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Feb 02, No 1, Sec 1
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The Stress Doc Letter
Cybernotes from the Online Psychohumorist ™

JUN 2002

Fight when you can
Take flight when you must
Flow like a dream
In the Phoenix we trust!

Table of Contents

Heads Up:    Networking Today, HR.com, Training Kit/Book, AOL Chat
Stress Q&A:  Being the "Token Black" in Corporate America
Main Essay:  Maximizing Benefits of Incentive Travel Programs
Readers:      The Art of Enlightenment and Shopping for Husbands

Heads Up:

1. Training Kit: Want to strengthen your ability to lead or market a stress workshop or any kind of speaking/training program?  Consider the Stress Doc Training/Marketing Kit, which includes both "how to" manual and articles and the opportunity for phone coaching.  For more info:
   Training/Marketing Kit or email.

2.  Stress Doc Book:
From Stress Brakes and Shrink Rap to Safe Stress and Cool Moon Cats:
The Wit and Wisdom of the Stress Doc, Stress Doc Enterprises, 1995

A 90 page compilation of my former syndicated radio essays, pioneering songs in the field of psychologically humorous rap music - "Shrink Rap" Productions - a creative visualization poem and other humorous lyrics/poems. "Stress Brake" radio essays are short (300 words), fast-paced and witty, covering such topics as stress, burnout, anger and conflict resolution, time management, creativity, men's and women's issues, romantic relationships, codependency, etc. (They make excellent fillers for newsletters.)

Price: $20 (which covers priority postage and handling)

Make check payable to:  Mark Gorkin

Send check to:

Mark Gorkin
Stress Doc Enterprises
1616 18th Street, NW  #312
Washington, DC 20009-2542

3. Media/Interview:

a) My article or reorganization, "Change Can Be a Stepping Stone" was published by: www.networkingtoday.caClick here: Change Can Be a Stepping Stone
Susan Regier, Publisher

b) "Implementing High Tech and High Touch Teams" is featured on HR.com this week.

4. Chat Group and Live Workshops

a) Stop by my AOL/Digital City Shrink Rap (TM) and Group Chat DC Support Chat, Tuesdays, 9:30-11pm EST DC Support Chat. It's a dynamic, lively, at times witty and always warm, thoughtful and supportive problem-solving group. We raise questions and share our ideas, hopes and experiences with each other.

Stress Doc Work Stress Q & A

Being the "Token Black" in Corporate America:  The Trial of Survival

In the last two months, I've received an emotionally charged call and, most recently, a painfully poignant email from African-American women, one a nurse, the other a paralegal.  Both are cycling between states of anger and a sense of helplessness at the psychological and interpersonal pressures of being their department's or organization's "token black."  The women perceive colleagues as somewhat incredulous regarding their obvious competence; neither conforms to the larger culture's image of minorities with limited income and education.  While their competence is self-proclaimed, my phone conversation with the nurse revealed a thoughtful, articulate woman without a chip on her shoulder.  The email from the legal assistant (see below) also reveals an intelligent observer, though this woman's bubbling anger is more evident.  Perhaps it's just closer to the surface than the anxious frustration and burnout detected in the nurse's voice.  Of course, emailing often lubricates anger expression.  (Email me if interested in my essay on "Email or E-missile?")  Or maybe just hanging out in those Type A law firms ("A" is for "attorney" and "adversarial") eventually helps foster an aggressive survival mode of being.  Though I do sense our writer, at least initially, tried to "fit in."  But no matter how accommodating, an ongoing flow of racially tinged darts leaves drops of poison even under the thickest skins.  However, the issue of bias and racism is not as simple as black and white.

Sometimes, of course, the minority professional may misread or exaggerate the motivation, intention or severity of the perceived or real offensive action.  A cry of bias or discrimination can be influenced and exaggerated by:
a) generalized pent up anger over a lifetime or from specific prejudicial or racially-motivated encounters, i.e., painful encounters in one's own family, at school or previous jobs, etc.,
b) a highly suspicious or overly sensitive nature,
c) the accuser's success in handcuffing supervisors and colleagues, HR Departments, etc., from holding a consistently unsatisfactory or marginal performer accountable and
d) the filing of grievance procedures that inaccurately or disproportionately attributes a relationship or workplace problem to racial factors

Conversely, there's also evidence of members of the majority culture, frustrated by some of the above or by affirmative action or "reverse discrimination," dismissing legitimate minority grievances.  Or, bias raises it's head when people discount the accomplishments of a minority because he or she has been aided by affirmative action (or there's a perception or an assumption of the same.)

