The Stress Doc Letter
Cybernotes from the Online Psychohumorist ™
JUL 2004, Sec. I
Fight when you can
Take flight when you must
Flow like a dream
In the Phoenix we trust!
Table of Contents
Shrink Rap I:
Creativie Risk-Taking: Tips and Strategies
Shrink Rap II: A Thermostatic Approach to Communication and Leadership
Readers: Dolly and the Queen and Life
Main Essay: Speaker-Leader Transformation: Art of Powerful
Heads Up: Center for Disease Control, Celebrity Cruise Lines et
Offerings: Training Kit, Books, CD and AOL Chat
Shrink Rap -- Part I:
Sound vs. Foolish Risk-Taking: Tips and Strategies
A freelance writer recently emailed after reading my article on Creative
Risk-Taking. He was looking for some ideas on differentiating sound and foolish
risks along with some risk-taking bullet points. Below are key steps for
"Creative Risk-Taking" and the requested bullets on wise vs. foolish risj-taking.
Here are key steps and strategies for bravely facing your "Intimate FOE" and
boldly developing your potential for "Creative Risk-Taking":
1. Aware-ily Jump in Over Your Head. Only by jumping into the fray can you
quickly discover how adequate your resources are with respect to the novel
challenge ahead. This approach precludes a strategy that eliminates all risk in
advance. (Okay, some prep may be necessary. As we say in N'Awlins, check to
see if there are any alligators in the bayou.) You may need to encounter
realistic anxiety, exaggerated loss of control and even some feelings of
humiliation to confront your "Intimate FOE." But often the reward for the risk
is a unique readiness to build knowledge, emotional hardiness and skills for
survival, along with evolving imaginative gifts.
2. Strive to Survive the High Dive. There's no guarantee when grappling
with new heights or depths, but four fail-safe measures come to mind: a) strive
high and embrace failure -- failure is not a sign of unworthiness; consider
failure the gap between a future ideal and your present reality; it's a
transitional space that fosters growth rather than absolute mastery. Of course,
for failure to motivate progress, also vital is distinguishing those fine lines
among high expectation, vision and hallucination; b) develop a realistic time
frame - remember, establishing a beachhead doesn't mean you've conquered the
island; recognize that many battles are fought and lost before a major
undertaking is won; c) be tenaciously honest - continuously assess the impact of
outcomes, changes within yourself and your environment, and the rules underlying
your operation, d) establish a support system - have people in your life who
provide both kinds of TLC: Tender Loving Criticism and Tough Loving Care.
3. Thrive On Thrustration. Learn to be stuck between thrusting ahead with
direct action and frustration while struggling with your problematic puzzle or
risk-taking adventure (Rabkin). Then let go: an incubation vacation, in the
aftermath of agitated exploration, helps hatch a new perspective. Creativity
often requires a period of relaxed attention or mindless perception along with
being more problem-minded than solution-focused. As performance psychologist,
George Leonard, has observed: It's not the path to absolute mastery, but the
lifetime learning path of mastery. (Leonard also strongly advocated training
with an expert for a period of time.) Frustration tolerance and some guidance
along with persistence and patience are the keys to escaping self-imposed boxes.
Increasing bio-psycho-social pressure and a "no exit" challenge can shake the
habituated, settled mind. Thrustration may transform a dormant subconscious
into an active psychic volcano -- memories, novel associations and symbolic
images overflow into consciousness. You're better able to generate fertile
problem-solving alternatives. Problems are not just sources of tension and
frustration, but are opportunities for integrating the past and the present, the
conscious and the unconscious, the obscure and the obvious. Here lies creative
4. Design for Error and Opportunity. (See below.)
Risk-Taking List: Key Pointers
Is the question deciding what's a realistic or a foolish risk or should the
question be what qualities constitute being a realistic or foolish risk-taking
individual (on a particular project)?
I lean toward the latter perspective. If you train yourself to be a vital
risk-taker, it will be easier to differentiate the quality or nature of the
risky situation . You'll also find it easier to assess your preparedness for
the risk ahead.
1) Don't gamble on your last dollar; in other words, be wary of going for
2) Try to do even a small test run or experiment to get a better feel for the
risk-taking landscape. However, narrow or rigid control and need for perfection
are not conducive to the entrepreneurial and exploratory spirit. Conversely,
grandiosity and mania can also create a false sense of invulnerability and
3) If you don't have a safety net, at least have some sources of TLC -- "Tender
Loving Criticsm" and "Tough Loving Care" -- whether trusted and objective family
members and friends or a coach before, during and after the risk-taking venture
for guidance, support and assessment purposes. A risk-taker is not afraid to
get ideas from others. He or she may not accept or use all of them but is open
and works hard to sort the wheat from the chaff. (See experiment option above.)
