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The Stress Doc Newsletter
Notes from the Online Psychohumorist™

MAR 2005, Sec. II

Work Q & A:

[This Q & A was written originally for WorkforceOnline, where it appears in abbreviated form.]

When a New Employee Comes On (Too?) Strong and Team Members
Complain and then Exclude:  What's a Manager to Do?

Q.  We added a new staff member who is quite good at her job.  However, other staff are unhappy and complain she is arrogant and talks down to them.  She is more capable and knowledgeable.  Initially we chalked this up to jealousy and presumed things would settle down.  Instead, the new hire says the others exclude and ignore her.  Other department managers also have remarked about her arrogant attitudes, but when pressed for further information they claim they are simply repeating complaints of the staff.  What could I do to improve teamwork and interpersonal relationships?

A.  So do we have a case of a knowledgeable, confident and assertive woman setting off others' insecure "hot buttons" or do you have a stress carrier on your hands?  While I assume there's some truth on both sides, let me begin this response as if might be a prima donna in the clubhouse?  As the saga of Randy Moss -- a brilliant football receiver yet too often an emotionally immature and behaviorally dysfunctional individual - illustrates, too many exceptions or second chances for a shoot from the lips (or moon from the hips) star takes a toll on most everyone in the system.  And, alas, your shooting star will likely seriously injure team morale before burning herself out.

So what to do?  It's good that you want to take the lead in problem solving.  Consider these strategic steps:

1.  Start Documenting.  If you haven't already done so, informally document any new specific behaviors of concern brought to your attention including, of course, any behaviors you observe.  Conversely, any clear patterns of ostracism or isolation should also be noted.

2.  Have a One-On-One.  Meet with the new employee.  Share the feedback you are hearing from both team members and how people in other departments are aware of the tension.  At this point, maintain confidentiality.  Ask the employee for her perception of the situation.  She may well respond that others are jealous of her skills and abilities.  And certainly empathize with her feelings of exclusion; ask for specific instances.  While you might solicit suggestions on improving the atmosphere, I wouldn't push hard for solutions at this point.  Let her know of your attention to start addressing these matters by speaking individually with the other team members.

3.  Have Individual Meetings.  Meet with other team members.  Give them a chance to express their grievances.  In addition, in these individual sessions explore whether the person is aware of attempts to ignore and/or exclude the new team member.  Gathering this information will give you both a forest and trees perspective and enhance your ability to intervene.

4.  Selective Recruiting.  After your individual meetings, try to enlist two or three team members who will agree to a problem solving meeting with you and the new team member.  These people become the group representatives.  Try to select team members who can be somewhat objective and emotionally balanced, i.e., can they acknowledge that at this point both team members and the new employee have reason to be frustrated?  Can they recognize that almost any significant social-operational change can prove upsetting to individuals and teams as a whole?

One caveat:  if you discover that a team member truly has entrenched hostility toward the new member you will likely need to mediate a joint meeting between these antagonists.  Clearly, this angry individual should not be one of the group representatives mentioned above.

5.  Mediation Meeting.  The purpose of this meeting is to air issues and, hopefully, get your recruited group proposing action steps that will help the new person better fit into the social climate and working atmosphere of the office.  The goal is to reduce any provocative actions while validating the new employee's strengths.  At the same time, explore whether any team members are uncomfortable with her strengths, with feeling pressured to improve their performance, etc.  Some team members may need help in adjusting to the loss of old intimacy and to the new group dynamics.

Remind the new person that you are not looking to shut down her individuality; designing a better working fit is your goal.  Finally, help these folks identify the key discussion/learning points that will be shared with the entire team.

6.  Hold a Team Meeting.  The team as a whole now has a chance to respond briefly to the initial concerns; this should not become a bash session.  The problem-solving steps proposed should be the primary focus.  The goal is some ventilation around both issues of condescension and exclusion, acknowledgement of change stress, further refinement of conflict problem-solving and team building plans and, finally, group buy-in to action steps.

7.  Follow-up Meetings and Training.  I would follow-up with the new employee within a couple of days to see how she weathered the team meeting.  And plan to meet with the team weekly for the next month to monitor the social atmosphere and progress toward the goals of improved communication and cooperation along with effective integration.  Also, you might want to consider having some communication and conflict resolution skills training as part of ongoing team building.

8.  Fail Safe.  If any of this sounds daunting or if the process breaks down, for example, the new employee (or any employee, for that matter) refuses to participate in this intervention, then meet again with the recalcitrant individual.  Firmly state your intention to document formally unprofessional behavior that negatively impacts either work productivity or productive team relationships.  Of course, this supervisory step also applies to any team member engaging in exclusionary behavior.

If your organization has the resources, call in an Employee Assistance Program (EAP) counselor to help guide the process.  (You might want to avail yourself of a coach from the get go.)  Or if needed, hire an outside conflict mediator.   If your goal is to:  a) help this employee be productive in her work and working relations and b) have an effective - task-focused, inclusive and cooperative - working team then these steps become an investment by management in group morale and cohesiveness, as well as retaining a potentially valuable employee.  And in today's litigious society, such an intervention may preempt possible grievance procedures.  All in all, steps to help one and all…Practice Safe Stress!

