Relational Learning in a Volatile and Hyper-Fast World

It’s no small statement that the impact of globalization and technology on the way we work, learn and live is profound. The world we live in today is vastly different than the one to which we’ve been accustomed. However, most every generation in history has faced monumental upheaval. The world has been interconnected for as long as history can recount, the difference today, is the speed at which information flows and the overwhelming amount of information that is at our fingertips in a moment’s notice.

To use a military analogy, the world is volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous, but it’s also full of hope, promise and potential. And it’s through this lens that we need our leaders to operate. Globalization is a man-made construct, we control the inputs and although it doesn’t always feel like it, we also have control over the outputs. The challenge that lies ahead of us, is teaching leaders to understand and learn how to operate in this world in a way that offers hope, promise and compassion for those around us.

Our belief is that we need to slow down the ways in which we learn and create systems and processes that allow us the space to learn, to grow and to prepare us for working and living in a complex but beautiful world. We recognize the paradoxical nature of this request. And we hear the response all too often, “my people don’t have the time,” “I can’t be gone for that long,” etc. But the reality is, for most of us to truly be effective and to meet the challenges ahead of us, we need to better prepare ourselves mentally, spiritually and physically for what lies ahead.

The skills required to operate in our current environment; collaboration and communication, critical thinking and problem solving, innovation and imagination require us to fundamentally slow down our thinking in order to truly master any of these skills, yet we continue to fall into the trap outlined by Kahneman in Thinking, Fast and Slow:

“A puzzling limitation of our mind: our excessive confidence in what we believe we know, and our apparent inability to acknowledge the full extent of our ignorance and the uncertainty of the world we live in.” (Kahneman, Daniel. Thinking, Fast and Slow (pp. 13-14). Farrar, Straus and Giroux)

The world we live in today is uncertain, it’s hard for leaders to fully grasp the monumental nature of the challenges that lie ahead. But that shouldn’t prevent us as leaders to take a stand and learn how to navigate the world ahead of us.

We need leaders that understand complexity, adaptive systems and aren’t afraid to experiment and try new things. But most importantly, we need leaders to understand that the answer to our challenges is not an individualistic pursuit. We learn best alongside of others and through experience. It’s very tempting to jump head first into the challenges we face and fearlessly push through with sheer will and endurance. Yet, with constant change and turmoil, we can’t keep up and fatigue sets in.

We don’t have the capacity to go at this alone. We never have…throughout all of our history. Humans didn’t evolve because we were the most prolific hunters in the ecosystem, we thrived because as a tribe we were able to outlast the prey, we worked together to wear them down and we used ingenuity to survive even when the odds were stacked against us.
We’re social beings. We exist in a relational context. But in order to effectively be a part of the tribe, we need the to spend time with one another. We need to slow down and engage in the moment with those around us. We need to learn from one another, we need to grow with one another. In order to do that, we need time and space- two resources that feel really scarce at the moment. But we have the capacity to make that happen, because when we do it right, we actually learn to how to better handle all that this beautifully chaotic world throws at us.

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The Paradox of Power

By Eric Vandersluis

“Mastering others is strength; mastering yourself is true power.”  Lao Tzu

In today’s hyper-competitive world, power is multidimensional and complex; technology, speed and the accessibility of information have made it even more so. This diffusion of knowledge and information, constantly at our fingertips, has created a new paradigm for how to manage power in relation to ourselves, to others and across organizations. With information increasingly accessible to all, the traditional notions of hierarchical power are starting to erode. This fundamental shift has created the need for a more nuanced view of power and power dynamics in organizational settings.

The top-down model of leadership through heavy-handed authority is no longer sustainable. Autocratic leaders who lead through scare tactics do more damage to organizations than peers who embrace a new age of leadership. Short-term results may be there for these leaders briefly, but longer term fallout is there too and perilous to ignore:

  •  A poisoned organizational culture
  • High potential employees flee
  • Morale suffers
  • Unsustainable results

Unfortunately, in today’s world, business are still managed to the quarter and the Street looks for short term performance results with little regard for longer term implications of culture and engagement. This short-sighted and myopic view has real impact. Leaders that get immediate results are rewarded. How they go about getting results isn’t always considered, leaving many in power that still lead with an iron fist. In Lao Tsu’s words, they lead through strength, not through power.

The real challenge with this style of leadership, according to the Approach-Inhibition Theory of Power*, is that as we gain influence and power:

  • We lose the capacity to empathize with others
  • Our sensitivity to consequences and punishment decreases
  • We become less sensitive to the conditions and emotions of others
  • We talk/dominate conversation and meetings more
  • We experience an increase in positive emotions (they feel good about being in power)

All of which ultimately creates unhealthy relationships, an unhealthy culture and a power dynamic that has negative psychological impact on the entire organization.

If you think the psychological impact isn’t real, or doesn’t have a place in work, consider this….think about your worst boss ever. What comes to mind? How does it make you feel? Likely, not great. As a matter of fact, when we ask this question in our sessions. most of the responses are heated and emotionally charged. It doesn’t matter how long ago you experienced this leader, the emotions still feel raw and have a powerful impact on how you think and ultimately act in the moment. Imagine operating daily under a leader like this (trick statement- you just did), do you think you can really perform at your best? Be honest. If not, what did you leave on the table? Multiply that impact across your team and organization and think about the amount of lost effort and productivity.

Again, according to the Approach-Inhibition of Power, we know that individuals in lower power positions demonstrate:

  • Increased sensitivity to punishment and the consequences of their actions
  • Increased sensitivity to the emotions of others (emotions are contagious, so if they see their peer upset, it has a ripple effect on them)
  • Increased experiences of negative emotions
  • A proclivity to talk/contribute less

The question then becomes, how do we deal with power in today’s hyper-competitive and fast world where job responsibilities seem to grow exponentially? Leaders feel they don’t have the time to slow down, at least that’s the thought. But what if slowing down was the first step to mastering yourself, to learning the difference between strength and power and thereby becoming a  more resonant leader? We hear it all the time, ‘ain’t nobody got time for that.’ But the reality is, to become an effective, long-term leader today, you must. If you want to adapt to the new complexities we face today and be prepared for what lies ahead, you can’t ignore the fact that we need new ways to lead, and ultimately we need to forge a new understanding of power and its impact on those around us. To do this, first and foremost we MUST start with self. It’s through the process of building self-awareness that we can truly begin to recognize the impact and affect we have on others and in turn we can begin to better understand how we use power in support of ourselves and of others.


*Berdahl, J., & Anderson, C. (2002). The experience of power: Examining the effects of power on approach and inhibition tendencies. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 83(6), 1362-1377. Oveis, C., van derLowe, I., LuoKogan, A., Goetz, J., Dacher, K., & van Kleef, G. (2008). Power, distress, and compassion: Turning a blind eye to the suffering of others. Psychological Science, 19(12), 1315-1322. Keltner, D., Anderson , C., & Gruenfeld, D. (2003). Power, approach, and inhibition. Psychological Review, 110(2), 265-284.

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Being the Right Choice in Executive Coaching

A year ago, I found myself on a short list of coaches who had been invited to have a chemistry meeting with an executive (let’s call her “Jane”) who was particular about whom she would work with.  The company Jane worked for had started grooming several individuals for very senior leadership positions by hiring a well-known coach to work with these executives, who were on the fast track for senior leadership positions. They ran into problems when Jane who, after having two coaching sessions, decided she wanted to have a different coach. The company suggested 3 other coaches to choose from—and I was on the list.

