish a shared vision.  It can be that, in the absence of a compelling shared vision, individuals and teams have been forced to define their own visions – and that results in different tribes.

It’s like a climb up a mountain to find a guru.  Leadership teams head out to strategic retreats where they believe with the help of their skillful facilitator, they’ll discover the hidden meaning for the organization.  With this knowledge firmly placed in their brains, they believe – incorrectly – that they need just to share the epiphany, and all will be good.  Everyone will instantly share their vision.

There are numerous problems with this shared delusion.  In fact, the delusion is shared more than the sense of the shared vision of the strategy.  Too often, strategies devolve into platitudes that mean nothing.  (See The Fifth Discipline for the challenges of using platitudes.)  It turns out that everyone has a slightly different view of the strategy that was created, and the result is that when the message is communicated to the rest of the organization, these differences in understanding are amplified.

Absolutely Necessary

Instead of the shared behaviors that the organization desires, we are left with behaviors that are perceived to be minimally necessary instead of those of an engaged team striving for the same goals.  The behaviors that drove the Skunk Works’ stunning success are noticeably absent as sharing is only done when it’s believed that there is no other alternative.

Trading is one of the keys to organizational life.  Influence Without Authority explains that no one ever has enough authority to accomplish everything they want to accomplish, so they have to do it through influence, and one of the best ways to do that is to capitalize on the law of reciprocity.  Quid pro quo is the law of the land, and it means that to encourage success, you’ve got to encourage cooperation.

Robert Axelrod ran a contest of computer programs to see which strategy would achieve the best outcomes.  It was patterned on the prisoner’s dilemma: two criminals are captured, and if they rat out their compatriot, they’ll get a shorter sentence – unless their compatriot rats them out, too.  Clearly the best case is for both parties to cooperate, but there’s always the risk that the other party will defect.  The results of his contest showed that tit-for-tat was the winner.  Starting by cooperating and then doing whatever the other program did on the last turn yielded the best result.  In short, if we want to be successful, we need to cooperate.  (See The Evolution of Cooperation for more.)

Francis Fukuyama expresses the same need for sharing in Trust: The Social Virtues and The Creation of Prosperity from the lens of our need to trust one another.  If we can’t trust each other to be cooperative, then we aren’t going to be as agile or as effective.

Never An Open Office in the Mind

I shared my concerns about the open office concept when Richard Sheridan promoted it in his book Joy, Inc.  I shared in my review of How Buildings Learn that many others, including Steward Brand, were concerned about open offices as well.  It turns out that open offices aren’t really what people want.  Even Les Nessman in the classic WKRP in Cincinnati knew the value of having a space with walls.

What we know about open office spaces is that people attempt to construct walls in their minds to compensate for the walls that are missing in their environment.  They work to create a safe space where they can work uninterrupted.  Sometimes they’re successful and can enter flow – and sometimes they’re not.  (See Flow, Finding Flow, and The Rise of Superman for more on flow.)

Cooperation and Competition

When I was younger, Jack Welch, and his meteoric leadership of GE, was all the rage.  He recommended placing groups and even individuals in competition with each other.  The competition for ranking and resources was a part of the game.  The problem is we’ve seen that this strategy no longer works today.  Employees want to feel safe.  (See The Fearless Organization for more.)  The management strategies that Welch used left him with the nickname Neutron Jack (after the neutron bomb, which kills living things and leaves infrastructure intact).  As Fredrick LaLoux explains in Reinventing Organizations, organizations are changing in the way they’re led and the way they’re managed.

Today, few people would recommend having people or groups internal to an organization competing with another.  Some haven’t made a full transition to cooperating and have stopped at a sort of midpoint – coopetition – which is a mixture of both cooperation and competition.  However, the research points to cooperation being more effective than competition in most situations.

Inspiration and Work

Inspiration has a lore surrounding it.  The idea is that the best works that have ever been created have been the result of inspiration.  Inspiration is certainly a positive feeling.  It drops someone into flow and gets them to create some of their best work.  There’s nothing wrong with that.  Inspiration is a definite part of the creation of great works.  However, the problem is that inspiration is few, fleeting, and fickle.

Pasteur said that “chance favors the prepared.”  In short, things that look like luck and inspiration come most frequently to those who have put in the work to take advantage of these opportunities.  Work for a better culture, work to collaborate, and just work in general increases the chances that you and your organization will be able to assemble The Culture Puzzle.

Anatomy of an Apology

An apology should be simple.  Just say, “I’m sorry.”  However, it’s not that simple.  There are questions about why we apologize and what the other person expects when we do.  An apology is often an attempt to regain or begin the process of rebuilding trust, but an apology done incorrectly can reinforce the negative predictions of future behavior – lack of trust – and make things worse, not better.

Our goal with an apology is never to make things worse.  However, in too many situations, there are more hurt feelings than before the apology was issued.  Here’s how to avoid them, why they happen in the first place, and ways to make relationships better.  We start by examining the forms an apology can take.

The Forms

Though the contents of an apology change, they take a few basic forms:

  • I’m sorry that I did something, and it harmed you. (True)
  • I’m sorry that it happened. (Sympathy)
  • I’m sorry [that I got caught]. (Consequences)
  • I’m sorry that you felt that way. (Felt)
  • I’m sorry, but… (But)

Let’s look at each of these in turn.