Enough introductions…let me present the email.  It covers a lot of ground, on individual, interpersonal, organizational and cultural levels:

Job survival as a token black
Date: 5/26/2002

I am the "token" black on my job.  I am a paralegal at a very large prestigious law firm that has several offices nationwide.  I have a college education, come from an upper middle-class family, and live in the suburbs.  I've been a paralegal for 17 years and I've been on my present job for almost 3 years.  I try very hard to "fit" into these "good old boy" firms but it has become increasingly difficult.  I have what many would consider to be a "good job" with "good" pay, "good" benefits, and "good" hours.  I am often the only person of color at office parties, meeting with clients, etc.  Everything starts off fine but I become tired of trying to "fit" in and being accepted.  I have stopped going to lunch with colleagues due to their racial attitudes and beliefs.  I sometimes feel honored that I have been chosen to represent my race on these jobs.  But other times, it is a burden because I feel that I have to be someone other than who I really am for 8 hours a day.

Some of my fellow colleagues have never been around other black people and if they have it's been blacks who were poor and uneducated.  Sometimes I think they feel a bit threatened or maybe even jealous because I don't fit into their stereotypes about blacks.  I eat, sleep, and breathe just the way they do.  I enjoy black sitcoms, black comedians; I eat soul food and read the latest Ebony Magazine or black-authored books at lunch.  I belong to the NAACP and attend a black church.  This is the essence of who I am, black. 

However, my coworkers frown upon these things.  They comment, "Why do you read that 'junk?'" or "Ooh, you're into that 'black thing.'"  I often avoid topics regarding politics because of my views as a minority. Sometimes I hide what I am reading or avoid going into detail about my life outside of work if it is of an ethnic nature. I have started isolating myself from them but by doing so I have now become a topic for their gossip. 

One woman, white, who I had considered my friend at work, kept touching my hair.  She claimed that her motherly nature always felt the need to remove my long bangs from hanging over my eyes.  At least once a week she would touch my hair or make a comment about my unkempt hair.  Other than that, we got along great and I would not say anything to her about for fear of losing my only friend at work.  She was always supportive and made certain that I was including in luncheons that I would otherwise not have been invited to.

After a year, as this woman went to touch my hair, I blocked her hand and pushed it away.  I angrily told her that I like my style hair and was offended by her touching and comments regarding my hair.  In my anger, I also pointed out that she should look in the mirror at her hair since she shaves the left side of her head right down to the scalp.  She did not apologize.  She was actually offended because I was offended by her offensive touching and comments or maybe she was offended because I finally stood up to her.  I lost my friend.  She now has chosen to talk about me behind my back and make comments about my hair to others as she passes by my desk.

I also stopped eating in the lunchroom after being called "antisocial" (twice) because I chose to sit at another table to read a book or magazine.  I have truly gotten tired of "Catty" women and racial stereotypes.

I recently requested a transfer to another office, primarily to get into a different legal practice area.  (I am interested in labor/employment law).  I was told that there are no current openings to transfer to.  In the meantime, racial occurrences are becoming more frequent but very subtle.  I am considered to be friendly but very quiet and mild mannered.  However, I blew up in anger after being provoked by a young guy who works under me who had refused to do an assignment that I had given him.  It is very apparent that he does not want to work under a black woman and he has taken every opportunity to try to push my buttons.

I am reluctant to discuss my feelings with my (white) bosses for fear that they will not understand, and my inability to prove the subtle way in which racism is rearing its ugly head.  I job hop a lot.  My duration on a job is usually about 3 years because I get burned out of tying to "fit" in.  I've only lasted this long because I'm quiet and try very hard to keep to myself in order to stay out of trouble.  I have a very impressive resume and background.

Most employers and employees think of diversity training as a joke and something that they don't need.  I feel that if a company labels itself as an "equal opportunity employer" then it must hire more than just a "token or 2" of blacks and other minorities.  In addition, employers need to train their employees on how to interact with other races or they end up chasing away the "good" minority employees that they have. We try very hard to "fit" in but we are not truly accepted.  I would love to find out how people like Colin Powell made it to the top.  (I bet he had to eat a lot of crow.)

