The Stress Doc™ Newsletter
FROM THE ONLINE PSYCHOHUMORIST™
APR 2004, Sec. I
Fight when you can
Take flight when you must
Flow like a dream
In the Phoenix we trust!
Table of Contents
Work Q & A: Confronting
the Abrupt and Disturbing Loss of a Company Leader
Readers: Three Men In a Sauna, What Does Love Mean?
Main Essay: Safe
Stress Tips for the Springtime
of Gibson vs. the Passion of Gorkin
Heads Up: PESI Healthcare, Paralegal SuperConference & Building
Offerings: Training Kit, Books, CD and AOL Chat
The Stress Doc responds to an HR leader's serious request for help when a
Regional President's abrupt departure and HQ's subsequent indecision regarding
replacement has produced a high pressure system. The resultant climate:
insecurity and inertia.
Confronting the Abrupt
and Disturbing Loss of a Company Leader
Regenerating Purpose and Passion through Group Grieving
Q. Here's a recent letter from a Regional Vice President of Human Resources
based in Asia whose company operates in multiple countries and continents.
I do enjoy your newsletter and share it often with my twelve countries in the
region. I have a situation here where the regional president resigned abruptly
after 20 years of dedicated service in three continents. Staff and senior
management are in shock, are wary and, generally, motivation and morale are at
all time lows. I was wondering if you have anything in your archives that might
relate to and help my staff address these feelings of insecurity, rudderlessness
and fear. It has been a month and no replacement has been named from head
A. The acute challenge in this situation is twofold: 1) the abrupt resignation
of a dedicated regional president with a history and network of company
relations and connections and 2) the uncertain leadership and operational
direction for you and your staff as headquarters deliberates on (or is it delays
selecting?) a replacement.
Let's examine some of the key spoken and unspoken questions and concerns that
may be triggered for individuals and for the organization by these two
1. Motivation for Abrupt Resignation and HQ Indecision. Why did this
respected leader resign? Was he pushed out by a political power play? Had his
productivity or capacity for leadership been wavering, or had he been bypassed
for an expected promotion? Had there been any head office reorganization that
was having this regional leader starting to feel micromanaged? Or was he
feeling his region was somehow being shortchanged and, in the face of HQ
stonewalling, was his resignation a symbolic protest? Did personal, homefront
factors push his hand? And we haven't mentioned the swirling questions aroused
by HQ's inaction regarding succession.
Why is trying to clarify motivation important? Unless the reason for the
resignation is clearly understood in the context of organizational uncertainty
or ambiguity, this kind of action often becomes a "projective test" for those in
the shadows of the resignation. The imagination of those personnel directly or
indirectly affected may become anxiously overstimulated, if not hyperreactive.
Whatever the factors, the longer the "why"s and "when"s of the resignation and
replacement remain in the dark, the greater the speculation, rumor-nating and
morale depletion. And, alas, "the motivation" frequently cannot be objectively
or fully pinned down.
2. Grief Reaction. I will assume that this regional leader was a
respected if not a beloved figure. His twenty years on the corporate scene
makes him more than a fixture; he has likely become a foundational pillar for
the organization and its culture. I'll posit that for many in the region, if
not for the organizational family, he is more like a father (or uncle) figure
who has encouraged and mentored many in their corporate travels. And the depth
of loss reflects his position and stature. Clearly, some of the "lows" in
motivation and morale, the pall cast upon the region and beyond, attest to this
"death" in the family.
Also worth noting is that such a loss of an authority figure, a significant
shaper and archivist of institutional history, may trigger sadness and
separation anxiety for individuals and institutions related to unresolved losses
in both the personal and professional arenas.
3. Personalizing the Resignation. During this period of grief and
uncertainty, employees may increasingly personalize the resignation:
a) did our adverse actions somehow contribute to the departure or fall from high
power? (This is not unlike the irrational self-blame of a child in the throes
of a family divorce. Remember our family analogy.), and
b) how will this dramatic development impact my position in the region? As a US
Postal Service management trainee lamented after a major RIF (Reduction In
Force): "I once had a career path, then this boulder fell from the sky and
crushed it!" Do you think this individual felt enraged and betrayed?
Will a new regional leader, especially if not an in-house selection, bring in
his or her own leadership team, thereby replacing, displacing or downgrading
existing senior managers? Will change in top leadership and direction push all
personnel out of their operational comfort zones?
