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The Stress Doc Letter
Cybernotes from the Online Psychohumorist ™


JUNE 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:    PODn My Invasion:  Challenging the Prejudices and Practices of the
                      Conventional Publishing/Bookselling World
Main Essay:    Managing the Belligerent Employee in a Healing Space

Section II

Readers:        What Every Non-Nerd Owner Knows; Disorder in the Court
Offerings:       Training Kit, Books, CD and AOL Chat

Shrink Rap:

Attempting to market his new self-published book, the Stress Doc encounters some closed-minded and closed-door reactions by those in the book business.  This experience evokes examples of past discrimination and absurd connotation as well as a call to revolution.


PODn My Invasion
Challenging the Prejudices and Practices of the
Conventional Publishing/Bookselling World

Little did I know that the publication of my new book, Practice Safe Stress:  Healing and Laughing in the Face of Stress, Burnout & Depression would transform my life into a dramatic script and turn me into a POD person.  Before getting on with my story, let me clarify the concept.  "Print On Demand" or POD usually involves a prospective author paying a reasonable initial fee to a self-publishing house for getting a book ready for publication.  Formerly, the self-publishing process was called "Vanity Press," and publication usually required a large initial run and considerable financial investment.  (My self-publishing venture should not come as a surprise.  You mean you haven't heard that classic adage, "Vanity thy name is Gorkin"?)  With a manuscript on electronic file, now "print on demand" is the order of the day.  My publishing partner, Author House (formerly FirstBooks), only prints upon receipt of a paid book order, whether the order comes from me, an individual ordering from their site, a book distributor or from an online or offline store retailer.  Computer technology and high-speed publication eliminate the need for the warehousing of books.

My initial association to the POD acronym was to the old sci-fi thriller, and I was prescient: there are still significant numbers in the publishing world who seem to envision "Print On Demand" authors as spreading an inferior literary genre if not a virulent subspecies.  As a POD, I'm contaminating "real" books, if not insidiously taking over the bodies (or space on bookstore shelves) of legitimate writers, i.e., those authors and their texts under contract to a "bricks and mortar" publishing house.  The title of this new scary plot, of course:  "The Invasion of the Book & Body Snatchers."

As often happens during periods of social, technological and economic revolution, many of the people and institutions in power have a vested interest in protecting their turf.  Hey, maintaining market share is American as apple pie and Microsoft.  (Ooops, bad example; Microsoft's been convicted on "restraint of trade.")  However, the publishing world is turning into a "good vs. evil" or "black vs. white" battleground.  When an industry justifies preferential actions based on stereotypical labeling and prejudicial assumptions while enacting rigid barriers to an equal opportunity playing field, then discriminatory thinking and practice is both individual and institutional.  From book buyers narrowly considering acceptable titles to officious managers deciding which books are worthy of store entrance, some in the industry are attempting to erect a caste-like structure.  I can envision signs on the front of traditional "brick and mortar" bookstores, especially the chains:  "No PODs Allowed" or "PODs - Go to the back of the store" or "PODestrians' Entrance." Or inside the store, POD books are confined to the back rows and bottom shelves.

Prejudice Present and Past

While a novice in exploring this book publishing/marketing territory, I've already encountered a variety of:  a) demeaning and dismissive interactions and b) exclusionary policies and practices.  And it's hard for this prejudgment not to feel prejudicial and personal.  Perhaps I'm out of practice.  It's been many years since I've been the target of blatant discrimination, whether individually or as part of a social class or cultural group.  Most of the experiences have involved being Jewish in the Deep South:  a) in Army Basic Training in the late-'60s, some extra harassment, for example, more pushups, extra KP, some verbal taunting, etc. or b) periodically (and not just in the South), a throwaway complaint in a conversation by someone not aware of my religious background about his or her experience during a transaction of having been "Jewed down."

As for social-geographical class, there were several mid-'70s incidents where my status as a Northerner in Louisiana, revealed by a New York State license plate, got me unwanted attention, harassment and threats from local police authorities.  One incident involved driving through rural southwest Louisiana on Labor Day and being pulled over for "speeding" in a school zone.  Clearly, this state trooper just wanted to hassle me and to demonstrate his power.  He made me stand in his presence for several minutes.   Upon letting me go without a ticket he sneered, "Don't come back through our town."

Another incident occurred near the Old Sugar Bowl Stadium in New Orleans.  Traffic came to a halt despite a green light as a police officer waved pedestrians across Claiborne Avenue.  The roadway had cleared, the light was again green and being the lead car I started to slowly accelerate.  All of a sudden a big burly police body steps off the curb and approaches my car.  Having noticed my plates he bellows:  "You're in Louisiana now, boy.  You're going to follow my directions."  Apparently, I had not waited for "the authority" to give me the signal to proceed.