True Apology

Obviously, with a label like “true,” I’m conveying that this is the kind of apology that most of us want and the kind most likely to restore a relationship or begin the rebuilding process.  It connects the behavior of the person apologizing to the impact to the recipient.  Implicit in this is empathy, compassion for the person who was harmed, and the willingness to change behavior in the future.

The behavior change may come in the form of notification, protections, avoidance, or other ways to avoid harming the person again in the same or a similar way.  Some of the best apologies explain the techniques that will be used to avoid the same situation again to help ensure that the recipient of the apology can distinguish this form from the others – and can rebuild their trust.

The need for specifics is largely dictated by the degree of remaining trust in the relationship.  In relationships with a high degree of remaining trust, there’s often no need for the details.  But in deep betrayals and harm where trust is nearly completely gone, explaining the “how” of the behavior change is essential – we’ll explain why when we get to the point of apologies in the first place.

Sympathy Apology

While technically not an apology at all, sympathy often starts with the words “I’m sorry” and therefore is often confused with an apology.  It’s the first of the detractors that leads people towards believing that an apology has been issued when one has not.

When our son died, many people said, “I’m sorry.”  They weren’t apologizing for their actions, because they weren’t involved.  Instead, they were offering us their sympathy.  At times, it’s all that can be offered, but it can be dangerous, because it’s too easy to perceive the recipient to be lower than the person who is uttering the words.  Sympathy for a tragic event is understandable; sympathy for who someone is… it’s its own tragedy.

The risk with sympathy is that you separate yourself from the person with whom you’re trying to maintain or build a relationship.  It’s only by trying to gain some degree of empathy (or understanding) and have compassion for them as well that you’re able to avoid the separation.

Consequences Apology

Another form of an apology takes on the unspoken characteristic.  Instead of wishing to eliminate the pain in the recipient because of their actions, the person wishes they weren’t discovered.  Often, this occurs with addicts, who are not yet willing to acknowledge and accept their addiction, as well as those who betray the trust of their partners by straying outside of their agreed-upon monogamous relationship.  Whether married or just “going steady,” those who strayed outside the relationship are sometimes not sorry for their own behaviors but are instead sorry they got caught.

This detracts from true apologies, because instead of changing the behaviors that led to the hurt, the person offering the apology will simply redouble their efforts to keep their activities secret instead of legitimately changing their behaviors.  This makes trust in the relationship harder – often unbearably hard.

Having believed that the addict would quit using or the other person would stay within the confines of their relationship boundaries – whatever they are – they’ll eventually be confronted with another example of the behavior.  This is what leads to a cycle of apologies until the person receiving the apologies can no longer see a path to possibly rebuild trust.

Felt Apology

The felt apology skips over the actor’s behavior and expresses sorrow and sympathy for the way that the recipient feels.  It takes no responsibility – and therefore may not lead to future behavior change.  It can, however, be appropriate when there is no way to reasonably predict the other person’s reaction.  Perhaps they’ve got an undiscovered wound around a particular phrase or a sensitivity to a topic.  The person uttering the apology may have had no way of knowing about these sensitivities. They can honestly be sorry for the pain they caused without accepting responsibility for having directly caused it.

In the case of hidden wounds, the process exposes them and therefore makes repeat behavior unlikely.  The future behavior changes may therefore simply be a heightened awareness of the sensitivity rather than a direct change of behavior.  This can be completely appropriate.  It can be that the hurt felt by the recipient of the apology is not the speaker’s fault.  It can be that the recipient of the apology does have their own need to address these hurts, and all that the speaker should do is create space for the person to address their own hurts.

The difficulty is that often the felt apology doesn’t feel like an apology to the person receiving it.  They don’t see the other party as having taken an appropriate amount of responsibility for the outcome.  It’s difficult to sort out what part of the hurt is from prior circumstances and what part is the result of a person’s insensitivity or poor choices.  Here, there are no clear answers; however, it may be that the apology becomes a process where the person who was hurt attempts to help the person offering the apology understand how their behaviors directly or indirectly caused the hurt.

But Apology

With the but apology, things start off great.  The recipient of the apology hears the speaker acknowledging their behavior and the harm it caused.  However, the hope that begins to form is quickly dashed when the speaker adds “but” to the statement.  Here, the speaker acknowledges their bad behavior but, importantly, fails to accept responsibility for it.  Instead, they inappropriately return blame for their bad behavior on the recipient of the apology.  These apologies often cause more harm than good as the person receiving the apology correctly detects it as an inability for the actor in the situation to accept that they’re responsible for their behaviors.

There’s a common phrase that is quite literally incorrect: “They made me mad.”  The truth is that no one can make us mad – or any other emotion.  We chose to be mad, angry, frustrated, or even disappointed.  Their behavior may have violated our expectation or breached our trust, but we get to choose our feelings and reactions to them.  It may be natural for someone to be mad or angry given the circumstances and behaviors – however, that doesn’t mean that this is the only alternative.

There’s a great deal of research that supports that the stimulus we receive from the environment doesn’t directly control our feelings and moods.  Our feelings and moods are driven by how we interpret and respond to those stimuli.  The but apology ignores this research and, in shifting the blame, abdicates responsibility for themselves.