4) Know that often many battles are fought and lost before a major undertaking
is won. In other words, if you are not ready to make a substantial commitment
in time, energy, willingness to handle blows to ego, commit money, develop
patience, etc. perhaps you are not ready to take a substantail risk. Also, be
tenaciously honest with yourself: know when you need to come up for air or
TLC. Successful risk-takers often have experienced burnout and they have a
better instinct for self-preservation or, at least, knowing when to bail out of
a bad risk situation.
5) Strive high and embrace failure -- failure is not a sign of unworthiness;
consider failure the gap between a future ideal and your present reality; it's a
temporary/transitional space that usually fosters new learning and eventual
growth as opposed to final victory or absolute mastery.
6) Learn to see and work with frustration and obstacles as a possible future
spur to creative problem-solving, to further improving your risk-taking plan or
project. Again, it's important to be able to take an incubation vacation, that
is, to let go, to not always be consciously focused on your riaky project. This
incubation vacation often helps you get out of your box, to generate a new or
fresh perspective. Since a successful risk-taker must be flexible and be able
to respond efficiently and effectively to new contingencies, generating (or
being open to) new and novel perspectives is vital for risk-taking.
7) Design for Error and Opportunity. Innovative and risk-taking
individuals and organizations are more attuned to a range of possibilities than
to fixed or ideal goals. These systems prefer the risk of initiation and
experimentation to preoccupation over deviation or imperfection. Having the
courage to flounder through a sea of novelty and confusion often yields new
connections, long-range mastery and an uncommon big picture. A narrow, safe
course creates the illusion of achievement and short-lived control. Of course,
limited predesign means opportunity for errors. In open people and systems,
startup misplays are vital signs for self-correcting and self-challenging
Remember, errors of judgment or design do not irrevocably consign one to
incompetence; they more likely reveal inexperience or immaturity, perhaps even
boldness. Our so-called "failures" can be channeled as guiding streams
(sometimes raging rivers) of opportunity and experience that so often enrich -
widen and deepen - the risk-taking passage…If we can just immerse ourselves in
these unpredictable yet, ultimately, regenerative waters.
In other words, if you've done the above preparation, there are few foolish
risks. There may be more or less painful learning curves. And, of course, when
risk-taking...Practice Safe Stress!
-- Part II:
[Ed. Note: This article is co-authored by Joan Marshall, Pres. Society for
Human Resources Management (SHRM), Montgomery County, MD and Mark Gorkin.}
A Thermostatic Approach to Communication and Leadership:
A Metaphor for Aligning Messages, Understanding, and Behavioral Responses
"My employees just don't seem to understand what I say to them. Are we speaking
the same language? When I make assignments or give them goals, they give me
back work that's different than what I had asked. The work is late, incorrect,
or sloppy. What's wrong with them?"
Have you sung these lyrics before? You are not alone. Whose fault is it
anyway? Where do we place blame? Maybe neither party is solely responsible;
maybe it's a matter of reaching a different level of understanding between you
and your employees around: a) setting and sharing goals, b) establishing
realistic operational baselines and mutual expectations, and c) the overall
process of communication. And often adding to the challenge of productive
manager-employee relations is the fact that many of us have some issues with
authority: a) whether it's enacting the various roles and responsibilities of
being an authority figure or b) whether it's dealing with the issues and
emotions related to control and dependency when a subordinate. Not
surprisingly, when these issues infiltrate our mindsets effective communication
may break down: "Message sent is not message received." Why is that?
We can tell you why and what you can do about it. We have a method that we
think will increase understanding and cooperation with your employees. We call
our method, "Thermostatic Leadership" or "Thermostatic management." To
illustrate this approach let's return to our opening concerns and questions: "I
made myself clear. Why aren't my employees doing what I need them to do?"
First a key premise: People come to the workplace from varied demographic and
geographic backgrounds bringing an array of ethnic-cultural values. Individuals
also carry around personal and professional expectations often shaped by the
individual's work and organizational history.
A Personal Story
Let one of the authors, JM, share a real-life example:
Several years ago I worked for Paul Sigas in Human Resources at a major
computer company. It was part of the culture for people to socialize with one
another, maybe even to become friends. I was working for the company for four
years; in fact I grew up in this company. It was a great fit for me. My boss
hired Sigas to come in as my manager. Sigas is a straightforward, tell it like
it is kind of person. I didn't care as I was doing my work and doing it well.