How do I correct someone (or do I?) who makes a racist comment without worrying about losing my job, being called too sensitive, or making waves?  How do I tell when a person just doesn't like Me or does not like me because I am black?  I fear that my firm will eventually fire me after they try to dig up things wrong with my work performance that would legitimize the termination and avoid a racial lawsuit.  I do not want to sue anyone.  I just want to do my job without all of the petty stuff that is going on.  Does working in corporate America mean that one has to give up their ethnicity to survive?  Do you have any suggestions on how to survive on a job when you're the "token black"?

Stress Doc's Response

While I did reply quickly and briefly to my emailer's letter, she also gave me permission to publish and reflect in greater detail.  I've decided to respond by dividing the letter into segments based on issues and questions raised.  Let me say this is a somewhat risky undertaking being a white male.  I can never fully walk in either woman's shoes nor appreciate the blisters and calluses accrued (though my feet aren't particularly large at 9 ½ D).  With this caveat, here goes:

1.  Fitting In.  The "Good Old Boy" firm can be problematic for many, not just a person of color.  And many -- of all colors, sexes, orientations, etc. -- feel pressured to adapt a work persona or toned down work personality in order to blend and survive in the corporate environment.  I guess this is why they call it work and not play.  So let's focus on another definite pressure point:  how you should be so appreciative of having a "good job" along with the other goodies.  This is especially demeaning if the message is paired with, "You should really feel honored to be let in."  And as you note, this message can come from your own inner voice as well as an outside source.

Of course, it's not fair that you should carry the responsibility of representing your race.  First, you need to remove this shoulder boulder before it becomes a chip.  Once free of this burden and some of the tension and resentment it engenders, you'll be better able to constructively engage others' inappropriate assumptions, if not strategically confront their prejudicial acts.  Unfortunately, if some of your colleagues' life experiences have been shaped by social class-culture segregation then the likelihood of irrational thinking and bias may increase.  And the organization has the responsibility to educate all parties and set limits on offensive or racist behavior.

2.  Affirming vs. Announcing Being Black.  I'm sure it is more than frustrating having to dampen down "the essence of who you are."  A two-pronged hypothesis and strategy comes to mind:

a) is it possible that in response to having enough of trying to "fit in" you have dramatically or persistently announced your cultural blackness?  Of course, this becomes a question of balance:  there are times when it's natural, necessary and desirable to display one's full self.  Still, bringing into the open one's essence -- for example, as a corporate consultant when I model sharing emotions, especially healthy anger around conflict issues -- invariably makes some people quite uncomfortable.

Some are quick to hit me with a label:  "You're (being) too touchy feely!"  Perhaps if I made my point more "rationally" fewer would be upset.  Sometimes there's little that can save you.  One time I was axed from a contract after being asked to facilitate a dysfunctional team process.  I tactfully confronted a micromanaging executive stifling genuine group discussion at a department meeting to which he was an internal consultant.  This exec later become the head of a division during a reorganization and the Stress Doc was history.  So being direct and passionate may be effective (the fateful meeting was the staff's most productive) and may reflect integrity, but there may be consequences.  Clearly some people may not appreciate my being real and "out there."  Some may not like me.  Usually this has less to do with my behavior and more a reflection of the other person's low threshold for feeling threatened, having underdeveloped communication skills, the arrogance of authority and/or low self-esteem problems.

b) while affirming and strategically asserting your blackness is vital, can you work to find or (in light of the isolation) rebuild common ground, even if it's a common enemy, e.g., egotistical or emotionally-challenged attorneys.  Or, engage around the positively stimulating aspects of work.  Or allowing for some sisterly connection even if it's not soul-ful may breathe fresh air in the toxic atmosphere.

3.  Getting Under Your Skin.  It's hard to know if your colleague's comments about "junk reading" and that "black thing" are racist, ignorant or purposefully hostile (or a combo) just to get under your skin.  And as you acknowledge, isolation may only shift the target with people talking behind your back.