The Indirect Apology

Before moving on to why apologies are so important, we’ve got to address one other form of apology, the indirect apology.  This happens when one person is used to relay an apology from another.  These forms of apology simply don’t work.  It conveys that the person who reportedly wanted to apologize didn’t believe it was important enough to do it themselves.  In our technological world today, this is simply unacceptable.

Indirect apologies convey very clearly that the person harmed isn’t worth the trouble of communicating directly – even when the trouble of communicating directly is almost nothing.  It’s hard for the person receiving the apology to not hear the dismissiveness in an indirect apology.

At a logical level, the indirect apology should be better than nothing, but the truth is that the indirect apology reminds and reinforces the hurt without offering relief, thereby making it worse.

What’s the Point?

Understanding the different types of apologies and their limitations, it’s time to return to the reason for the apology in the first place.  Is the point to add another patch to a relational road that is filled with potholes and patches simply to make a seemingly obligatory gesture and smooth things over – or is the purpose instead to pave a stronger and healthier relational road?  Certainly, the former is easier and requires both less work and finesse.  However, in the end, the patches to the relationship either make it rocky or cause it to fall apart altogether, requiring a radical restructuring – or, more frequently, a dissolution – of the relationship.

Conflict Avoidance

Many apologies that fail to move the relationship forward are the result of an attempt to avoid true conflict.  The goal isn’t to strengthen the relationship, improve the character of the parties, or move to a deeper level of trust.  The goal is to quell the immediate pain and make things a bit more tolerable now.  The problem is that these approaches necessarily lead to a patchwork in the relationship and more areas that both parties must move slowly and carefully past instead of finding and resolving the root issues.

Apologies that occur too quickly fail to get to the root of the issue or create deep understanding and therefore fail to change the perception that the problems won’t happen again.  The consequences apology is the prototypical example here, but other forms can also apply.  Instead of exploring the depths of the pain, one or both parties decide to quickly cover up the problem with “I’m sorry” and hope that this is enough to escape the discomfort of the conflict.

Getting to the root of the issue that led to the hurt is sometimes hard work, and frankly I’ve never met anyone who enjoys this work.  However, at the same time, I’ve met many whole-hearted people who love others, feel compassion for their pain, and are committed to having the hard conversations to get to the results of true relational repair.

Relational Repair

Many of the circumstances that lead to an apology have caused a rift in the relationship.  One party assesses the behavior of the other as having been bad or hurtful, and they want their relationships to be positive – so they naturally desire the behavior to stop.  Depending on the severity of the violation of expectations or the grievousness of the behavior, it can be that substantial damage was done to the trust on which the relationship is built.  All relationships are built on some form and degree of trust.

The goal of relational repair is to rebuild that trust in a way that builds a firmer foundation for the relationship going forward.  This necessitates the belief that the hurt won’t reoccur.  This can be prevented by changing one or both parties’ perception of the circumstances that led to the hurt, or it can be accomplished through behavior change.  When it comes through a change in behavior, we must believe that the person who both parties concur behaved poorly will have sufficient motivation, tools, and willpower to make and sustain the change.

Trust and Safety

At the heart of our relationships is the belief that we can trust the other person.  We believe that we can feel confident – or safe – that the other party has our best interests at heart and will seek to minimize our pain when appropriate.  Strictly speaking, not all trust is positive.  We can trust that people “have it out for us” or wish us harm.  However, these are not people we are in relationship with – or, at least, we shouldn’t be in relationship with.

Trust serves an important purpose.  We trust so that we can limit our need to protect ourselves and conserve our resources.  We can use those resources for our own betterment or entertainment or for the betterment of others.  We accept the risk of betrayal – that we will incorrectly predict someone else’s behavior and be harmed – because the benefits that we receive through trusting seem like more than a fair trade.

Three Kinds of Trust

There are three different kinds of trust.  There is the basic kind of trust that we extend to others for being a part of being humans.  We trust that the person holding the door for us won’t slam it in our face.  We expect that – for the most part – merchants will treat us fairly.  We use this degree of trust to navigate the world around us and to intentionally reduce our vigilance in places where we need not consume our focus.

The second form, blind trust, is a dysfunctional kind of trust, which ignores evidence that should be leading us to not trust the other party.  Spouses often acknowledge that they should have seen infidelity long before they did because of inconsistent stories.  Many embezzlements are found long after they should have been discovered because the clues are simply ignored.  Rather than patching over the issues with trust, they’re simply ignored.

The third form of trust is authentic trust, where both parties understand the character, values, and circumstances of the other, feel able to predict the other’s behavior, and sure in their belief that such behavior will be in their best interests.  Most people have people in their lives who they’ve gone through tough times with and gotten to the other side.  These “foxhole” relationships are built on strong foundations that make them last through new challenges and the tests of time.

Contextual Confidence in Trust

One thing that is so often overlooked with trust is that it’s contextual.  We trust specific people with specific roles.  We trust our babysitter to watch our children.  We trust our accountant with our taxes.  We likely don’t trust our accountant to babysit our children or our babysitter to do our taxes.  Yes, we trust each of them.  However, we trust each of them within a specific context.

When we say that we “just don’t trust them,” we oversimplify and fail to specify the context.  To understand how we trust, we must both identify the prediction of the behavior we don’t believe we can make and the conditions – or context – that we don’t believe we can make them in.

Three Components of Trust

Trust can also be said to have three components.  There are three aspects that we may choose or refuse to trust a person in.