4. Feeling Like Pawns. Clearly, if the perception is "if even the top
guy can be pushed out," then there's an obvious corollary of concern: "Is
anyone's position safe?" A feeling of rage and helplessness can be set off both
a) external events beyond one's control and by being manipulated by a more
powerful if not a seemingly all-powerful other, that is, headquarters. And,
traditionally, issues and tensions disconnecting the head office and the field
are historic and omnipresent. (I will provide a case vignette shortly.) And
b) the feeling of being an irrelevant pawn in this corporate chess game. Some
people push back at first when feeling pushed around; there's a reflexive need
to reassert some actual or symbolic control. However, over time, if an
atmosphere of uncontrollability and uncertainty persists, behavior patterns of
passivity and paralysis often ensue.
The above reflects the conceptual distinctions between being an "origin"
(whereby one's own actions initiate or influence or are perceived to initiate
and influence relevant circumstances and consequences) or a "pawn" (whereby
other's actions are or are perceived to be the determining factor). This
distinction is a close conceptual cousin of social psychologist, Julian Rotter's
concept of external vs. internal "locus of control." Internals see themselves
as directly impacting their environments and rewards; externals see life as more
driven by fate, chance or outside forces or sources. While the positives of
being "internal" are evident, let me share one caveat: Internals may be slow to
realize or accept that in a particular situation they may not have as much
influence or control as they believe they possess. That is, Internals may
minimize or deny evironmental constraints. And lack of control may trigger
acute anxiety for a classic Type A. The consequence of incessant but unrewarded
effort is exhaustion. In addition, depending on how much one's identity --
e.g., pride, self-esteem, financial security and career potential -- is invested
in this consuming control issue, burnout and the Vital Lesson of the Four "R"s
If no matter what you do or how hard you try, Results, Rewards, Recognition
and Relief are not forthcoming and you can't say and mean "No" or won't "let
go," trouble awaits…The groundwork is being laid for apathy, callousness and
And I've seen these smoldering reorganizational smoke signals first hand.
When Buyout Leads to Burnout: A Case Vignette
Here was my initial response to the VP of HR's opening question: I will use
your question as the basis for a more in-depth Q & A. For now, my
recommendation involves finding an organizational loss and change expert that
can help lead the group or sections in some safe yet genuine venting; releasing
purposefully and responsibly some anger and anxiety will help move the group
beyond shock, malaise and/or paralysis. I actually intervened with such a
hospital management/supervisory staff years back. A small Northern Virginia
Hospital had been bought out by a holding company in Baltimore, Maryland.
Whether in a misguided cost-cutting move or due to simple organizational
inertia, the head office was not providing leadership personnel or direction for
the hospital. The hospital seemingly was outside HQs priority radar.
Neglect, whether benign or otherwise, has consequences. Bright and capable
people became immobilized and stopped making decisions on important day-to-day
operational procedures. The hospital leaders were: a) afraid of losing their
positions, b) afraid of being criticized for making a wrong decision and/or c)
manifesting their frustration as passive-aggressive anger, thereby contributing
to the "getting one's hands slapped" cautiousness or "our hands are tied"
My intervention: After allowing and encouraging workshop attendees to
raise their fears and frustrations, I reaffirmed that there was too much talent
and experience in this room to be immobilized. The hospital leaders needed to
get back to running the hospital, whether they were or were not getting clear
direction from up north. This leadership team and hospital personnel as a whole
needed to circle the wagons. The group needed to support each other if they did
receive negative feedback from HQ that ignored or misjudged local operational
realities. And the troops should certainly share, praise and reward each other,
formally and informally, e.g., pizza parties, for carrying out their mission
under burnout battlefield conditions. Most important, these professionals
needed to break out of their external and, especially, self-imposed passivity
box and return to being active and productive health professionals.
Fortunately, the head nurse who brought me in was a gutsy leader. And after our
effective half-day meeting/group grieving session, the collective gradually
began showing signs of life. They started regular cross-divisional leadership
meetings, meetings that began incorporating a group process or "wavelength"
segment in addition to the usual time- and task-driven focus. (Email
firstname.lastname@example.org for my reorganization and team building series.) They
were better able to find their voice and negotiate more effectively with the
holding company directors.