Of course, a strategy for circumventing this regional prejudice was readily available:  I quickly traded visible nicknames -- from "Empire State" to "Bayou State."

Oh, one other darkly amusing mid-'70s, time warp example involving prejudicial labeling of the south's archenemy.  During the fall of '74 we had a heat wave that was affecting air quality.  After a particularly bad day, a front page headline on The Times Picayune, New Orleans' major newspaper:  "Local Smog Due to Yankee Hot Air Inversion."  "Toto, we are not in Kansas anymore!"  (Now if this headline were a critique of the stale platitudes of northern politicos, it would have hardly been remarkable.)

To POD or Not to POD?

Obviously, compared to many other folks my previous bouts with discrimination are the exception not the rule and, in life's scheme of things, not exceptionally severe.  Which means that coming face-to-face with the big chain or media world's anti-POD-ian attitudes and behaviors has been surprising and frustrating.  Here are some recent jarring encounters:

1.  Not Being Politically Correct.  Actually, it's not just the big guys who are pulling my chain.  The book buyer at Politics and Prose, a very popular independent bookstore in D.C., was immediately wary upon hearing of my offering's self-published status.  It took all my charm to get permission to drop off three books for consignment.  (Consignment means the store doesn't buy the book outright; the book is stocked and the store and author split profits from any sales.)  However, to the book buyer's credit, once she saw my book with its quality look and feel, with its shiny white cover and its clever title, along with a picture of Munch's "The Scream" enclosed in the universal sign of negation, along with the word "HUMOR" inside the diagonal line bisecting the circle (just below the angst-ridden figure's gaping mouth)…she quickly warmed to my baby.

2.  Olsson's Open-Mindedness…Not!  A store manager of this mostly local chain basically closed the door in my face.  It was simple:  "We don't associate with POD people!"  The fact that seventeen books have sold at my teahouse in less than a month didn't concern this gentleman.

In similar fashion, Waldenbooks will not include PODs in their computer database of books.  GRRR!  Talk about not even being allowed on the playing field.  Writing these words further crystallizes the irony:  Just add an "N" to POD to form a new word.  This company's namesake surely betrays the philosophical spirit -- the freedom, independence, the questioning of the conventional, etc. -- of Henry David Thoreau and his masterpiece:  On Walden Pond.

3.  Not Going Post-al:  Odd POD Out.  A number of people suggested sending Practice Safe Stress to The Washington Post's Book World.  Clearly the chances of being selected for review are quite low…but what the heck.  As it turns out, there are no odds for PODs.  Apparently the book review staffers, in true bureaucratic Washington fashion, are engaging in a serious and weighty (hot air?) debate as to the review-worthiness of self-published offerings.  According to the voice message (or should it be called a mind-numbing voice massage):  "The subject of 'print on demand' books is under advisement."  Oh thank you master.  Talk about a "Post-al Plantation" mentality.

How about this image, sparked by a fellow regular at Teaism, my local tea and art house hangout:  the masses are beginning to pound the publishing palace gates, but the guardians of literary legitimacy remain vigilant against the next sociocultural revolution - PODism.  You can't let in the writing riffraff.  Gee, I thought we had achieved "freedom of the press" a few centuries ago.  Guess it applies more to newspaper reporting and self-protection than freedom in self-publishing.  (Of course, I can hear an establishment voice declaring:  "Come on you PODs, stop whining.  You have the BLOGS.")   A suggestion:  Why not a section in the Sunday book review called "POD World"?  Of course, this could be seen as another form of "separate but equal."  For the moment I can live with "Distinction Yes, Discrimination No."

4.  Lambda Resisting and Repressing.  Speaking of discrimination, the final example involves a double-barreled shoot down:  my being a POD and my preference in bods.  I called the book buyer for Lambda Rising, a bookstore that played a historic role in the battle for gay and lesbian rights in Washington, DC.  While this individual had some reservations about my POD status, the deal breaker was more personal:  As an author, I wasn't "the right sexual orientation" for the store.

Silly me.  I thought stress transcended such issues as gender and sexual orientation.  And with the book's title - Practice Safe Stress - and the book's whimsical and "out of the box," if not outrageous, substance and style…I believed the fit particularly apt for folks often on the cutting edge of the conventional, if not outside the main literary stream or literal main stream.


Once again I've learned a powerful lesson:  when you are on the leading edge of change, removed from the corridors of convention and power, might too often makes right and the meek are wrong or caste (out).  Okay, this second-class citizen is ready to take on the establishment - to raise my pen, mouse, keyboard and fist and shout "POD Power"…"Power to the PODs."  Let's create a world where baby PODs have equal opportunity to commingle on bookshelves and tables with those upper crust or celebrity publishing house offerings.  (Whose covers smell better, I'm sure.)  With the words of Dr. Martin Luther King as a catalyst, why not an industry where the judged quality and visibility of books are not based on the coolness of their covers but on the character of their content!