The first component is communication.  Do we believe that the person will tell us when there is a problem or when they made a mistake?  Will they reliably communicate with us when things are going well, too?  Communication is an essential aspect of trust that enables us to believe that we’re getting an accurate picture.

Trust comes down to an implicit contract.  The contract is what we are offering (which can be nothing) and what we expect (which may be minimal).  Our contractual trust with someone is our belief that they’ll deliver on their end of the contract.  Here, one of the key challenges is the fact that these “contracts” aren’t written.  They’re inferred and estimated.  Often, the difference in views about the nuances of the agreement or contract can lead to conflict, as one party has one expectation, and the second has a different expectation.

The final component is competence.  Do we believe that our babysitter has the skills necessary to perform their job?  Do they have a Safe Sitter® certification where we can leverage our trust of the institution on the person?  Do we trust our accountant – initially – because we believe that being a certified public accountant means that they understand the basics of accounting sufficiently to do our work well?

Competence is often a given in the trust equation – but one that sometimes shouldn’t be, as people mislead us about their competence in areas.  (Often, this misleading isn’t intentional; they’re misleading themselves as well.)

The Safety of Predicting the Future

We want trust so that we can feel safe.  As humans, we’re prediction machines.  We predict wars, markets, and, more importantly, people.  When we have a high degree of confidence in our predictions, we feel safe.  We believe that we can see and avoid problems and that no harm we can’t handle will befall us.

Any sort of hurt lowers our belief that we can predict our future.  We didn’t anticipate the hurt, and therefore we appropriately can wonder what we missed.  The apology offers us the possibility that it was a fluke or a once-in-a-lifetime occurrence that will never happen again.  It can also leave us wondering whether the person offering the apology is sincere and therefore unable to predict the future.

An apology does damage to the relationship when it lowers our ability to predict the other party’s future behavior rather than raises it.  Apologies that leave us unsure whether the other person is really going to change – or not – make things worse, not better.  Naturally, after being hurt, we’ll scale back our trust in someone else.  If the apology makes it our fault, refuses to accept responsibility for their part in it, or minimizes our pain, we’ll further reduce trust – since we can’t predict that the person will continue to have our best interests at heart.


Sometimes, the Christian Bible connects language to concepts in ways that aren’t helpful.  Repentance has a negative, almost self-loathing, connotation that is undeserved.  Repentance just means a change of direction.  It means going a different direction.  It’s about different attitudes and behaviors leading to different destinations and different results.  In an apology, we’re looking for repentance.  We’re looking for a change in behavior that eliminates our future pain.

Apologies that fall short of convincing us we’ll see a change in behavior leave us worse off than when we started.  There are many ways to move towards and away from convincing others that the change will really happen.

Premature Closure

An essential aspect of an effective apology is understanding the other person.  The person issuing the apology must understand their behaviors and how it impacted the other person prior to issuing the apology.  A failure to encompass all the factors or behaviors – or, conversely, all the aspects of the pain inflicted – will unravel.

Often, the consequences apology suffers from this unwinding – and it’s the way that you can identify a consequences apology after the fact.  Apologies that fail to enumerate the aspects of the harmful behavior or fail to seek complete (if painful) understanding of the impacts to the other person are often indicators that the person isn’t sorry for their behavior or the pain it caused, they’re simply sorry they got caught.

Even in situations where there is an honest attempt at an apology and sincere regret for the pain that was caused, a failure to walk into the behaviors and the pains can invalidate the apology – and make both parties frustrated, as one believes they’ve apologized and the other finds their apologies lacking substance.

Effective apologies must review all the behaviors that could lead to the same kind of hurt whether they’re known by the other person or not.  They must create space to learn more about the pain that it caused and why.  Without these components, the apology may fold like a house of cards.

The Specifics

If you want to make your apology more believable – and more actionable for you – it requires specifics.  Getting a gym membership doesn’t make you go.  Deciding on a schedule is substantially more effective at getting in shape.  The best apologies are those which are accompanied by the specific behaviors that will change and in what circumstances.

Even when conditionalized with “I’ll try” or “I can’t make promises I’ll be perfect,” the apologies that include the specific behaviors that will be changed and how the person intends to accomplish that change are more believable than those that leave the change up to chance or fail to deliver a specific plan.

The Guardrails

Another way to bolster the effectiveness of an apology is to create space for appropriate monitoring and consequences.  In the case of infidelity, it’s often the case that the activities of the spouse will be more closely monitored.  Whether that comes in the form of monitoring their location or communications or in some other form, the point is that the person who was harmed can identify the situations or behaviors that may harm them sooner – even if this infringes a bit on the apologizer’s privacy for a while.

Similarly, clear consequences can serve as an effective tool for restoring trust.  Knowing that the person will accept a set of consequences that they pre-decided before the next lapse in behavior is both an effective deterrent for them and a reassurance for the other party.

Accepting the Apology

In the end, the person receiving the apology must accept it.  It’s not the issuance of the apology that signifies the end or minimization of the hurt, it’s the acceptancy by the person to whom the apology is offered.  Too often, we believe that we can wipe our hands of hurt when we utter the words “I’m sorry.”  It absolves us of any further responsibility or need to make amends.  Instead, we should work to ensure that the other person accepts the apology before moving on.