We were getting along, time was moving on, and Sigas let me do my job.
One day, knowing that Sigas and his wife were new to the area, I decided to
invite them to my house. It would be a good opportunity for each of us to get
to know one another more casually; perhaps in a somewhat more intimate setting.
When I asked Sigas he said, "NO, I don't do that. I don't fraternize with
I was taken aback. I thought that was odd and his response was a bit abrupt.
Shortly after that I wondered if he thought I was trying to get on his good
side. People at this company get together all the time. It was not too much
later that Sigas invited my family to dinner at his house. I wondered about the
change; why was it now okay to "fraternize." I didn't get the answer then but
with newfound understanding I can answer it now.
Recently, I asked Sigas about it and his answer didn't surprise me. He said the
culture of his former employer established a definite boundary between the
professional and the personal. He had brought that expectation with him:
co-workers don't socialize with one another. I had thought he was wrong for not
accepting my invitation. He had thought I was out of bounds for asking.
Neither one of us were wrong. The misunderstanding was based on the divergent
perspectives from our varying organizational experiences.
This example illustrates how expectations derived from past experience
definitely color and shape our positions, preferences, and possibilities:
believing can affect seeing as much as "seeing is believing." And adding to
this psychological and communicational complexity, the sources of our beliefs or
the reasons why we hold onto them so strongly are not always fully conscious.
One person's world is turning one way; someone else's world is moving in another
direction or at a different speed. Not surprisingly, a collision can ensue when
the two try coming together, especially if there isn't some baseline of
understanding or a basis for some common language (or the ability to apply the
brakes when things are going downhill fast). Returning to our supervisory
relationship, there needs to be an interactive method for gaining control of
this communication and leadership process. And this is where our model kicks
in: to help you generate mutual understanding and buy-in from your employees.
Thermostatic Leadership/Management Defined
We call our model Thermostatic Leadership (TL) or Thermostatic Management (TM).
The essence of TL/TM is the ability to set and adapt a communication-performance
setting (with monitoring mechanisms and feedback loops) based on: a) your
knowledge and the perceptions and understandings of others and b) your
employee's perception and understanding of you. The thermostat analogy seems
apt. The thermostat is an instrument that adjusts the temperature of a room.
If it is too cold, the thermostatic setting can be moved up and warmer air
streams out. If the room becomes too warm, the thermostat can be lowered. If
it is just right, it is left alone. Take for example several people living in
the same house. These folks discuss, negotiate, and decide what the temperature
setting should be. People set rules (or at times make correct or incorrect
assumptions) about who can adjust the thermostat. Sometimes the process is not
democratic but is based on who pays the bill. Many thermostats even contain
programming features so the temperature is raised and lowered according to the
In some public auditoriums the thermostat is under lock and key. No one can
adjust it, but if enough people are too cold, they will complain. The "boss"
comes in with the key and raises the thermostat. If the temperature is not
adjusted to meet people's comfort level, they will protest. Now some
self-sacrificing souls may appear to be adapting to the uncomfortable ambient
conditions, but will actually slow down their work efforts. Other individuals
may choose to leave and/or not return. For example, if you were a restaurant
owner, this latter scenario would not be good for business.
TL/TM in Action
Let's demonstrate how the thermostat and its adjustment can be used in
communicating with your employees. Returning to the "dinner invitation"
scenario, perhaps it could have unfolded differently had Sigas used
"Thermostatic Leadership" to improve the communication and to reach a better
understanding. He could have said, "At my former company we did not socialize
with our employees. Here that may be the custom. Let me think it over and see
if I'm comfortable making some adjustments. I'll let you know by Thursday."
Here's another option. Instead of this manager saying, "No I don't do that,"
(which, without further elaboration, can be taken as superiority-driven and
controlling) Sigas could have acknowledged that he was uncomfortable with JM's
request. In other words, based on her company experience the author's
thermostatic-socializing setting was at variance with Sigas'
socializing/intimacy comfort level. Either way, a clearer announcement of his
thermostatic baseline would have increased JM's understanding and lessened the
likelihood of her taking Sigas' position personally. This supervisor's decision
had been based on his value system, his comfort level, and his past set of
circumstances; it had nothing to do with the author or the professionalism of
Who sets the thermostat? What happens when the employee sets the thermostat?
Try empowering your employees; give them permission to set the thermostat. Of
course, the employee's general and situation-specific experience, quality track
record, and maturity levels will come into play when considering and/or
negotiating the degree of discretionary decision-making. Demonstrated levels of
"authority, autonomy, and accountability" - the "Triple A of Professional
Responsibility" - are key components in determining an interactive thermostatic
setting process. Perhaps your employees don't have full control of the
thermostat but they can make adjustments (and then get your feedback).