I want my POD to grow to its full potential.  Any other POD people out there ready for an invasion?  If so, drop me a line.

Write On…and, of course, Practice Safe Stress!

Main Essay:

[Ed. Note: This article was requested by DAYSPA Magazine.}

The Stress Doc examines the impact of a belligerent employee working in a spa or salon.  As an owner or office manager, do you know how to insure tranquility and team spirit in your workspace?

Preserving Tranquility In the Face of Hostility
Managing the Belligerent Employee in a Healing Space

For most businesses success requires a workplace environment based on effective communication and coordination among management, staff and clients or customers.  However, for a spa or salon, such conditions are merely the necessary foundation.  As a business owner of a nurturing space you also must support a work climate that is intimate and seemingly pressure-free.  Might we say that such a harmonious ambiance is a blend of high task and high touch?

However, a number of health- and peace-conscious organizations invite their own dis-ease and disorder by not knowing how to manage the emotionally negative or belligerent employee.  Two effects are predictable when such a "stress carrier" goes unchecked:  a) your spa's tranquil atmosphere will be disrupted and b) your client's desired state of serenity will be contaminated.  For example, a client is in an intimate if not vulnerable state when working with a massage professional.  Some interpersonal simpatico and a basic sense of trust that he or she is in professionally skilled and "good hands" are essential for a healing and harmonizing experience.  Negative or overly aggressive energy is a virus corrupting the serene and the sensual.

In addition, when top management does not address the behavior and attitude of a belligerent employee both clients and staff will question the quality of service and the professionalism of the salon as well as your capacity for leadership.

Signs of Negativity

Here are three key warning signs that cut across the operational spectrum:

1.  Reactivity and Impatience.  Clients often come to a spa or salon carrying some level of stress.  A problem employee is often reactive, quick to take comments personally.  Such an employee shows a reduced capacity for being an empathic listener.  A therapist caught up in his or her static can hardly be fully present with a client.  For example, such an individual may frequently look at his or her watch or brusquely declare, "Your thirty minutes are up!"

2.  Competition Over Cooperation.  Combative employees often isolate themselves or appear aloof.  They are not team players; in fact, they may be prima donnas.  (Whether they even warrant the status of being "a legend in their own minds" may well be debatable.)  These individuals may not extend courtesies to their colleagues; for example, he or she won't share soothing oils or CDs with co-workers.  Such a cold or prickly person not only irritate clients but also can have a chilling impact on team camaraderie and support.  (Read on.)

3.  Bad Mouthing.  Whether competing for clients or just projecting their own state of dissatisfaction, some hostile employees talk negatively about others - criticizing colleagues, the ownership, etc.  And this negativity frequently occurs behind the target's back:  "Can you believe so-and-so did (or said) such-and such?"  Such individuals may even try recruiting negative allies among clients and staff thereby creating morale-draining cliques.

Clearly, all facets of your business - the client experience, staff morale and the legitimacy of leadership - are in jeopardy if you are not actively confronting such a dysfunctional individual.  So the obvious question:  as a business owner how do you constructively engage the belligerent employee and set limits on his or her disruptive and demoralizing behavior?  Now let me make this "Q & A" a bit more complex and compelling:  let's assume this individual is a talented therapist and/or a high producer.  (If this negative individual doesn't bring positive attributes to the [massage] table, your decision-making process is simplified…unless she is a blood relative.  Then the dynamics can become quite entangled, and family therapy not just organizational strategy may be indicated.)

Strategic Interventions

Here are five strategic steps for dealing with a negative or belligerent employee:

1.  Begin an Informal Exploration and Heads Up.  An owner or manager needs to intervene quickly and decisively at the first sign of belligerence or harsh negativity.  This intervention may range from exploring the person-situation factors behind the hostile behavior to determining whether the employee is able or willing to acknowledge his or her problematic actions and attitude.  Also review with the employee appropriate ways of responding when frustrated, including having a ventilation meeting with you or a supervisor.  Make clear that polluting the workplace atmosphere is totally unacceptable.  (At the same time, be careful about becoming too personal in your questioning.  Remember, you are the employee's manager not their therapist.  Maintaining this boundary is especially tricky when the employee is a personal friend.)

2.  Start a Documentation Process.  However, you don't have to wait for a dramatic incident to begin engaging constructively a hostile or negative employee.  If you start having some question about an employee's hostility or passive-aggressive attitude, or there already have been a couple of code yellow warning signs, after an initial heads up meeting you or your manager need to start documenting any signs of unprofessional or disruptive activity.  Also remember, for an effective intervention process an owner and manager or supervisor must be on the same page in terms of their assessment of the employee's problematic behavior and the subsequent remedial recommendations.  If you don't want dysfunctional family dynamics to infiltrate your tranquil space, don't allow a provocative individual to play one authority against the other.

