Healthy Dependency in Relationships

We all want it. We want to be healthy. We want to be in relationships. We recognize that to be in a relationship creates some degree of dependency. Despite this desire, many of us have no idea how to create healthy dependency in our relationships. This is about making healthy dependency in relationships possible.

The Need for Dependency

Before we can speak about how to reach a healthy dependency, we must first recognize why dependency is required. We are all born dependent. In fact, humans are the least developed mammal at birth. We’ll require more care and support than any other mammal and much more time.

In our adolescence, we begin to assert our independence. (For more, see Erikson’s stages in Childhood and Society.) We begin to embrace the ideas that the West was won by the lone cowboy on his trusty steed and his reliable rifle. This myth of the American Western is simple fiction. The West was won by wagon trains, and it is where the phrase “circle the wagons” comes from. At some point during our development, we realize that we need our parents. Maybe it’s when we wreck our car or when we see the first bill from college, but we decide once again that other people can be helpful to us.

This is the phase when we can become interdependent on one another. We can start to work in ways that are mutually beneficial. With parents, that may be harder; but with our peers, we can look for ways to work together rather than always competing. Instead of seeing everyone as a competitor, we can begin to work together for everyone’s best interest. See The Science of Trust for the Nash equilibrium, which explains how working towards everyone’s best interests benefits us, too. (See also The Evolution of Cooperation for more on the mathematics behind interdependence and cooperation, and Adam Grant’s Give and Take for how being generous results in better outcomes in the end.)

For more on the progression of dependent to independent and finally to interdependence, see The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People.

Relationships are Dependency

Though it’s not obvious, every relationship we’re in is a form of dependency. We’re dependent on the other person in the relationship – even if it’s just to be a sympathetic ear. That isn’t to say that the relationship needs to be deep or that every relationship creates a great deal of dependency, but those relationships that are more interdependent are those relationships that really matter.

We’re more effective when we can have many interdependent relationships. (See How to Be an Adult in Relationships for more on the need to get emotional support from multiple people and places.)

Speaking Truth to Power

Once we realize that we need to be dependent, we must work our way towards understanding the difference between dysfunctional dependency and healthy dependency. The litmus test – for me – for healthy dependency is the ability to speak truth (in love) to those who we’ve given power over us – that is, those with whom we’re in a relationship. Let me unpack that.

There’s an inherent power balance in relationships. In healthy relationships, that power is ever-changing, ebbing and flowing from one person to the other. For the person in power, they enable healthy relationships by holding their power in service of the other. (See Humilitas for this as a definition of humility.) For the person who is momentarily out of power, the ability to speak truth with love is the best assessment of health of the relationship.

Speaking truth to power is an active of courage. The person with power can, of course, harm the person of lesser power, and therefore it’s a risky thing to speak truth to them. (See Find Your Courage for more on how courage overcomes fear.)

The person of power can choose to become angry and stop supporting the person with less power. (See Choice Theory for choosing our emotions, and Emotion and Adaptation for how our emotions are formed.) According to Eastern philosophy, anger is disappointment directed. (See A Force for Good for more.) Anger is, then, some prediction we’ve made about someone’s behavior that didn’t come to pass. We expected them to behave one way, and they actually behaved in a different, disappointing way. We are prediction machines – it’s a fundamental aspect of our consciousness. (See Mindreading and The Body Keeps Score for more.)

So, others may be angry because they predict a different behavior from us (likely compliance), and when we speak our truth, they must accept that their prediction was bad and what they’re going to do about it. As Inside Jokes explains, we laugh at a joke, because we recognize that the prediction engine has failed in a small way and discovering and correcting for the missed prediction, we get a small reward.

The challenge for the person who has more power is to listen without choosing anger. The challenge for the person with less power is to summon the courage to speak the truth in a way that the other person can recognize the concern and relationship. (For more on relationships, see The Dance of Connection.)

Wholehearted Authenticity

The words for this are different. Brene Brown tends to use “wholehearted people” or “authentic people.” (See Daring Greatly and The Gifts of Imperfection.) Most of the time, I speak of stable core or integrated self-image. (See Braving the Wilderness, Rising Strong, and Beyond Boundaries.) Though the language is different, the intent and concept are not. Wholehearted people are authentic. They know who they are and who they are not. They’re tolerant of others’ perspectives, views, and values while maintaining their own.

I’d love to give you a direct path towards the kind of wholehearted authenticity that makes it easier to have healthy relationships and healthy dependency – but I don’t have a straight path to offer. I can start you with my post, How to Be Yourself, and share that, in Daring Greatly, Brene Brown explains that the most wholehearted people she knows are also vulnerable. (See more on vulnerability, see Trust=>Vulnerability=>Intimacy, Revisited.) One factor that helps in becoming authentic is being clear on who you are.

Creating Clarity

For most people, the Industrial Revolution is about steam engines and the power that they brought to work. With greater power, greater achievements were possible. While this is certainly true, it’s not the only driver for the dramatic increase in productivity. The other key factor was standardization. Prior to the Industrial Revolution, everything was crafted and therefore not standardized. With the advent of machinery, it became both possible and more essential to maintain standards. Bolts needed to be exactly the same size so that they could be replaced. We needed the consistency, and that came from clarity. Clarity in what a bolt and other parts should be – exactly – allowed for mass production, replication, replacement, and ultimately productivity.

In our own lives, clarity isn’t as easy. One tool that we can use to get clearer about ourselves is boundaries.

Boundaries for Me

Henry Cloud and John Townsend wrote Boundaries, and John Townsend followed up with Beyond Boundaries. These two works encourage us to define what is “us” and “not us.” Too often, boundaries are confused. People say, “You can’t do that to me,” but the truth is that boundaries are about us – what we will do and what we’ll allow – not other people. The boundary may be “If you smoke, then I’m going to leave. I refuse to be in the presence of cigarette smoke.” You’ll note that the structure of this is how the person is going to be themselves, and their statement about them – not the other person. Done correctly, discovering your boundaries is a way to get greater clarity about who you are – and thereby become better at being in relationships and healthy dependency.

Another key to boundaries covered in Beyond Boundaries is the difference between a defining boundary and temporary boundaries. A defining (or permanent) boundary is one that, if changed, would fundamentally change who you are. Temporary boundaries are erected after you’ve been injured, harmed, or simply when you need to focus on your needs. Temporary boundaries define what you will or won’t do in the short term to allow for your recovery.

Too often in relationships, we become so dependent on the relationship itself that we allow ourselves to be influenced too much by the other person. (See The Nurture Assumption for peer pressure and The Deep Water of Affinity Groups for how our belongingness can drive our behaviors.)

The Role of Trust

I mentioned while explaining anger that we’re prediction machines, and we try to predict others’ behaviors. When we’re angry, it’s most frequently someone’s behavior that didn’t match our prediction. Trust is our reliance on those predictions knowing that most of the time we’ll be right, and some of the time we’ll be wrong. Healthy dependency is built on trust. It’s a trust that the other person won’t use your dependency against you. It’s a trust that they’ll be there when you need them.

The key to understanding trust is to realize its power. Trust: Human Nature and the Reconstitution of Social Order
is a study in how trust, placed in different places, influences the world, our societies, and our economic productivity. The short version is that more trust is better. The less we trust our prediction of others’ behavior, the more resources we must waste validating our trust.

Ronald Regan picked up a Russian proverb, “Doveryay, no proveryay,” which translates to “Trust, but verify.” He turned it into a strategy for dealing with Michail Gorbachev. This proverb is a shortcut to understanding the cost of not trusting. When you have no trust, you must verify everything. The greater the trust, the less effort is wasted on verification.

In the context of dependency and relationships, we can cause a relationship damage when we become too dependent and insecure about the relationship and therefore seek constant reassurance.

Types of Attachment

It was the work of John Bowlby and Mary Ainsworth that led to the perspective of three kinds of attachments that children form with their parents: secure, anxious-avoidant, and anxious-ambivalent. Much like the work of Michell in The Marshmallow Test, the adverse childhood events (ACE) study leading to adult diseases and Fetal Origins of Adult Disease (FOAD), attachment style is an indicator for how we’ll connect with others as an adult. (See How Children Succeed for more on ACE and Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers for coverage of both ACE and FOAD.)

In Daring to Trust, David Richo offers a way to transform your adult experience of relationships to be more positive no matter what attachment style you started your adolescent life with. He helps understand when to trust others – and when trusting others isn’t warranted.

Broken Attachment – Approach-Avoidance

Some people exit their childhood and adolescence with a sense of connection to others that isn’t balanced. The style of interaction forms an approach-avoidance cycle. Often, this cycle operates as one person in a relationship approaches, causing the other person to flee. The cycle operates in reverse when the second person begins to reapproach, and the first person begins to avoid. This becomes a sick cycle, with the relationship constantly oscillating between approach and avoidance and never settling into connection. (See The Dance of Connection for more.)

In even more broken situations, one person may be incapable of maintaining an intimate relationship. In Intimacy Anorexia, Douglas Weiss explains that some people have never learned to be intimate with other people. Their history has led them to dysfunctional types of superficial connection. In these cases, the cycle never reverses, and one person in the relationship is always (or nearly always) approaching while the other person is constantly avoiding. This scenario is mostly found in marriages.

Dependency in Marriage

John Gottman is famous for his research demonstrating a 91% accuracy in prediction about whether a couple would remain married for 3 years based on evaluation of only three minutes. The key is that the couple had to argue. Gottman explains in The Science of Trust how there are a handful of factors which push towards divorce and some – like emotional attunement – which lead towards intimacy and away from divorce.

Perhaps the best explanation of appropriate dependency in marriage comes from Team Genius and its explanations of the kinds of two-person teams that are effective – and why they’re effective. These patterns are prototypical examples of how two people can work together, be mutually dependent, and be productive.


At some level, the ability to be in a relationship that demonstrates healthy dependency it must be possible to detach oneself from the outcomes, both of the relationship itself and the joint work that is being attempted through the relationship. The more firmly entrenched in the relationship itself and the outcomes, the less willing we become to speak our truth and to do the hard work it takes to improve the relationship. (For more on getting teams to do the work to be able to effectively produce, see Collaborative Intelligence by Richard Hackman)

Over time, we’ve developed a sense that we’re in control. In Compelled to Control, J. Keith Miller explains that everyone wants to control – and no one wants to be controlled. Conceptually, both cannot be true at the same time. The way that society has come to understand and harness nature more completely leads us to believe – incorrectly – in our societal and personal levels of control, which ultimately leads us away from detachment. If we are in control, then we’re responsible; when we don’t achieve the outcomes we desire, then we’re responsible, and we should be upset with ourselves. However, since we really only have some degree of influence, we should not be surprised when we occasionally fail to get the results we want.

Working on detaching isn’t always easy and is sometimes confused with disengagement, which can seem like a negative thing, but the concept of detachment comes up too often when looking for ways to become a better, wholehearted, person. (See The Heartmath Solution for more.)

The Ebb and Flow

When I started explaining healthy relationships and dependency, I explained the ebb and flow of power is essential to a healthy relationship. However, what does that mean? Well, let’s look at the divorce rate as it pertains to women being able to find and maintain a job that pays them a livable wage. Instead of so-called “pink-collar” jobs that offered money for luxuries, during World War II, women began working blue-collar and professional jobs, which paid enough money to support themselves, and the result was a wave of divorce. (See Divorce and The Anatomy of Love for more.) It wasn’t just “no fault” divorce laws, it was the fact that women were no longer trapped in relationships with a constant power imbalance. Divorce is bad, but unhealthy marriages are worse – at least in some cases. When the power started to ebb and flow between spouses, some marriages couldn’t survive the changes.

Another way to look at the situation is that both people in a relationship should be whole before they enter the relationship. Please understand, I’m not saying that they can’t be better in the relationship, I’m saying that they’re at least whole to start. When Terri and I got engaged, I designed a custom engagement ring. It’s a heart made of two diamonds. They’re two pear shaped diamonds that are each – in their own right – beautiful and complete.

Unsafe People

While it may be ideal to be in a power-balanced relationship with people who are complete and whole, this isn’t the case that most of us find ourselves in every day. We find ourselves dealing with other humans with faults like us – and faults that are different than ours. In Safe People, Henry Cloud and John Townsend enumerate ways that people may be unsafe. Unfortunately, they don’t explain how to be in relationships with people who aren’t safe. It’s certainly helpful to be able to identify the ways in which people may be unsafe, because it changes your predictions of their behavior and encourages you to take less risks by trusting them in those areas.

At some level, being in relationships with unsafe people is about establishing your boundaries. (See their book Boundaries and Townsend’s book Beyond Boundaries for more.) However, it’s more than that. It’s about learning the skills that you need to have hard conversations. (See Crucial Conversations for more.) It’s about learning the skills you need to be in a conflict with someone and at the same time not think of them as a villain. (See Words Can Change Your Brain, Nonviolent Communication, and Why Are We Yelling? for techniques for managing conflict.)


Overall, the feeling that pervades healthy dependency is safety – not when the person provides for your needs, but when the person cannot provide for your needs. The safety exists when you’re able to be only partially dependent upon them and know that there is a mutual intent of caring for and supporting each other.

Book Review-Humble Inquiry: The Gentle Art of Asking Instead of Telling

When I first started reading about humility, I was struck by the idea “power held in service to others.” Edgar Schein’s Humble Inquiry: The Gentle Art of Asking Instead of Telling brings that power through asking questions. He proposes that when we’re inquiring, we can become vulnerable and therefore humble to others.

Problem Solving

While it’s nice to be perceived as the person with all the answers, the truth is that no one has all the answers. The most powerful thing to do when working with someone else is to try to understand them, the situation, and the options – and that means a lot of questions. While some resources, like The Ethnographic Interview, are focused on the mechanics of the questions to ask and the approaches to take, Humble Inquiry is much more focused on the stance that one should take.

In Humilitas, John Dickson writes that humility is “power held in service to others.” For me, that means that a powerful person makes no fuss about the power they hold, nor do they wield it for their own needs; instead they leverage their power to help others be successful. Robert Greenleaf calls it Servant Leadership. Liz Wiseman calls the managers that exhibit these traits Multipliers. Edward Schein speaks about being vulnerable by asking questions. Vulnerability builds trust.

Building Trust

Building trust is absolutely essential in life. Whether we view trust from multiple levels as Trust: Human Nature and the Reconstitution of Social Order or something much more practical like in Trustology, without trust, there’s no foundation for society to build on. I’ve covered the relationship between trust and vulnerability a few times, most recently in Trust=>Vulnerability=>Intimacy, Revisited. Schein’s perspective is that creating the vulnerability is an essential part of the relationship process.

If working in organizations is like therapy, the research supports this perspective. The Heart and Soul of Change explains how therapeutic alliance – the relationship between the therapist and client – is the most important indicator of therapeutic success.


By being vulnerable – appropriately vulnerable – we remove the power gradient and gap in status between ourselves and the other person. By being vulnerable, we remove the status and move to a space of shared humanity. Instead of the differences between us, we focus on the commonality. We’re all vulnerable. We’re all struggling to figure this life out. That’s our common human experience.

By asking questions, by becoming curious about the other person’s experience, we expose our lack of knowledge and invite the conversation in ways that makes us able to learn – and learning is vulnerability, as we challenge our existing beliefs and understanding.