I don't subscribe to the school of never showing hurt feelings to an aggressor, as you don't want to give this person the satisfaction of having gotten to you, of having won.  Holding it in all the time often leads to moodiness, lack of confidence, elevated blood pressure and other mind-body stress ailments.  Conversely, blowing up and railing about the aggressor's racism may make it easy to shift the focus to your hypersensitivity or lack of emotional control.  And isolation allows others to attribute your behavior to being standoffish or arrogant, not to their provocation.  (Of course, as an individual, we rarely can control how other adults will think, especially when they don't put much effort in; we can only try and make it a bit harder for them to avoid looking in the mirror.)

Confrontation Strategy

My preference for confrontation:  Let the person know you don't appreciate the remark or comment, with a firm yet mostly even-toned voice.  Use direct eye contact.  If the person tries to blow you off or discount your statement, repeat your pithy yet powerful message.

If this disparaging behavior were repeated, I would assert the following:  "Obviously, we have a problem in communication.  I don't seem to be able to get through to you.  I want us to discuss this with Human Resources."  And if the person is reluctant to go, let him or her know that you intend to ask for a three-way meeting.

Now some may criticize you for running to the "Authority."  Or some may try twisting the knife further while backpedaling by saying, "Can't you take a joke?"  Let's be clear:  a pattern of hostility is hostility (and your situation likely racially tinged) no matter the content or context in which it is delivered.

I liken these hostile jibes to snake bites.  If you don't suck out and spit out the venom with an assertive response (not spit the toxin in your antagonist's face, as tempting as that may be) then the poison will fester and weaken you.  Even trying to remove yourself cannot protect you from "anti-social" snipes.  I'm sure it can feel like a "Catch-22."

The reality is that immature or subtly hostile behavior will continue if you don't get some backing from management.  At the same time, when I respond assertively then I am affirming my essence as a person, worthy of respect, no matter how boorish or hostile the other's behavior.  And as noted, a pattern of hostility or an incident of obvious abuse and intimidation must be confronted and reported immediately.

4.  Catty and Chatty Women.
a. Catty.  The number of complaints shared by women against their female bosses and their colleagues is scary.  And sharpened claws come in all sizes and colors.  Why is this so?  Some pretty obvious theories have been posited:
1) to succeed in the highly competitive, power-driven business world women imitate or are mentored by aggressive male authorities,
2) the presence of a glass ceiling and unequal pay transfers career path frustration into rivalry with female colleagues and
c) sibling-like conflict, whether based on unresolved family of origin dynamics or springing from competition for male attention.  Actually, I'm interested in all readers' ideas as to why women have garnered the "catty" label.

b. Chatty.  As for your former friend at work, with her weekly hair-raising behavior, clearly she was overstepping her bounds despite her "motherly" rationalization.  However, it usually takes two for a dysfunctional dance.  Your "fear of losing your only friend," meant that instead of early on, politely but firmly, setting limits on her intrusive actions, you let her pester and you to fester.  This is one reason for your counterattacking "you" message.  Affirming that you liked your hairstyle was fine.  I would have preferred:  "I'm uncomfortable with (or "I don't appreciate") your touching my hair" as opposed to the emotionally charged "offended."  This is akin to the overused lament about being "disrespected."  To paraphrase Elenore Roosevelt, rarely can a person take away our self-respect without our own complicit involvement.

Also, I suspect your pent-up, somewhat hostile directive for her to "look in the mirror" was a case of displacement.  Over time, frustration, hurt and anger had been building from many sources.  The dam finally broke spilling your wrath over your closest friend.  It's not surprising in light of your pressure-filled efforts "to fit in"; this is similar to how people take out their tension from elsewhere on family members or the ones they may love but with whom they are also dependent.  When strong enough, dependency needs can generate a sense of vulnerability.  One often has mixed feelings toward the person whose approval or sustenance we so dearly need or whose rejection or abandonment we fear.

If you are up to the high road, I would approach this former friend despite her catty counterattacks.  Admit that you overreacted to her motherly touching and advice, while affirming with a non-blaming "I"-message your discomfort with her past behavior.  (You can bring in the effect of in-house/interpersonal pressures; less as an excuse and more a statement of fact.)  And note that you'd rather have this friend on your side then her joining the gossiping crowd.  Perhaps the hardest step is acknowledging the value of your past friendship.

Alas, there's no guarantee that you will be able to rebuild a bridge, but you will likely find more peace having taken this self-affirming step toward détente.  And now the maturity-immaturity "hairball" is squarely in her court!