3.  Develop a Performance Improvement Plan.  Depending on the nature of the hostile incident or reaction and depending on your desire to reeducate and positively motivate this individual, a formal improvement plan may be a wise next step.  This plan should detail specific behavioral and interpersonal objectives (e.g., examples of team cooperation) and performance goals (e.g., constructive ways of communicating frustration or anger, when to talk with a manager, etc.).  If you sense that the employee has some personal or family issues that may be fueling the belligerence, you may want to ask if the employee has thought about some short-term psychological counseling.  (Cognitive-behavioral therapy often can effect meaningful change in six to twelve sessions.  Some businesses pay for a time-limited number of counseling sessions as a company benefit.)  Again, the challenge is not to become too intrusive in the employee's life.  Expecting professional behavior on the part of all employees and management staff must be the bottom line.

Whether this individual does or does not accept the counseling recommendation set up a regular (weekly?) schedule for at least a month.  With the Performance Improvement Plan as the standard, these meetings will monitor the employee's office communications and working relations with clients, staff and management.

And if you haven't been having twice a year performance reviews with all employees, please consider such a move.  First, this provides formal performance feedback.  Second, if the feedback process is mutual, then management and staff issues are uncovered (including the presence of a covertly aggressive or an early-stage hostile employee).  A give and take performance review fortifies understanding and relating.  In addition, an ongoing and open process will keep you in touch with individual and team dynamics that affect workplace morale and harmony.  (Clearly, "Organizational IRAs" - Incentives, Rewards and Recognition and Advancement Opportunities - should be provided on a timely basis throughout the year.)

4.  Hold a Team Meeting.  Though understandable, many people try ignoring or avoiding the belligerent employee. If this individual has been polluting your company climate for a period of time, you may need to hold a stress debriefing for other staff members.  Bullies more often leave psychic scars than actual ones. (And while our focus has been on the frontline employee, the ambient tension and the degree of trauma often increase dramatically when the bully is in a management position.)

If the problematic individual is no longer on staff, then you or an office manager need to facilitate a group venting session.  There likely is lingering frustration:  a) towards the employee and b) towards ownership for tolerating a dysfunctional work environment.  If this problematic individual will continue on staff and there is unresolved resentment, then consider bringing in a conflict/team building consultant to hold a team intervention with all parties.  This consultant will both provide individual coaching and will help the group work through unresolved anger or hurt, helping to clear the air.  In the right hands, the intervention does not have to regress into a group primal scream session.  (The Stress Doc is rested and ready.  My motto:  "Have Stress?  Will Travel!)  The resultant fresh air and renewed tranquility is worth the team-building investment.

5.  Develop and Disseminate a Work Environment Policy.  Finally, ask staff for input on developing both a performance review plan as well as a "Harmonious Work Environment" policy.  It's also wise to consult with a lawyer and/or a Human Resource consultant versed in personnel procedure and hostile workplace policy, including intervention and prevention steps.  Create a formal manual and distribute it to all personnel.  Finally, follow these actions with some formal "harmonious environment" training.

Closing Summary

This article has examined three broad stress-warning signs indicating the presence of a emotionally negative or belligerent employee:  1) "Reactivity and Impatience," 2) "Competition Over Cooperation" and 3) "Bad Mouthing."  The nurturing and harmonious ambiance of a spa or salon will likely be compromised when ownership does not know how to manage such a problematic individual.  Five strategic interventions for engaging such an employee were posited:  1) Begin an Informal Exploration and Heads Up, 2) Start a Documentation Process, 3) Develop a Performance Improvement Plan, 4) Hold a Team Meeting and 5) Develop and Disseminate a Work Environment Policy.  Hopefully, these steps and strategies will rejuvenate positive energy and a productive and harmonious space and also help all health- and peace-loving parties…Practice Safe Stress!

Mark Gorkin, LICSW, "The Stress Doc" ™, an international/Celebrity Cruise Lines speaker, training consultant, psychotherapist, syndicated writer, and upcoming author of Practice Safe Stress:  Healing and Laughing in the Face of Stress, Burnout & Depression.  The Doc leads Managing Anger/Preventing Violence workshops for the national professional continuing education training company, PESI Healthcare.  Mark, recently interviewed by BBC Radio, has a multi-award-winning, USA Today Online "HotSite" -- www.stressdoc.com -- cited as workplace resource in a National Public Radio feature.  As AOL's "Online Psychohumorist," ™ Mark runs his weekly Shrink Rap and Group Chat.  Email for his monthly newsletter recently showcased on List-a-Day.com.For more info on the Doc's "Practice Safe Stress" programs, email stressdoc@aol.com or call 202-232-8662.

(c)  Mark Gorkin  2004

Shrink Rap Productions