I met with the Jane for a 1-hour coaching session to see if there was chemistry to build a productive relationship. At the end of our meeting, I asked her to let me know as soon as possible if she wanted to work with me. She replied right away that she did not need time to think about it. Jane wanted to work with me—if I thought that I could work with her.

I was a little surprised at such a quick decision. I knew she was “choosy,” and I did not think so highly of myself to simply assume she would naturally love to work with me. So out of curiosity I asked her how she made the decision so quickly. Jane said it was clear to her that I would not tell her what to do.

In a culture and society that rewards specialization, it can be easy to get stuck in a rut of becoming an expert in a specific type of verbal and nonverbal behavior. In coaching the expert approach can potentially lead to the client not being listened to, feeling that their issue of concern is being ignored by the coach and consequently experience no shift or change in the status quo or issue that prompted the coachee to seek coaching.  The expert focuses more on what they think the client needs to do to resolve the issue. Coaching is relational and as such it is time consuming and cannot be hurried. A tendency and temptation is for a coach who overuses their expertise to tell a client what they need to do in an attempt to get them to move faster in resolving their situation. Therefore, the coach can get into a loop of seeing the same pattern in issues so that for each client, the same things are paid attention to and responded to. But, this choice limits awareness of many other behaviors that also carry meaning and potentially rewarding avenues of exploration in the coaching engagement are left unattended. So, awareness of the choices that are made in “noticing behavior”—that is, the behavior of noticing, rather than the noticing of behavior—are essential competencies for a coach to develop.

We all like to have choices. The ability to choose is a key component of what we may call the human experience. When there is no choice, there is no autonomy, no empowerment. And when these things are lacking, people perceive there is a fundamental loss of quality of life. But engaging in conscious, reflective choice comes at a pretty hefty cognitive cost, and it is unreasonable to believe that absolute freedom of choice for every potential action within the universe of possibilities in our daily existence would result in anything but a crippling paralysis. This is one reason why we build organization—routines, rituals, hierarchies, and traditions—into our lives. We all need a break from choosing. Instead of dedicating precious energy to decision making, we can use that energy for enjoyment. Sometimes we don’t want to choose…and that, itself, is a choice.

Each choice is accompanied by a universe of extinguished possibilities—of choices not made. Choosing something is essentially rejecting something else, and for some this may be accompanied by regret for the road not traveled, while for others it may become a sort of freedom because it simplifies the world and gives a sense of direction and focus.

So what does all this have to do with coaching? In the story I told at the beginning of this article, the well-known coach had met with Jane for two sessions and had decided very quickly what he thought she required. Then he proceeded to tell her what she needed to do. As I worked with the client, I later learned that the coach I replaced had actually suggested—rather than told—her what to do. However, what she heard at the time was that she was being ‘told’ what to do. The well-known coach may have had the right intervention, but he definitely had the wrong timing—and timing can be everything. He had not yet established enough trust, as far as this client was concerned, in the two sessions for his client to agree to his direction. It can be tempting to jump into the work a coach thinks is important, but if an adequate amount of trust has not been established, the attempt is likely to fail.

After 4 or 5 sessions I suggested some homework for her to do, waited, and watched for her response. Jane smiled, and I asked her what her smile was about. She said the other coach had suggested a similar homework, but she noticed that she felt more willing to cooperate with me than she was with him. She said she did not know him so how could he tell her what to do? She happily went on to do the homework I had given her and we discussed her experience of doing the work and what she learned from it.

A fundamental ethic of professional coaching is that the client chooses the focus of the work and the conversations that will take place. It is such an important ethic that it is part of the International Coach Federation’s definition of coaching.  This choice is made both verbally and nonverbally by a client, while the coach must be able to maintain flexibility to respond to client choices, to make observations and to offer insights and feedback. To engage with the client is to be “present and flexible during the coaching process, dancing in the moment.” The client may set the course, but the coach has equally important choices to make with regard to what to observe and what to share. When the flow is right between client and coach, the coach speaks and acts with a free and elegant savoir faire, being in the moment and fully present.

So what does the coach choose to focus on and give meaning to? This is not an easy or straightforward question to answer. What can be said is that it benefits the coach greatly to cultivate a healthy openness to experience. It also helps to realize that everything a client says and does—as well as does not say or not do—is rife with meaning as long as the coach has the awareness and ability to support the client to unlock that meaning, drawing on breadth of experience and engaging in conscious and mindful empathy and compassion.

The 20th century existentialist philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre believed that people were absolutely free, and because we are free, we are responsible for all our actions—all our choices. Freedom, in Sartre’s view, meant that each of us chooses the entire world within which we live, and that all we become and do stems from the choices we make. Sometimes we can benefit from guidance in making those critical choices—but they are still our choices. That is where coaching can help in making informed choices following an extensive, and deeper exploration of what is relevant and what is possible within the context of what is important to the client.

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You and Your Doctor Part 2: Solutions

By Mohan Peter

Mohan Peter MD is the Principal at SMS Leadership Coaching specializing in physician coaching and leadership development. He obtained his International Coach Federation Certificate (ICF) from Georgetown University in Washington, D.C. He is an Executive Partner and Leadership Coach at the Mason Business School at the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg, VA. Dr. Peter trained and worked as a cardiac surgeon in United States and abroad including the Cleveland Clinic in Cleveland, OH, the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, MN and Dartmouth Medical School in Hanover, NH. Email:

If you talk with most health care providers today, the ACA (Affordable Care Act) is the all-consuming event in their lives. As we mentioned, this act affects almost everything in the health care arena and we can look at this at the Institutional level, affecting the health care business and at the Individual physician level.

Two eminent physician leaders in the country have chimed in as to how they see this playing out in the years ahead. Writing on LinkedIn, Dr. Toby Cosgrove, CEO of the Cleveland Clinic, and a former colleague, sees the future as follows: He sees a country in which, over the coming years, approximately thirty million people who are currently uninsured, will join the ranks of the insured and increase the demands on physicians and health care facilities to provide added services. At the same time, he anticipates diminishing physician reimbursement per patient as part of ACA. Simultaneously hospitals will not be reimbursed for preventable readmissions thereby putting additional strain on the system. Cosgrove sees hospital systems employing physicians as salaried employees with NO added incentive to physician reimbursement with regard to increased volume of procedures or for ordering increased number of lab tests to help control costs. He sees hospital consolidation as a means for efficiency in implementing electronic medical records, technology and super computers as part of the system.

Cosgrove has walked the walk even as he talks the talk. Under his leadership, the Cleveland Clinic System has evolved into a world class health care center and his views deserve careful consideration.

Dr. Eric Topol has also written extensively about the future of health care. In his book, “The Creative Destruction of Medicine” he sees the future somewhat differently. From his point of view, the future of medicine will be impacted primarily by technology. He sees algorithms replacing some of the work done by doctors today. He cites the example of EyeNETRA in which one’s refraction can be tested over the smart phone with an app that is down loaded and the cost of the whole process just a couple of dollars and a few minutes. Emailing the refraction to the optician can procure the requisite eye glasses, saving time and money. Similarly, smart phone pictures of skin lesions can help dermatologists to identify the lesion without an office visit. There currently are available subcutaneous implantable needle devices that can provide continuous reading of blood sugar, for diabetic patients over a smart phone app on real time basis just as there are similar devices that can provide the readings necessary to control blood thinners.  He sees all these technologies freeing up physicians from having to spend time on these “routine” calls from patients and be able to focus and spend time with patients on more meaningful visits.

