Saturday, April 18, 2009

Occupational Stress 12: Burnout

Occupational Stress 12: Burnout

Let’s talk about burnout. Burnout, in addition to being a cool descriptor for a killer day at the office, is actually a psychological disorder from the interpersonal class of occupational stressors. But, instead of stemming from butting heads with your boss or frustration with “the system,” burnout comes from interactions with your clients or customers.

It used to be that burnout disorder was the sole domain of the health care profession. Doctors, nurses, and psychologists, facing constant physical and emotional demands of distressed and suffering patients, would sometimes develop this disorder. However, over the last two decades, burnout has migrated to the corporate scene. Fast-paced managers, customer service departments, and IT personnel are all in the position of helping distraught and angry people on a daily basis. Like their medical counterparts, they are often at a loss to relieve the customer’s grief. So, over time, without counteracting influences (and there are counteracting influences), burnout can occur.

There are three separated stages to burnout. Each stage is its own little disorder and you don’t necessarily have to progress through each stage, although most sufferers do exactly that. One could remain at one stage for years, as each stage is separate and distinct from the other two (the big word for that is orthogonal domains). The first stage of burnout is emotional exhaustion (EE) or feeling drained by contact with other people. Emotional exhaustion is characterized by a cluster of internalized symptoms. Internalized means you are beating yourself up instead of someone else. Do you dread seeing clients or meeting with customers? Does just the thought of dealing with one more complaint about that faulty product or that buggy application make you want to take the day off? These are the type of endorsements supporting a state of emotional exhaustion. Clearly this emotional banging-your-head-against-the-wall feeling is stressful. The research is clear about one thing: having unpleasant contact with your supervisor and coworkers makes things even worse. Increased and improved training, as well as the use of a strong peer support system, is one of the recommended solutions, especially if EE is systemic within the group or department. It’s not as bad when you know everyone is in the same boat. Also, you can begin to brainstorm solutions and stress-avoiding protocols. Isolation always makes things worse. One possible treatment is moving toward a team approach to dealing with customers.

The second phase of Burnout is depersonalization. This is the outward or externalized phase. Externalized referrers to beating up on others as opposed to yourself. In this phase, you are rude, demeaning, and insulting toward the client or customer. You’re no longer blaming yourself. You’re blaming others for having a problem. (Hey, I think I just figured out the problem with Larry down in accounts receivable!) Of course, a client with a crashed program is not to blame, but it appears there is only so much one can take of this endless stream of people with the same problem! Are you often negative toward clients or callous toward the problems of your valued customer? If so, you can put a little check in the box next to depersonalization. What helps? Again, training is a key ingredient. It’s very healing to know when you are addressing the customer’s problem in the most professional and efficacious manner possible. Also, through training and professional assessment, you can begin to understand that solving the problem may not exactly be in your job description. Your goal may just be to do the best you can do with what you have while maintaining a professional disposition. Wouldn’t this be a self-affirming attitude? But these are perspectives you sometimes can’t put together by yourself, especially while working in an isolated situation.

Burnout’s final phase is reduced personal accomplishment (RPA). This is characterized by generalized feelings of disappointment, nonsuccess, and underachievement. Workers with RPA endorsed statements such as, “I’m not getting anywhere,” or “This job has lost all its meaning.” As I indicated earlier, having supportive supervisors and coworkers is an important step in halting the progress of burnout’s three stages.

Burnout is serious and the consequences are serious as well. Psychologists have good instruments to assess this disorder and its progression. If you are experiencing one of these phases, don’t hesitate to talk to a professional about it.

Ian Glickman, Ph.D.
Learn more about leadership, occupational stress, conflict management and change management at Professional Development Resources, Inc. Visit our web site at

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Thursday, March 27, 2008

Change Management 11: Certain Misery or the Misery of Uncertainty

Change Management 11: Certain Misery or the Misery of Uncertainty

Small changes can lead to big changes. We don’t need a treatise on Chaos Theory to observe that changing systems are nonlinear. Each variable in the change environment exponentially affects the outcome. For example, a simple three-variable closed environment will yield 6 permutations, while 6 variables will yield 720 possible outcomes. In this field, sometimes it’s best not to count past three! It’s this unwieldy number of possible outcomes that leads us to the creative insight. The former Soviet Union went to great lengths to control this type of creative insight by controlling variables. Control was their thing, after all, and they suffocated from lack of creative adaptation to change. Today, countries and companies go to great lengths to foster the creativity inherent in change.

