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The Stress Doc™ Newsletter

NOTES 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?

Sec. II

Main Essay:   
 
Safe Stress Tips for the Springtime
Shrink Rap:   
"The Passion" of Gibson vs. the Passion of Gorkin
Heads Up:       PESI Healthcare, Paralegal SuperConference & Building Owners Assn.
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.

Dear Mark,

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 office.


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 disruptive developments:

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 by:
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 may follow:

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 despair.

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" helplessness.

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 stressdoc@aol.com 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 future.

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 fruitful renewal.

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.

Best wishes,
M
---------------

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." ;-)
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~


 

Readers:

Subj:  Three Men In a Sauna

From:  MDodick

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 toilet.
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 stressdoc@aol.com or call 202-232-8662.

(c)  Mark Gorkin  2004

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