Another area that Topol sees change occurring is in the area of individualized medicine, which is quite different from the social medicine that we practice today. With expanding knowledge and understanding of genetics, we are entering an era of individualizing medical treatments, so that they are most efficacious for the given individual. Many of the chemotherapeutic agents and antibiotics are beneficial to only select subsets and identifying those through genetic technology helps to individualize the administration of the drugs to those that benefit most from it. Some of this, and other decision-making can be done by super computers, probably just as or more efficiently than physicians. These machines can handle some of the processing that is done by physicians today. I mean, just look at IBM’s Watson for an example of what can be done!

All these lead Topol to think that a physician shortage is not a given – but moreover, the role of physicians may change from its current form to that of “humanistic compassion” and “communicative judgment”.

Predicting the future is fraught with danger, but I believe that the role of doctors in delivering health care is bound for change. At the individual physician level, some of the potential changes are outlined below.

Doctors now assume the responsibility for making the diagnosis and treating their patients.  When you think about it, this is an awesome burden—to be responsible for another human being. Multiply that by the number of patients that an individual physician cares for, and it is no wonder that they tend to develop sagging shoulders and drooping eyelids.  How can we change this?

What happens if some of these responsibilities are shared?

Many health care institutions are now developing the concept of shared caring, or teams. This helps to share responsibility and the interaction among health care professionals helps to create new ideas. The secret to success in these groups may very well be in the group assigning responsibility to individuals best suited to carry them out. A nurse practitioner, a pharmacist or a fellow physician can all share responsibility in the area where they are most competent. Thus, a pharmacist becomes a valuable resource for the team in finding the best suitable drug for the given patient and situation. This frees up the physician from addressing the issue him or herself, and the shared knowledge provides him or her with the best information, resulting in the patient receiving the best possible care.

Being at the top is lonely. By tradition, if nothing else, physicians have chosen or placed at the top of the health care provider pyramid. Sadly, at this level free and frank exchange of ideas and thoughts occur much too infrequently. True, physicians do call on colleagues for consultation, but this is mostly for expertise in areas such as cardiology, rheumatology, etc. Consultations with colleagues in the same field are, surprisingly, minimal. Very often “my patient” is my patient is the prevailing mode in care giving. Facilitating this free exchange of ideas between physicians in the same specialty is often stymied by pride, ignorance and cultural norms. Behavioral change in this existing culture is an area where change can be most effective in creating a partnership atmosphere for patient care.

Almost from the very beginning of their schooling, physicians are trained to be mistake free, because their mistakes can kill or maim. Such a culture results in the physicians over a period of time developing a defensive attitude against committing mistakes and in many cases refusing to own up to them when they do occur. And the overhanging threat of litigation only compounds this problem.  Changing practice in this regard can be beneficial both for the physicians and those they treat. Acknowledging and accepting mistakes helps minimize their occurrence in future.

What to do?

A recent Medscape Survey linked physician burnout to several factors and suggests some of the following as possible changes that would be helpful.

First, find time for yourself. This has to be a priority to be able to rejuvenate and re-energize oneself. Without that a general malaise sets in and life becomes a drag.  Adjusting your mind set to control feelings and thoughts can have powerful beneficial effect over the lives of individuals. Finding time to engage in activities other than those related to work is important for growth and even effective functioning. And as other demands occur such as parenting or caring for elderly parents, you cannot give the same undivided attention to medicine you did as a young physician. Accepting and acting on this reality is difficult for most physicians.

Most professionals realize, and accept, the need for coaches to enhance themselves. Executives, athletes, and performers all employ coaches to improve their craft. Medicine as a profession is lagging behind in this area. It may be partly because of a culture that is not used to asking for help and doing so is almost admitting loss of control. William Osler, father of medicine, lauded the value of detachment for physicians. He found this quality useful for physicians to get not too attached to the problems of the patients, so that it helps them maintain sufficient detachment for sound judgment. But as we see, the role of the physician is changing and it is moving away from just problem solving to being a partner with your patient in creating an environment where the two together create growth and wellbeing.   In other words, Emotional Intelligence becomes a significant part in the physician-patient relationship. For many doctors this is a paradigm shift. Learning to master these skills may very well determine the success or struggle within the profession. Reinventing modern physician to address the changing needs of today’s patient may very well be the most significant  thing happening in medicine today.

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YOU & YOUR DOCTOR: Looking at the visit from both sides of the story

Screen Shot 2013-08-13 at 11.20.28 AM
Mohan Peter MD is the Principal at SMS Leadership Coaching specializing in physician coaching and leadership development. He obtained his International Coach Federation Certificate (ICF) from Georgetown University in Washington, D.C. He is an Executive Partner and Leadership Coach at the Mason Business School at the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg, VA. Dr. Peter trained and worked as a cardiac surgeon in United States and abroad including the Cleveland Clinic in Cleveland, OH, the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, MN and Dartmouth Medical School in Hanover, NH. Email:



Recently, a friend of mine described the experience she had going to an appointment with her family physician. When she entered the office, the receptionist asked her to give name, address, and other personal information out loud, and in a waiting room full of patients. My friend requested to write down the information on a piece of paper and hand it to the receptionist–a request which was denied. Needless to say, this was not a great start to a visit that took another forty five minutes before she was finally in the presence of the doctor.

Screen Shot 2013-08-13 at 11.43.42 AMThe doctor was kind and gentle. However, by her 3 PM appointment, he was already visibly tired,  with sagging shoulders and frequent sighs. The doctor explained that he had just come from making rounds as a hospitalist to supplement his income. He was running late and still had a room full of patients who needed to be seen before the day’s work was complete. My friend felt sorry for the physician and decided not to dwell on the issue that had brought her to the doctor, but instead helped him finish the visit as expeditiously as possible.

While my friend’s story is not necessarily a regular happening, it is not all that rare. After hearing her story, I sought out the opinions of more friends to find out what they expected/wanted when they went to see a doctor. Then I asked about how their experiences compared with the ideal.  Below is what they had to say.

As our country begins to implement the Affordable Care Act (ACA), American medicine is under scrutiny:  health care providers are under increasing pressure to provide increased access to quality health care at an affordable price.  Though the ACA has spurred much discussion about the effect it will have on almost every aspect of health care in the nation, there’s something else that will have an even larger impact on health care in the coming years.  The biggest impact on health care in the coming decades will be from technology – it will change the way we understand and treat diseases and provide preventive care. But more about that later, for now, back to my friend:

Patients want to be seen by their health care provider in a clean and comfortable facility operated by kind and considerate professional staff.  As is true of almost any business, the front office staff is the face of the organization. This includes interactions both over the telephone and in person. Many people are nervous or anxious when going to see a doctor, and a soothing and comforting presence in the person of the receptionist or nurse is a welcome beginning to the meeting with the doctor. According to my friends, in many physician offices these expectations are rarely met.

Patients want their physician to be on time and prepared for the appointment.  While unavoidable in some instances, waiting times over fifteen minutes are not well tolerated by patients of today.  Physicians are notorious for being late and unprepared for appointments. Once with the physician, patients expect to be in the presence of a professional who is well informed. This means many things, but at the most basic level, the physician should have spent sufficient time going through the information already available in that mass of medical history paperwork the patients have to fill out in the waiting room, as well as from previous visits, lab reports, and records sent over from other physicians the patient has seen. When the doctor arrives late and unprepared, it creates the impression that the doctor really does not want to spend any effort to get to know the patient well or is not interested in that patient’s wellbeing. Either way, it is not a confidence builder for the patient.