Choosing to Explore Us

When we’re vulnerable, we’re exploring us. Instead of being focused either on ourselves or the other person, we focus on the relationship between us and the ties that bind us together. Martin Buber wrote I and Thou as a call to shift our thinking from us and them to the relationship between us all. The society of today is focused on rugged individualism and self-sufficiency. These are, of course, complete illusions. Everyone is dependent upon someone else for food, electricity, water, or something. We’ve never been completely independent, and we’re not designed that way. (See The Righteous Mind.) It’s only when we can learn to accept healthy interdependence that we can really begin to connect with others in a meaningful way.

Management Is Not Power

The opposite of connection is disconnection – or possibly oppression. One of the things that I sometimes hear people say is that they want to rise into management so they can tell other people what to do. They want to develop power over others and become a part of the most dysfunctional form of organization we know of. (See Reinventing Organizations.) Beyond the organizational impacts, the idea that you would become a manager to hold power over others is morally wrong and is how we end up with the atrocities that we find in history. (See The Lucifer Effect and Moral Disengagement.)

Management is about helping people be effective. (See Multipliers.) When we find people who are more concerned with their own power and less with how they help humanity, we know that we’ve found a person who is not ready to become a leader – and shouldn’t be a manager either. (See Servant Leadership.)

ORJI Cycle

There are many cycles for continuous improvement, most notably Deming’s PDSA/PDCA cycle. The cycle highlighted in Humble Inquiry is different, yet similar. ORJI – Observe, React, Judge, Intervene – is about how we continue to improve the quality of our communications and verify that what we believe to be the truth is the truth – or at least the other person’s truth.

The ORJI cycle is, I believe, best coupled with Chris Argyris’ ladder of inference and consciously looking for places where we’ve walked – or jumped – up the ladder, which leads us to the wrong conclusions. (See Choice Theory for more.)

Decrease Learning Anxiety

Executed well, Humble Inquiry can reduce the greatest barrier to growth, which is the anxiety associated with learning. To some degree, all of us have some level of anxiety about learning. We are afraid that we’ll be shown as stupid for not knowing something or that one of our deeply held beliefs will be proven incorrect. Humble Inquiry, practiced well, can gradually reduce these anxieties and free us into the place of becoming the best we can be. (See Peak for more on being the best.) Maybe it’s time for you to develop a curiosity for Humble Inquiry.

Book Review-Decision Making: A Psychological Analysis of Conflict, Choice, and Commitment

It was a different time, 1977. Back then, publishing was harder and the focused energy that went into creating a book was larger. When Irving Janis and Leon Mann wrote Decision Making: A Psychological Analysis of Conflict, Choice, and Commitment, they were writing something that was designed to comprehensively cover everything known about decision making at the time. As it turns out, there hasn’t been that much added to the knowledge how we make decisions – and there’s been a great deal that we lost from their work in the sound-bite world we live in today.


I picked up the book, because people still quote Janis when they speak of “groupthink.” Of those who reference Janis when they say the word, few have read his work, and I wanted to understand the nuances and implications of groupthink. To understand it, we’ve got to travel back a few more years to the work of Solomon Asch and conformity. The short version is that Asch figured out you could make someone claim that two lines were the same length when they clearly weren’t. All it took was a few confederates willing to make the claim. (See Unthink for more on Asch’s work.)

In the context of working groups, it means that the group perception has a strong pull. Asch’s work was replicated later, and it was discovered that people who were coerced into thinking two lines were the same length had no conflict over this. Their brains had accepted the two different lines as the same, and there was no longer any conflict. For groups, this is challenging, because it means we can unconsciously and progressively bias our answers in a direction without either conflict or awareness.

That’s the groupthink that Janis was talking about. The gradual adjustments that lead to conformity of thought without the group’s knowledge. It’s why Hackman in Collaborative Intelligence encouraged the right rotation of external influences on a team to prevent the progression from getting too far. Janis’ recommendations were:

  1. Leaders should be impartial – at least at first.
  2. Every member should be assigned the role of critical evaluator.
  3. Someone should be assigned the role of devil’s advocate, intentionally poking holes in the existing plans.
  4. From time to time, divide the group and then have the groups merge, comparing their results.
  5. Survey all warning signals arising from rivals.
  6. Hold a second-chance meeting for everyone to restate their residual doubts and concerns.
  7. Invite non-core members on a staggered basis.
  8. Discuss the group’s deliberations with trusted associates.
  9. Set up multiple groups working on the same problem – when the decision is critical.

Espoused and Actual Behaviors

Janis and Mann are quite clear that their goal wasn’t to document the things that people said they did to make a decision. Instead, they were focused on how people actually behaved. They recognized, like Chris Argyris in Organizational Traps, Peter Senge in The Fifth Discipline, and William Isaacs in Dialogue, that what people say they believe and what they actually believe aren’t always the same.

Many of us are unconscious of the constant balance between exhaustive evaluation and the need for expediency. Barry Swartz in the Paradox of Choice builds on Janis’ work and the work of Herbert Simon to explain how the process of decision making and specifically how we can maximize the utility of our decisions – maximizing – but only at the risk of expending too much effort and creating anxiety. Satisficing, on the other end of the spectrum, looks to quickly discharge a decision and move on. However, it does so with the awareness that we will make some mistakes. Neither extremes are good, and no one exclusively picks one strategy. We’re constantly shifting our position about the degree to which we’re willing to invest in the decision – and this is something that Janis and Mann make clear.

Our beliefs and behaviors are bounded by the limits of our rationality – our bounded rationality. It was John Gottman in The Science of Trust that introduced me to the Nash equilibrium. The impact of which wouldn’t be fully realized until I realized the impact on evolution. When we can see more broadly, we realize that there are gains that can be accomplished when we work together instead of against each other. (See The Evolution of Cooperation for more on how we might have learned to cooperate and The Righteous Mind for how shared intention and Mindreading led to this.) When we operate with only our own concerns, we often find that we’re not achieving the best we can when we work together.

However, considering others and their needs is exhausting. We may find that we’ve depleted our internal resources before we’re able to consider others – no matter how loudly we might proclaim our desires. (See Willpower for more on exhaustion and Destructive Emotions for more about whether we’re fundamentally wired towards considering others our ourselves.)

College Lab Rats

One of the concerns expressed about how research was being done on decision making was that decisions were often placed in front of college students because they were easy to get as subjects. This had the tendency to focus research on situations with trivial consequences. It didn’t really matter whether you picked poster A or poster B. Janis and Mann correctly surmised that the way that we make decisions when it matters is very different than the way we make decisions when it’s a simulation.

Gary Klein in Sources of Power shares his journey to discover how rational decision making worked. In the end, he discovered that people didn’t often make rational decisions. Instead, they made recognition primed decisions that relied upon their ability to predict the outcomes of their interventions. These sorts of decisions couldn’t be made in the sterile environment of an office on a college campus.

Building the Balance Sheet

If we sidestep, for a moment, the gap between rational decision making that we believe we make and the recognition-primed decision making that Klein found, we need a way to tabulate and measure before we can even attempt to decide which path is best. That requires both an ability to foresee the future and a method of collection for the pros and the cons of each proposed decision – including doing nothing.

Janis and Mann recommend the idea of keeping the balance sheet despite the awareness that it is likely not the final arbiter of the decision. The objective is simply to create a structure to make the process of making the decision easier for the individual.

The columns for positive and negative consequences for a given choice are easy, but there is also the issue of the kind of positive or negative consequences to address. Janis and Mann believe that there are four categories for positive and negative anticipations:

  • Utilitarian gains and losses for self
  • Utilitarian gains and losses for others
  • Self-approval or disapproval
  • Approval or disapproval from significant others

In addition to the content of the balance sheet there’s a recommended process to follow:

  1. Open-ended interview
  2. Introducing the balance sheet grid
  3. Using a list of pertinent considerations
  4. Identifying the most important considerations
  5. Exploring alternatives
  6. Ranking alternatives

Here’s where I believe the experience of the last 40 years would change things substantially. First, we’ve better honed our ethnographic interviewing techniques to better understand the situation. (See The Ethnographic Interview.) We’ve also learned how to build better relationships with those we’re trying to support and assist using Motivational Interviewing techniques. Before someone can begin to come up with a schema for the challenges they’re facing and the alternatives available to them, they must be allowed to explore the topic without too much rigid structure. Ultimately, the goal is to enable creativity and innovation in the responses, since this enhances the potential choices. (See Unleashing Innovation and The Innovator’s DNA for more on innovation.)

The process as it was laid out lies on a fundamental assumption that brainstorming works – but it doesn’t. (See Quiet.) There are lots of reasons, but in short, creating a list and then coming back to figure out which of the items on the list are useful is wasteful. We need to establish that there is some unspoken bar, under which we won’t capture an idea to later decide to discard it. Instead of processing items then providing some weight to them, we should assign rough weights to the items as we go. (Another issue is the single-threaded nature of traditional brainstorming that can be mitigated with technology and allowing the conversation to become multi-threaded again.)

Another aspect that more recent research reveals is what Philip Tetlock and his colleagues discovered on forecasting. In Superforecasting, they explain that revisions and keeping track of the predicted probability of the outcome is also important. So, in addition to an impact number, we should also record a probability of the outcome occurring.

Collectively, this creates an opportunity to layout the foreseeable consequences both positive and negative for each choice in the decision. The permutations, options, and ideas can quickly become overwhelming if one attempts to truly run down every possibility, and that is why it’s important to triage the situation to only those options that appear viable – knowing that it’s possible, but not likely, that you’ll exclude the best option.

Dialogue Mapping

An alternative to the approaches proposed by Janis and Mann is the process of dialogue mapping. In this approach positives and negatives are mapped to items but the hierarchy of possible options and ideas is maintained. This can sometimes be a more efficient process as there will generally be clusters of choices that have the same positives and negatives. (See Dialogue Mapping for more.)

Serial Decision Making

While we create the balance sheet as if every option is weighed against the other options, and we make a decision among multiple options, the truth is that we rarely decide like this. Instead, we serially evaluate each potential option and do pairs-matching to see which of two options seems to be better. We continue this process only until we believe we’ve reached a point where additional comparisons won’t add value.

In effect, we all settle for satisficing in one way or another. We do this either because of the amount of information for each choice or because we simply believe that the effort we’re putting into the decision is no longer warranted.

Toss Up

One challenging observation is that when confronted with obviously irrelevant information, decision makers were more likely to regard the probabilities as 50:50. From Superforecasting, we know that 50:50 means that the person doesn’t know. In the presence of irrelevant information, we begin to wonder if we’re assessing the situation correctly or if we’ll ever have enough information.

The lack of faith in our ability to come to a clear conclusion has the effect of decreasing our interest in doing any further research to find the right answer. Whether we consider the information unattainable or are concerned with our ability to differentiate, we stop caring.

Simple Decision Rules

The truth is that decisions of any complexity are so fraught with uncertainty and details that we can’t possibly handle all the raw data. This is perhaps in part why David Snowden developed the Cynefin decision framework. It describes the degree of complexity and volatility of a situation and how those factors lead to radically different adaptive responses.

We often use single rule methods for evaluating the right decision. Whether the criteria is “best,” “right,” or “compassionate,” the decision is simplified by constraining to a single criterion – or a few criteria. Even when we don’t simplify to this degree, we frequently find people – particularly politicians – rallying around simple messages with easy solutions when we know that the proposed solutions won’t work or are at least unlikely to work.

If the problem has been encountered before and the last strategy was successful, the strategy is tried again. If the problem has been encountered before and the last strategy wasn’t successful, the opposite strategy is often employed. There is little thought given to the changing circumstances and the impact this should have. We blindly follow formulas whether they’re for the right problem or not.

Seventy percent of findings in journal articles can’t be replicated. Much of that is likely related to the fact that the effective criteria and constraints for the results aren’t articulated in the article. The article says, “Here are the results we got,” but rarely is it possible for a study to isolate the factors which led to the results – no matter how they may claim differently.

Reducing Anxiety and Conflict

Much of the internal psychodrama that happens as a part of the decision-making process is an attempt on the decision maker’s part to reduce their anxiety, stress, and conflict about the decision. Sometimes this will find the decision maker bolstering their perceptions of the decision that they’ve selected, other times it will take the form of others trying to calm the decision maker.

Consider for a moment the degree of impact of negative consequences that were expected compared to those that weren’t anticipated. Those which were anticipated have a substantially lower psychological impact. It’s as if the decision maker has already prepared their defenses and are therefore less impacted when the negative consequences do appear.

Another factor that decision makers use to manage their anxiety is to defer the consequences to the dim future, allowing them to focus on the here and now instead of consequences that have no immediate impact.

Leading Lean

One of the benefits of having grown up with a mother that did production and inventory control is that I got exposed to new approaches to manufacturing and managing inventory early. Cellular manufacturing and lean manufacturing were topics around the dinner table. It was fascinating to me how different ways of structuring work were more efficient. That plus my experience in software development helped me to understand the fundamentals of lean manufacturing. One of those characteristics is the introduction of activities that don’t add value – or sufficient value – to the customer. The other is the awareness that some decisions can be changed and some cannot.

Fundamental to lean is the idea that you delay decisions that cannot be changed, and you expedite decisions that can be changed. The simple criterion of reversibility is powerful. It can prevent spending too much time focused on making the best decision when the decision probably doesn’t matter that much – because it’s changeable later.

Goal Striving

The degree of anxiety associated with the decision-making process is driven in part by the degree to which the decision maker feels invested in the decision. The more invested the decision maker is attached to the outcomes of the decision, the more anxiety will be felt. This anxiety will inhibit the options that the decision maker can consider, as Daniel Pink points out in Drive.

There is a healthy balance between a concern for the decision and an unhealthy level of attachment. Perhaps this is one of the reasons that Buddhists recommend detachment – and not disengagement. There’s still an interest and concern for the decision without being too attached to the outcomes that are at least partially outside of the decision maker’s control. (See The Happiness Hypothesis and Resilient for more on detachment.)

Addressing Challenges

Invariably, there will be challenges to a decision once it’s been made. Janis and Mann suggest the following process for considering challenges:

  1. Appraising the Challenge – What’s the risk?
  2. Surveying Alternatives – How can I address this challenge?
  3. Weighing Alternatives – Which activity is best?
  4. Deliberating about Commitment – Should I commit to this new course of action?
  5. Adhering Despite Negative Feedback – I’m going to hold the course.

This process is a rational view of how people address challenges, but because of the degree of ego involvement in the decision, there’s a high degree of rejection of the potential challenges, and thus they may never go through this process.

Prior Commitments and Sunk Cost

Perhaps the most difficult decision to make is when to pull the plug on something. Kahneman calls it the sunk cost fallacy in Thinking, Fast and Slow. Janis calls it a bias toward prior commitments. Either way, it’s our tendency to continue to invest in decisions and projects despite the fact that there’s clear evidence that what we’re doing isn’t working… or is there? Jim Collins in Good to Great speaks of the Stockdale paradox. The unwavering belief that what we’re doing will work and the willingness to listen – and adapt. The problem with all this – no matter what term you want to use – is that there is almost never clear evidence.

In 2008, I released The SharePoint Shepherd’s Guide for End Users. For a year, it did almost nothing. It’s been over a $1 million dollar business for me. Had I quit after the first year of dismal sales, I would have lost out on almost all the revenue the book and derivative products have generated.

That experience haunts me. On the one hand, I need to find a time to cut the cord on investments. On the other hand, had I not spent a few thousand dollars on a mailing campaign, I would have lost out on so much. Because of experiences like mine and just general human experience, people hesitate to make the difficult decision to shut things down.