Clearly, such a takeover situation can feel like a death. Not only is there the
loss of what was but also there's great uncertainty about the future. The key
is helping individuals and teams grieve and regain some control so people can
gradually "let go" of or accept, at least for the short term, what was: "I
don't like all of what's going on...but how do I/we make the best of this
situation?" People more fully present in the present can help redesign the
Grief Processing: Evolution, Intervention and Rejuvenation
Speaking of death, let me speculate briefly about how these local leaders'
reactions and responses capture the evolution and recovery processes of the
Seven Stages of Grief:
1. Shock and Denial or "It Can't Happen Here!" Based on my experience
there was likely buzz and rumor about a potential takeover and merger. Early
on, some became frightened; many folks soon dismissed the possibility: "We've
heard these rumblings and rumors before."
2. Fear, Panic and Shame or "Oh God, What Do I Do Now?" Then "suddenly"
the penetrating stab of reality occurs and the "don't worry, be positive" denial
balloon explodes. Some will become anxious, perhaps experience a sense of
panic. Dark clouds of gloom begin moving in creating a heavy and static
atmosphere (a front of depression, doom and defeat). Events are hurtling beyond
one's control. Who knows what the future holds? Why has this happened to me or
us? What have we done wrong?
3. Rage and/or Helplessness or "How Dare They!" or "Oh No, How Could They?"
Feelings of abandonment, rage and betrayal may get set off. But for many
this can be a prelude to feeling helpless and becoming passive (or
passive-aggressive). There may still be energy for rumor-mongering and finger
pointing, but mostly folks are dazed and malaised.
4. Guilt, Ambivalence and Prayer or "Damned If You Do or If You Don't" and
"Dear God..." Some people will question themselves regarding their degree
of responsibility for the predicament. Others will start agonizing or obsessing
whether they should hold out on a sinking ship. It's the Reorganizational Catch
22: "Damned if I stay, damned if I leave." Next stop the Stress Doc's couch.
Also, catastrophizing may stalk the halls, and some people turn to prayer:
"Dear God, if you just spare me, I promise to…"
5. Focused Anger and Letting Go or "Damn It, I Don't Like This But How Do I
Make the Best of It" and "Freedom's Just Another Word…" This is where an
outside change agent/expert can be particularly valuable in helping the group
safely express both their rage and vulnerable sense of loss. To grow from
grief, we often need some rage to break out of the paralysis; we also need
sadness to temper the rage. Remember, rage unchecked mostly leads to
self-inflicted wounds rather than someone going "postal." Paradoxically,
maturely integrating rage and sadness yields a more realistic, highly
motivational state for "letting go" of or breaking out of a "vicious cycle"
trap. This emotional blending often generates a survival-focused and
productively aggressive modus operandi. Formerly wounded or stunned
individuals can meaningfully share and cohere...and even start turning
situational lemon into motivational lemonade.
6. Exploration and New Identity or "Now You're Ready to 'Just Do It'" (even
if scared). Having sufficiently tended to wounds, individuals are ready to
explore and recommit. As I once penned:
For the phoenix to rise from the ashes
One must know the pain
To transform the fire to burning desire.
Once again the collective is an energized and coordianted team, department,
division or region. Productive meetings and a willingness to explore new roles
and responsibilities are part of the changed mindscape and landscape. While
there may be some "us" (outpost, region) vs. "them" (HQ, main office) now
there's healthy standing up, pushing back and genuine negotiation with the
power's that be. Paralysis and passive game playing are finally laid to rest in
this rebirth of energy and spirit, mission and focus.
7. Acceptance or "The Glass Is Half Empty and Half Full." When
individuals and teams go through both mourning and a group grief process there
no longer is a feeling of being alone or being "the only one" impacted. There's
a greater sense of community. For those who stay on board there's an expanded
sense of possibility; for those departing or launching a new direction there's a
better transitional readiness for "letting go" and "moving forward" not just
"moving on." Surely a sense of loss and some change anxiety is present for all
parties. Having grappled with the many identity -- individual role, team
commitment -- challenges, there's a tangible realization of having built both
greater emotional muscle and vital group solidarity. Solidarity, more
productive coordination and team synergy are based on genuinely grappling with
conflict (as opposed to conflict-averse groupthink or a "don't worry, be happy"
mantra). And as in the mythic story of Pandora's Box, when the last demon flew
out into the world, there was the final emotion that emerged: "Hope!" (Hey, my
three pillars for transitional sanity: "Faith, Hope and Clarity!")
If I may close with one of my own hard-earned poetic capsules:
Whether the loss is a key person, a desired position or a powerful illusion,
each deserves the respect of a mourning. The pit in the stomach, the clenched
fists and quivering jaw, the anguished sobs prove catalytic in time. In
mystical fashion, like spring upon winter, the seeds of dissolution bear
Surely words of rebirth and also words to help us …Practice Safe Stress!