Patients expect their physicians to show genuine interest in them as individuals.  Lack of eye contact and focus are a definite negative in this context. In addition, being a poor listener or being dismissive of the patient’s complaints can easily affect the patient-doctor relationship in a negative way.

And how should patients leave the visit?  They would like to leave their doctor fully informed about the findings by the physician and instructed about the next steps that need to be taken.

Very often patients do not understand what is expected of them at the end of the visit, and as a result, do not follow the instructions. Patients find the use of technical terms and hurried explanations as impediments to understanding about the condition that led them to see the doctor and what they need to do to improve their health.  This results in less than ideal outcomes for all concerned.

Now let us see what the physician sees and experiences…Screen Shot 2013-08-13 at 11.47.00 AM

The large majority of physicians that I have interacted with chose medicine as a career with the intent of doing good work and helping others. The idealism and enthusiasm—and in some cases even a touch of naiveté—that go into choosing medicine as a career is difficult to sustain over a period of time. The middle-aged figure in white coat that you see is often only a shell of the bright, enthusiastic person who entered the profession for all the right reasons.

So what happened?

Doctors are squeezed from many sides today and are burning out. Here are a few reasons why:

1. According to the American Medical Association (AMA), more than half the physicians practicing today are employed by health care entities. Quickly disappearing are the days when doctors ran their own practices. This loss of autonomy has resulted in what we call “employed physicians,” who have four major complaints :

  • Employed physicians often lack decision making control about staff and personnel they work with. This can have a significant impact on the efficiency of the practice and the smooth flow of patients and patient satisfaction.
  • Employed physicians feel they are being bossed around by “less educated” people who are in charge of running the business. Very often physicians end up reporting to individuals whom they consider to be less qualified (because of their lack of medical knowledge) than they are.
  • Employed physicians often have little control over billing and coding. Physicians are used to having the ability to waive charges or pick out the codes that they deem most appropriate for the given procedure.
  • Many employed physicians resent being forced to use new, system wide technology. Technology decisions may make perfect sense for the controlling business entity, but they can become frustrations for the physicians.

2. Doctors are constantly stressed out.

The stresses of the profession start with the responsibility of being the guardian of the health of his/her patients. Add to this the stress and strain of dealing with the rapid changes that deeply impact almost every aspect of the profession. These constant stresses affect most physicians and can ultimately reshape personality. By some estimates more than half of the physicians in the prime of their careers are burnt out or are heading in that direction. Typically such issues go unacknowledged and unaddressed.

3. Doctors are often unfairly perceived in modern society as rich, entitled, and overcharging.

That health insurance reimbursements for physician services are being reduced is an uncomfortable reality. Most physicians start their careers with a hefty student loan—often in the hundreds of thousands of dollars. By the time this debt is paid off and the physician is in the prime of his/her career, along comes the ACA and other changes that affect the capacity to generate the anticipated income. Financial matters only compound the problems addressed earlier.

Doctors take pride in their profession and find reward in the health and satisfaction of their patients. However, with an ever increasing patient load resulting in less time with individual patients, that satisfaction  becomes more difficult to achieve. Add in an adversarial legal system that makes every patient a potential lawsuit…well, you can see where this is going.

So, is the system doomed to fail? Or, is there hope for change and improvement?

In blow #2 of this series, I will talk more on that and on how to improve the quality of the health care profession.  Stay tuned!

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Emotional Empathy and Cognitive Empathy

Chris Allen Thomas

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Empathy is the ability of people to recognize and respond to the emotions of others. It’s the foundation of both sympathy and compassion. Withoutempathy, sympathy and compassion are more likely to be inaccurate and may lead to increased friction and resentment. This is because the individuals who are the targets of sympathy or compassion have heightened sensitivity to actions that are not based on empathetic understanding. They may feel that actions such as an act of charity or a compassionate word are degrading forms of pity if they are not based on an attempt at understanding the recipient’s reality. Compassion—real compassion—is empathy put into action.[1]


Screen Shot 2013-07-15 at 2.16.04 PMIn leadership literature, empathy is an ability to recognize a broad spectrum of emotional signals, allowing leaders to feel the unspoken emotions of other individuals or groups. For this reason, empathic leaders are capable of working with individuals from diverse personal and cultural backgrounds.[2]

Empathy provides a foundation for guiding our behaviors toward others. There are two distinct kinds of empathy in the human experience: emotional empathy and cognitive empathy:[3]

  • Emotional empathy, also called affective empathy or primitive empathy, is the subjective state resulting from emotional contagion. It is our automatic drive to respond appropriately to another’s emotions. This kind of empathy happens automatically, and often unconsciously. It has also been referred to as the vicarious sharing of emotions.
  • Cognitive empathy is the largely conscious drive to recognize accurately and understand another’s emotional state. Sometimes we call this kind of empathy “perspective taking.”

Some researchers have rejected emotional and cognitive empathy as distinctly separate forms of empathy, arguing instead that “true empathy” integrates both.[4] However, recent research into empathy has found that the human brain responds differently when either cognitive or emotional empathy is activated.[5] In emotional empathy, the thalamus and the limbic areas, involved in the processing of emotions, are aroused, as well as the mirror neuron system. Other areas of arousal are cortical areas, involved in face and body perception, and the premotor cortex, which links to the spinal cord and is believed to be involved in the direct control of physical behavior and is one part of the mirror neuron system.[6] Emotional empathy increases brain activity in the same areas cognitive empathy does.[7] But, cognitive empathy activates areas in the prefrontal cortex involved in language and processing of semantic content—or meaning more strongly than emotional empathy does.[8] Finally, cognitive empathy is a more conscious, deliberate, and abstract process involving higher levels of abstraction, but is no less important.

When we look at emotional and cognitive empathy through the lens of emotional and social intelligence competencies, we see that developing cognitive empathy skills is linked to self- and social awareness, while developing self-management and relationship management competencies is linked to emotional empathy. This is particularly true with regard to negative emotions.

Cognitive empathy is deliberate, a skill that everyone at work can learn and needs to use.  Emotional empathy is automatic; it happens to us, rather than us doing it. But, we can be deliberate in this process too, simply by attending to ourselves (self-awareness) and managing our emotional responses to people and situations (self-management). Among medical doctors, this skill is referred to as “bedside manner,” and it is something that can be learned and applied in order to bring emotional empathy under conscious control. These skills are more than worth learning as we all need cognitive and emotional empathy in sufficient measures to contribute to society and organizations.


Developing one’s emotional intelligence is not simply about being able to understand and relate to emotions. Developing emotional intelligence means learning the skills to become more aware of and capable of controlling your response to your own and to others’ emotions. It is also about being better able to manage relationships through awareness and control of emotions. In other words, it is about bringing emotional and cognitive empathy into balance. These two types of empathy are powerful when they are balanced in the individual, and even more powerful when balanced in an organization. This is because an organization at bottom is a network of individuals engaging in relationships.


There are many exercises and activities that can help us with perspective taking and cognitive empathy. For example, role-play games, in which one takes on the persona of another, is a great way to practice empathy. There are many variations of this exercise, including the reverse role play so common in relationship therapy.

No group is required to practice role playing.  Some people act out different roles in their heads, while others may choose to write from the perspective of another. Journalists—ideally—practice perspective taking to improve critical interviewing skills and unbiased news reporting. Chess players are role playing when they play against themselves. And as any chess player can tell you, it takes a lot of practice to play honestly against yourself.