5.  Collegial Insubordination.  Again we see the "button pushing" interaction along with, perhaps, arrogance, if not intolerance.  While not leading with an accusation of racism, I would directly ask this individual why he's refusing to do the work you've assigned.  Is he getting contradictory messages from a higher up?  Keep a written record of his unsatisfactory performance.

Also, you need to overcome your trepidation of conferring with your white bosses.  Unless deciding on formal legal action (which can be a risky and draining procedure both financially and psychologically; more thoughts on this option later) couch your discussion in terms of your colleague's specific and tangible inadequate performance and actions, not prejudicial motivations.  Assuming that your boss acknowledges that there is a problem, you might ask for a meeting that includes the problematic employee and both your supervisors.  Try to establish agreement on the unacceptable behavior, the expected performance and cooperation goals and action plans, including your sphere of authority with respect to this colleague.  Also, ask for a two-week follow-up evaluation meeting with all parties.

6.  In-House Options.  If your boss basically dismisses your concern from the outset, you may still have some options:
a) if the firm has an Employee Assistance Program (EAP), schedule an appointment.  Sometimes an EAP counselor can get management's attention.  And having an objective person to vent and problem-solve with, as well as help you grieve your loss of an "ideal" -- a good fit work environment in which you do not have to banish your ethnicity -- as well as grieve/rehab your current burnout condition is strongly recommended and
b) speak to the head of Human Resources about the variety of your concerns.  From the content and tone of your letter -- diversity training is seen as a joke, the façade of "equal opportunity" -- I'm not encouraged.  But it's an avenue that should be tested.

7.  Being Set Up for Failure and Outside Options.  Are your suspicions unfounded about the prospect of your supervisor or management digging up "black marks" on your work performance?  (Clearly, it's hard to escape completely the effects of racism when it is so embedded in our language.)  Living in Washington, DC, I know this kind of subterfuge and sabotage do occur for a host of reasons and motivations.  Still, my recommended strategy involves a forthright discussion with management:  a) about the stressors (non-provocative word choice) in the work environment and b) asking for help in coming up with individual and group coping and remediation strategies for improving the cooperative and productive fit for you in the firm. 

For back up, consider consulting with a labor or NAACP attorney.  This consultation might enable you to come up with some specific, realistic and achievable short-term actions that management might consider.  Management addressing the systemic-racial issues without more formal pressure seems questionable.  Though, who knows, this seems to be the time for female whistleblowers, e.g., think of Ms. Watkins at Enron and Ms. Cowley of the FBI.  (You might even playfully note you aren't trying to be the next Ms. Watkins; but only say this if you think the guy has a good sense of humor ;-).  At the least, will they make a good faith effort to keep their "good minority employee?"   If not then two basic options:  a) a legal suit, which is a large investment of time, money and anxiety and not to be undertaken casually and/or b) pulling up stakes.  (More on this shortly.)

8.  Equal Opportunity Employer and the Challenge of Diversity Training.  I'm sure there are companies claiming to be "equal opportunity employers" and are engaging in false advertising or half-hearted practice.  And abuses of Affirmative Action programs also occur.  And while establishing a floor on minority hiring makes sense to me (in order for a diversity of perspective and experience) ultimately the numbers for hiring and promotion should be based on talent not tokens.  What I like about affirmative hiring is it gives some folks who might otherwise remain on the sidelines a chance at the starting gate.  The reality is that a percentage of these folks will not be able to run, compete or complete the race even with proper training and support.  But a significant percentage will…and keep running well.

One challenge to the issue of Affirmative Action and viable race relations is when people indiscriminately cry racism as the explanation for sub par performance.  As the Medical Director of a health unit of a major federal agency (btw, an African-American woman) recently shared, "many grievance procedures inappropriately site racism as the source for the grievance."  Yet, as you note, racism can be subtle and still quite aversive.