In the case of decisions that are reversed, the process is often so painful that people begin to expunge memories of the bad decision. For instance, after a divorce, pictures of the former spouse are removed and often destroyed. Any gifts of significant meaning are similarly destroyed to free the psyche from the painful reminders of the decision that is perceived negatively.

Easy For Me, Hard for Others

There’s some classical wisdom that says that a woman should be hard to get if she wants to get a man. (The Betty Crocker cookbook has a similarly dated perspective that you must be able to cook a good pie to get a man.) The problem with the “hard to get” wisdom is that it’s not supported by research. In a study whose primary actor was a prostitute, some clients were told that she was going to restrict her clientele in the future, and others weren’t given this information. Those with whom she had communicated that she would be hard to get didn’t call back as often for a future appointment.

While this research has challenges with a selective sample (those men who paid for a prostitute’s services), it is a confusing result if it truly is better to be hard to get. Janis and Mann reconcile this by accounting for fear of rejection and, with additional research (by Walster and associates), concluding that a woman should be perceived as hard to get for others but easy to get for the man whom she is interested in.

Unpredictable Boomerangs

Some messages are multifaceted to the point that they can have a strong positive impact on one group and a strong negative impact on other groups. Consider an inducement towards a different brand than is normally purchased. Women, who presumably felt responsibility and knowledge for their purchases, actively resisted the inducement; whereas men, who were presumably not as responsible for or knowledgeable about the purchases, responded very favorably.

This means that we must be careful with our work to engage a new group of people or try strategies which can be divisive. It may be that we will sacrifice our core audience in the service of finding additional audiences.

Boomerangs occur in other situations as well. Someone signs a petition without much involvement in a cause, and when attacked about being a part of the movement the petition was about, they may become emboldened to take a more active stance. The act of being attacked for a relatively mildly-held belief causes the person to become more involved and committed to the cause.

Hidden Requirements

Perhaps one of the greatest tricks in causing people to make decisions is to hide the real requirements when they make the commitment. (See The Hidden Persuaders for more on this kind of deceptive practice.) Take Billy Graham’s call for people to pledge to be a member of the crusade. The motivated person steps forth, makes a public commitment to the cause, and shortly thereafter signs a pledge card. Before they know it, they’ve committed to being a part of something without really understanding what that means.

Resistance to Change

Janis and Mann explain in the context of smoking the kinds of rationalizations that people have when confronted with the fact that smoking kills. The same core rationalizations can be used for anything:

  1. It hasn’t really been proven.
  2. You don’t see a lot of that (consequences).
  3. It’s too late for me to change.
  4. I’ll just compensate with an equally bad problem.
  5. I need this.
  6. I’m only hurting myself.
  7. It’s a risk, but life is full of risks.

What’s striking about this list is that these statements can be made about any bad habit and poorly considered decision. I’ve heard all these objections in conjunction with COVID-19 vaccine hesitancy. (See When You Should Not Get The COVID-19 Vaccine.)

Optimal Fear

Some look at stress from the point of view that stressors are necessary to drive us towards some sort of action. The argument is that, without any stressors, we’d sit around and do nothing. (Netflix and chill?) It’s the introduction of stressors – and therefore some degree of fear – that drive us toward action and keeps us motivated enough to do something. However, on the other side of the equation, there is something to not having too much fear, because we’ll get frozen in our fear and be equally ineffective.

Amy Edmondson speaks about the need for psychological safety in The Fearless Organization, and Find Your Courage and A Fearless Heart speak to the need to overcome fear to be courageous enough to do things. Drive cites research on how even moderate amounts of stress (in the way of compensation) can inhibit performance. Fredrick LaLoux in Reinventing Organizations
explains how the lowest level of functioning for organizations are those that motivate through fear. In short, there’s no one, easy answer to the right amount of stressors to place in front of people. Generally speaking, you want as little fear as possible while maintaining enough to keep people motivated not to quit. Morten Hansen in Collaboration explains the problem of social loafing and some of what can be done to prevent individuals from deciding that they don’t need to work while others do.

Decision Making in Information Overload

Decision making is necessarily a process whereby we cannot have enough information and we have too much information. As was discussed earlier, we must choose to satisfice or maximize for each decision, but there’s a broader context that we live in today. Daniel Levitin in The Organized Mind explains how we’re not just making individual decisions in an information overload condition; our lives have become continuous information overload. (The Information Diet is another good source of information about how we’re inundated with information.)

As a result of our continuous bombardment with information, our reticular activating systems (RAS) have become more aggressive at filtering out information (see Change or Die for more on the RAS). That’s one of the reasons why marketing has moved to attention marketing. (See Got Your Attention? for more.) The more we continue to operate in an environment of constant noise and pressure, the more important it becomes that we are focused on how we consciously apply our best skills at decision making to minimize our efforts and maximize our efficacy.

Optimal Decision Making

To optimize decision making, Janis and Mann offer up this selection of criteria for vigilant decision making.

The decision maker, to the best of his ability and within his information-processing capabilities

1. thoroughly canvasses a wide range of alternative courses of action;

2. surveys the full range of objectives to be fulfilled and the values implicated by the choice;

3. carefully weighs whatever he knows about the costs and risks of negative consequences, as well as the positive consequences, that could flow from each alternative;

4. intensively searches for new information relevant to further evaluation of the alternatives;

5. correctly assimilates and takes account of any new information or expert judgment to which he is exposed, even when the information or judgment does not support the course of action he initially prefers;

6. reexamines the positive and negative consequences of all known alternatives, including those originally regarded as unacceptable, before making a final choice;

7. makes detailed provisions for implementing or executing the chosen course of action, with special attention to contingency plans that might be required if various known risks were to materialize.

Maybe it’s time that you make the decision to read more about Decision Making.

Book Review-The Satir Model

It’s a model that’s sometimes used in the discussion of change, but it was born out of family systems therapy and the awareness of how disruptive events impact family systems. The Satir Model brings a very human and personal element to how changes occur.

Alcohol is the Solution

One of the challenges counselors frequently encounter is that the dysfunctional behavior they’re called in to fix is a symptom of a larger family system problem. Virginia Satir’s insight into this problem began in 1951, when she started seeing more than one member of the family at a time. This allowed her to begin to see how the interaction patterns started to create the problems that therapy was being sought to solve.

The most vivid example of this for me was in Intimacy Anorexia, where Douglas Weiss made it clear that sometimes things are not as they seem. He explains that if you’re trying to make a dog mean by starving it, you don’t do it by withholding all food – you withhold just enough that he’s always hungry and always feeling as if he must fight to get enough food. In the book’s context, the withholding is intimacy, and the result is sometimes sexual addiction or adultery. If you’re presented with these circumstances, you might easily find fault in the adulterer without asking the question about the systems that created those results. (I’m not suggesting the transfer of responsibility, only the full evaluation of the situation.)

A more mundane but powerful response was when my friend shared that drugs or alcohol wasn’t the problem to the addict – it was the solution. It may be a poor solution. It may have negative side effects and consequences, but it’s solving another problem that the addict has. Frequently, it’s a need to numb the pain that they’re feeling in their life due to their family, professional, or social circumstances. Certainly, there’s an aspect of treatment to get folks to stop the coping skill that transformed into an addiction, but there’s a greater need to help the addict find better coping skills that bring life instead of more pain.

Sometimes, changing the coping skills means changing the reactions to the systems that people find themselves in either by getting others within the system to help break the cycle or by developing the specific skills necessary for the person to break the cycle themselves.

Faith in People

Virginia Satir as well as others like Abraham Maslow and Carl Rogers had faith that people had value and had the solutions to their own problems. (See A Way of Being for Carl Roger’s perspective.) Other works, like Motivational Interviewing, follow a similar pattern where the patient is treated as the expert on their situation, their environment, and their perspectives. Like a good anthropologist practicing Ethnographic Interviewing, they suspend judgement about what the other person is saying to focus on understanding both what is being said and the hidden meanings that are lurking just beneath the surface.

Satir recognized that a person’s self-esteem had a huge impact on their ability to function and thrive in the world. Martin Seligman in The Hope Circuit describes it slightly differently. Here, he frames it as learned control, the lack of learned helplessness, or a belief that what you’re doing can make a difference. (You may also find Seligman’s book Flourish useful in exposing the power of self-esteem.)

Whole in Parts

The natural tendency is to accept the positive aspects and dismiss the negative aspects. The tendency to be a “go getter” is great professionally but has the negative of making it more difficult to turn off, shut down, and relax. Having the people pleasing personality makes you great at customer service but makes it difficult to tell your family no when they make an unreasonable ask of you. You’re good at creative projects, but sometimes forget to take out the trash.

In every case, we want to accept the positive aspects of our personalities and our identities and minimize the parts of our identities that we don’t believe serve us well. What we fail to realize is that there is no having one without the other. That is not to say that we shouldn’t work to minimize the negative consequences or work towards a better result. It is, however, to say that we can not deny the consequences without cutting off a part of ourselves – a part of ourselves that we need.

The Confidence to Stand Alone

Much has been made about Bowlby and Ainsworth’s attachment styles and the need for children to feel safe to be able to explore. (See The Secret Lives of Adults for more.) There has been research on how mother rats licking and grooming their pups leads to more effective attachment styles in rats. (See How Children Succeed for more.) Satir speaks of it as the intrinsic value and confidence necessary to pursue new things and reveal ourselves.

It’s one thing to speak of attachment styles and courage but quite another to stand alone. As we learned with Asch’s line experiments, if enough people believe something, you’re likely to believe it, too. (See The Lucifer Effect for more.) Find Your Courage seeks to help people, especially those whose attachment styles aren’t initially the best, find ways of expressing themselves more wholly despite these limitations.

Plus One

One of the challenges with any change is the amount of effort required. We sometimes expect that the degree of change that we’ll be forced to undertake is more than we’re able to accomplish on our own. While, at times, this may be necessary, Satir’s perspective was that most situations required only relatively minor adjustments that anyone is capable of making. This perspective of a relatively small amount of change on a relatively large amount of experiences helps to give everyone hope that they can change and be successful. (See The Psychology of Hope for more about generating hope, its components, and its power.)

Personality Types: Using the Enneagram for Self-Discovery exposes the best – and worst – of each personality type. Rather than looking at the most positive and the most negative expressions of a personality as radically different, the enneagram looks at them as degrees of functionality that can be adjusted. In most cases, the gap between where we are at and the success we want is very small.

The Four Stances

Satir believes that there are four stances that we can take in any situation. They are:

  • Placating – We disregard our own feelings to accommodate someone else.
  • Blaming – We fail to accept any personal blame and instead look to others outside of ourselves as the cause of our woes.
  • Super-Reasonable – The tendency to discount one party or another in favor of the context of the situation.
  • Irrelevant – Attempts to be amusing our clownish instead of directly addressing the situation at hand.

If one were to put this on a 2×2 grid, one axis would be rationality – the degree of reason that corresponds to the current situation. The other axis is assertiveness, the degree to which a person asserts their will and needs in the situation. In the middle of the grid is a zone of coherent or congruent operation, in which we are the most effective.

Five Freedoms

When operating in any human system, you should expect five basic freedoms, though many of us have learned from our experiences that these aren’t freedoms that we can expect from our families – or in our teams. The five freedoms are:

  • Freedom to see and hear what is real – not what was, should be, or will be.
  • Freedom to say what we think and feel – not what others believe we should.
  • Freedom to feel for real – not what others expect you to feel.
  • Freedom to ask for what you want – instead of waiting for permission.
  • Freedom to take risks and fail – not be frozen in fear.

Understanding Is the Path

Humans have a fundamental need to be understood. When we developed our mind-reading, we developed the expectation that we’d be understood. (See The Righteous Mind and Mindreading for the development of our mind-reading capabilities.) Since then, our humanity has taken a beating. We long to be understood, and too often, we fail to get any validation that we’re being heard. It’s this first little step of feeling heard that allows us to take additional steps forward in working together and healing the broken systems of interaction.

Exploring Expectations

One of the hidden challenges in relationships are those unspoken expectations which lead to judgements. As humans we are, by our very nature, prediction machines. (See Think Again and Changing Minds for more.) We are constantly trying to predict what will happen next. We want to know what lottery numbers will come up, how the stock market will perform, and how people will behave. The core of trusting other people is predicting how they will behave and accepting the possibility that they may betray our predictions. (See Trust=>Vulnerability=>Intimacy, Revisited and Trust: Human Nature and the Reconstitution of Social Order for more on trust.)

When we expect someone to behave a certain way and they don’t, we feel betrayed. If we were to tear apart that feeling of betrayal, we’ll find expectations and judgement. The judgement is simply that our expectation was reasonable and right. We feel justified that we should have expected the behavior from the other person and judge them as bad – instead of looking to how our expectations may have been wrong or how extenuating circumstances may have led to their behavior deviating from our expectations.

It’s one-part fundamental attribution error – associating negatives with the character of a person instead of the environment or situation. (Kurt Lewin’s equation uses both “environment” and “situation” in different places, depending on which source you cite.)

Broken Bones

No matter how our bone may have become broken, it’s our responsibility to heal. Sure, we can reach out to others to set the bone in the correct place to heal, and we can get a cast or other reinforcement to prevent further damage during the healing process; but, ultimately, it’s our responsibility to heal ourselves. No amount of fault-finding or blaming the process that caused our bone to become broken will heal it. Yet, often times in relationships, we become overly focused on whose fault it is or who is to blame. (See Mistakes Were Made (But Not By Me) for more.)

In healing our hurts, we can look to people to set the bones right. We seek out the people who can put the pieces back together in the right place and in the right way so that they’re capable of healing appropriately. In the context of Satir’s work, this is a counselor or therapist who can help identify the broken pieces and how they fit together. In an organizational sense, it may be a coach, advisor, or consultant who helps to restructure broken systems in ways that can be effective.

Once we’re set in place, we will need some protection for this broken area. That’s what Dr. Townsend was talking about when he was discussing temporary boundaries in his book, Beyond Boundaries. Temporary boundaries provide protection while the healing process to taking place.

Finally, we’ve got to do the hard work of healing. Our bodies may automatically take care of part of the process, sometimes creating scar tissue and sometimes not. However, with most broken bones, there is some degree of work to be done consciously in the form of physical therapy to regain all – or at least most – of the capacity that existed before the bone was broken.

Creating Chaos

It seems odd that one would desire to create chaos in any situation unless they’re being malevolent – but chaos is a necessary part of the process of change. If you avoid the chaos, you can’t change people or the systems that they operate in. William Bridges in Managing Transitions describes this as the neutral zone. The old patterns of behavior aren’t in place, but neither are the new desired behaviors. There’s a place where things are being discovered – and are therefore chaotic.

While I’ve never met someone who truly enjoys chaos, I’ve met plenty who can tolerate it and its ambiguities. However, most people can’t even tolerate high degrees of chaos. They want predictability and certainty so that they can feel comfortable that they know what’s coming.

Untangling Feelings

In How Emotions are Made, Lisa Feldman Barrett shares her experiences with trying to understand her emotions and how sometimes what she felt in her body weren’t emotions at all but were, in fact, illness. Richard Lazarus in Emotion and Adaptation takes a more decomposing approach and begins to untangle how we experience stimulus that we interpret, and how those interpretations form our feelings. Too many people have never been taught how to process their feelings, and as a result they insist that “My feelings are just my feelings.” In other words, they came randomly, and they’ll leave randomly.