Controlling emotional empathy is a key skill in decision making. Since healthy human beings are hard wired to feel emotional empathy, the ability to control it is often limited. Not being able to control the intensity and impact that others’ feelings have upon us can handicap decision making at critical times. If a decision does not have to be made immediately, it is important to use time wisely to reflect on it. Holding off on a decision is a sign of strength, not weakness—particularly when emotions are involved. Institutionalizing information-gathering heuristics is a good way of ensuring that decisions are made in a timely fashion—neither too quickly nor too slowly. Sometimes decisions do have to be made suddenly, without the luxury of information gathering and reflection. We want to be our best selves when those times come. In the end, more people will benefit—and benefit more greatly—from a timely decision.

It is also common in organizational life that we can suffer from a lack of sufficient emotional empathy. Assuming health, a principal cause of this can be attributed to stress. We are least likely to empathize with others when we feel under attack. To make matters worse, fight-or-flight emotions are themselves highly contagious. Mindfulness-based stress reduction can be extremely beneficial to bringing emotional empathy back to proper levels—and bring you back to being your best.


If you would like to learn more about Emotional Intelligence, please join us September 30, 2013 for a 1-day workshop.  For more information on this course and others, contact: or (267) 620-9999

[1] Boyatzis, Richard, and Annie McKee. Resonant Leadership: Renewing Yourself and Connecting with Others through Mindfulness, Hope and Compassion. Harvard University Press, 2005.

[2] Goleman, Daniel, Richard E. Boyatzis, and Annie McKee. Primal Leadership: Realizing the Power of Emotional Intelligence.  Boston, Mass.: Harvard Business School Press, 2002.

[3] Rogers, Kimberley, Isabel Dziobek, Jason Hassenstab, Oliver T. Wolf, and Antonio Convit. “Who cares? Revisiting empathy in Asperger syndrome.” Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders 37, no. 4 (2007): 709-715.

[4] Staub, E. “Commentary on Part 1.” In Empathy and Its Development, edited by N. Eisenberg and J. Strayer. 103-15. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987.

[5] Nummenmaa, Lauri, Jussi Hirvonen, Riitta Parkkola, and Jari K. Hietanen. “Is Emotional Contagion Special? An Fmri Study on Neural Systems for Affective and Cognitive Empathy.” NeuroImage 43, no. 3 (2008): 571-80.

[6] Graziano, Michael SA, and Tyson N. Aflalo. “Mapping behavioral repertoire onto the cortex.” Neuron 56, no. 2 (2007): 239-251.

[7] Gallagher, Helen L., and Christopher D. Frith. “Functional imaging of ‘theory of mind’.” Trends in cognitive sciences 7, no. 2 (2003): 77-83; Nummenmaa, Lauri, Jussi Hirvonen, Riitta Parkkola, and Jari K. Hietanen. “Is Emotional Contagion Special? An Fmri Study on Neural Systems for Affective and Cognitive Empathy.” NeuroImage 43, no. 3 (2008): 571-80.

[8] Nummenmaa, Lauri, Jussi Hirvonen, Riitta Parkkola, and Jari K. Hietanen. “Is Emotional Contagion Special? An Fmri Study on Neural Systems for Affective and Cognitive Empathy.” NeuroImage 43, no. 3 (2008): 571-80; Benelli, Enrico, Erhard Mergenthaler, Steffen Walter, Irene Messina, Marco Sambin, Anna Buchheim, Eun J. Sim, and Roberto Viviani. “Emotional and cognitive processing of narratives and individual appraisal styles: recruitment of cognitive control networks vs. modulation of deactivations.” Frontiers in Human Neuroscience 6 (2012).


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Resonant Leadership for Results

By Annie McKee & Abhijit Bhaduri

Published in NHRD Network Journal April 2013 Volume 6 Issue 2

Soft skills are the differentiator.” This simple yet powerful mantra is what drives learning and leadership development at top companies like Wipro, one of India’s most successful businesses. What are soft skills and why are they so important? The term “soft skills” is a holdover from the Tayloristic approach to management that has permeated organizations for close to one hundred years. In this model, only technical, easily measurable skills and IQ are valued (e.g. How much coal a man can lift on a well- designed shovel, or intellect, as measured by things like grades in school). And, while technical skills and intellect are important, the research is conclusive: emotional intelligence competencies such as self-awareness, self-management, social awareness and relationship management are at the heart of leadership effectiveness— and business success.

In recent years we have learned from neuroscientists that emotions impact our capacity for creativity, adaptability, and quick decision making. How we feel is linked to what—and how well—we think, as well as to our actions. It is EI, not IQ, that differentiates great leaders from their average, run-of-the-mill colleagues.

And EI goes beyond individual effectiveness. Emotionally intelligent leaders create resonance—a powerful, positive emotional reality in teams and organizations that is marked by hope, enthusiasm and the collective will to win. A resonant climate makes people feel good: committed, willing to work hard, and passionate about results. In the end, there is nothing “soft” about skills that enable us to understand, motivate, and inspire people. This is why wise business leaders, Chief Learning Officers, human resource professionals and learning leaders help their people to focus deliberately and unabashedly on developing EI.

But can people learn to lead with emotional intelligence? The answer is a resounding “Yes!” Despite the fact that folklore would have us believe that leaders are born, not made, it is in fact possible to develop EI. It’s not necessarily easy, however, and most conventional learning and performance management programs do not help people to develop these competencies. There are many reasons for this, including the following:

Many leadership development programs simply don’t focus on the right skills. There has been a proliferation of organizational competency models over the past two decades. The so- called “competencies” in many models are often an amalgamation of skills, values and vague language around organizational objectives and/or trendy jargon. When, as is often the case, these complex models are used as the basis for training, people leave programs confused and unable to translate the learning experience into changes in behavior. In addition, many of these models do not include the very competencies that really do make a difference—notably those linked to promotions, developing as our boss thinks we should and the like. It is also true that many achievements-oriented people want to advance their careers and will work hard to do so. However we have found that getting the next job or pleasing the boss are, for most people, not powerful motivators over time.

Learning methodologies (whether online, face to face, or blended) are often archaic. We’ve known for decades that adults learn best when the learning experiences include theory and models, reflection, dialogue, experimentation and application. This means that the learning experiences have to be just that—experiences. Far too many leadership development program designers force people to sit in chairs listening to lectures and/or watching endless PowerPoint presentations. The outcome: Billions wasted on leadership development programs that don’t foster learning for individuals or their companies.

So, how do we solve these problems? How do we provide meaningful learning experiences that result in real change for people and organizations? How can we help people to develop the competencies that matter—like emotional intelligence?

In this article, we have teamed up to share a summary of Resonant Leadership for Results, a learning program used to develop EI and achieve organizational objectives in stellar companies and institutions such as an international bank, a well-known government, pharmaceutical companies and many more. This program was developed by Annie McKee and her team at the Teleos Leadership Institute and has been conducted all over the world with thousands of people. Resonant


Leadership for Results has touched people from South Africa to Italy, Cambodia to the United States and many countries in between. In fact, key aspects of the program were developed as part of a complex project in India with a large fast moving consumer goods company. Some key outcomes of the program: 1) people developed EI, as measured by pre-and post-tests; 2) organizations improved on key performance outcomes such as top-line revenue, customer service and employee engagement; and 3) communities have more successfully tackled extremely difficult social issues such as HIV and AIDS.

Resonant Leadership for Results and the innovative programs at Wipro make a difference. Why? Because they focus on the right things (EI and resonant leadership), in the right ways (learning designs that tap into people’s desire to grow and change). As you read, consider your own personal journey to better leadership as well as the successor opportunities for change—in the learning programs provided by your organization.