This complex backdrop surely puts added pressure on cultural diversity training programs.  Many folks do become defensive and dismissive believing, as you note, "it's a joke and something they don't need."  While it's not time for getting on my soapbox on how to run live training programs, one caveat must be emphasized:  diversity training that only focuses on the overt and covert racist behavior of the majority is bound to fail.  Again, better to identify inappropriate, provocative and dysfunctional behavior -- subtle and otherwise.  At the same time information that helps employees appreciate different values, cultural expressions, communication styles and tastes is vital.  So too some open dialogue that allows all parties to express some of their frustrations, rational or otherwise, as long as this occurs in a non-attacking, non-scapegoating manner under the supervision of a capable leader/facilitator.  In my mind, all parties learning some universal, "emotionally intelligent" communication and conflict resolution skills are as critical as raising diversity awareness.

And, of course, top management must affirm that there will be significant negative consequences when workplace standards are breached.  Finally, if needed, disciplinary action must be applied in a timely and proportionate manner.

9.  To Be Liked or Not to Be Liked?  How do you tell if someone doesn't like your attitude or behavior or doesn't like you for being black?  And if your essence is your blackness as you note (though your being human and female are two other essentials I would argue) this is hard to untangle.  As for determining if another person's position is racist or biased, in addition to sometimes just trusting your gut, consider these options:
a) after you civilly and assertively express your state of discomfort, how do they respond immediately and in the short run?  Many of us have a tendency to get testy when initially corrected or criticized and
b) assuming you remain pleasant and professional, do they become more considerate and friendly in the next interaction or over time?  If so, there's hope that they can make some personal and ethical growth.

10.  Surviving in Corporate America.  You need one or two people in your workplace corner for support - a colleague, an attorney, a supervisor or HR person.  Long-term survival in this work environment without developing some serious stress-burnout-depression symptoms is unlikely.  At this point, the web of negativism has too many racial-hostile threads to be easily disentangled without some serious efforts by all parties involved.  And this change process would likely need to be guided by a skilled outside organizational consultant.

Lacking the above, I believe you will need to change jobs; maybe even leaving the firm is best.  I have done a lot of programs for paralegals in Washington, DC law firms.  While many of the firms still have diversity issues, African-American women often head the legal assistant department or are the legal administrators for the firms.  Diversity issues can usually, at least, placed on the table.  To find a working environment that's more comfortable with diversity you may have to move to a location where you are not such a token minority.  I know this would make me feel enraged.  Why do I have to move, when you all have the problem?  But people have been leaving home for wider horizons and prospects throughout the history of humankind.  So do you're your due diligence - in the psychological, communicational and legal realms - and consider these quotes, the first by songwriter/singer Kris Kristoferson, the second by Nobel Prize-winning author, Albert Camus:

"Freedom's just another word for nothing left to lose."

"Once we have accepted the fact of loss we understand that the loved one obstructed a whole corner of the possible pure now as a sky washed by rain."

Surely words to help us all…Practice Safe Stress!

And let me hear your thoughts on this complex and compelling issue.


Here is a brief reply from our emailer just prior to my publishing the June newsletter:

Thank you for your responses.  I will think about everything that you have said.  I am currently searching for another job.  Hopefully, it won't take too long.  I do feel anger building in me and I'm the type that holds a lot in.  I think I will try to finish up some projects at work and take a vacation.  By all means, you may use my story for your newsletter.

Mark Gorkin, LICSW, "The Stress Doc" ™, is an internationally recognized speaker and syndicated writer on stress, anger management, reorganizational change, team building and HUMOR!  He is America Online's "Online Psychohumorist" ™ with a USA Today Online "HotSite" - www.stressdoc.com.  For more info, email stressdoc@aol.com or call 202-232-8662.

©  Mark Gorkin  2002
Shrink Rap Productions

Main Essay: 

(Eds. note:  This essay evolved from specific questions recently posed by Event Solutions magazine.)

The Stress Doc reflects on both the value of Incentive Travel/Corporate Rewards Programs for high achievers and the restorative and creative opportunities when taking an "incubation vacation."  He provides some tips for maximizing both.  Enjoy the ride.