Embracing creativity is essentially the only way a business can adapt to the constantly changing business environment. Unfortunately, in the face of organizational change, many individuals, departments and corporate cultures still retreat into the unhealthy and limiting defense mechanism of over-control, even when it stifles the very process of creative adaptation. As a successful leader in change, you must be comfortable with a multitude of unknown variables and outcomes. If you are not, then you risk the misery of controlling an ever-increasing number of possible outcomes. Remember, only 6 variables produce 720 possible outcomes. This is a lot of plates to keep spinning-not to mention the no-confidence vote you’re giving your creative problem solvers. Creative team members just don’t react all that well to manipulation and stifling over-control.

The very first exercise the leader must undertake is a thorough inventory of his or her fears. Look at the worst case scenarios first. Once you have a good long list, brainstorm them with the team. If worst case scenario number one occurs, what are the creative recourses? If you let your team run free with ideas for an hour or so, you might be surprised at the far-reaching and pleasantly unexpected results. What you are doing here is fear (negative outcome) control. If you’re going to lead through a period of change, you must know thyself, and particularly your fears.

Predictability and ambiguity are two dynamic forces working in constant opposition. In an active change situation, predictability tends to contract while ambiguity expands. In dynamic situations, leaders can become fearful of an explosion of ambiguity (too many options). In attempting to control this, they inadvertently implode due to the repression of creativity (à la the Former Soviet Union). In the heat of battle it’s easy to forget that it's always much easier to tone down a overly creatively solution than to spruce up a dull one (known as the lipstick on a pig solution).

It’s not part of our macho, action hero culture to admit to fear and possible negative outcomes, but this is what must be done. Get the team together and get those fears on the flip chart and allow the creativity to flow. This exercise is an exceptionally powerful way to unify the team. What usually happens is that many of these fears are unfounded or easily solved by the collective open creativity of the team.

Ian Glickman, Ph.D.

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Sunday, January 13, 2008

CONFLICT RESOLUTION 10 Arguments and Verbal Aggression

CONFLICT RESOLUTION 10 Arguments and Verbal Aggression

It may not come as much of a surprise to learn that some people enjoy arguments. They look forward to them and literally get health benefits from the experience. This is a fact. Others, however, do not like to argue. For these people, an argument is an unpleasant and unhealthy experience, one they often avoid if given an option. But, when arguments are unavoidable, these seemingly more passive types often resort to verbal aggression. That is, they verbally attack the other person’s character or fling about other ad hominem remarks. As researchers have determined, the argumentative trait and the verbally aggressive trait are two sides of the same coin, different aspects of the same psychological domain. So, if you had a one to ten scale, numbers one through five would be labeled argumentative (or assertive) and numbers five through ten would be labeled verbally aggressive. That is to say, the same scale measures both of these. When you’re holding your own in a coworker confrontation by defending your premises and illuminating the weaknesses of your coworker’s argument, you’re being assertive or argumentative (which lands you on the bottom end of the scale). When you’re not holding your own and resort to telling your coworker that they, in fact, are a feckless twit, a dolt, and just a pointy-headed intellectual who can’t park their bicycle straight, then you’re moving up the ten-point scale toward aggressive speech.

We all can move around this scale from time to time but usually one side dominates. If you find yourself toward the top end of the scale most of the time, that’s a sign of verbal aggressiveness. As a rule, verbal aggression serves no one. Some people say it’s good to vent anger and frustration in a verbally aggressive manner. But as it turns out, the mind is not a tea kettle. Most people don’t feel better about themselves after they’ve told someone off -they usually feel worse. Usually, the problem is not with the other person or with our principal positions for that matter. The problem is a lack of assertiveness skills. Assertiveness skills have been identified, broken down into chunks, and are relatively easy to learn.

When I was a doctoral student, I was asked to create just such a workshop for business students who lacked assertiveness skills. Most people prone to verbal aggression often feel like they are on the witness stand being interrogated and attacked by a harsh prosecutor. However, once the balance of power becomes more neutral, the anxiety and frustration associated with arguments decreases. After only an hour or two of practice, these students were feeling much more confident about their prospects when faced with an argumentative type. The good news is that many of these techniques are quite simple. They’re just some simple verbal jujitsu deflections.
We don’t need a test to determine who is argumentative and who can become verbally aggressive. This much you probably already know about yourself. So here is a simple technique you can use to help neutralize an arguer. Whenever they ask you a question, ask a question back (almost any question will do). And, DO NOT answer any more of their questions until they answer your question. Once they answer your question, then they can have their turn again. Just continue to nicely remind them that they have not addressed your question and before you continue you would like it addressed. Remember, an argumentative type will usually ignore your questions and continue to ask their own questions. They will use emotion, attitude, and bullying as a response to your simple requests for answers. Remember, you usually have no obligation to respond. After all, this is supposed to be a discussion-that is, it involves give and take. This simple “asking a question” technique alone is usually enough to back off even the most strident arguer. You don’t have to be rude, angry, or mean-just innocently curious. Try this in any setting and I’m sure you’ll notice a significant difference.