The problem with this perspective is that you become the victim of your emotions. You can’t control them – or, more accurately, influence them. As a result, you’re beholden to the whims of your emotions, and you can do nothing about it. Taken to the logical extreme, this gives other the power to manipulate you like Pinocchio’s strings. If you have no choice but to react to certain stimuli in a certain way, then all others need to do to control you is create the right stimulus to get the actions they desire.

Most people find the idea that others control them repulsive, even if they’re willing to say, “They made me mad.” The problem with this statement is that it’s giving power to others in ways that they should not and need not. The more we can discover the time between the stimulus and our response, the more capacity we have, to be in control of – or at least influence – our emotions.

Caustic Coping Skills

Addiction is, as one friend said, a coping skill that progressively takes more and more control of the person using it. A glass of wine isn’t a problem, but when the coping skill is now driving the behavior of the person, it’s crossed over into addiction. Satir often said, “The problem isn’t the problem. Coping is.”

Coping can be a problem not just in that you’re overusing a coping skill to the point of it becoming an addiction but also when there are no coping skills available to work with a situation. Maybe the skills that are available are totally insufficient or inappropriate to the situation, and as a result, it’s the approach to coping that is the problem.

Removing Darkness

It’s structurally impossible to find darkness and remove it. You can’t remove darkness. You can’t undo the bad, the dysfunctional, and the painful directly. All you can do to remove darkness is to add light. Instead of focusing on eliminating the negative, we have to focus on how we can add the positive.

Aperture Power

Satir used the idea that a seed has tremendous latent energy. After all, how could a seed become a plant without latent energy? I prefer David Bohm’s thinking. He said that seeds are the apertures through which the plant emerges. (See On Dialogue.) Whether you choose to see latent power in the family system or you see the family system as the aperture through which healthy humans emerge, her work is powerful. (See The New Peoplemaking for more on how we’re supposed to help complete, healthy, well-adjusted people emerge from childhood at every age.)

If you’re interested in untangling a family system that’s a mess or a team at work that just doesn’t seem to work, perhaps you should read The Satir Model.

Book Review-Work Redesign

The more things change, the more they stay the same. In 1980, Richard Hackman and Greg Oldham wrote Work Redesign, which explains how and when to redesign work. I picked the book up in no small part due to my respect for Richard Hackman and his work in Collaborative Intelligence. What surprised me most as I read Work Redesign is that we believe many of the trends that are happening in our organizations are new. However, if you look back in time 40 years, you realize that the changes were already in motion – or they were completely in place. The fact that we’re still writing about the same things is interesting – and a bit confusing.

Worker Classes

It would be 2002 before Richard Florida would write The Rise of the Creative Class. Before then, we thought in terms of blue collar and white collar. We thought about those who worked on the floor doing “real work” and those who wore white dress shirts and ties and sat in air-conditioned offices. Since the earliest writings, there was a distinction. Management and the Worker, which goes back to the late 1920s, clearly delineates the management – white collar – and the worker – blue collar.

Despite the distinction, as early as 1974, both groups were saying the same thing. “I’m a robot.” Rather than being the height of what Taiichi Ohno put together with the Toyota Production System (TPS), which would become the core of lean ideas, workers felt like they were the machine – instead of the intelligence that allowed the machines to work effectively. (See Taiichi Ohno’s Workplace Management for more.)

What Workers Want

In the 1940s and 1950s, the thing that workers wanted most was “steady work.” Perhaps coming out of the Great Depression, workers were scarred by layoffs and lack of work. By 1957, not much had changed. Job security still topped the list of things that workers wanted. However, by 1969, the tide had already turned. Interesting work was the thing workers wanted most – and job security fell to the seventh position.

In 1968, Frederick Hertzberg wrote one of Harvard Business Schools’ most requested reprints, “One More Time: How Do You Motivate Employees?” The snarkiest of titles was supported by a bi-modal representation of motivators. Hygiene factors were necessary to keep people from quitting. Motivating factors got them more engaged and increased productivity. Kahneman would elaborate on some of these concepts in his 2011 book, Thinking, Fast and Slow. He summarized research that he did with Amos Tversky, which explained that additional money didn’t increase happiness equally.


In the same year that Work Redesign was published, Frederick Freudenberger published Burn-Out: The High Cost of High Achievement. His work was about how people who are high achievers seem to lose their fire. They suddenly burn out. People in burnout believe that what they’re doing doesn’t matter – it doesn’t make a difference. The story of Ralph Chattick in Work Redesign shows a different variation of the same problem. Ralph was a solid – but not necessarily high – achiever, but he made the same decision. He decided that his contributions didn’t matter, and as a result, he disengaged. Unlike the high achievers that Freudenberger was talking about, Ralph’s disengagement went unnoticed. (See the materials on our Extinguish Burnout site for more about burnout.)

People like Ralph disengage because it’s safer. They choose the path of least resistance rather than fight the system that they may see as set against them. They say, “If I’ve got to bust my ass to be meaningful, forget it; I’d rather be monotonous.” They resist redesign of their work because it disrupts their ability to accept their decision to disengage.

Redesigning Work

At its best, redesigning work serves to improve the quality of the relationship between people who do the work and the jobs they perform. At its worst, it exploits people and makes them victim of a system. It intentionally burns them out and discards them. However, even when the intentions are best, they collide with the disengaged staff who are quite happy with the arrangement they’ve made and don’t appreciate the implication that their work will be changed.

Rather than being seen as a gift and an invitation to make things better, the work redesign process dredges up memories and feelings long since buried about how they’ve lost their dreams and aspirations for their work career. The result can be a very negative reaction, which may serve to poison others to the work redesign process or to cause them to want to leave the organization.

Decades of Engagement

While there are many areas where the research from 40 years ago matches that of today, there are some places where the desires of employees seem to be shifting. In the 1980s, there had been 20 years of consistent job satisfaction, ending with about 80 percent of people being satisfied with their jobs. However, more recent evaluations by Gallup seem to point to people being disengaged with their jobs. Today, only slightly more than 30% would say they’re actively engaged in their organizations with the remainder sorted between ambivalent and actively disengaged (also called subversive).

There is a subtle change from satisfaction to engagement, but at the same time, such low levels of engagement are concerning. It can be that folks like Ralph are really satisfied but have become disengaged with their work, because long ago, they decided that it wasn’t going to be fulfilling, and even if it could be, it wasn’t worth the effort.

Under Engagement

One of the things that sometimes happens with children and animals can happen with workers. Rather than becoming consciously disengaged, they can become a part of the actively disengaged. While they may not think of their activities designed to make work more interesting as sabotage, the organization may see it that way. Children and animals who aren’t sufficiently engaged will often create havoc just to get attention or activity.

The solution for situations like these is to increase the opportunity for alignment and engagement with the workers so they no longer feel like the best kind of attention is negative attention.

Rocking the Boat

When we pursue an approach of organizational change through work redesign we must simultaneously consider that we may be unleashing the law of unintended consequences. In Diffusion of Innovations, Everett Rogers references an old journal article, where Stone-Age Australians received steel axe heads, and the result was murder, prostitution, and the breakdown of society. While this may be the extreme example of what can happen even with the best intentions, we open ourselves up to this possibility when we initiate change.

Even with a good appreciation of how things are related to each other in systems and that the systems will continue to iterate, it’s very difficult to predict what will happen when multiple competing loops look to reinforce and balance various behaviors. (See Thinking in Systems for more.) Even Philip Tetlock in Superforecasting explains that prediction is hard, and only through continuous observation, revision, and seeking of diverse viewpoints can we approach predictability of most events.

Four Paths to Changing Work

There are four possibilities for changing the way that people work:

  • Change the people themselves – through different recruiting, placement, and education. (See Who for recruiting and hiring.
  • Change the supervisors – to change the personal influences influencing the workers. (See The Leadership Machine for attempts at this.)
  • Change the environment of the work – to achieve different behaviors through environmental influences. (See Kurt Lewin’s Behavior Function.)
  • Change the consequences of work – to apply external motivators.

Confusing Causal Arrow

Which way does the shape of behavior flow? As leaders, do we treat our employees a certain way because of our innate or learned beliefs, or are we adapting to their behaviors? Are we the tail or the dog? One of the challenges that we have when assessing our behavior – and the behavior of others – is determining what are the driving factors.

The short answer is that it’s both. There probably isn’t a causal arrow that flows in one direction. Instead, it’s more likely that they are co-dependent, and one causes the other and vice-versa.

Reciprocity is for People

Reciprocity is one of the greatest motivators available and thus why there is a prohibition against quid pro quo in government. (See Influence without Authority.) Robert Cialdini explains in Influence how small gifts can create a sense of indebtedness that powerfully motivates a response. Despite its power, it doesn’t work with organizations – it only works with people.

You can’t create a sense of reciprocity between organizations, because it works solely at the level of people – not organizations. That’s why it’s important to help managers build and maintain strong relationships with their teams – and why moving managers from position to position in the company can be costly.

Dysfunctional Dependency on Others

There are challenges created when too much dependency is created. In Anatomy of Love, it is pointed out that, when women started getting jobs that allowed them to become self-sufficient, the divorce rate soared. In other ways, we see that when we create too much dependency, the result is dysfunction both on the part of the person who is dependent and the person who is depended upon.

Social and Technical Systems

The activity of work redesign sits in the special place between technical and social. From a technical perspective, there should be an optimal flow. There should be a sequencing and arrangement that works best mechanically. However, the impact individually and in aggregate of employees has an important and potentially overwhelming impact on the design of the system.

At an aggregate level, people don’t always enjoy the most efficient approach. There is the need to recognize that, sometimes, for all humans, the best design is the one they’ll do. There plenty of examples of perfectly functional solutions that no one liked – and over time, they were abandoned for easier solutions.

At an individual level, it’s hard to design a single process devoid of the knowledge of the person because even though we know that aesthetics matter in aggregate, we also know that individuals have different preferences and desires. What may be optimally designed for one person may be unworkably impossible for another.

Together, these social issues are more challenging than any technical challenges that you might encounter. You’ll have to design for people in general – and for the people who are really doing the work.

High Growth Needs

One continuum of differences for individual is their desire and need for growth. In Strengths Finder, it’s called Learner. (See Strengths Finder 2.0.) The Values in Action (VIA) survey calls it Curiosity. (See my reviews of Flourish and The Hope Circuit, or take the free test at Steven Reiss in Who Am I? also calls it curiosity. Whatever you call it, it’s the desire to be challenged and to grow. People with these kinds of needs behave very differently than those who don’t have a high need for growth.

Some people are quite happy living their lives as they are. Their needs are simple, and they’re quite content with a degree of safety and security. They’re uncomfortable with high growth, because high growth means taking risks and striving in ways that threaten the safety they value.

On the other hand, those who are high-growth would be bored with such a stable situation. They’d be disruptive just to have some excitement in their lives. When you’re looking to change the work of someone, it’s important to realize the desire for growth in the individuals. The higher the growth, the greater the interest in change and optimizing the process. Conversely, the lower the need for growth, the greater the desire for safety and minimization of changes.

Redefining Tasks

I was in a co-op program where I was working for Dow Corning. My job was to handle administrative tasks related to the storage of chemical formulas and the processes that created them. The data entry was very boring for me, and while I did it, I took rather minor parts of my job and invested in them to create effective templates that made the whole process easier to execute. For me, it was more fun to optimize the process than it was to do the work.

It was a fair trade for my employer, but it was definitely not what they were thinking when we started. Whenever I think about how people redefine the tasks in ways that are interesting and comfortable for them I think back to those days. I realized that with latitude – that I needed – I was able to change the definition of my work, and the research says that I’m not alone. Every employee, to some large or small degree, redefines the task they’re given in the context of what they want.

Visibility of Work Performance

If you’re going to redesign work for performance, one thing is clear: you’ve got to plan to show people the results of their work – their performance. It’s the obvious statement that gets missed in businesses and makes the successes and failures of entrepreneurs seem magical. Most people today go to work and know that they’ll receive a fixed amount of money for the work they perform. Even those whose income is variable find that they have some base amount they’re guaranteed to make and a second variable amount that is stacked on top. The predictability is part of why millions of people get up and go to work every day.

Entrepreneurs are the rare breed that are aware that their actual income is quite unrelated to the effort they put in or, in some cases, even the skills they possess. They accept the risks associated with working hard for potentially little gain in the hopes that their work will be rewarded handsomely. But entrepreneurs are the exceptions. Even entrepreneurs long for some degree of predictability in their efforts. That’s why books like The E-Myth Revisited, which extols the ability to build systems that generate predictable results, are so popular.

However, when we redesign work, we often forget to directly connect the work that people are doing with the results that are being received – both personally and organizationally. While The Four Disciplines of Execution includes both a focus on lead measures and the creation of a clear scorecard, few organizations build such clear linkages. Despite Douglas Hubbard’s How to Measure Anything, most organizations fail to measure the results of the work that individuals do – and report it back to them.

While there is such a thing as too much emphasis on metrics, measurement, and achievement, as The Tyranny of Metrics explains, too few organizations know what the metrics are that connect the work behavior with the desired outcomes, and therefore they fail to give workers the feedback they need to improve. We know from research on the highly productive psychological state of flow that immediate feedback is required for 5x performance, but it’s all too often missing. (See Flow, Finding Flow, and The Rise of Superman for more.)

Groups or Individuals to Complete the Work

Perhaps the most perplexing challenge facing anyone who is working on redesigning work is whether to assign the task to an individual or to a group. Working in teams has become in vogue. However, that doesn’t mean that everything should be assigned to a team, as Team Genius points out. Some tasks are more efficient and better suited for an individual, and some require a diversity of skills and perspectives that can – practically speaking – only be found in a team.

As you plan to change work, making the decision about whether the work should be performed by an individual or a team may just be the key to make your Work Redesign successful.

Book Review-Collaborating with the Enemy: How to Work with People You Don’t Agree with or Like or Trust

One of my favorite things to do in a presentation on collaboration was to ask people to define it. I’d offer up the idea that, much like trust, they probably thought they knew what it was that collaboration meant – right up to the point where they’d try to define it. Though, often, my audiences would come up with something like “work together towards a common goal,” they’d often miss an alternative – “to conspire with the enemy.” Collaborating with the Enemy: How to Work with People You Don’t Agree with or Like or Trust combines these two definitions and explores a fundamental misconception about how we perceive collaboration in organizations and across society.

Working Together

The belief that we understand something so fundamental to our humanity like collaboration only to discover that we’re deceived by our thoughts isn’t unique to collaboration. Robert Flores and his colleagues surface this problem with the concept of trust in Building Trust. They explain that we’re flummoxed when asked to define trust and often define trustworthy instead. Trustworthy and trust are two sides of the same coin but are also very different.

Collaboration is challenged by the belief that one definition – to work together towards a common goal – is radically different than another definition – to conspire with the enemy. We believe that when we’re working towards a common goal, we must be working with people we know, agree with, like, and trust. However, what we all objectively know to be true is that we’re often working with people we don’t trust, don’t agree with, or don’t like. While not agreeing with someone can have great positive benefits (see The Difference), working with people we don’t like or trust is harder.

Jonathan Haidt explains in The Righteous Mind that the reason we’ve become the dominant biomass on the planet is likely because of our ability to work together. Others have suggested that our ability to work with one another is nothing short of Mindreading, but there’s more to it than that. Not only can we see what others are thinking, we must find ourselves working together towards a goal that we both agree with – or at least are willing to work together towards.