It’s hard, because we can own our words and behaviors.  We can offer the apology, but we can’t guarantee that the recipient of the apology will accept it – and we’ve got to accept that they may not be able or ready to accept an apology yet.  It can be the hurt is too big, the situation is unfolding, or they’re simply not able to let go yet.

Our responsibility is to issue the apology in the best ways that we can and wait for acceptance.  We may find that our apologies are never accepted.  While this may mean the tragic end to a relationship, it is something over which we have no control.

Until the apology is accepted, it’s our responsibility to monitor and be open to learning more about what we’ve done to cause the other person harm without insisting, “But I’ve already apologized.”  Often, this only furthers the awareness that the person wasn’t repentant for what they did, they just want to smooth over the conflict.

Acceptance Withdraw

Even after acceptance, there is the chance that the acceptance may be withdrawn, and work must be done again to seek acceptance.  However, the truth is rarely that the acceptance was withdrawn, but rather more evidence has come to light about behaviors leading to the hurt that were not previously disclosed.  Frequently when dealing with consequences apologies, additional information comes to light, it reopens old wounds, and the process of seeking acceptance for an apology begins anew – with a new apology that encompasses all the behaviors.

Book Review-Definition of Suicide

It’s hard to address something that you don’t have a clear definition of.  That’s why Edwin Schneidman wrote Definition of Suicide.  He’s not the only person to tackle this definitional challenge, but he may be the person with the most experience.

A Rainbow of Colors

There have been numerous taxonomic approaches to suicide that often describe the lethality of the method chosen and the degree to which the suicide was intended.  The Neuroscience of Suicidal Behavior tackles the problem with these as well as the degree of planning involved.  However, as was highlighted there, there is invariably a continuum that things fall on that are difficult to distinguish.  For instance, what differentiates a parasuicide from a suicide?

More frustratingly, intent is very hard to infer and is therefore a dimension of great question, as Assessment and Prediction of Suicide reveals.  Schneidman’s own The Suicidal Mind explains that he believes communication of intent is a part of suicide.  (Since then, several others have questioned the percentage of people who do communicate their intent.  In particular, see Rethinking Suicide.)


Emile Durkheim is at the root of suicide research – but sort of accidentally.  His primary interest, it seems, was the application of statistics to public health concerns.  It turns out that one of the examples that he used was suicide.  As the first work of its sort, it is something that everyone comes back to – and unfortunately replicates.

Bacon’s Idols

Francis Bacon, whose scientific method helped to crystalize science, also wrote of philosophical works.  One aspect of those works that Schneidman calls out is the concept of idols – or sources of bias in our thinking.  Bacon’s idols, as explained by Schneidman, are:

  • Idols of the Tribe (Idola Tribus). These are fallacies that accrue to humanity in general.
  • Idols of the Cave (Idola Specus). These are errors peculiar to the particular mental makeup of each individual.
  • Idols of the Market Place (Idola Fori). These are errors arising in the mind from the influence of words, especially words that are names for such non-existent things as “mind” or “soul.”
  • Idols of the Theater (Idola Theatri). These are erroneous modes of thinking resulting from uncritically accepting whole systems of philosophy or from fallacious methods of demonstrating empirical proof.


These are perhaps some of the earliest views on cognitive biases.  It’s how we see things differently than they really (or objectively) are.  (See Why Are We Yelling and Thinking, Fast and Slow for more about cognitive biases.)

A Time for Dreaming

Death and sleep are often compared as relatives – sometimes as close cousins, and other times as siblings.  Sleep brings us relief, a chance to stall our pain and dream of happier times – either in the future or the past.  With the close relationship between death and sleep, it’s possible to see how some might desire death as both an ending of their current pain and, in a warped sense, how it might give them a chance to live the life of their dreams.  It’s possible to see how it seems more desirable.

The overlooked item, in the cognitive constriction of suicide, is that sleep returns to wake where death does not return to life.  While a decision to sleep is temporary, a decision to die is irreversible.

Not Quite Human

A challenge with some who die by suicide (or attempt) is that they feel somehow less than human and therefore undeserving of the grace and love that all mankind should show to one another.  In Moral Disengagement, Albert Bandura explains the need to make people less human to be able to inflict harm on them.  Phillip Zimbardo expresses a similar perspective in The Lucifer Effect.  What if suicide isn’t murder in the 180 degree, as Menninger suggests in Man Against Himself?  What if the thing that’s turned against someone is their belief in their humanity?  Schneidman shares one example where someone describes herself as an “it” or a “thing.”  Those sorts of descriptors minimize her own humanness.

The situation that created those feelings were stories I’ve heard before.  Pregnancies that were initially twins where one died in utero, and the parents told the surviving daughter that she killed her sister.  Another case where a father openly told his son that he should have peed inside his mother.  The list of these harmful parental responses to children is long, and unfortunately, the outcomes aren’t good.

Who Needs the Afterlife?

Sidestepping the topic of who God is, what our purpose is, and all of the religiously entangled parts, there’s an interesting question about who needs an afterlife if the life here is better.  Of course, whether you believe you’re coming back as a cow or you’re going to heaven, there’s no need to dislodge that belief.  But a more interesting question is one about what we can do now, regardless of our beliefs about afterlife.  What can we do to improve how we treat other humans such that we want them less harm?