Ian Glickman, Ph.D.

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Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Leadership 9 Who You Are And What You Can Become.

Leadership 9 Who You Are And What You Can Become.

Professor Marie McIntyre of Georgia’s Institute of Government has researched the relationship between managers and personality. Her findings confirmed my own experiences as a psychologist and a consultant, and probably will confirm yours as well. Managerial types are more analytical then interpersonal, i.e., they are data driven. They also exhibit a higher need for control than others. The higher up the hierarchy we look, the more prominent these personality traits become. We also know from the literature that successful managers must be able to network well and build solid interpersonal relationships across organizational disciplines. So here we have the paradox of a successful management team-controlling personalities coexisting with the need for positive collaboration, and keen analytical skills coexisting with the need for strong interpersonal skills. These four domains must be balanced to insure progress. You may recall the dilemma Hal faced in the movie 2001: A Space Odyssey. Hal, overly controlling and overly analytic, diligently strived to achieve his company’s objectives. Ok, he was a computer, so we can cut him some slack. But he was also a crew member. Due to his lack of people skills, he failed to accurately assess how his decisions would affect the team. This imbalance led to disastrous results. We shouldn’t be too picky, but I think we can all agree that when one team member gives his colleague a lobotomy, it’s a clear indicator of a dysfunctional team.

Many managers and business leaders seem to have effectively integrated their controlling tendencies with collaborative skills and their analytic tendencies with interpersonal considerations. Considering that they may not be hard-wired that way, how have they achieved this? Well, necessity is the mother of invention. Or, as psychologists like to say, the approach/avoidance ratio has advanced from avoidance toward approach. That is to say that after taking a good, hard look at what must be accomplished, the successful manager realizes that it's more efficacious to give up some control and play with the team for the benefit of the organizational goals, not to mention his/her own career goals.

Professor McIntyre states that “interpersonal relationships are the cornerstone of teamwork.” What happens when you have several overly analytical group members of the team (not an uncommon scenario for management teams)? The research tell us that teams will falter and fail due to poor interpersonal skills. In fact, there is a direct statistical correlation here. The more analytical the team is, as a whole, the greater the probability of failure. This is statistics at its simplest; high analytic quotient equals low success.

Lets look at the control issue. Being in control is a very positive experience indeed. Nobody likes to be out of control, unless you’re a game show contestant. But being controlling is another thing entirely. And, over-controlling a work group or a project team is clearly on the scary side of the success gauge.

“Dr. Mac, pray tell, what happens with teams that have a number of controlling personalities ?”
“Teams that have several controlling members spend a lot of time arguing (Duh! Like how many times have we all experienced this?) and when a plan is formalized, it doesn’t get done.” Ok, been there, done that.

So there it is. Want to find out if you are more analytical then interpersonal? Answer these two questions.

1. I would rather work with things than people.
2. I would rather work with data than ideas.

If you have answered yes to both of these questions, you probably are more analytical then interpersonal. Here’s an exercise you can try to develop more interpersonal skills. In your next meeting, try to identify the interpersonal folks and listen more conscientiously to them. You might be underestimating the importance of their input, to the detriment of your organizational goals and career.

If you’re a control freak executive, here is another exercise. In your next meeting, try not to give any opinions (or speak at all, for that matter) unless directly asked to do so by the team. If the team comes up with an idea, try to let them run with it. If you’re a controlling type, you’ll find this exercise difficult. But you will learn a great deal about yourself quickly. This is an exercise you can try at home too. And I bet you’ll surprise yourself by how others begin to react to and interact with you.


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Saturday, November 24, 2007

Occupational Stress 8: Your mind, your body and job stress.

Occupational Stress 8 Your mind, your body and job stress.

A few years ago I was asked to give a lecture at Princeton University. The students wanted to know what stressors to expect from their initial experiences in the working world and how these stressors would affect them. Although this was an academic presentation, I was surprised to see that their questions and concerns were similar to the ones I see at all level of the business world and from all degrees of experience.