Resonant Leadership for Results

Resonant Leadership for Results enables people to develop their emotional intelligence competencies, create resonance in teams and organizations, and build a compassionate, results-oriented culture. It is designed in such a way that it can be conducted in as little as three days, or for as long as three weeks, over one year. For the purposes of this article, we will review the three-day program, as it is most appropriate for middle managers in busy organizations.

Day one–Discovering my motivation to Learn: Adults learn best when they are fully engaged and committed to personal and professional development.

Said another way, we cannot force our employees to learn–especially when that learning involves complex competencies like emotional self-awareness, self- management, empathy and organizational awareness. We put this maxim front and center on day one of Resonant Leadership for Results. We start with somewhat typical activities and move toward deeper reflection and dialogues as the day moves on. For example, facilitators engage participants in kick-off exercises that help them to see their strengths as leaders. One such exercise, called “Me at My Best”1 calls on people to tell a story about a time when they were truly successful as a leader (at work or in personal life). When these stories are “analyzed” in small groups, it becomes completely obvious that emotional intelligence competencies, such as those in Figure 1, are essential for great leadership. This, then, is how the business case is made for developing soft skills–part one of motivating people to learn.

We have found, however, that a business reason to engage in the hard work of learning EI is never enough. If you doubt this, quickly list twenty eight things you would like to do or experience before you die–and then count how many of these are directly related to your current job! So, with this in mind, the rest of Day One of the program is dedicated to engaging people’s hearts–helping them to get clear about values, personal and professional history and where they want to go in life and at work. Facilitators adeptly guide the group in a series of activities that help them to explore themselves and get comfortable talking with other people about what is most important to them in life. Slowly, people build a picture of an “Ideal Self”– who I am when at my best, the values I will take forward in my life, and the kind of leader I want to be. The theory behind this



approach–called Intentional Change–has been developed by our colleague Richard Boyatzis. It’s been used as the basis for dozens of development programs, helping tens of thousands of people to learn, grow and change.

Day Two—Understanding myself as A Leader: By the end of the first day of the program, people have built surprisingly strong and trusting relationships. Once this environment is set, people feel safe and can begin to look at the “Real Self”: who I am as a leader and a person now. It’s not always easy to look at oneself honestly. For this reason, we help people to see that there are often factors in the environment that interfere with their personal effectiveness. Sometimes, these outside forces seem to be beyond people’s control but in fact are within their power to change.

For example, organizations can be intense and sometimes brutal places. As smart, adaptable human beings, we often learn how to deal with things like power, politics and dysfunctional leadership practices by behaving in ways that make us less than proud. To help people explore these kinds of “hot” topic, we create activities and simulations that unleash real behavior and reactions to scenarios. People can then see themselves in action, and they also see what drives them to behave as they do. Debriefs of activities and simulations tend to be intense and personal. Conversations further learning about how each individual deals with hot topics like power (his or her own and others’), bad bosses, ambition, competition, success and failure. As people become aware of these dynamics, they are in a better place to make good choices about their own behavior.


Day Two, then, is highly customized to the nature of the external forces that interfere with good leadership and the creation of a resonant environment. The activities help people to understand who they are now and how they can impact their environments so that there is a better chance they can live their values and become better leaders.

Day Three–Creating Bold Learning Goals:

The last day of the three-day Resonant Leadership for Results program helps people to identify EI competency gaps– who I am now vs. who I want to be in the future–and then plan to change. The key to success of this set of activities is somewhat counter-intuitive: to develop most competencies, you can’t start with the competency itself. It is far more useful, and successful in the long term, to identify how you want to use a competency, and build a bold learning goal around this outcome. For example, one manager we know was having difficulty with peers and direct reports. He’d been told numerous times that he needed to be more empathic. He tried to learn to listen better, to be more understanding, etc., but nothing was working. It wasn’t until he set a more comprehensive learning goal that he began to truly change. His goal, interestingly enough, touched on both personal and professional life: “I want to be a more understanding father and manager”. Clearly, empathy was one competency he would need to focus on, as well as a few others such as self-awareness and emotional self-management.

Day Three of the Resonant Leadership for Results program is also focused on ensuring that people will accomplish their goals. This means looking at obstacles. For example, it is often the case that an organization’s culture drives the wrong behaviours. Many managers and leaders can see

that the culture is counterproductive, but they throw their hands up in defeat partly because they don’t know how to “diagnose” cultural values, norms, myths, or taboos. So, we often lead people through a simple process of examining how their own behaviour is impacted by the culture, and then in turn which aspects of the culture are helping, or hindering, all sorts of leadership development and organizational effectiveness. Simply understanding the organization’s culture a bit better gives people hope–and tools to begin to change it, and themselves.

By the last day of the Resonant Leadership for Results program, the learning community is strong and people have authentic, personal relationships that can be maintained long after the program is over. These relationships can help tremendously in the long learning process that starts once the program ends.

Programs like Resonant Leadership for Results and many of those at Wipro are designed for 21st century learners. Learning programs at Wipro have the same aims and outcomes as the Resonant Leadership for Results: they are engaging, experiential, and focused on organizational strategy and demands. They also support meaningful and sustainable learning. Let’s look at how this works.

First, programs cause leaders to refrain what a learning experience actually is, and where it can happen. For example, executives expect learning to happen in a classroom. So, as is the case in one very successful program at Wipro, when leaders are asked to create a play, they are pushed far out of the safe and predictable world of traditional learning environments. They are asked to write a script, stage it, design props and stage lighting. As they do this project, they understand that they can go out of their comfort zones and learn from the liberal arts. They learn about how to present themselves and others, how to make people feel valued, and how to structure a story (another important leadership skill). After this program, the head of one SBU said, “By adding small flourishes to a character that had an extremely brief appearance on stage, I was able to make the person feel engaged and valued. That’s just what I need to do for many of the junior members of my team.” She has since then become one of the active mentors to young women leaders.

We also run several workshops on storytelling for our business leaders. Last year we decided to hold it in Jaipur to coincide with the Jaipur Literature Festival. The leaders heard and interacted with authors and editors and attended talks by their favorite speakers. One of the participants describes his experience of using “The story behind the storytelling workshop” to share the impact of the program in the words of the leader of the business unit.

He goes on to say, “It was a 30 minute opening session where I had to share credentials, gives the client a reason to buy from us. I told my team that I would like three slides with just the three themes on them. This in itself was a departure from

the way my team made slides for client meetings. But they put the three themes I gave on three slides and in the body added all the supporting facts! In my review I told the team that I would make life even simpler. I asked them to put the three themes now in one slide in a line each. They were quite shocked that it was all I would take for the 30 minute session.”

This learning may seem obvious–create simple messages and communicate them clearly. However, in a world where information is in abundance, this can be difficult. It is the leader’s role to make meaning and convey it in a way that makes it memorable. Leaders who are able to connect with the stakeholders at a meaningful level are the ones who will be able to lead the organization tomorrow.

The research is clear: emotional intelligence makes a huge difference in individual and collective success. And EI can be learned. But for this to happen, we need to move beyond outdated learning methods and training programs. We must help people to learn the right skills–particularly EI–by engaging in experiences that are both personally and professionally compelling. When we do this well, people change. They become much more adept at creating the kinds of cultures in their teams and organizations where everyone can be at their best. And when everyone’s on their best, an organization can soar.