Jonathan Haidt in The Righteous Mind proposes that we all have the same foundations of morality, the first of which is care/harm.  In short, we believe in more care and less harm.  However, despite this framework and the work of Robert Axelrod that confirms our cooperation isn’t an accident, and in fact is part of the Evolution of Cooperation, we find that too many people are suffering.

Improving someone’s condition even a little bit will help them make a different decision than suicide.  Instead of feeling hopeless, the improvement switches on The Hope Circuit and allows them to see that things can get better – since their degree of cognitive constriction may prevent that without a spark of hope.


In The Psychology of Hope, C.R. Snyder explains that hope is composed of two components: willpower and waypower.  There’s an aspect of this that he doesn’t address directly, which is the degree to which you believe the rest of the world is friendly or hostile.  In a hostile world, someone is always trying to prevent your success, while a helpful world is constantly trying to help you achieve your goals.  (This is the work of John Bowlby and Mary Ainsworth, and you can find more in The Secret Lives of Adults.)

However, even with a helpful view, you can get stuck in feelings of loneliness, which prevent the connection necessary to expect the world is helpful.  In Loneliness, it’s explained that loneliness is different than the state of being alone.  It’s about that sense of connection – and it can be critical.

The more we can help people who are feeling lonely feel more connected, the better off we all are – whether they’re suicidal or not.


Another way to envision suicide is that it’s declaring bankruptcy on life.  It’s the decision that you can’t make it better and you want to give up.  While this is tragic from the person’s point of view, it’s more complicated from the point of view of the others their life impacts.  Specifically, it means that people who knew the person feel as if their memories and experience with the suicidal person are somehow less important – at least less important to them.  They may even believe that the suicide invalidates their beliefs.

It’s easy to speak of the logical pieces of the situation.  Their pain.  The cognitive constriction that prevented them from seeing these memories.  However, that doesn’t help the hurting survivor who wonders what they could have done or why their perception of things was so different.

In the end, there may not be a suitable Definition of Suicide, it turns out we each may need to understand it in our own way.

Announcing MER Immerse Online

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Book Review-Altered Traits: Science Reveals How Meditation Changes Your Mind, Brain, and Body

For the most part, popular psychology isn’t exactly positive on your ability to really change your core personality, your default way of being.  Sure, it accepts that you can learn new coping skills and occasionally better ways of responding emotionally, but for the most part, the assumption is that your core personality is set.  This runs in stark contrast to the research about neural plasticity.  Altered Traits: Science Reveals How Meditation Changes Your Mind, Brain, and Body explains – with science – how our perception of things that are unchangeable may be changeable after all.

It’s a Mindset

In mainstream psychology, there are some acceptable conversations.  Carol Dweck explains that a difference in Mindset results in a difference in performance and the way that people respond to setbacks.  Anders Ericsson explains in Peak how the top of many professions got there through purposeful practice and how their brains are different because of their work.  Because this work is founded on traditional psychological and performance principles, there is relatively little push-back.  Even the work of Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi on flow, despite his observations of 5x performance and lasting effects, isn’t all that controversial.  (See Flow, Finding Flow, and The Rise of Superman for more on flow.)  Again, coming from a Western point of view, it’s largely accepted, like the medical machines that make the observations of the brain possible.

However, when it comes to the topic of meditation and mindfulness, there’s skepticism.  That’s particularly true if we rewind the clock 50 years or so and see how these ideas were shunned in the United States.  To be fair, there were charlatans and “snake oil salesmen” who sought to make money with no proof that anything they were selling actually worked and, perhaps in more than a few cases, a dim awareness that it didn’t.  Altered Traits is a walk through the research about how different forms of meditation and mindfulness have demonstrated efficacy in clinical trials and how the effects may be lasting – or even mind-altering.

Mindfulness and Meditation

In the interest of providing a framework for the remainder of the conversation, it’s important that I pause to say that “meditation” is a catch-all word for a variety of contemplative practices.  One of those is mindfulness – that is, the process of observing whatever comes to mind without any reactivity.  They’re observed and let go.  Other forms of contemplative practices are designed to focus on something – including a process like a body scan or breathing.  In those times focus is lost, the distracting thought is acknowledged and let go.

Because there are different forms of meditation, each of them seems to have different results in impacting our neural patterns.  That’s why research into the impact of these practices is often focused on a specific technique, so it’s possible to measure the impacts of that specific process.

That’s complicated somewhat by the fact that the techniques used by meditators varies with experience.  More advanced techniques are used by the meditators with the most experience, making it difficult to compare the results of the more fundamental forms over long periods of time.

After Enlightenment, Chop Wood

Collaborating with the Enemy quotes an ancient proverb: “Before enlightenment, chop wood, carry water.  After enlightenment, chop wood, carry water.”  The point is that while enlightenment may be a desirable goal, you return to the same life you left.  Or do you?  Heraclitus said that “no man ever steps in the same river twice.”  Meaning the river has changed and the man has changed – but changed how?

Those who had the experience of peace – or the high — that can come from a retreat or focused practice still realize that “after the high goes, you’re still the same schmuck you were before.”  But the research in Altered Traits seems to show that that’s not entirely true.  Much like Heraclitus’ man and river, it can be that the changes are so subtle that they don’t even register – but over time, they can make a big difference.