How is stress going to affect me? This is an easy question but a difficult one to address because the effects of stress are idiosyncratic. That is, it affects everyone differently. Stress is modulated by our temperament, body, and our genetic predisposition to its effects. Thus, we all react to the same stressors in physically and mentally different ways. Stressor is the technical word denoting something from the environment (work) that causes a stress response. You can see the individual differences with this little quiz. Which would you rather do with your colleagues, go skydiving or to the opera? Either one would be stressful to some and not to others. So, we can’t say opera is categorically stressful any more than we can say that office politics or meetings are categorically stressful. Yet, both politics and meetings are stressful to some people most of the time and to others some of the time. Adding yet another layer of complexity to the issue is that it’s primarily the perception of a stressor that gets the body’s stress response working. For example, you might think an evening at the opera will be stressful. Indeed, you may be upset and irritable the week before. However, when the big night arrives, you might find yourself actually enjoying yourself. In other words, the perception was stressful but the actual situation was not. Let's be honest here, how many of us have stressed out all week before an important meeting or other event only to have it be a positive, uplifting, and even affirming career experience? Show of hands, please. So, as we know from our political candidates as well as from a variety of other sources, reality and the perception of reality can be two completely different animals. Is it just me, or does this principle become magnified at the workplace?

The way you perceive possible stressors such as job demands, physical demands, power conflicts, and time constraints will determine your amount of stress. Again, the above items are objective, but each of us feels them subjectively. I was always amazed by my good friend and associate Chuck. No matter how many task demands we had, he was able to figure out how to do more and have it be a fun and challenging experience. When life gave Chuck lemons, he made lemonade. The way people like Chuck avoid job stress is to find some personal meaning in what they are required to do. He perceived the tasks as a challenge, a way to use his creativity, time management skills, and people skills to achieve his professional goals-goals he chose to set for himself. He was almost having fun overachieving in everything he did while I got stressed. Why? Because I did not find personal meaning in the job task. I viewed most tasks as merely an imposition from the outside. Chuck had it right. Whether he knew it or not at the time, these work tasks (challenges) allowed him to find personal meaning in work. He expanded and honed his talents and skills which he went on to use all his very successful working life.

Here’s what all this means to you. We all have leadership skills, advanced training, analytic training, talents, organizational skills, sales skills, etc. Psychologists do have techniques, tests, and instruments to qualify and quantify these attributes (techniques, tests and instruments that we are very proud of, I might add), but in most cases, we only have a fair inkling of our own talents and skills. Recognize your strengths and skills, then shape and organize the job demand to fit that skill as much as possible. Remember what Mad Eye Moody told Harry Potter during the big wizard completion: “Play to your strength”. Therefore, it is you giving meaning to the job, not the job defining a meaning for you-big difference. The stress research is quite clear here. Those who emphasize even a little control over their situation have less stress. This basic rule of physiology applies to mice, monkeys, and people. Discovering personal meaning is equal to gaining control. It’s a different way of thinking (or as psychologists like to say, a cognitive schemata reframing) and one you can control. Harry went on the slay the dragon and so can you.

Just remember the old saying, “ You work the job or the job will work you”.


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Thursday, November 15, 2007

Change Management 7: Three Techniques to Improve Communication, Empathy and Setting an Example.

Change Management 7

Three Techniques to Improve Communication, Empathy and Setting an Example.

Last year I was teaching my Organizational Dynamics class. It was a large class of adults with years of business experience. While discussing the verisimilitude of change management, the class listed thirty factors for effective change management. We took these thirty factors and did a lazy man’s Factor Analysis. A Factor Analysis is a statistical technique used to whittle many factors into a few core factors. It’s also so complex that it has unhinged even the most steadfast of researchers. We derived three core factors consisting of Communication, Empathy, and Self as Example. Not surprisingly, these are the same core factors the research literature described as being the most important.

Let's look at each factor and some specific techniques. First, communication sounds easy, but companies and even departments differ in important ways. It’s no fun when only half the people show up for your meeting-that’s a communication issue.

Let's say that you need to schedule a meeting for everyone regarding an important legal change that affects your business. What’s the most effective means of communication-email, phone, pager, text message, memo, or personal visit? Rank these communication channels from highest to lowest. If you can’t do this quickly, maybe you need to give this a bit more thought. In the various settings where I work, the effectiveness of these communication channels differs not only from department to department but from individual to individual.