We assume therefore that, to work together, we must agree with, like, and trust others when we know that this isn’t the case. We find the definitions that seemed like opposites are not, in fact, opposites but rather two characterizations of the same phenomenon – working together towards a common goal, often with someone that could be considered an enemy.

Collaboration Control

Working with the operating assumption that we like, agree with, and trust those whom we’re working with, we can incorrectly conclude that collaboration can be controlled. We believe, erroneously, that everything can follow a neatly scripted plan despite our experience to the contrary. While J. Keith Miller explains in Compelled to Control that we all want to control, we must acknowledge that too few things are actually under our control. Forces and other people have influence on our lives and our circumstances that limits our ability to control.

The Halo Effect explains that our world is probabilistic. That is, A+B=C, but only 80% of the time. In such a world, we can’t believe in control. Superforecasting makes the point that those who are best at predicting outcomes recognize the probabilities of certain events happening and aggregate those into a set of probabilities around various outcomes. We cannot ignore the fact that randomness exists in the world and our ability to control outcomes is limited.

Accepting Complexity

To succeed at collaboration, we can’t minimize or ignore the role of complexity in our work. The Cynefin decision framework is designed to expose a model for understanding the various kinds of decisions we must make and the degree of complexity or chaos inherent in the impacted systems. (See Thinking in Systems for more on systems.) Too often, we misjudge the collaboration efforts that we’re doing as mundane, predictable, and ultimately controllable. We fail to realize that collaboration lies at the very heart of our humanity and that it is, at some level, both magical and illusion.

We scoff at those who say they can read our minds. We know that true mind reading is beyond our capabilities. We are disturbed by the degree to which our microexpressions may expose our inner emotions. (See Telling Lies for more.) Despite the awareness that we cannot read one another’s minds, we regard collaboration as trivial.

The truth is that our ability to have a “theory of mind” about someone else is unique to our humanity and has many limits. Our brains and their limited capacity take many shortcuts to reach a perception of what is going on inside of others, and it’s often wrong. (See Incognito and The Tell-Tale Brain for more.) In fact, Inside Jokes suggests that laughter is a part of the error checking mechanism for these shortcuts, and it’s why we’re rewarded with dopamine when we recognize we’ve been misled.

In short, we hide the complexity of the process of mind reading from ourselves and trivialize the complex nature of coordinating activity between two or more individuals. In doing so, we fail to recognize that control is an illusion – just like our ability to completely understand someone else’s experience.

Winners and Losers

When we’re collaborating with others, we’re making change. Our goal sounds lofty, but in some small – or large – way, we’re seeking to accomplish change. The fact that we’re working with others towards the goal almost ensures that the goal is large. Those large goals create change for those impacted, and some of those impacted will be winners while others will be losers – and that is in large part driven by their perspective.

The change may mean less work or faster operations. Less work seems good unless you’re in fear of losing your job. Faster operations feels like it’s better for the organization, but it is better for the individual who is supposed to keep up with the increased production?

We cannot forget that the common goals at the heart of collaboration may be positive or negative for each person – and that whether it’s a positive or a negative largely depends upon the perspective.

Truth and Perspectives

You know that someone isn’t able to see others’ perspectives when they utter the words, “The truth of the situation is…” Instead of being open to accepting that truth is elusive and constantly changing, perceiving it as a fixed and unchanging point makes it impossible to accept that others’ perspectives can contribute to your understanding of the truth. At our best, we recognize that we can’t fully understand the truth. We cannot see from every angle and every perspective to understand our situation in a way that offers the truest representation of the truth.

Defining the truth as the way someone sees it – no matter how good their perspective – necessarily blocks collaboration and development. It stops dialogue.

Disagree and Dialogue

“Dialogue” is a word we throw around casually as if it were the same thing as conversation. However, dialogue is a special place: it’s a place where we are safe enough to learn and grow with one another. (See Dialogue for more.) Dialogue is essential for our ability to understand others’ perspectives of the truth and how they do or do not line up with our own. We can only agree that someone else can see things differently than we can when we’re willing to create safe spaces that allow dialogue to happen. (See The Fearless Organization for the concept of psychological safety in general.)

Dialogue is not a guarantee that we’ll reach agreement – too often, we won’t. Even if we can address the perspective of the situation, we’re left with the need to agree on the values impacted by the situation. Jonathan Haidt explains in The Righteous Mind that even our morality is based on differing values, which can often come in conflict, and we’ll decide differently based on how we rank the values and how we perceive the situation relates to them. Steven Reiss expands this idea to how we’re motivated in Who Am I?

The key to being able to collaborate isn’t to reach a single understanding and agreement on the objective. In fact, most collaborations are made stronger by multiple overlapping views of why the objective is important. Our goal with working with others shouldn’t be agreement, it should be a willingness to accept others’ perspectives and a willingness to work together despite the lack of agreement. In Fault Lines, we learned that some of the deepest divisions aren’t solved by agreement but instead by a willingness to move forward in the presence of unresolved issues.

Us and Them

The greatest challenge of humanity is the illusion of separateness. We fail to recognize that we’re more alike and interconnected than we could realize. The things that we discriminate against represent a completely insignificant percentage of our overall makeup. We’re all most all genetically identical from a statistical point of view. However, we’re focused on our differences instead of our similarities.

We evolved with an “us versus them” perspective. We learned that we could trust our “us” group and fear everyone that was in the “them” group. (See Mistakes Were Made (But Not By Me) and Trust for more.) The key when we’re collaborating with others is to find a way to draw the “us” circle larger.

Every time you’re tempted to put people or groups in the “them” category, draw the circle larger. We’re all members of humanity, and as such we’re all a part of the same group even if our natural tendency is to shrink the circle and protect ourselves from them.

Influence without Control

Control is an illusion, but it’s one we all crave. (See Compelled to Control.) We want control because it makes things simple and straightforward; however, we must accept that things are not that simple. Our world is probabilistic. (See The Halo Effect.) We’re able to influence others but not control them. Joseph Rost explains in Leadership for the Twenty-First Century that we’re all influencing others, and as such we’re all leaders and followers. (Rost’s work is based on James MacGregor Burns’ in Leadership if you want more depth.) We want to lead our collaborative efforts, but we need to do so in a way that is open to being led as well. The beauty of collaboration can be the ability for us to learn and to see the world more realistically.

Act and Test

Ultimately, our goal in collaboration should not be endless debate but rather a series of actions and tests which allow us to continue to calibrate how we work together and our understanding of the goal that we are faced with. We should recognize the wisdom in Deming’s Plan-Do-Check-Act cycle and Rittel’s understanding of the kinds of “wicked problems” that plague the complex actions that we attempt when we collaborate.

It’s Not All About You

In the end, when we collaborate with the enemy, we must release our focus on ourselves and focus our thoughts on the goal and how we’re intending to change things. This keeps us from overreacting to the perceived attacks and open the door to look at our conversations in the most generous way possible. It’s that allows us to do the process that is Collaborating with the Enemy.

Book Review-The New Peoplemaking

I picked up The New Peoplemaking not because I wanted to continue delving into family systems but instead because that Virginia Satir’s work is often used as a model for change. I have no problems with the fact that her change theories were based on changing the family systems of her clients and many of the applications that we speak of for the model are designed for corporate use instead. While the book doesn’t fully enumerate Satir’s model for changing family systems, it does illuminate some of the powerful forces that shape families and clearly communicates Satir’s respect for those people who bravely pursue the process of having children – and therefore people-making.

Impacting Society

We speak of cultures, nations, and societies as if they exist. In truth, they are collections of people, processes, and thoughts. They don’t exist in the sense that you can reach out and touch them. They are, however, the big questions that we seem the most interested in working on. But because they don’t directly exist, we can only change them by changing the individuals that make up these institutions.

This has been the focus of Satir’s work: individual changes. How do you change the behaviors that people choose in their everyday interactions with their families and the world? Satir simultaneously recognized the personal responsibility of every member of the family system and the system itself. More importantly, she recognized that sustained societal changes happen only when you develop people. No amount of arrangement or organization will be effective in the long term if the people aren’t supported and enabled to be the best people they can be.

Strangely, the connection for individual change and its relation to organizational performance comes from the Hawthorne Works, as described in Management and the Worker. In it, the relationships of the operators changed. It wasn’t the intent of the study, but the result was a change in individual health and therefore productivity.

The Hardest Job

Satir asserts that family is the hardest, most complicated job in the world. While family isn’t one of the Gareth Morgan’s prototypical Images of Organization, perhaps it should be. If raising a family is the hardest job, then perhaps it could be a good model for how to make organizations work.

When you look at the factors that influence the effective and ineffective operation of the family, one can easily see that they’re the same sorts of factors that influence the effective operation of an organization. Quoting Satir (emphasis mine):

The factors in a positive pairing relationship are:

  1. Each person stands firmly on his or her own feet and is autonomous.
  2. Each person can be counted on to say real “yes’s” and “no’s”—in other words, to be emotionally honest.
  3. Each person can ask for what she or he wants.
  4. Each acknowledges and takes responsibility for her or his actions.
  5. Each can keep promises.
  6. Each can be counted on to be kind, fun to be around, courteous, considerate, and real.
  7. Each takes full freedom to choose to comment on what is going on.
  8. Each supports the other’s dreams in whatever way possible. Together, they cooperate instead of competing.

Compare this with the kinds of guidance that Amy Edmondson recommends in The Fearless Organization, Tim Clark exposes in The 4 Stages of Psychological Safety, or Richard Hackman shares in Collaborative Intelligence, and you’ll see similarities.


The basis of any human endeavor are relationships. Whether it’s a work, professional relationship or a family relationship, it’s the basis of what it means to be human. Historically, counseling focused on the individual who was representing problems, either of their own report or because their behaviors deviated the norms that their families and society could accept. However, Satir recognized that the behaviors operate only in the system that they’re created. Kurt Lewin explained that behavior of a function of both person and environment. (See A Dynamic Theory of Personality.) Thus, counseling one person necessarily misses half the problem.

Satir recognized that relationships start in pairs: two people in relationship with one another. However, these relationships quite quickly take on a third element, whether it’s the first child entering into the marriage relationship or someone else. While triads can be powerful, in the case of relationships, they’re generally fragile. In chemistry, O3 is ozone, and it’s unstable. O2 is the more familiar oxygen molecule that we’re used to. In Grannoveter’s work, he recognized that sometimes we see unstable relationships through forbidden triads like a man, his wife, and his mistress. It can work together, but often does not. (See Analyzing the Social Web for more.)

Family Portrait

While the Thematic Apperception Test (TAT) is a discredited test that used to be used as a part of psychological evaluations that drew inferences from pictures, the idea of visualizing your family portrait may have value. (See The Cult of Personality Testing for more.) By visualizing the way you see your family and then comparing it to real life, you may be able to see distortions that lead to poor interaction patterns.

Too many people are led to believe that family life must be perfect. This is an expectation that simply cannot be lived up to. In my review of Fault Lines, I explained that we believe our family lives should resemble Norman Rockwell artwork, but it can’t. That’s not real. The perception of our family should accept the faults that we have, that our family members have, and how our relationships aren’t perfect. We can’t expect perfect, we can only look to accept things as they are and work to make them better.

Stopping Problems

Dysfunctional families spend all their time and energy working to prevent problems from happening. They want to hide their reality from the outside world and as a result they use all their emotional energy trying to prevent the inevitable.

Healthy family systems recognize that problems will happen. They aren’t desired or welcomed, but they’re expected. These systems don’t waste their time preventing problems that can’t be prevented or denying the problems that are happening. Instead, they focus their energies on coping with the problems that do occur.

Fear of the Future

All fears are fundamentally a fear of a negative situation happening in the future. Our fears are the result of our concern that a negative outcome will substantially impact them in a way that they won’t be able to cope. (See The Hidden Logic Behind Perceived Situational Safety for more.) The key is that the more people believe they have the resources and capacity to overcome any impacts of the risk or stressor they fear, the less fear they’ll have.

We fear what we don’t believe we can successfully confront – whether that confrontation is a threat to our life or just our ideas.

The Control of our Attitudes

Sometimes the circumstances can’t be changed. Consider a family that is severely in debt. They can’t instantly transform themselves into a debt-free family – though this is possible over time. What they can do is change their relationship with money and, more importantly, how they interact with each other when they feel financial pressure. It’s not the circumstances that have changed that can create the substantially positive result, it’s the attitude about the circumstances that matter.

I’ve seen numerous people who are in the midst of struggles with their finances, their relationships, and their addictions. The most powerful changes they make aren’t the changes they make in their situation. The most powerful changes were in their attitudes about their situation. When they stopped seeing their marriage as an obligation and started seeing it as a way to express their love to their children and spouse, the problems nearly disappeared. Objectively nothing changed, but subjectively the entire world was different.


Having self-worth isn’t always easy. Whether it’s the voices of your parents or others in your life that told you that you were no good, didn’t meet the standard in some way, that they hoped for something else, or a myriad of other options, understanding your inherent value as a human is a powerful way to keep fear at bay – and to improve relationships with others.

Many of the problems that people have in their relationships are reflections of their poor self-worth. Instead of interpreting the other person’s comments in the most generous way possible, they respond to their childhood hurts and lash out. A husband can ask her wife where the spatula is and receive a response about him interfering in her kitchen, because she fears that if he cooks, she’ll have no value.

Everyone has redeeming qualities and aspects of themselves that are adored – or can be adored – by others. Finding ways to expose these aspects in ways that allows the person to grow can be difficult. In Creative Confidence, Tom and David Kelley explain that all of us are born creative and it’s “reinforced” out of us. How do you send messages of self-worth to yourself and others instead of messages of worthlessness?

Planting a Person

Consider for a moment that a trusted friend gives you a seed for a precious plant that they want you to have, but they don’t (and won’t) tell you what plant the seed will grow. You dutifully plant the seed, water it, and fertilize the soil. You’ve created the conditions under which the seed can grow without controlling or directing its growth. (For more of this general idea, see On Dialogue by David Bohm.) Judith Rich Harris explains in No Two Alike and The Nurture Assumption that you can’t expect your children will grow exactly the way you want them to. There are too many factors involved. The result of this is your children are precious gifts that you can’t control but you can encourage towards growth.

Taboo Against Touching

In some families, touching is restricted. Fathers stop hugging their daughters, and, to a lesser extent, mothers stop hugging their sons. What may have been a family ritual of piling on the couch to watch a movie becomes awkward as the children grow, and the parents become concerned that touching their children may be misinterpreted. Out of fear, they pull away from physical touch that is a part of our human condition.

It’s not that there don’t need to be boundaries and that attention need not be paid to appropriate vs. inappropriate touch – there does need to be. However, in too many families, these waters seem too difficult to navigate and in the process all touch is prohibited.

In our world, I can tell you that I hug our sons and our daughters – and Terri does the same. We recognize that this is an important part of feeling connected as a family and work to find appropriate ways to share touch without it feeling sexual to any party.

Taboos Against Sex

As explained in Anatomy of Love, our Western culture has numerous restrictions on discussion and acts of sex in general where other cultures are much more open. The unfortunate side effect of this is that we’ve unintentionally taught our children that sex is bad. As a result, when they become a part of a relationship where sex is appropriate (say marriage as an example), they still struggle with their ability to express themselves sexually because they can’t shake the feeling that it’s somehow bad.