1 “MeatMyBest”andmanyotherself-directedexercisescanbefoundinBecomingaResonantLeader(Annie McKee, Richard Boyatzis, and Frances Johnston, 2008: Harvard Business Press)

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How to Develop Emotional Intelligence

by:Abhijit Bhaduri

Dr Annie McKee is Senior Fellow and Director, Penn CLO Executive Doctoral Programme. She is a bestselling business book author and advisor to top leaders. Her book “Resonant Leadership: Renewing Yourself and Connecting with Others through Mindfulness, Hope, and Compassion” is found on many a leader’s bookshelf.

Dr McKee’s and her colleagues studies on 300 leaders from 15 companies show that careers get derailed due to deficits in 3 areas: difficulty in handling change, not being able to work well in a team and poor personal relations. 70% of all change initiatives do not succeed due to people issues—inability to lead, ineffective teams, etc.

Research shows that, IQ determines what job you can get and hold, while EI predicts how well you will do in that career – whether you have the motivation and social abilities to be a star performer or leader. Successful people have higher self-awareness and know what will motivate or demotivate them. They also are able to avoid bursts of emotions. Better social awareness makes them more tuned to the political undercurrents in an organization.

Abhijit: What is emotional intelligence? Is it the same as someone having greater empathy? 

Annie McKee: Emotional Intelligence (EI) is an umbrella term that encompasses competencies related to self-awareness, self-management, social awareness and relationship management. Empathy is a social awareness competency. But what is empathy? Simply put, it is the ability to accurately read and understand the needs, motivations, beliefs and desires of others.  Clearly, in today’s multi-cultural organizations, this skill is a must-have for success at all levels.


Abhijit:  Are people with greater EI more successful?

Annie McKee: “Great leaders move people.” People who have developed EI are able to touch people’s hearts and minds. They inspire others powerfully and positively while engaging them in the quest for shared goals. But, EI isn’t just about individual behavior–it’s about creating resonance in the team or organizational climate. Research tells us that when the climate is marked by hope, enthusiasm and appropriate challenges, results soar. New sales managers who scored high on a test of optimism sold 37% more in their first two years than pessimists.

Abhijit:  The popular belief is that leaders need to take decisions by thinking through logic. When we add emotions to the mix, can we still be effective?

Annie McKee: Human beings are amazingly complex creatures—as are the environments in which we live and work. The problems we face in our world today are huge Therefore, it seems unwise to us to relegate decision making to only one aspect of our humanity—our logical minds. However magnificent our cognitive capabilities, there are other “intelligences” that can help us gather, filter and use data to make decisions. Emotions, for example, are often extremely helpful. Case in point: When the brain’s hemispheres have been surgically separated, interrupting the flow of emotional impulses, people have trouble making even the simplest decisions, such as what color clothing to wear.  Intuition improves decision making. Contrary to popular thinking, intuition isn’t magical—it is a complex process that brings knowledge, experience, cognition and emotion together to help us understand new problems.

Abhijit: What are early signs we can see in people who have greater EI?

Annie McKee: People whose EI competencies are finely honed can be easily spotted.  First, you can literally feel that they care about you and others. They understand that emotions are contagious and they deliberately share their inner feelings in a way that is supportive and compassionate.  This is true even when the emotions they feel the need to share are not particularly positive (e.g. anger, which, as with all emotions, has its place occasionally). That’s because being emotionally intelligent doesn’t always mean being nice.  Emotionally intelligent people use their own and others’ emotions in the service of strengthening relationships.

Second, emotionally intelligent leaders are curious and interested in people. They listen beyond people’s words for facts, feelings, motivations, hopes and dreams.  And they are willing to act on what they discover about people to help individuals and groups achieve goals and realize dreams. Finally, emotionally intelligent leaders are strong without being overbearing, positive and caring without being silly or sappy.

Abhijit: How can we develop these competencies?

Annie McKee: EI competencies are complicated. That’s because they include aspects of deep-seated beliefs, experiences, emotional and other memories, culture, gender and habits that have developed over a person’s entire lifetime. Take emotional self management, for example. This competency has a cultural component that is linked to things like what emotions can be expressed, with whom, when and how. Similarly, self-management has a gender component (e.g., how men and women manage their emotions tends to be different).

Given this complexity, how, then, can people learn and develop EI? The answer is that it starts with a dream—a very personal dream. Say you want to develop emotional self-management. You focus your thinking on the unpleasant outbursts you tend to have when stressed. You start to justify why you blow up, how fruitless it would be to change, and the like. You’re done before you start. If, on the other hand, you imagine a key relationship and what it will be like in the future—happier, less volatile and the like, you become inspired and energized. You’re ready to get down to the hard work of change.

Most people fail to develop complex competencies because they take the opposite approach—they start with what today looks like. This is depressing and demoralizing and people tend to give up before they change.

Abhijit: Do women have “better” EI than men?

Annie McKee: People often say things like “Empathy comes naturally to women.” Or, “Women are just better at building relationships than men.” It is in part true that there are some competencies that women tend to learn earlier and more deliberately in life (e.g. empathy) and some where this is true for men (e.g. emotional self-management). However, when it comes to leadership, there are no measurable differences between women’s and men’s EI. Men do, however, get more credit for demonstrating EI than women do.


Read: Why Emotional Intelligence Matters More Than IQ

Join me on Twitter @abhijitbhaduri

First published in my Times of India blog


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Is Stress the New Drug?

Ah, a relaxing night at home after a long day at work – running 75 mph at the office, putting out fires, deeming yourself a “Task Master.” Now would be the perfect opportunity to sit and think of absolutely nothing. Nothing? And then it hits…

But isn’t there laundry to be done…

dishes to be put away…

house to clean…

emails to be read…

My brain craves the busyness. Where can I get my next fix? Stress feels like a drug, and I think I may be addicted. I keep trying to pile more and more on my plate…why?!

There are a multitude of magazine articles about stress, how to beat stress, what causes stress, etc. There’s a good reason for that…women have been adding more and more responsibilities to their laundry (yes, pun intended) list of to-dos. Why is that? According to Valerie Burton it’s because “busyness is often based in fear—that you won’t keep up, of what others will think, of failure.” And when you feel like a failure, you continually pile on more “stuff” to do in order to feel important. Then people need you, right? While that may be true, you need you, too. But don’t just add “you” onto your already existing busy schedule—make a change; otherwise you run the risk of burning out. If you’re burnt out you’re no good to yourself, or anyone for that matter.

So what can you do?

Give yourself a break. Put everything into perspective. Yes, the dishes need to be done; yes, the laundry is piling up, but can it wait one more day, one more hour? Your health is much more important. Taking the time to really unwind is (and should be, needs to be) priority. After all, what good is a pissed off, upset, over sensitive, [insert your usual emotion here] you?

Here are some things to try when you’re feeling like you may overdose on stress:

  1. 20 minutes per day for mindful meditation.  You can also try taking moments of mindfulness per Annie McKee’s suggestion.
  2. Listen for the wake-up calls! Sometimes you’re not going to be able to calm yourself down and you may just be stuck in sacrifice syndrome.  It happens, you’re human! Listen to your friends and family when they say you are too busy and you looked stress. You may not want to hear it, but you need to hear it. Your body will give you signs too and since you only get one of them, take care of it.
  3. Keep track of your time so you can properly assess whether or not time is the issue. Don’t tell yourself you’re behind schedule and busy unless you have a realistic understanding of what your schedule really entails. (a.k.a. keep yourself in check.)
  4. Once you know your schedule, add “worry” to it. I know that seems crazy, but according to a journal article in Psychotherapy and Psychosomatics, exposing yourself to worry is actually beneficial. Why not face your fear? It works for people who are scared of heights.
  5. This last one works well for me, but be aware of procrastination. Watch a mindless TV show. It’s a counter-productive tool, but hey, sometimes we just need to veg.
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What I Learned About Organizational Culture at Summer Camp

By: Bill Palmer

Often, individuals in my clients organizations tell me feel that they are prisoners or hostages of their corporate culture.  My experience at summer camp tells me that we can instead be architects of culture. And yet, even the best architects may not design out a cultural shadow side.