Maximizing the Productivity and Psychological Benefits
of Incentive Travel Programs

In today's "lean-and MEAN" economic world almost all employees are subjected to the rapid cycling of corporate downsizing and constant upgrading.  Stress, employee retention and company loyalty, not surprisingly, are critical issues.  One way of recognizing and refueling individual hearts and minds as well as the bottom line is through a potent Incentive Travel Program (ITP).  In addition to their glamorous and exotic appeal, Incentive Travel Programs (ITPs) most effectively increase productivity when they are "Four 'C'-ing":  they bolster "Confidence" & "Competence," "Camaraderie" & "Cooperation" both between the corporation and the high achievers and within the specially designated group of performers.  A climate of healthy competition, high performance and company appreciation and commitment is instilled when ITPs are:
a) perceived as fair and not clouded by favoritism,
b) potentially winnable by most, if not all, relevant personnel,
c) offering a meaningful and memorable award,
d) reflecting some personal recognition of the individual's personality and workstyle,
e) structured so that throughout the year there are periodic incentive milestones, that is, a stepladder of success, culminating in the distinctive travel reward and
f) paths, processes and products for improving on past performance.   I call it offering Corporate IRAs:  Incentives, Rewards & Recognition and Advancement Opportunities.

Psychological Benefits for Individual-Corporate Connection

The psychological -- personal and professional -- benefits of vital incentive programs are significant.  These include:
a) strengthening the emotional, conceptual and ideological bond between high performers and the corporate identity, the vision and mission and the goals and objectives.  When we feel passionate about a product, process or service not only do we work harder in the short-term but also this dynamic helps build longer-range commitment and loyalty,

b) giving individual recognition to high achievers beyond financial reward.  As Mark Twain observed:  "I can live two months off a good compliment."  Does this kind of recognition help affirm a person's self-esteem, strengthen confidence and a sense of one's marketability?  Just ask those Hollywood stars if they covet an Oscar nomination let alone the award!,

c) especially with a national (or international) incentive program, bringing together high performers from across the country or the globe, there's a unique opportunity for far-reaching brainstorming.  A company can disseminate new ideas and, if smart, truly allow attendees to give feedback and engage in design and development, not just be the "Amen" chorus. You want to both find commonality amongst the divergent group ("the one in the many") and recognize diversity and difference (of people and procedures, ideas and ideals, etc.) in the corporate collective ("the many in the one"),

d) integrating entertainment and the educational by creating a vibrant vacation that mixes reward with some playful team building activities (without the program becoming a professional conference).  For example, my Practice Safe Stress Programs have been successfully incorporated in ITPs.  A discussion and drawing exercise safely and playfully encourages participants to identify the sources of workplace stress and conflict.  After itemizing various company stressors, teams of four or five, with colored markers and large flipchart paper in hand, come up with a stress logos, visual symbols, even their own Dilbert-like cartoon.  Believe me, when doing programs for the US Navy, I see plenty of sinking ships and sharks swimming in the water.  Also seen:  stalking dinosaurs, devils with whips, whirling tornadoes, etc.  And invariably there is near riotous laughter throughout the drawing and post-drawing/large group-sharing segment (where groups show and tell about their creative designs).  Allowing the troops to occasionally blow off steam or poke fun in a creative, team-focused manner (not just through griping) is a great way for letting folks share real feelings and frustrations, not feel isolated, see another's perspective, experience team synergy, strengthen morale and trust (that is, top management can handle some criticism), and…have FUN!

e) heightening the company recognition and visibility of top performers.  These individuals are better able to become mentors and role models -- in such areas as commitment, tenacity, risk-taking, creative problem-solving, building networks, etc. -- for folks just starting the climb up that ladder of success.

Taking an "Incubation Vacation"

In addition to specific features and rewards of Incentive Travel, there are the general and psychic benefits of being on vacation and breaking from the routine.  The ideal vacation provides both relaxation and stimulation.  Go for "R, R & R":  Rest, Recreation and Rejuvenation!  After a year of intense pushing, the mind, the body and the soul need to be nurtured.  A vacation allow us to:
a) get briefly off "The Type A Race Track"...to get refueled, refreshed and refitted,

b) get outside the box or cube.  A change of scenery, literally letting go of the habitual patterns or daily schedule, taking an "incubation vacation," allows one to hatch a new perspective, to truly think and create out of the box.  Vacations allow more psychic space for our intuitive, pre-verbal and, often, subconscious right-brain to maneuver.  Also, there's nothing like gazing across the ocean or being contemplative on a mountain range for gaining or percolating "the big picture."

c) be exposed to new physical settings and cultures.  For example, years back, flying from New York City (where I was born and lived most of my first two decades) to New Orleans (where I resided in the mid-'70s and '80s - my "American in Cajun Paris" years) I was sitting next to a NYC banker heading for a conference in "The Big Easy."  Somehow the conversation turned to a new customer service innovation:  feeder lines.  The banker noted that more efficient ("Jet") service was "The Big Apple" rationale.  His eyes widened upon hearing that the new procedure "way down yonder" was called "Personal Service" for the more private window experience.  Different strokes for different folks.

d) And speaking of flying, ITPs are a great way of helping individuals who have become disgruntled or hesitant to fly to overcome their travel inertia.  Or to help folks realize, once again, that cyberspace is not the only way to travel.  ITPs should reveal the limits of virtual reality!