The After Is the Before for the Next During

The continued cycle of improvement is what the complicated statement “the after is the before for the next during” means.  Said differently, whatever skills, experience, and capabilities you developed during this meditation you bring with you to the next one, making it possible for it to be easier, deeper, or better.  Of course, there’s no straight-line improvement, but repetition makes it easier.

One of the key skills of the advanced meditators is the capacity to settle their minds quickly – on demand.  While average or moderate experience meditators may take a few minutes to settle down, the expert meditators seem to flow into it as quickly an easily as stepping into the next room.  I can’t share this experience with meditation – but I can share it with flow.

Most of my career has been built on the need to get into flow – in different situations.  Sometimes, it’s writing code.  Sometimes, it’s writing books, articles, or blog posts.  Sometimes, it’s presenting in front of thousands of people or facilitating a group of ten leaders.  They’re all different environments where I must get into flow to be effective.  In The Rise of Superman, Steven Kotler brushes the way that various athletes push themselves into flow.  For me, it’s a sort of mental trick normally accompanied by very familiar and very loud music.  Once I’ve dropped into flow, I instinctively turn the music down.  I’ve had to drive myself into flow so frequently that it generally – but not always – comes easily.


It was Aristotle’s word for flourishing, fulfillment, accomplishment, or well-being.  It’s the positive in positive psychology.  (See Positive Psychotherapy: Clinician Manual, The Hope Circuit, or Flourish for more.)  The aims of positive psychology and the spiritual-philosophical roots of meditation are well aligned.  The aim to move beyond human suffering to compassion or loving-kindness.

There are many nudges in the Eastern tradition that the goal of enlightenment or even fruits of meditation shouldn’t be for yourself.  The goal of the practice shouldn’t be because you’ll benefit yourself but rather the benefits should be something positive for humanity.  In other words, not just flourishing for oneself but flourishing for all mankind.

Focus on Others’ Suffering to Forget your Troubles

When you help others – when you care for others – you forget your own troubles and concerns.  Atul Gawande in Being Mortal explains that something as simple as a plant can reduce mortality of those living in senior centers.  Twelve-step groups have known for some time that the best way to get someone through their addiction is to get them serving others quickly.  Like in meditative practices, you’re encouraged to find a coach with more experience than you – in twelve-step terminology, a sponsor.  However, twelve-step groups take it further when they encourage you to take on a mentee.

Aaron T. Beck, whose work on cognitive behavior therapy and depression is the cornerstone of treatments today, is credited with first saying that when you focus on someone else’s suffering, you forget your own troubles.  This is true – but with the caveat that this may not always be the best answer.

Sometimes, people use their focus on others’ problems to look down on them – or to avoid dealing with the issues at the heart of their troubles, and this can ultimately cause more pain and suffering than had they just dealt with their own issues first.  It’s a delicate balance.

The First Person to Benefit from Compassion

Who is the first person to benefit from your compassion?  The answer is you, according to the Dalai Lama.  It’s the opposite of harboring anger for someone else.  In The Road Less Travelled, Scott Peck explains that harboring anger is like taking poison and expecting the other person to die.  Harboring compassion, however, is hoping that others benefit from you taking vitamins.  We develop compassion for others’ benefit and in turn reap some of the rewards.

They Are All One

When Neem Karoli was asked which path (approach to meditation) was best, his answer was “Sub ek!” – Hindi for “They are all one.”  Though various approaches differ and have aspects that are more focused in one direction or another, ultimately, all the roads lead to the same place.  It’s a place where people are better people.  That’s probably the best way to think about Altered Traits – better people.

Book Review-The Long Interview: Qualitative Research Methods

It’s easy to get wrapped up in big data, AI, and quantitative approaches to research and forget that there’s another dimension to research that is just as important as – if not more important than – the numbers that we seem to be driven by.  The Long Interview (part of the Qualitative Research Methods Series) is one approach to qualitative research that can provide a semi-structured approach leading to important answers.

Qualitative Methods

Quantitative methods use large numbers and provide calculations and statistical formula to produce results that can quantify what is happening – but they’re unable to explain why.  Qualitative research methods flank the quantitative methods, being used both before quantifying metrics to define what to capture and after quantitative results are seen when there’s a need to explain them.

In the pre-quantitative mode, qualitative methods like ethnographic interviews (see The Ethnographic Interview), participant observations, focus groups, or in-depth interviews – and to some extent The Long Interview – can create an understanding of a topic area, which can be used to structure questions and collection of data that should be meaningful.  In these cases, qualitative methods ensure that what is captured and analyzed is relevant – it matters – and is accurate – it’s free of unnecessary ambiguity.

Conversely, the same methods can be focused on a specific result or situation for the purposes of exposing why the results are what they are.  Can’t explain why you can’t convert leads?  Qualitative approaches can help you figure out why.  You’re seeing a spike in sales in one region and want to replicate it?  Qualitative approaches can help you identify why sales are spiking to see if it can be replicated.

Where quantitative methods involve rows and columns of numbers, qualitative approaches ultimately center around conversations, many of which may be one-on-one.  Ultimately, it’s a short-term relationship between an interviewer and a respondent.

Waterfall and Iterative

There has been an ongoing discussion in the software development profession for three decades now – not quite half the lifetime of the profession.  Should software be designed in one big pass, like bridges are built, or should they be built bit-by-bit over time, like a pearl?  The iterative, like-a-pearl approach is generally perceived to be slower and more expensive, but in real life, we find that it often works better – in some circumstances.