The more we can be open about sex – without encouraging it for young adults who aren’t ready – the less dysfunction that the children are likely to express as an adult.


There are many words that are used to describe the same concept. “Congruence” is Satir’s word for the same thing that I’d call a “stable core” (see Resilient for more) or that Brené Brown calls “wholeheartedness.” (See Dare to Lead for more.) The Arbinger Institute uses different language in Leadership and Self-Deception about staying out of the “box,” but the point is the same. It’s about being the best possible person, a person who can experience negative external events and situations without being overly reactive. Satir’s word hints at the stance that makes that possible. She hints to the facts that what someone does on the outside, the way they act, is in congruence with the way they feel in the inside. They’ve not just changed their outward behaviors, but they’ve also changed their inner mindset.

Privacy and Self-Integrity

Many people will claim their need to privacy. However, this isn’t exactly what they need. Privacy creates places where we can behave in ways inconsistent with our values or the image, we want to show the world. A person with an integrated self-image (see Braving the Wilderness) will need very little privacy and only in cases necessary to prevent vulnerability.

However, it is important to note that the root of the suggestion that we need privacy comes for the need to protect our identity from others. We also ask for privacy when we’re concerned that others may try to intrude on our identity.

Don’t Talk About It

A friend of mine’s family didn’t talk about certain things. Growing up as a preacher’s kid, he learned that if it was negative or too “out there,” you just didn’t talk about it. The unwritten rule in the family was that if it wasn’t talked about, it didn’t exist. Of course, this is like burying your head in the sand. It doesn’t change the actual situation, it just changes your perception and not in a good way.

His family isn’t alone. Many learn the message that you shouldn’t talk about Aunt June’s drinking problem, Jimmy’s conviction, or the fact that we know other members of the family are cheating in public. If you don’t talk about it, then it doesn’t exist. Embarrassment prevents reality.

The problem is that it doesn’t. In addiction circles, there’s a saying that “You’re only as sick as your secrets.” (See Neurodharma for more.) The more that we can be open about any topic and discuss it, the less likely we are to find ourselves in dysfunctional states.

You, Me, and Us

One of the key questions in relationships is how to take two separate things and mix them together to become not you and me but you, me, and us. Some relationships have a high degree of you and me with very little us. Conversely, some people become so enmeshed that they lose themselves. They really don’t understand how they can exist without the other person.

For healthy relationships, there must always be all three – you, me, and us. For those who have stronger senses of themselves, it’s possible to minimize the amount of me. For those who are co-dependent or unsure of their own identity, minimizing their identity in a relationship is dangerous. They may very well lose themselves.

Often, we see people lose themselves to the us, because they’re so afraid of loneliness that they’ll do anything to avoid it.


Loneliness explains how being alone and loneliness are not the same. We can be surrounded by people and feel loneliness and conversely be alone and not feel lonely. Loneliness is an unfortunate feeling that humans must endure. There is no avoiding it.

The key is to accept loneliness in appropriate amounts and to learn how to move your way back from the loneliness. Forming and maintaining multiple relationships is essential for keeping loneliness from lingering for too long. (See How to Be an Adult in Relationships for more on multiple relationships.)

Good from Bad Stock

One of the challenges with guardians – including parents – who are negative about a child’s parents is that you may unintentionally create self-esteem problems. The question becomes, “How can I be good if my parents aren’t good?” This creates a huge problem – and it’s one of the hidden impacts of parental alienation. (See The Progression of Parental Alienation for more.)

There are ways to decouple someone’s self-esteem from their parents’ value, but it’s not always easy. One tool is to reduce the belief that genetics are the only thing that makes someone good or bad. (See No Two Alike and The Nurture Assumption for more on the degree to which genetics play a part.)

Reaction Not Control

One of the challenges in any family is the degree to which one family member believes that they have the right to control other members of the family. While this happens from parents to children rather frequently, it also happens with siblings. Older siblings are often enlisted as assistants with the younger children and therefore retain some sense of responsibility or control.

We all want to control others, but none of us want to be controlled. (See Compelled to Control for more.) As we attempt to control others, their natural inclination is to try to turn away. If, however, we learn to be responsive to them and their behaviors without accepting responsibility for them or attempting to control them, we’ll find that the entire family system becomes healthier. (See The HeartMath Solution for more on detachment, and Responsive or Responsible for more on the real meaning of responsibility.)

Pals for Parents

Another trap that parents can fall into is the desire to be friends with their children. Children need strong boundaries (see Parent Effectiveness Training and Boundaries). The primary responsibility of a parent is not to be their child’s friend, rather their primary responsibility is to help their children become functioning adults. Too often, parents become so concerned with being their child’s friend that they’re unwilling to hold them appropriately accountable. (See The Psychology of Not Holding Children Accountable for more.)

You Should Know

One of the weapons that is used against other family members is the statement, “Well, you should know.” Whether used by children or parents, it’s a weapon that isn’t fair and is one of the worst things that can be done. In The Science of Trust, John Gottman speaks about things that break down relationships the most serious of which is stonewalling. “You should know” combines stonewalling with shaming by implying that you’ve done something wrong that you don’t know – and effectively preventing further conversation on the topic.

It’s a logical fallacy that one should “know” anything, and that it should be allowed to end the conversation. (See Mastering Logical Fallacies for more.) Certainly, “You should know” may be uttered in frustration, but to prevent it from being toxic, it should be followed with “but here’s what the issue is.”

If you’re a parent or you’re thinking of becoming one, I encourage you to prepare for The New Peoplemaking.

Book Review-Anatomy of Love: A Natural History of Mating, Marriage, and Why We Stray

It started simple enough. I wanted to explain to a friend who was struggling how there were different kinds of love. The problem is that I couldn’t figure out how to get to the right words. I knew that there were different kinds and different expressions of love, but I just couldn’t find the words. On the recommendation of a friend, I picked up Helen Fisher’s work, Anatomy of Love: A Natural History of Mating, Marriage, and Why We Stray. Buried in the middle of the work was the important answer I needed, but surrounding it was a rich study of how love works. Drawing from anthropology and neurology, Fisher explains possible answers as to why humans bond in the first place and why those bonds seem to break too easily.


The friends who introduced me to Fisher’s work are polyamorous. Both members of the couple are people my wife and I would consider good friends. While Terri and I are both clear about our beliefs about marriage and relationships, we continue to try to understand the perspectives and beliefs of our friends. The truth is that the couple aren’t the only ones we know who’ve decided at some point to have a kind of relationship that strays from what most people would consider traditional.

With the pieces that I’m about to share from the book, one might reasonably assume that I’m considering a polyamorous life; however, that would not be true. While I recognize that monogamy isn’t the norm for mammals and may not have been designed to last more than the time it takes to rear a child, for me, it’s still the right answer. The good news is that I gained a bit of extra insight as to why and how my friends find themselves with a primary bond and a non-primary bond.

Dual Strategy

The anthropological research shows something odd. Marriages exist in most cultures and adultery is common. It seems that most humans developed a dual strategy for ensuring the survival of our offspring. We find a good mate – a primary bond – and we find lots of others for whom we share a special affinity. In tribes across the globe, it seems like there was a marriage relationship and the expectation that there would be coitus outside of marriage. This is particularly true of men but, in many cases, true of women as well.

In some cultures, men often offer their wives to their hunting partners, friends, and guests. With mutual consent, the wife and the non-spouse have sex. In other cultures, it’s believed that it takes many men to father a child, thus everyone in the village feels as if the child is, at least in part, theirs.

Western Moral Code

It turns out that it’s only Westerners who attach such a stigma to sex in general but also to various sexual relations. The strict regulation of sexual activity may have been necessary to prevent communities from being unduly burdened by children from parents who couldn’t support them, but the result was a sense of shame and guilt about sex in nearly every form.

In other cultures, sex and promiscuity are more openly accepted, with everyone in a village knowing who is coupling with whom. In many cultures, the knowledge is shared in the community but never discussed directly between spouses. Perhaps this approach avoids jealousy and therefore prevents uncomfortable confrontations.

The only sacrosanct prohibitions about sex are that you shouldn’t disrupt the marriage union.


The marriage union serves a useful purpose. Humans’ massive heads can’t fit through the birth canal if fully developed, so Mother Nature started kicking out human offspring before they were fully able to care for themselves. The result was an even larger burden on the mother in caring for the child and therefore the greater need for support from another – typically the father or presumed father.

Marriage, then, as a concept provides a framework for support of the development of an offspring. Fisher’s research seems to lead towards the idea that marriages happened for 3-4 years if only one offspring was produced and continued only for 3-4 years after the birth of the last offspring.

One often points to other species to speak of the kind of monogamous pair bonding that we seek to achieve in marriage. However, only about 3% of mammals pair bond like we do. While 90% of birds pair bond, the problem is in how long it lasts – and the degree to which it holds. Scientists have found both that birds will copulate with others outside of their primary bond, and they’ve found in many cases the primary bond is limited to a single mating season.

Birds have a much shorter time until having an empty nest than humans, and their rapid de-pairing after a season means that it’s possible that humans have the same built-in timeclock, but the clock just takes longer to wind down.

When Marriages Fail

From an evolutionary perspective, having multiple suitors makes sense for the female. It’s been widely accepted that males chase and females choose. For a male with limited commitment to the development of an offspring, copulating with as many females as possible increases the chances of their genes to continue. For women, it can increase their chances for the survival of their genes as well. By courting favor with many men, should she become abandoned – or should there be a situation where her husband dies – she’s got a built-in set of potential stand-ins to assist her in raising her children.

Spiritual Evolution explains that baboons with better social bonds improved the outcomes for their children. What better way to form a social bond than to unlock nature’s reward system with dopamine?

The Reward System

Much has been made of the human reward system and how dopamine is the way that we’re encouraged to keep doing something. The Power of Habit perhaps overplays the hand by speaking of anticipation; but other books about addiction, like The Globalization of Addiction, take a more balanced view, explaining how addiction is fueled by the dopamine system and simultaneously explaining environmental factors.

The simple truth is that evolution equipped us with a set of mechanisms that rewarded behaviors that led to the survival of our genes. Simple biases added up to a system where sexual reproduction was rewarded with dopamine – our natural pleasure drug. It’s a quick response that helps us know that this is the sort of thing to do – like eating sugar, chocolate, or salt. Add to that the neurotransmitter oxytocin, and you add to the pleasure a sense of desire to bond – or pair bond. Which is, of course, what we need if our offspring require a great deal of resources to support their birth and growth to self-sufficiency.

It’s Not All About Sex

Despite the powerful neurochemicals in play most people (95% of females, and 91% of males) say that the best thing about love is not sex. There’s more going on than the neurochemical wash associated with sex. It seems like that the need for connection, understanding, and belief of mutual support is more powerful than we would anticipate.

Moving back to the analogy of love as an addiction for a moment, Fisher’s work parallels what we know about addiction. Addicts do receive a bit of dopamine from their addiction – in whatever form – however, the way that we fight off addition isn’t the use of more dopamine at other times. Instead, the way that we combat addictions is through changing the person’s environment and, most importantly, their connection with a community.

The Risks of Sex

One of the interesting changes that came to the way we view sex is the change in the degree of risk that sex entailed. We’ve had condoms as a form of contraception for centuries. The efficacy of this mechanism has varied over the years but has generally become more effective at preventing pregnancy and often the spread of sexually transmitted diseases. As I mentioned in my review of The Normal Personality, the change in views on sex was accelerated by the development of the birth control pill in the 1950s and the Roe v. Wade Supreme Court decision in the 1970s that legalized abortion.

Within a few decades, the possibility of an unwanted child dropped substantially. Two forms of contraception and the possibility of abortion made it a much lower risk. Add to that a set of new antibiotics and other treatments for sexually transmitted diseases, and you have the foundation for a change in perspective about sexual practices.

While the Western world is still has many cultural taboos about sexual practices, there are forces set against that, and the tide of perspective about sexual practices is changing.

The Attraction

One of the most interesting ponderings is how someone’s love map is formed. That is, why are some people attractive and others are not? What is it that makes someone interesting as a mate? Some of it appears to be due to timing. While it’s possible to be attracted to a childhood friend, it appears as if there’s a period of time when familiarity makes you someone who’s not a reasonable suitor. Children raised together will rarely date or marry – but if they’re not together during a critical phase, there seems to be no such resistance. (It’s estimated between 3-6 years old.)

The opposite is also true. When someone is ready to “mate,” it seems as if the right person will come along. It seems that we tend to be attracted to those who are available – which, of course, would be advantageous if you don’t have that many available options – and it would help to be attracted to someone that actually exists.

That being said, we also tend to be attracted through our noses – and to people who have a set of genetics that broadens our immune defenses. Sweat has been an ingredient in love potions around the world. It’s been found to trigger luteinizing hormone in women – which increases sexual arousal. Sweat was more appealing when there was a genetic diversity in the histocompatibility complex, which drives our immune system.

The Nuclear Family

For the most part, we take for granted that the best family for a child to grow up in is a nuclear family. However, this is largely a new phenomenon. In America’s Generations, Chuck Underwood explains that family structure of the “GI Generation” was multigenerational. While Robert Putnam notes the decline of the nuclear family in Our Kids, the nuclear family that rose during the “Silent Generation” was largely considered a luxury by the time the baby boomers were starting their families. Fisher’s work indicates that, in many cultures and in the prehistoric past, it really did take a village to raise a child – or at least that was the way it was typically done.

So, while our mating habits supported our dual strategy with marriage and adultery, the burden placed on any individual marriage was less weighty. Over time, as our relationships with others eroded (see Bowling Alone), and we removed the societal expectation of collaborative support – a social safety net – we began to put more emphasis and weight on the individual marriage, a weight that it seems evolution didn’t plan for, and we saw the rise of divorces. (For more about divorce in general, see Divorce.)

The Rise of Divorce

In Islam, it was easy to divorce a wife. In some cases, it meant saying that you divorced the other person three times and waiting out the waiting period, and it was done. However, divorce was also different. People’s possessions weren’t really up for grabs in a divorce. It was simply the end of the pair bond. The man kept his tools, and the wife kept her things, and both went along their merry – or not so merry – way.

However, the greatest influence on the rate of divorce in the Western world was World War II. During World War II, there were many changes that created a greater competition for men. More important, the labor shortage moved women into jobs that generated income, and suddenly their dependence upon men for their material needs vanished.

That is not to say that women didn’t work before; they did. However, they worked in “pink collar” jobs that allowed them to buy the modern conveniences that they wanted. After World War II, they were making real incomes – and realizing they weren’t dependent upon their men for money.

That is not to say that they didn’t make room for the returning men or that anyone did anything wrong. It’s just that, in the Western world, the illusion had been broken, and it became more of an option to divorce. Additionally, the introduction in the law of “irreconcilable differences” reduced the friction of getting a divorce – and released some of the couples from marriages that weren’t good but for which it was too difficult to escape.

Despite the focus on the United States, divorce rose in all places where women became less dependent.

God and Marriage

Many of the sexual acts that we would describe as immoral today were commonplace in the ancient past. The Greeks were notorious for their sexual practices – including homosexuality. In the Jewish faith, there were relatively few rules for sexual conduct. Though the Genesis account of Sodom and Gomorrah is often used by Christians for the condemnation of homosexuality, there’s a great debate about whether that’s the true reason for God’s decision to destroy the two cities. In fact, it’s in this story that we see perceptions of sexuality, as Lot offers his two virgin daughters to the men – rather than the two male guests. One interpretation of this recounting (one I admittedly favor because it fits within the broader story arc of the Bible) is that it’s not the homosexuality which is the root of God’s anger but is instead the lack of concern for others’ willingness or beliefs that plagued the towns.