Try this technique. The next time you walk down the hall, with each person you see, mentally say their best communication channel: Mr. email, Ms. phone call, Dr. personal chat. You’ll discover that it's not as easy as you think.

Let's look at increasing empathy. Empathy is a complex concept that psychologists have spent a lot of time measuring and analyzing. It essentially means feeling what someone else is feeling, or at least understanding intellectually what they are feeling. Again, this sounds simple. It is rather simple but not easy. I probably don’t have to tell you how many times we are all astounded by someone’s insensitivity, not just toward us personally, perhaps, but toward us as employees or members of a particular department.
I know you don’t want to be like that, so here’s an excellent technique for developing empathy.

Pick out one or two people who are going through some organizational change. Now pretend you are in their shoes and answer the following questions.
1. Which professional skills will be changed? In other words, what am I losing professionally? For example, will I be doing less analysis and more client contact or visa-versa? How will I feel about that?
2. What contacts or personal support will I be losing and how do I feel about that?
3. In what way will I be more or less autonomous? This questions addresses responsibility gain or loss.

Changes in skills, associations, and responsibilities are the three domains that are most concerning for people during organizational change

Finally, how do you demonstrate your self-involvement in the change process? It’s tremendously helpful for those undergoing change to see those up the hierarchy addressing (and sometimes struggling with) these same challenges. It’s as simple as that.

A good technique is to list 3 ways that people will be able to see that you are actively involved in the change process. With each of these three, using your new empathy skills, list how they might perceive you as you set a positive example.

These techniques work and they’ll work for you. Try it, you’ll like it.


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Sunday, November 4, 2007

Conflict Resolution 6: The Type-A Solution


Measure twice, cut once. -Old saying-

Two well-respected authors in the field of conflict resolution, Susan Carpenter and W.J.D. Kennedy, have eloquently codified the types of mistakes people make in large-scale public disputes. A mistake I often see is what they refer to as the Quick Fix, and in business settings, what I call the Type-A Solution. The Type-A Solution has been employed in a range of venues from small, two-person conflicts to larger departmental and multi-faceted disputes. It goes something like this:

Phase I: A conflict comes to the attention of management. The manager (or the management team), taking insufficient time to understand the issues at hand and the positions of those involved, declares a solution, unconcerned with the ramifications. Perhaps this is done out of frustration with the problem or with having to make a decision under time constraints. It also could be done out of anger. (“If I have to stop this car and turn around, you’re both in big trouble!”)

To be honest, I have to admit that making a "quick fix" can be tempting. Certain personality types are particularly prone to this mistake (we don’t need a show of hands, but I think you might know who you are). The consequence of a Type-A solution is that the disputing parties feel invalidated, unheard, and misunderstood by management; thus, a climate of us vs. them is created. The problem continues to smolder underground and then flares up with a vengeance. However, the disputing parties then have something they can agree on. They usually will agree that you and your solution are a major part of the problem, if not the entire problem. So, lets do a status review: First, you had a problem. Second, your Type-A solution allowed the problem to escalate unabated. Finally, and worst of all, you end up on the playing field as a participant, not as an advisor.

Phase II: As Carpenter and Kennedy explain, after implementing such a solution, you could find yourself in the unsavory and disadvantageous position of having to “sell” it to distrusting and maybe even hostile stakeholders. You'll also have to defend it against the usual crowd of spectators not to mention that you'll appear vulnerable to those who could benefit from your current weakened state. In one fell swoop, your status as a respected and impartial arbitrator will plummet to that of an untrustworthy outsider who is attempting to enforce a unilateral (and possibly half-baked) plan of action. To make matters worse, your motives will also come under suspicion. Oh brother, talk about a reversal of fortune. Unfortunately, what I then see happen quite often is a knee-jerk reaction and another hastily hatched Type-A Solution. Now, I think even the sleepiest students way in the back of the auditorium can see this train leaving the station.

Pop quiz: Can you think of a current international conflict in which we’re seeing the Quick Fix in one form or another? Discuss amongst yourselves. What are your options following such a situation? There is always the time-honored choice of walking away, stating that you provided a solution; how could it possibly be your fault if it’s not working? Second, you could continue selling the plan (or its sequel, the new and improved Plan II). Finally, you could take a deep breath and identify the primary, secondary, and, if needed, tertiary stakeholders, and begin to engage them in discussion and negotiation. Allow them, without your influence, to negotiate a solution that they agree to. My experience is that agreement and consensus will occur over time. If you go about fixing the situation in this way, you will have maintained your neutral and/or advisory position.

- Ian -

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