Naturally, in a healthy supervisor-employee thermostatic process, there needs to
be mutual feedback channels. Over time and with trust both parties can
participate. Ultimately, the power (and responsibility) is in the manager's
hand; but in most circumstances there should be opportunity for the employee to
negotiate, if not independently set, the thermostatic and output standards.
People have varying levels of comfort/discomfort with such issues as
relationship authority or interpersonal familiarity in the workplace. Using
Thermostatic Management ideally allows both parties (or all relevant parties,
e.g., team thermostatic settings) to potentially influence adjustments and to
achieve the correct or consensus-driven setting. The thermostat can be used to
establish workable levels of closeness or distance, degree of employee
independence in decision-making, etc. Ask your employees where the thermostat
should be set and to maintain open communication when it needs to be raised or
How to Start the Process
You can start by setting the thermostat at 70 degrees and then discuss what that
means to each of you. Create an expectation that your report will give you
feedback. Both parties need to buy into the thermostatic process. If the
employee doesn't come back, does that mean he or she is comfortable with the
setting? Initially, we don't suggest making this assumption. One approach for
being on the same thermostatic page is achieved by saying, "If you don't come
back to me, I will assume you are comfortable with the setting." Even better,
perhaps, build in a routine checking-in time. This should make it easier, for
example, for an employee to come back and inform you the assignment will not be
completed on time. It certainly can make a difference in your stress level.
It's easier to "Practice Safe Stress" when the employee gives you feedback
regarding problems with the initial thermostatic/task setting or his projected
time line a few days ahead of the due date as opposed to giving you an eleventh
hour heads up.
If a deadline is missed or the assignment was not started, there is thermostatic
error. Try to determine the problematic factors in an objective and
non-judgmental manner. (Just the term thermostatic error seems to involve less
"I'm right, your wrong" finger-pointing. Remember, "To err is human….") Of
course, being non-judgmental does not negate the need for people taking
responsibility for acknowledging the critical factors contributing to
operational error or the need for modifying obstacles to a desired outcome. Was
your initial temperature setting objectively realistic? Was their genuine
buy-in on the setting? It's time to go back and review the settings. Make sure
that all parties agree on the thermostatic baselines and contingencies for
modification. Examine, clarify, and provide the instructions for the
assignment. Does the employee truly understand your expectations? Ask him/her
to repeat back the instructions and to paraphrase the procedures if and when
running into problems with the assignment.
There are times when managers must exercise their right to engage in one
directional communication. An example would be when the employee's safety is at
risk. The manager in this case sets the temperature and whether the employee
likes the feel of it or not, he or she can't change it. Perhaps at a later or
safer point, dissatisfaction can be expressed and the manager and employee can
re-start the thermostatic process.
Also, when a team is working towards a common goal, there must be consensus and
good enough buy-in. If one person does not agree on the temperature setting,
hopefully, he/she can adjust in the interest of working as a team member. The
employee can put on a sweater and still be productive within the team.
Obviously, achieving team consensus through a thermostatic process will involve
both one-on-one and small group negotiation, including at times working with
positive allies and disarming negative cliques. Clearly, a process factor to be
weighed is the investment of upfront time. Even though a thermostatic
leadership or management process may take more time, whether in a one-on-one or
in a team setting, why should a manager consider this procedural paradigm? By
involving your people early on in the thermostatic process you will gain the
most employee buy-in to and understanding of the company's mission as well as
your specific goals and objectives. Your employees will more likely believe they
are part of the big vision and daily operations. They will have more meaningful
input along with a greater sense of control in their job performance and job
satisfaction. And the benefits are not all high task. Don't be surprised if
you and your employees reach new levels of comfort and trust. Now wouldn't that
be really cool!
TIPS FOR USING THERMOSTATIC MANAGEMENT
1. Establish trust and create an environment in which employees feel safe
providing you feedback.
2. Set the thermostat with you and your employees' being aware of differences in
backgrounds, personality, and experiences. Acknowledge the differences. Ask:
Can you help me understand your thinking, that is, can you help me better grasp
your thermostatic preferences, comfort, and discomfort levels, etc.?
3. Reduce the potential for personality and gender (or race, age conflict, etc.
issues). For example, consider asking: Does my being female (or male) affect
our ability to communicate in any way? If so, how so?
4. Allow for startup vulnerability and learning curve anxiety when trying to
institute a thermostatic process.