Fisher reports that the change in the relationship between Judaism and sex started somewhere after the exile period (516 BC) through to the follow of Jerusalem in about (70 AD). Suddenly, God was much more concerned about what people did – and didn’t do – sexually.

While contemporary Christians believe that the current interpretations about God’s position on sexual relations were always the case, there’s evidence that things have changed – and that they’ve been distorted. (Another serious distortion not covered by Fisher is the idea of whether sex before marriage is prohibited by the Bible or not. My reading doesn’t show any such prohibition on sex before marriage, but it’s become a well-established perspective in Christian circles.)

Why Do We Cheat?

If the system that we’ve created is one that is dual with both commitment and adultery, then why is it that we have adultery at all? The traditional explanation is that the marriage is bad or that one party is unhappy. The problem is that it can’t explain every case. Of those who admitted to adultery, 56% of men and 34% of women rated their marriages as happy. In short, the “party line” doesn’t work. They’re happy in their marriage, and they had a paramour. While the degree to which women admitted to having a paramour jumped from 9% in the 1950s to 25% in the 1970s, there’s no reason to believe they were substantially less happy in their marriages. Either they were more open about their dalliances, or they felt more free to have them.

While Fisher’s subtitle offers the idea that we’ll learn “why we stray,” it would be more accurate to say that we’re presented with a series of reasons why we might stray rather than a straightforward, linear, step-by-step, progression, perhaps indicating that there isn’t one reason but instead many. Factors like higher income increased the probability, while religious affiliation seemed to have no impact.

Perhaps the most strenuous statement about adultery is that these has never been found a culture that didn’t know of it, nor has there been a culture where societal rules have extinguished it. There are, however, many societies and communities where there is a strong pressure to stay in marriages as long as possible.

How Long Can One Be in Romantic Love?

Before fully explaining the various types of love, it’s important to recognize the factors that tend to lead towards the idea that chemically dependent kinds of love must be short lived. If we derive our feelings of attraction solely through a neurochemical, and love makes us feel this more intently, then eventually our brains will habituate or adapt to this heightened level of neurochemical and establish this as a new normal – thereby depriving us of the infatuation kind of love that we expect. From our study of drugs, we know that it takes more and more of the same drug – chemical – to derive the same result. What is called “tolerance” in alcoholics might be called “expectations” in those who are in love.

If we look at love as a set of different chemicals and mental processes, we have the option to find paths that lead us to a permanent, enduring love. Yes, we can develop greater production capacity for these chemicals, or we can release the chemicals in patterns that don’t increase tolerance while still giving us the intense feelings of attraction and infatuation that we associate with love.

Fisher’s research has shown while romantic (attracted or infatuated) love typically fades, it doesn’t have to fade. She found couples who had been madly in love for decades. The sight or thought of their mate still triggered the same areas of the brain and elicited the same kind of response. So, while it’s not the norm to remain infatuated with a mate, it’s certainly possible.

Four Kinds of Love

When C.S. Lewis spoke of love in The Four Loves, he did so more or less metaphorically. When Fisher describes her four different kinds of loves, she does so from the perspective of the four neurochemicals involved in the process. They are dopamine, serotonin, testosterone, and oxytocin (estrogen). Dopamine, as has been previously addressed, is associated with infatuation, attraction, and lust. Fisher describes them as potential romance junkies. It’s the first kind of love.

Serotonin-driven love, Fisher proposes, may be disposed to becoming attachment junkies. Serotonin as a neurochemical is most well-known through the class of anti-depressants called selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors. The short of this is that low levels of serotonin are connected with depression, and some love increases natural happiness – or at least protection from depression.

Testosterone-driven love are those prone to feeling as if they’ve accomplished something. It’s the kind of love where you guard your mate from being interested in others. Perhaps that’s why men (who have naturally higher testosterone) are two-to-three times more likely to commit suicide after being rejected. They’re also more prone to violence.

Oxytocin is known as the cuddle drug and drives people to want to be together and in physical touch with one another. This type of love is driven by physical closeness and touch.

Intimacy, Privacy, and Trust

Today, we desire greater intimacy in our relationships. We want to know more completely those whom we are committing ourselves to. Perhaps our changing expectations of intimacy are why we are considering ideas like people having Intimacy Anorexia. We expect greater degrees of intimacy – and not everyone has adapted to this greater need for and expectations of intimacy.

At the same time, we’re also fiercely protective of our privacy. We believe that we should be able to keep some things private – even from our committed spouse. We’ve grown up with private bedrooms and the expectation of privacy from even the rest of our family. In the 1940s it’s estimated that a home averaged about 1,000 square feet with only roughly half having indoor plumbing. The 2015 US Census places the average single-family home at 2,687 square feet. That’s with the trend in the number of people who are living in each home declining.

We talk to our neighbors less as Robert Putnam explains in Bowling Alone. No longer do we chit-chat with our neighbors coming home from work. We drive our cars into our enclosed garages and hit a button to close the garage door behind us before anyone can intrude upon our space.

In Alone Together, Sherry Turkle explains how we’re not as connected as we once were despite having faster, and richer communications options than have ever been present before. We feel hollow as we use these new technologies to try to form connections. We overexpose ourselves via social media and long for privacy from others.

As I explain in Trust=>Vulnerability=>Intimacy and Trust=>Vulnerability=>Intimacy, Revisited, intimacy comes from trust, which leads to safety, which leads to vulnerability. One of the great challenges of our modern world is the belief that even among married couples there should be privacy. I disagree. I see the need for privacy as the result of a lack of feeling of safety. In some way, we believe that our marriage partner will judge us, and we will be harmed.

I know too many married couples who aren’t willing to allow their partner to see them naked – or at least they avoid it. There are those who don’t know the lock code for their spouse’s phone. In some of these cases, it’s because they don’t want to feel judged for what is on it. If we long for intimacy, we cannot rely on privacy and secrets.

Broken Homes

At some level, all our families of origin are broken. Whether they were fraught with a denial of emotions, bouts of rage, alcoholism, prison sentences, or other factors, we’ve all received our training for how to do love and family in incomplete or dysfunctional ways. This is just a part of growing up.

One of the key challenges that is often overlooked is the degree of enmeshment or fusion between parents and their children. Some parents cannot separate their children’s successes and failures from their own. Some are trying to relive parts of their lives they feel they missed though their children – and it’s unhealthy.

It leads to a potential pattern where privacy may be necessary in a marriage relationship. In every relationship, there must be a you, a me, and an us. In healthy, committed relationships, the amount of you and me can be small but well protected by both parties. An unhealthy relationship – driven by challenges during our upbringing – may require a larger amount of you and me to ensure that they don’t disappear. In general, these should only be large in as much as they are necessary to protect each individual from disappearing all together.

If you’re looking to better understand relationships and love, a good place to start may be the Anatomy of Love.

Book Review-Bright-sided: How Positive Thinking Is Undermining America

One of the most frustrating and hurtful things that can tell someone who is suffering is that it’s their fault. Bad things happen to good people, and it has nothing to do with their faith, their character, or anything other than the randomness of life. Barbara Ehrenreich starts Bright-sided: How Positive Thinking Is Undermining America with her story about how people expected her to disconnect from reality for the service of just being happy.

Breast Cancer

Ehrenreich recounts her confrontation with a breast cancer diagnosis. She shares how her negative thoughts and comments weren’t accepted or appreciated by others. In complete denial of what we’ve learned from Kubler-Ross’s work in On Death and Dying, the expectation is that patients must jump to acceptance without flowing through the natural grieving process. (The Grief Recovery Handbook is another good book on how to support those experiencing loss and therefore grief.)

The truth revealed in Worm at the Core is that most of us aren’t comfortable with our mortality, and when others are negative about their diagnoses, which may include death, we’re reminded of our mortality – and we’ll do whatever we can to avoid the pain we experience as we consider it. (See also Change or Die for more.) People start to move away from those who are experiencing the natural cycle of loss, because they don’t want to get too wrapped up in it.

The great lie that is told to cancer patients is that their happiness is how they will survive. It comes from a logical fallacy. (Learn more in Mastering Logical Fallacies.) The fallacy is that your immune system will attack cancer if it were only functioning properly. This is fed by the true statement that your immune system is less effective in the presence of constant stress, as Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers explains. The leap is that our immune system would attack the cancer if it were only healthier. The problem is that our immune system doesn’t function this way. Our immune system is designed to attack things that are “not us,” but cancer appears to the immune system as “us,” and therefore it’s left alone. (I won’t go into the details of how this happens or what the variables are, but I encourage you to study the immune system if you disagree.)

The push towards positivity comes out of misguided belief but at least in some circumstances comes from a genuine concern for the other person. The problem is that, in the service of this ideal, they’re encouraging people to deny themselves and how they really feel, which we know creates other problems. (See How Emotions Are Made and Emotion and Adaptation for more.)

The one place here that I must take issue with Ehrenreich’s work is in the conclusion that the cancer death rates haven’t decreased from the 1930s to 2000. The problem with this statement is that it’s not true according to the Centers for Disease Control, which shows a death rate that’s dropped from over 30% to less than 20% since 1975. No argument that there is more to be done and we need to continue to work to eliminate this painful killer – however, statistically speaking, medical treatments have made an observable shift in the survival of patients.

Hope Is Not an Emotion

Ehrenreich further describes hope as an emotion and optimism as a cognitive stance. C.R. Snyder’s work The Psychology of Hope argues effectively against hope being emotion. Instead, hope is a cognitive process built on willpower (see Willpower and Grit for more) and waypower – or knowing how to move forward. Hope is, therefore, possible to be cultivated both through the careful cultivation of willpower and the discovery of paths that lead forward.

Optimism is, as she explains, a cognitive stance. It’s a way of viewing the world. It’s the proverbial glass half-full instead of glass half-empty. She says that “presumably” anyone can develop it through practice. The research says that people can develop healthier ways of managing self-talk. (See two different approaches to this topic in The Hidden Brain and Advice Not Given.) She complains that optimism may require deliberate self-deception and blocking out unpleasant possibilities.

It’s true that optimism does require deliberate self-deception. The problem is the implication that this is bad. The research says that the outcomes are better with optimism. Self-deception can be problematic (see Leadership and Self-Deception), but self-deception isn’t always bad. Self-deception can be useful when it leads us to more humility (see Humilitas) and greater compassion, including self-compassion. The other implication is that we don’t self-deceive otherwise. However, we know that we are always deceiving ourselves – the trick is to create consciousness of it and gain some degree of control. (See How We Know What Isn’t So for more.)

Finding Fault

Ehrenreich seeks to transfer responsibility from the individual to society. She, like Happier?, points to income inequality as being unfair, and therefore it’s not fair to hold people accountable for their happiness. As with many of her arguments, there is truth. Income (and opportunity) inequality isn’t fair. However, as discussed in Hurtful, Hurt, Hurting, it doesn’t matter who hurt you, you’re responsible for the healing. It doesn’t matter whether you’re to blame for the situation or it’s something that was externally generated, you’re responsible for the recovery.

When Ehrenreich cites initial research that couldn’t be replicated, I nod my head yes. I know that most published journal articles results can’t be replicated. (See The Heretic’s Guide to Management.) Whether it’s a missing component in conditions specified in the original article or a fluke, replication of findings is important and widely missing. However, Ehrenreich angrily laments about how support groups don’t seem to help. Having been in the position of facilitating some support groups, I can say that there are functional groups and dysfunctional groups, and it takes a keen eye to see what works and what doesn’t.

The National Speakers Association

Ehrenreich also rails against the National Speakers Association (NSA). I’ve previously recounted my experience with their national conference but never said directly that many of the people at the conference seemed to be wannabe speakers. Ehrenreich is more direct about that point. She also appropriately questions some of the speakers who are making it.

She explains the focus on positive messages, including some messages which aren’t founded on science (or reality). She specifically calls out the Heart Math Institute, which I address in my review of The HeartMath Solution. So, I can easily acknowledge the truth in the frustration with the focus on positivity. However, I’m reminded of a lesson I learned 30 years ago.

I was writing reviews. I’d get a piece of hardware, and I’d be expected to talk about how it would be helpful to readers of the magazine. The problem is that I couldn’t always do that. Sometimes, what I was sent was garbage in a pretty package, and I wanted to say that. My editor was a seasoned professional and explained that negative reviews weren’t useful to the readers, and therefore they didn’t get printed. I’m sure there was some degree of pressure for advertising revenue, but the point stuck with me. People want to know what works, so they can use it or replicate it. They don’t want to know 1,000 ways to not make a lightbulb – they care about the one way to do it. (See Find Your Courage for more on Edison.)

Quantum Physics

One of my favorite quotes about quantum physics is that “anyone who claims to understand quantum physics doesn’t.” Whether it’s the Heisenberg uncertainty principle or Schrödinger’s cat, the concepts are difficult for anyone to grasp. Ehrenreich appropriately challenges speakers who believe to have a master’s grasp on quantum mechanics and why these are a force for positive energy in the lives of their audience.

I interpreted this to justify magical thinking. It made me wonder how their childhood development might have been disrupted or interrupted. (See Erik Erikson’s Childhood and Society for the stages.) I know that we used magic and superstition to explain things that we couldn’t explain – and to supply the raw ingredients for unbridled hope. Ehrenreich appropriately pushes back.

The Religion of My Church

Similarly, she challenges evangelistic preachers who promise that God wants you to have everything you want if you only have sufficient faith – and, presumably, tithe appropriately. The problem with this is these preachers have presumably never really understood the Bible they’re claiming to quote. As I explain in my post Faith, Hope, and Love, faith is literally always a gift from God. It comes from prayer, which is exchanging worries for faith. I suppose that this would cause them to simply change their admonishment to claim that you’re not praying enough. (You’re called to pray unceasingly, which is a bit impractical with that whole problem of sleep.)

She cites the rise of megachurches and those churches that came from charismatic preachers who studied what people wanted in a church before starting their megachurches. The problem is that churches are – overall – struggling. Churchless, The Great Evangelical Recession, and Robert Putnam’s Bowling Alone contradict the view that overall church attendance is growing. Admittedly, it’s possible that it’s becoming more focused into megachurches, but her point seems to be that churches are now delivering positive messages so they’re not driving away parishioners.

Improving Our Situation Before Improving Our Circumstances

Near the end of the work, Ehrenreich asks the question, “How can we expect to improve our situation without addressing the actual circumstances we find ourselves in?” The answer is to change your view on the situation. Certainly, if you’re struggling to have enough food, simply being happy about it won’t solve your problem. However, believing that you have the capacity to change your situation today creates the opportunity that you’ll do it tomorrow.

It’s my experience that people must first change their perspective, their mindset (see Mindset), before they’ll be able to change their circumstances. They need to see things differently, so they see the problem in a way that makes their circumstances easier to deal with. We know that stress – which is entirely driven by our perceptions – reduces our creativity with solutions. (See Emotion and Adaptation and Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers for perceptions of stress. See Drive, Diffusion of Innovations, and Why We Do What We Do for the impact of stress on innovation.)