The critical difference between bridges and software was – and often still is – that the mechanical characteristics of the materials of a bridge are well known.  There are many previous bridge building plans that can be reused or at least adapted to the purpose of building a new bridge.  In short, the details don’t change, and they’re well known in advance.  Software rarely – but occasionally – fits this definition.  There are some projects that can be built in one fell swoop – and should be.

The alternate end of the spectrum are projects where the technology is unproven, and the user expectations aren’t set, so anything can happen.  In those cases, the degree of uncertainty justifies a slower, more iterative approach.  The point of the iterative approach is to create more learning about the situation so that the investments aren’t so large.

Qualitative research is the kind of iterative, we don’t know the territory, investigation.  It’s what we do when we don’t know how we’re going to get to the answers.  Driving down a well-known road with quantitative research and big data is certainly faster – but someone has to know where people need the road to go and build it.  It’s important to realize that research isn’t an “either-or” proposition but an “and” proposition where qualitative makes quantitative more effective.


In the context of social or anthropological research, there’s a challenge that respondents “lead hectic, deeply segmented, and privacy-centered lives.”  That makes it difficult for them to dedicate time to the qualitative interview process – and less likely to share when they’re in the interview.  It’s not easy to get people to reveal deep insights into their world because they don’t see them – and if they did, you’d need to build sufficient trust quickly to earn the right to hear their story.

Therefore, techniques like those shared in The Ethnographic Interview, lessons from Motivational Interviewing, and developing a deeper level of trust is essential for qualitative research success.  (See Trust=>Vulnerability=>Intimacy, Revisited for more on developing trust.)  While qualitative research doesn’t require as many people, it does require the rapid development of a deeper understanding of those people.

Qualitative research takes time and can be perceived to be expensive, but it’s an important component to ultimately understanding the overall picture.

Nine Issues

McCracken outlines nine issues that relate to qualitative research:

  1. The Social Scientific Research Community – How should qualitative research fit in with other methods?
  2. The Donor Social Science – How do we bring the various qualitative research into a coherent conversation?
  3. The Qualitative / Quantitative Difference – As we described above, qualitative and quantitative work together – they are not competitors.
  4. Investigator as Instrument – Quantitative research can be scaled because it doesn’t require a human. Qualitative research requires and is influenced by the investigators – for better or worse.
  5. The Obtrusive / Unobtrusive Balance – There’s a need to push the respondent – and there’s a need for the investigator to step-back and listen. Finding the balance isn’t always easy.
  6. Manufacturing Distance – McCracken uses distance as a term for detachment and actively minimizing assumptions. (See The HeartMath Solution for more on detachment.)
  7. The Questionnaire – The point of the questionnaire in the long interview is to provide some structure to the conversations.
  8. The Investigator / Respondent Relationship – Here, McCracken is focused on the level of formality / informality in the relationship between the investigator and respondent.
  9. Multimethod Approaches – Here, McCracken is illuminating the need for multiple approaches.


The messy bit about qualitative research is that it draws from the investigator’s personality, experiences, beliefs, and skills.  There’s no one direct path to the answer.  Marcia Bates speaks about what we’ve learned by means of active-passive and direct-indirect.  She estimates we get 80% of our knowledge in a passive and indirect way.  In short, most of what we know we didn’t seek to know.  When we’re working with respondents, their experience of their lives isn’t directed, and therefore we shouldn’t expect it to be a single, straightforward set of questions that will lead to a clear understanding.

Knowledge Management

Knowledge management concerns itself with explicit – contextless – information and the kinds of implicit or tacit knowledge that are hard to describe.  What’s wonderful about qualitative approaches is that they are a process through which some implicit information becomes explicit.  The investigator is the process through which the information is converted.  The investigator uses the long interview and other qualitative techniques to sense make what they’re hearing from the respondent and to elicit those things that the respondent rarely thinks about directly.

Four Steps

The Long Interview is four steps:

  1. Review of Analytic Categories – This is the orientation phase where the investigator begins to understand the overall landscape and the way that things appear – on the outside – to relate.
  2. Review of Cultural Categories – This is preparation for how to ask the questions. It includes the development of a questionnaire and any materials that may be necessary to support the interview.
  3. Discovery of Cultural Categories – This is the interview.
  4. Discovery of Analytic Categories – This is the post-interview analysis.

The Analysis

The analysis is itself broken into stages:

  1. Transcript / Utterance
  2. Observation
  3. Expanded Observation
  4. [Connected] Observation
  5. Theme
  6. Interview Thesis

In Sum

The process laid out provides structure to what might normally be addressed as an ethnographic interview.  While it’s more efficient than a less structured process (or can be), McCracken still cautions that you should not use qualitative methods unless you cannot use quantitative ones.  I’d soften that a bit to say you should only use qualitative approaches to the extent that they’re required.  The irony is that the great benefit of The Long Interview is to avoid the longer interview.

AllVoices Reimagining Company Culture Episode 247: Enable Personal Agency and Proactively Prevent Burnout

Terri and I recently joined Christina Giordano of the AllVoices Reimagining Company Culture podcast to discuss burnout. We talk about how to systematically prevent burnout, research about the tangible benefits of happy and healthy teams, KPIs to evaluate a company’s culture, and more.

You can listen to the full podcast here:

Or you can watch us live on YouTube:

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