5. Flexibly use your "authority figure" personae. What do your employees expect
from you as the "authority figure." Despite being the authority, whenever
possible try to achieve an adult-to-adult communication exchange rather than a
superior to subordinate mode. (See #1. above.)
6. Use discipline, reward, and a process of communicating/thermostatic setting
and negotiating that both you and the employee find workable, mutually
motivating, and that leads to successful outcomes. Build in periodic check-in
points for monitoring comfort and output levels.
7. Be open to employee input and you and your employees will begin to dismantle
bricks from that wall of misunderstanding, fear, and non-productive distance.
(Most people don't always expect "agreement"; they do, however, want some
"acknowledgement" that their message has been received.) If your employees
think you are listening and not dismissing them, you begin to establish trust.
People feel it's safe to disagree or challenge constructively the authority.
Constructive engagement means employees are not devaluing or disrespecting your
position but are confronting your take on issues and problems, procedures and/or
solutions. The payoff for this openness and the subsequent mutual thermostatic
setting exchange is a greater sense of supervisor-employee partnership.
Subj: Dolly and the Queen
Queen Elizabeth and Dolly Parton die on the same day. They both go before the
angel to find out if they'll be admitted to heaven. Unfortunately, there's only
one space left that day, so the angel must decide which of them gets in. The
angel asks Dolly if there's some particular reason why she should go to heaven,
whereupon she took off her top and said, "Look at these, they're the most
perfect breasts God ever created, and I'm
sure it will please God to be able to see them every day for eternity."
The angel thanks Dolly, and asks Her Majesty the same question. The Queen took a
bottle of Perrier out of her purse, shook it up, and gargled. Then, she spit
into the toilette and pulled the lever. The angel said, "OK, your Majesty, you
may go in."
Dolly is outraged and asks, "What was that all about? I show you two of God's
per! fect creations and you turn me down. She simply gargled and she got in,
Would you explain that to me?"
"Sorry, Dolly," said the angel, "but even in heaven, a royal flush always beats
a great pair."
1. Do not walk behind me, for I may not lead. Do not walk ahead of me, for I
may not follow. Do not walk beside me for the path is narrow. In fact, just f**k
off and leave me alone.
2. The journey of a thousand miles begins with a broken fan belt and a flat
3. The darkest hour is just before dawn. So if you're going to steal your
neighbor's milk, that's the time to do it.
4. Sex is like air. It's not important unless you aren't getting any.
5. Don't be irreplaceable. If you can't be replaced, you can't be promoted.
6. No one is listening until you fart.
7. Always remember you're unique. Just like everyone else.
8. Never test the depth of the water with both feet.
9. If you think nobody cares whether you're alive or dead, try missing a couple
of mortgage payments. (trust me on this one)
10. Before you criticize someone, you should walk a mile in their shoes. That
way, when you criticize them, you're a mile away and you have their shoes.
11. If at first you don't succeed, skydiving is not for you.
12. Give a man a fish and he will eat for a day. Teach him how to fish, and he
will sit in a boat and drink beer all day.
13. If you lend someone $20 and never see that person again, it was probably
14. Some days you are the bug; some days you are the windshield.
15. Don't worry; it only seems kinky the first time.
16. Good judgment comes from bad experience, and a lot of that comes from bad
17. The quickest way to double your money is to fold it in half and put it back
in your pocket.
18. A closed mouth gathers no foot.
19. Duct tape is like the Force. It has a light side and a dark side, and it
holds the universe together.
20. There are two theories to arguing with women. Neither one works.
21. Generally speaking, you aren't learning much when your lips are moving.
22. Experience is something you don't get until just after you need it.
Mark Gorkin, LICSW, "The Stress Doc" ™, is a keynote and
international/Celebrity Cruise Lines motivational speaker, psychotherapist,
syndicated writer, and author of his new book, Practice Safe Stress: Healing
and Laughing in the Face of Stress, Burnout & Depression and The Four
Faces of Anger: Transforming Anger, Conflict and Rage Into Inspiring Attitude
and Behavior. He was the keynote speaker for the Society of Human Resource
Management (SHRM)--Maryland state chapters at their 2004 Leadership Conference.
The Doc, AOL's "Online Psychohumorist," is a training and OD Consultant for
numerous companies, associations and government agencies. Interviewed by the
BBC and Biography magazine, Mark has a multi-award-winning, USA Today Online
www.stressdoc.com . The site was selected as workplace resource in a
National Public Radio feature on "Bad Bosses." For more info, email
firstname.lastname@example.org or call 202-232-8662.
(c) Mark Gorkin 2004
Shrink Rap Productions