Summer camp was, for me, after an initial bout of tearful homesickness, a wonderful place I went from the age of nine until fifteen.  Berkshire Hills Camp (which no longer exists), tucked away in the northwest corner of Connecticut on the shores of one of the Twin Lakes, was distinctive for its inclusive, warm and supportive culture.

Sports were important, but kids who weren’t good athletes were accepted and appreciated for other attributes.  Brawn was appreciated, but so were brains.  People were not, for the most part, teased or humiliated with regard to their physical appearance.  Appropriate affection among campers and counselors was common.  Strong discipline and order were enforced, but with a velvety  and compassionate touch. Values and ethics were taught and observed, but not to the point of orthodoxy or rigidity.  In many ways, Berkshire Hills Camp was an ideal experience for children of the 1950s and 1960s who attended.

Even today, Berkshire Hills Camp alumni remember the experience not only fondly but almost reverentially.  “Summer camp saved my life’ said one former camper I interviewed.  “It was an emotional oasis in the desert of the dysfunctional family I grew up in,” he added.  The Facebook page created by former campers is awash with fond recollections based on their belief that the camp’s culture was rich, inclusive, warm, loving, fair, fun and exciting.

As a fellow alumnus of BHC, I agreed with their perception. .  As an Executive Coach  and OD consultant, I too often hear clients speak of their organization’s culture with disgust, resentment and resignation to the status quo.

Was BHC truly a warm, loving, inclusive and high-functioning culture, or is this nostalgia?

If it was as described, why?

 I asked dozens of former campers to explain why they thought the camp had such a culture.  Here’s a sampling of their responses:

“For me it was like an alternate universe. The moment I got on that bus I entered a secret world with special people that were a part of my sweet summers.”

 “There were fabulous athletes, not so great athletes, singers, dancers, swimmers. Some of us participated in everything, and some just observed. We didn’t look at others weaknesses, but were encouraged to play on everyone’s strengths.”

 “It worked because it felt like family. That feeling started at the top and we all felt the love. I remember once being treated cruelly… I ended up crying {in one of the counselor’s} cabin with her consoling me. There was a great deal of nurturing.”

The Head Counselor during the time I was there was known as “Uncle George.” He played a key role in molding and maintaining the camp culture, as did the camp’s owner, known as “Aunt Elsie.”

The consensus answer to the first question—was it really that way? —was yes. When prodded to consider the idea that their recall of the camp might have been smoothed by time and mismanaged by memory, former campers felt strongly that the place was special, even magical.  While conceding it was not Paradise, many former campers recalled conceptualizing as children that this was an unusual and worthy environment.

The answer to the question “why” was harder to tease out.  There was something of the “fish in water” dynamic here:   The fish knows the water so well that it cannot distinguish it from the fabric of its experience.  (At least that’s the story some of us make up about fish).  In a sense, fellow BHC alumni could tell me about the temperature of the water, its degree of clarity, whether the current went this way or that, but had very little to say about why things were the way they were.

The culture was much as they remember it.  Here’s why:

A positive culture interdepends upon a variety of factors working together and simultaneously.  Any of the cultural traits listed below would not work as well in the absence of any of the others.

Wise Leadership–Uncle Georgewas a wise and thoughtful man unafraid to use his theatrical skills and sense to command respect and instill discipline. He had a booming voice, and he yelled a lot. I asked him recently how much of the yelling was theatrics and how much of it reflected real anger.  “It was 99% theatrical,” said George.  (George has a background in theater and acting, as well as education).  So, one key to the culture was a leader who understood his real and symbolic authority and used them both judiciously.  With Uncle George, punishment was administered firmly and with compassion  (“I coached the counselors to put their arm around a kid when they were disciplining him or her”). And, to win Uncle George’s praise was meaningful.

The wise and compassionate exercise of both formal and informal authority and leadership is requisite.  Uncle George was forceful and kind, strict and compassionate.  He required that counselors manage camper behavior in accordance with these values, and counselors cascaded these values to opinion leading and influential campers.

A Payoff for Cooperative Behavior–Campers lived together in very basic bunks, in very close quarters, and there was much to be gained by getting along.  Counselors lived in bunks with campers and were not much older than they—some were as young as 16 and not many were older than 21.  There was a cadre of adult counselors, in their 40s and 50s who mentored and monitored camp counselors and camperswho were known as “Aunts” and Uncles.”  The titles communicated authority as well as a familial tone.  Campers who were opinion leaders or known to be influential with other campers were coached by their counselors to be inclusive, and to use their informal authority to help counselors manage behavior.

Shared Core values–BHC had a spiritual/religious basis.  There was no requirement that a camper be Jewish, and as the years went by, more and more non-Jewish campers attended.  The camp’s observance of Jewish meal time and Sabbath rituals gave a sort of spiritual structure to the culture.  This was important not because it was Jewish, but because it provided a general framework of values and behaviors.

A Safe and Variable but Not Capricious Environment–Days were programmed with activities on a timed basis, and there was a set schedule for breakfast, lunch, dinner, etc. There were also rest periods and “free play.”  The predictability of the schedule was broken up by “special days” on which the schedule was ditched in favor of a special event or activity that included the whole camp.  So, life was predictable but not boring.  There were things to enjoy in the moment as well as things to look forward to.  This was great because predictability and playcan feel as though the environment and schedule that never changes are soul draining.  The environment and schedule that constantly and capriciously change can be spirit-killers in camps and in organizations.

The Shadow Side—The owner of the camp, Aunt Elsie, was an overweight woman who ran not only the business of the camp but also the camp kitchen, seven days a week.  Her physical appearance was the subject of much verbal abuse.  Aunt Elsie had the misfortune to share a first name with the symbol of the Borden Milk Company, Elsie the Cow.   So, behind her back she was referred to as “The Moo.” If she were nearby and campers thought they could do it without being identified, they would make the lowing sound of a cow.  At meals, on occasion, a camp song that had been rewritten to include the phrase “the big fat moo” was sung by campers and counselors alike.  There is no way Aunt Elsie could have avoided hearing this.  And it must have hurt.

Almost all of the campers I contacted said that either this never actually took place, or if it did they were unaware.  A few recalled that it happened and regretted it.  To my knowledge, Aunt Elsie never mentioned the abuse to campers and no campers were ever disciplined or punished for it.  Former campers I interviewed could not recall anyone being disciplined or punished for such behavior, nor could they recall being counseled to eliminate such behavior.  In effect, the camp permitted this behavior by turning a blind eye to it.

The camp’s wonderful culture was its strength and also its weakness.  The authority figures were benevolent and wise, for most part.  So, perhaps, verbally abusing Aunt Elsie was a kind of safety valve for resentment of authority and a safe target for   a group of children and adolescents who were successfully forbidden from verbally abusing their peers.   It is the rare system that has fully integrated its alienated pieces, and this proves true in the case of BHC.

No culture, system, group or individual is exempt from its shadow side.  The Berkshire Hills Camp culture architects were very, very good at what they did.  The fact of a shadow side in their work represents not failure on their part but a challenge call to all who believe that we can shape our culture and our organizations.

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