If you want to find a healthy relationship with positive thinking, perhaps you need to read Bright-sided so you’re not ambushed by positive thinking unrelated to reality like Ehrenreich was.

Book Review-Happier?: The History of a Cultural Movement That Aspired to Transform America

One of the things that I deeply respect is people who are willing to do the reading and research necessary to have a complete and balanced view of a topic. That’s what I found in Daniel Horowitz’ Happier?: The History of a Cultural Movement That Aspired to Transform America. It’s no secret that Horowitz isn’t impressed with the movement towards creating a happier America just from the title; however, if you’re trying to map how our focus on happiness evolved, he’s done a great job.

Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness

When the Declaration of Independence was drafted, the idea that people could aspire to happiness was a lofty idea. Most people lived lives that are more in line with the poem of Emma Lazarus’ “The New Colossus,” which is inscribed on a plaque in the pedestal of the Statue of Liberty. It describes “huddled masses yearning to breathe free.” It’s easy to grow up in America today and just expect that you should be happy. It’s too easy to believe that happiness is some inevitable birthright of those who have been born in America. However, it’s neither a birthright nor something that everyone believed was possible.

America is in an epidemic of depression. It is as large a health problem as any other. We continue to prescribe more and more antidepressants, yet we’re not stopping the tide of people struggling. (See Warning: Psychiatry Can Be Hazardous to Your Mental Health for more.) We firmly believe that one of the drivers of both burnout and depression is the gap between our expectations and our reality. If you expect that you should be happy in every moment, your life is bound to be disappointing. (See the resources on for more.)

Critical Thinking

The impetus for reading Happier? came from a note from Marty Seligman in the Friends of Positive Psychology list server. He was providing a draft response to a negative article that was published in The Chronicle of Higher Education and was asking for feedback. I read his response and the original article. The original article referred to Happier? and another book that is critical of positive psychology, Bright-sided. I wanted to see if I could trace the line between my experience with positive psychology through these resources to the scathing article that I saw.

Instead of being defensive of positive psychology, I was curious. How did we get to such a disconnect between what I knew were the possibilities of positive psychology and the grim specter that was painted by the article? It turns out that it was distortion like the kind that makes a massive shadow on a wall.

The Need to Accentuate the Positive

While helping to support a program that took people who were in some way broken by life and returned them to normal functioning, I encountered a frustrated, exhausted leader who longed to be able to help people thrive instead of just survive. He had spent his career picking up people who had hit rock bottom. He was grateful for the impact he was having in the lives of others but at the same time longed to make people more what they had the potential to be.

This is another rendition of the same siren song that called Martin Seligman, then President of the American Psychological Association (APA), to encourage professionals to make whole health a priority. Instead of just responding to illness, he wanted to follow the same pattern set by the World Health Organization (WHO) in 1946, when it called for physicians and other providers to consider the health of people as more than just the absence of illness, defect, or deficiency.

Positive is different kind of territory than negative. In mathematics, it’s flipping the sign. However, in life, it’s something totally different. Positive psychology helps people be healthier as defined by joy and enduring happiness in their lives instead of the absence of pain and hurting. It’s easy to agree that this is something that we should all be striving for.

Collectively and Individually

Happiness studies tended towards the broad categories of social happiness, and positive psychology was more focused on individuals. More specifically, the positive psychology studies focused on hedonistic (pleasure-seeking) happiness and happiness driven by meaning and purpose. However, the distinction between the two is sort of like looking at both sides of a coin. Societies are made up of people, so happier people make a happier society.

In happiness studies, there’s a focus on what are perceived as the evils of the 21st century. Things like income inequality and whether it’s increasing or decreasing became important as it related to happiness. (See Capital in the Twenty-First Century for more on income inequality.) The short version is that our perception of finances is based on our peers, and the data about the long-term impact of income inequality isn’t fixed, it keeps changing. If we feel like we’re doing well relative to our peers – particularly our neighbors – we’ll feel good.

The degree to which people are connected in committed relationships crosses over between happiness and positive psychology. Committed intimate relationships are positively correlated with happiness, and, of course, the better relationships that we have, the better societies we have.

Positive Psychology

In all transparency, I believe in the power of positive psychology, particularly in the tendency to reduce victimization. (See Hostage at the Table for more about victimization.) I’ve read and reviewed Positive Psychotherapy: Clinician Manual, The Hope Circuit, Flourish, Positivity, Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance, Flow, Finding Flow, and other books that would be defined by Horowitz as a part of the genre. I’ve even studied happiness directly by reading Stumbling on Happiness, The Happiness Hypothesis, Hardwiring Happiness, The Dalai Lama’s Big Book of Happiness, Happiness, and others.

While there are aspects of all of these that sometimes minimize the overall challenges with developing a positive mindset, the overall picture is a relatively complete one that drives the arc of humanity forward. (For understanding the impact of mindset, see Mindset. Brené Brown calls minimizing challenges “gold plating grit” in Rising Strong.)

Critics in Every Corner

In service of balance, Horowitz sometimes quotes extreme positions. For instance, he quoted a comment on Grit that said: “anyone who would tell a child that the only thing standing between him or her and world-class achievement is sufficient work ought to be jailed for child abuse.” The problem with this response is that it represents the kind of escalation that was addressed in The Coddling of the American Mind. Suddenly, the idea that you can take control of your circumstances and develop skills is wrong. The problem is that it’s not.

Anders Ericsson and Robert Pool’s book, Peak, reports on their study of top performers – and how they get there. It’s research that Malcolm Gladwell first spoke about in Outliers. If you’re willing to put in the work, there are very few things that are truly beyond what anyone – particularly a child –can accomplish. The challenge is that it’s rare that someone is willing to make the sacrifices that are necessary. (The Rise of Superman is a good survey of some of the amazing things that people can do because they worked at it.)

That being said, the equation for life isn’t defined solely by the characteristics of the person. Kurt Lewin described behavior of a function of both person and environment – the same could be said of the accomplishments of a person. Their accomplishment, in an area or more globally, is the relationship between the person and their environment – including circumstances and luck. This is at the heart of the challenge that Horowitz raises with the movement towards positive psychology. (Interestingly, Paul Ekman, whom Horwitz mentions in the evolution of positive psychology, acknowledges the role of luck in his career in his book, Nonverbal Messages.)

Foundations of Morality

Jonathan Haidt’s work isn’t limited to The Happiness Hypothesis or The Coddling of the American Mind. In his book The Righteous Mind, he explains his research and work on the foundations of morality. He explains that it’s not that others are immoral but rather that the weight they place on the various foundations of morality are different. Horowitz’ message is that positive psychology places too much focus on a person’s ability to overcome their circumstances. The claim is that income inequality is morally wrong and is an unfair burden placed on many people.

I agree. It’s unfair. I also agree it’s a burden. It’s not that I disagree, because I don’t. However, I believe there are other factors – factors that are often called “internal locus of control” – that are a compensating factor. Let me slow down and first say that society is a complex system and obeys the rules of an interrelated system. (See Thinking in Systems for the basics of systems.) The system itself may be sufficiently complicated, complex, or even perceptively chaotic that it’s impossible to predict the outcomes. (See Cynefin for more about these labels and the different strategies for dealing with ideas in these spaces.) However, there are some factors that we do know are powerful forces that can help to shape the systems – and therefore the societies that we live in.

Feelings of “internal locus of control” is a powerful factor that is cited in Smarter Faster Better and is woven through Edward Deci’s work Why We Do What We Do and therefore indirectly in Daniel Pink’s Drive. What Got You Here Won’t Get You There acknowledges that some degree of control that people believe in may be false. However, whether the control is real or imagined is largely immaterial. Rick Hanson explains that the impact of an internal locus of control leads people to be more Resilient.


I need to pause and talk about one of the risks that occurs on both sides of the issue that Horowitz is covering. There’s a potential that one will believe the answers that work for them are the answers for everyone. There’s the risk that an agenda will be pushed forward with the idea that people are too stupid to make their own best choices. and therefore we should structure society in a way that moves them in the right direction. Nudge calls this “choice architecture.” In The 4 Stages of Psychological Safety, Timothy Clark challenges this notion and wonders whether paternalism is good or bad. I conclude it’s both – and neither. Steven Reiss, who wrote Who Am I? and The Normal Personality, would call the idea that people believe their ideas are the right ideas for everyone “self hugging.”

On one side is the belief that we should address the structural issues to happiness, and on the other side is the idea that we should ignore the structural issues and just do what we can at an individual level. After all, the collective society is built on individuals. From my perspective, it’s not an “or” choice. It’s an “and” choice. We’ve got to learn how to be better at accepting other people regardless of what they believe. (See How to Be an Adult in Relationships for the importance of acceptance.) I believe that continued communication, conversation, and dialogue is necessary to move forward. (See Fault Lines for the importance of communication, and Dialogue for more on how to engage in productive dialogue.)

The Rise of Self-Esteem

Horowitz cites Robert Putnam’s book Bowling Alone as evidence that Americans have lost their connection to community and have become more focused on their own world. That’s certainly true. However, the more interesting question is what are the factors that are leading people to be more self-centered. In 1946, Dr. Benjamin Spock first published The Common Sense Book of Baby and Child Care. In Finding Flow, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi shared the regret that Dr. Spock had as he considered the outcomes of his advice. His encouragement towards unfettered individualists had led to a rise of children believing they needed to have self-esteem and that it was more important than character.

It’s not to say that people don’t need self-esteem – we all need some sense of ego. (See Change or Die for more.) However, we need to keep our self-esteem in check with our character, which many people believe has been on the decline for decades. In Leadership and Self-Deception, The Arbinger Institute walks through the challenges of self-esteem and its need to be fed in the absence of the character needed to stay out of dysfunctional states. (See Roy Baumeister’s work for more on the need for character – including Willpower.)

This Not That

At some level, Horowitz rediscovers the universal truths that we’ve learned over the past two centuries. We know that experiences and relationships are more important than stuff.

We need to seek satiation and help people accept what they have. The secret to happiness isn’t having what you want – it’s wanting what you have. (See The Paradox of Choice for more on satiation.)

We’ve learned that we need more generosity and less scarcity. (See Give and Take for generosity and Daring Greatly for limiting scarcity.)

Express gratitude – appreciate what you have – both to others and, if necessary, in the form of a written journal. (See How to Be an Adult in Relationships for appreciation and Flourish for generating gratitude.)

Participate in rituals to provide consistency and connection. (See Spiritual Evolution for a general appreciation for connection, The Relationship Cure for the personal power of rituals, and Stealing Fire for how rituals have been used to unite and motivate.)

Rejection of Negativity

Horowitz appropriately criticizes some of the vaulted leaders of happiness for their explicit rejection of sadness or negative news. Their solution was to eliminate the challenges and negatives, thereby biasing the overall mood in a positive direction. However, rejection of negativity at a personal level is destructive, as it leads to disassociating parts of the psyche. (See Emotion and Adaptation for more.) By and large, my experience has been that people who are focused on positive psychology and helping people be happier are more focused on encouraging responsibility for happiness, adjusting expectations, and developing skills. If people are recommending that one should not speak about their negative thoughts, they may do well to review the kinds of problems that it causes. (See Solve Employee Problems Before They Start and Dialogue.)

Hedonistic Treadmill

We live in a consumer economy, where marketers are focused on getting you to long for, want, and crave the next new thing. This has been the case for decades. Vance Packard’s book The Hidden Persuaders is a classic book about how marketers are trying to get you to buy their wares using the latest psychological research, a bag of tricks, and the desire to part you from your money. As a result, we’ve collectively climbed on the hedonistic. We seek pleasures every day to save us from the need to do the inner work it takes to develop our gratitude and our character.

We believe that we deserve to be happy, and we believe that if we just get the next new thing, we’ll be happy. If I just get that next raise, I’ll be happy. (See Thinking, Fast and Slow for this fallacy.) We think the next new phone or the new car or the new house will solve our problems. However, research consistently shows that we’re absolutely lousy at predicting what will – or will not – make us happy. We think that the new hobby will continue to help us find fulfillment. It may do that for a few weeks, but in the long term, it becomes the next set of equipment parked in our closet unused. It leaves us longing for a solution to the constant yearning in our souls for this elusive happiness that we believe we deserve.

The Happy Pill is Easy

Americans are a drugged society. We consume two-thirds of the supply of anti-depressants on the planet. As we became more affluent, we plunged deeper into despair against the invisible villain, depression. Acedia & Me makes it clear that some form of depression has been with us for centuries. However, now that we have selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs), we can – we believe – address depression. However, as Warning: Psychiatry Can Be Harmful to Your Mental Health explains, the effects aren’t persistent – and aren’t nearly as large as many would like to have you believe.

The problem is that people see their physician and expect that we’ll get something to make them better – even if the solution can’t be found in a pill. Prescribing a solution is easy for the provider and for the patient. No work involved. It’s the same reason why we’ve got antibiotic-resistant bacteria now. We’ve overprescribed antibiotics, and patients haven’t taken them as prescribed. But physicians feel the push to appear to be doing something. (See Better and Mistreated for more.)

Set to Happy

There’s agreement that there are three key factors to your happiness:

  • Genetics – Your genetics influence the degree to which you’ll be happy.
  • Environment / Circumstances – Your objective environment can increase or inhibit your happiness.
  • Perspective / Attitude – The way you perceive your situation can shape your happiness.

Horowitz basically argues that those who push happiness want to minimize the impact of genetics and environment and claim that people can be happy regardless of their genetics or circumstances. Here, he’s got a solid argument. People have pushed too far with their claims of the power of positive psychology; however, simultaneously, the argument overreaches.

There is substantial power in managing our perceptions. Two people can be in the same objective circumstances with one being quite happy and the other miserable. (See 12 Rules for Life and Loneliness for more.)

You’re Not Responsible for their Happiness

One of the loose ends to the conversation is whether you’re responsible for your own happiness or whether others are. If you accept responsibility for your own happiness, then others should, too. Problems arise when you are concerned about someone who is not able or willing to take responsibility for their own happiness.

Responsibility carries a weight. What if it’s more than the other person can bear? In our work on Extinguish Burnout, we’re quite clear that you don’t control others. (Also see Compelled to Control.) While we believe in personal accountability, we also recognize that you can’t be responsible for things that you cannot control. You can only be responsive to them.

Money Can Buy Happiness

The saying goes that money can’t buy happiness. I used to say, “but it will give you a hell of a deal on a long-term lease.” It’s funny, but it’s true. Having resources – including money – does make you happier. The Easterlin Paradox says that, at some point, money stops adding happiness, but there are many that refute that finding.

More than the individual level of money being a part of happiness, it’s big business. People have made fortunes on helping others find happiness – whether their customers were successful or not. We can’t forget about the fact that there’s a lot of money that hangs in the balance with positive psychology and happiness efforts.

Martin Seligman

Perhaps the most well-known leader for positive psychology – known as its father – is Martin Seligman. Marty, as he prefers to be called, continues to move the ideas of positive psychology and happiness in general through many projects and approaches, including his work at the University of Pennsylvania. However, Horowitz clearly has an issue with Seligman’s recognition. He points to works from which Marty derived his ideas and others who have made valuable – and less recognized – contributions.

Here, I’m not quite sure what the axe is that Horowitz wants to grind. My interactions and experience of Marty has always been positive, professional, and generous. The constant frustration with Marty’s prominence in the space is perhaps the biggest weakness of the book.

All that being said, I expect that you will find some useful pieces in the book. Maybe you can be Happier?