And the VP's reply to an abbreviated version of this Q & A, along with
accompanying articles (email me if you'd like the additional articles):
Re: Organizational Loss/Change Articles
Date: 3/7/2004 8:54:05 PM
As usual, you are spot on Mark.
Appreciate the relevant articles. I'll disseminate the advice to our HR
people. I think we need the most support if you know what I mean. One of your
coping strategies is to talk, that is my role for them. But it can be lonely.
Stress Doc: Yes, at times being a leader can be quite lonely. When necessary,
it's important to seek out folks for a real or virtual ideas and shoulder.
And I must say, I do like being judged "spot on." ;-)
Subj: Three Men In a Sauna
Three men, one American, one Japanese and one Frenchman were sitting naked in a
sauna. Suddenly there was a beeping sound. The American pressed his forearm and
the beep stopped. The others looked at him questioningly. 'That was my pager,"
he said, "I have a microchip under the skin of my arm."
A few minutes later a phone rang. The Japanese fellow lifted his palm to his
ear. When he finished he explained,"That was my mobile phone. I have a microchip
in my hand."
The Frenchman felt decidedly low tech, but not to be outdone he decided he had
to do something just as impressive. He stepped out of the sauna and went to the
He returned with a piece of toilet paper hanging from his behind. The others
raised their eyebrows and stared at him. The Frenchman finally said-------
"Well, will you look at that, I'm getting a fax."
What Does Love Mean?
A group of professional people posed this question to a group of 4 to 8
year-olds, "What does love mean?" The answers they got were broader and deeper
than anyone could have imagined. See what you think:
"When my grandmother got arthritis, she couldn't bend over and paint hertoenails
anymore. So my grandfather does it for her all the time, even when his hands got
arthritis too. That's love." Rebecca - age 8
When someone loves you, the way they say your name is different. You know that
your name is safe in their mouth." Billy - age 4
"Love is when a girl puts on perfume and a boy puts on shaving cologne and they
go out and smell each other. " Karl - age 5
"Love is when you go out to eat and give somebody most of your French fries
without making them give you any of theirs.." Chrissy - age 6
"Love is what makes you smile when you're tired." Terri - age 4
Love is when my mommy makes coffee for my daddy and she takes a sip before
giving it to him, to make sure the taste is OK."
Danny -age 7
"Love is when you kiss all the time. Then when you get tired of kissing, you
still want to be together and you talk more. My Mommy and Daddy are like that.
They look gross when they kiss" Emily - age 8
"Love is what's in the room with you at Christmas if you stop opening presents
and listen," Bobby - age 7 (Wow!)
"If you want to learn to love better, you should start with a friend who you
hate," Nikka - age 6
"There are two kinds of love. Our love. God's love. But God makes both kinds of
them." Jenny - age 8
"Love is when you tell a guy you like his shirt, then he wears it everyday."
Noelle - age 7
"Love is like a little old woman and a little old man who are still friends even
after they know each other so well." Tommy - age 6
"During my piano recital, I was on a stage and I was scared. I looked at all the
people watching me and saw my daddy waving and smiling. He was the only one
doing that. I wasn't scared anymore," Cindy - age 8
"My mommy loves me more than anybody. You don't see anyone else kissing me to
sleep at night." Clare - age 6
"Love is when Mommy gives Daddy the best piece of chicken." Elaine-age 5
"Love is when Mommy sees Daddy smelly and sweaty and still says he is handsomer
than Robert Redford." Chris - age 7
"Love is when your puppy licks your face even after you left him alone all day."
Mary Ann - age 4
"I know my older sister loves me because she gives me all her old clothes and
has to go out and buy new ones." Lauren - age 4
"When you love somebody, your eyelashes go up and down and little stars come out
of you." Karen - age 7
"You really shouldn't say 'I love you' unless you mean it. But if you mean it,
you should say it a lot. People forget," Jessica - age 8
And the final one -- Author and lecturer Leo Buscaglia once talked about a
contest he was asked to judge. The purpose of the contest was to find the most
caring child. The winner was a four year old child whose next door neighbor was
an elderly gentleman who had recently lost his wife. Upon seeing the man cry,
the little boy went into the old gentleman's yard, climbed onto his lap, and
just sat there. When his Mother asked him what he had said to the neighbor, the
little boy said, "Nothing, I just helped him cry."
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
email@example.com or call 202-232-8662.
(c) Mark Gorkin 2004
Shrink Rap Productions