Maximizing the Reward and ROI

In addition to blending rest and stimulation, education and entertainment, big party nurture and big picture nature, three final suggestions for maximizing the ITP reward factor, psychological benefits and return of investment:
a) when workforce numbers are sufficiently large, employ an award gradient.  Using the Olympics as a model, provide ITPs for your Gold, Silver and Bronze top performers.  (Consider playing your golden guy's or gal's school song at an award's ceremony. Just kidding. ;-)  Of course, there's special recognition for your Gold Medal winners, but this paradigm shift increases the numbers in the company committed to top performance, the ITP process and to the company itself,

b) continuing the sports reference, why not rewards for "Most Improved Performer" and "Rookie of the Year"? and

c) integrate spouses in the ITP.  In our 24/7 world, where the walls between workplace and home are forever being chipped away, the role of the supportive spouse or partner is more critical than ever.  A mate has had to accept and cope with the top performer coming home late, out of town business trips, workplace tensions occasionally spilling over to the home front, etc.  The behind the scenes support person deserves to be rewarded as well.  Bottom line, this truly "significant other" is often a critical factor in sustaining a top-flight individual's performance level and commitment to the company.  And having a mix can be fun.  I recall a Las Vegas getaway speaking to business owners the first day then doing joint owners-spouses programs the next.  The spouses-partners really got involved:  they had an arena to good naturedly vent and playfully poke fun.  (Maybe this addition also adds a needed touch of humility when these high performers' egos are constantly being feted.)  The owners had a chance to affirm how much the spouse meant to their success.  It was truly a fun, affirming and win/win production and an opportunity for all to...Practice Safe Stress!


Readers Submissions:

Subj:  The Art of Enlightenment


Subj: shopping for husbands...
From:  Badneez1

There was this "Husband shopping Center" where a woman could go to choose from among many men, for her husband. It was laid out in five floors, with the men increasing in positive attributes as you ascended up the floors. The only rule was, once you opened the door to any floor, you must choose a man from that floor, and if you went up a floor, you couldn't go back down except to leave the place. So, a couple of girlfriends go to the place to find men.

First floor: The door had a sign saying, "These men have jobs and love kids." The women read the sign and say, "Well that's better than not havring jobs, or not loving kids, but I wonder what's futher up?" So up they go.

Second floor: "These men have high paying jobs, love kids, and are extremely good looking" Hmmm, say the girls. But, I wonder what's further up?

Third floor: "These men have high paying jobs, are extremely good looking, love kids and help with the housework." WOW! say the women. Very tempting, BUT, there's more further up! And up they go.

Fourth Floor: "These men have high paying jobs, love kids, are extremely good looking, help with the housework, and have a strong romantic streak." Oh mercy me. But just think! What must be awaiting us further up! So up to the fifth floor they go.

Fifth floor: The sign on the door said, "This floor is just to prove that women are impossible to please. Please exit the building and have a nice day."

Mark Gorkin, LICSW, "The Stress Doc" ™, is an internationally recognized speaker and syndicated writer on stress, anger management, reorganizational change, team building and HUMOR!  His monthly newsletter was just featured by List-A-Day.com and syndicated writings appear in HR.com, WorkforceOnline, Mental Help Net, Event Solutions, Financial Services Journal Online, etc.  He is America Online's "Online Psychohumorist" ™ (Keyword:  Stress Doc) leading a weekly chat group for AOL/Digital City -- http://www.digitalcity.com/washington/stressdr DC Stress Chat. Check out his USA Today Online "HotSite" - www.stressdoc.com Stress Doc homepage. For more info, email stressdoc@aol.com or call 202-232-8662 (in Wash, DC).

(c) Mark Gorkin 2002
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