Main Essay:

The Stress Doc captures the first four of ten strategic concepts, tools and techniques for energizing and exciting the performance-learning experience.

Jumpstarting and Energizing Your Presentation and Your Audience:  Part I
Thoughts of a Conference Speaker and New ASTD Member

I recently attended a local ASTD (American Society for Training & Development) event that had some sobering news for us who love doing live training:  organizations continue the exodus to virtual learning, and the numbers of students are increasing.  While this may be old news for many, as an independent speaker and trainer/workshop leader and a very recent ASTD member, the statistic certainly got my attention.

My first thought was to argue back:  no virtual learning can replicate the atmosphere and the dynamic climate, more specifically the energy, if not electricity, that's generated when I'm sharing, challenging and bantering purposefully and spontaneously with a live audience.  And perhaps most powerful is when through planned interactive exercises I turn the show over to the collective.  Now I feel like an orchestra leader helping players bring out their best music.  And this high-energy state can be generated with an audience of 30 as well as 300.

While my platform experience began in a university setting and then later as a traditional government agency and corporate trainer, in recent years I have increasingly been asked to jumpstart a conference or to provide some closing fireworks.  And gradually, I've discovered that many of these "auditorium" or "ballroom" performance techniques and structures work effectively in smaller or more intimate training and workshop settings  (And the converse also applies., i.e., workshop/training methodology make my keynotes more effective.)  Increasing the dynamism of our performance presence and the concomitant power of the learner's experience may not reverse the trend of web-based education.  However, this performance-learning equation will surely help fortify in our customers' and trainees' minds the unique contributions of face-to-face training.

Based on this evolutionary trial and error process, I believe we can rapidly capture people's attention and keep them on the performance edge with a dynamic mix - let's call it "The Right Stuff" - of substance and style, and structure and strategy.  You can often "surprise" and "amaze" an audience not accustomed to a training or workshop experience that is head provoking and heart-pumping (without reliving a military basic training-type experience), interactive and inspiring, "real life" and FUN!

Risking the charge of self-promotion (please recall the old saw:  "Vanity thy name is Gorkin") let me share one recent testimonial based on a 2-½ hour Stress and Change Workshop from the Director of Administration of a DC-based media and communications firm, Susan Pedersen Productions, that conveys such unexpected enthusiasm by the customer:

I have been employed by the same communication coaching firm for the past nine years.  We have had staff retreats before.  However, this year's retreat was by far the best.  Mark Gorkin, "The Stress Doc," is amazing.  We laughed, joked and displayed our artistic abilities all while learning how to work better as a team during the difficulties of office change.  My employees can't stop talking about how great the retreat was.  What an awesome way to teach your employees how to manage stress and change.

Dynamic Performance-Learning Experience Top Ten

Consider the first four of ten strategic concepts, tools and techniques for energizing and exciting the performance-learning experience:

1.  Quickly Capture People's Attention.  In contrast with or in addition to the oft-used method of starting a program with a light-hearted joke, that may or may not be contextually specific to your audience, consider these techniques for confounding expectations and generating surprising attention - an intimate mind game and a dramatic story:

a) Interactive Mind Game.  While presenters frequently show an amusing cartoon to begin on a light note, try going beyond the easy laugh for a more dramatic and engaging effect.  For example, I may open a stress workshop by suddenly announcing with authoritative tone:  "Okay, you are back in school, have a tough professor (pointing to myself), you're about to take a tough final exam…" and then I will either pass out a "Shoe" cartoon or show it as a power point slide.  One of the key human-bird-like characters, Skyler, an awkward teen, is about to take an exam.  He's studied all night; he's psyched:  "Okay, what's the first question?  Name?  Name who?  Name what?  His face and body increasingly distorted by stress.  Then…"Oh, my name.  Come on Skyler, get a grip."

The situational recognition is universal and the group laughter just as predictable.  Immediately, a startling and slightly larger than life encounter has been created between presenter and audience.  No passive spectators here.  Nothing like a surprise quiz to grab and focus people's active attention.  And to signal that this program may be far from commonplace.

b) Dramatic Opening.  A complement to the surprise quiz is a personal and professional story.  I share how being a very imaginative yet, alas, very impractical Social Work doctoral student at Tulane University contributed to becoming a stress expert.  (Being practical and the motto of N'Awlins - "laisez les bonnes temps roulez" - may be a contradiction in terms.  My name for the American in Cajun Paris daze:  "When academic flashdancing whirled to a burnout tango!"  But there was a silver lining:  I became an expert on stress and burnout.

Okay, so I do try for a little humor…but it's of a personal nature.  Audiences often connect with an authority that can do some light self-directed poking or can laugh at his or her own flaws and foibles.  Most important, though, the personal sharing sets the stage for a brief yet intense story about my first post-burnout stress workshop with a truly battle weary group -- VA Hospital Head Nurses.

The dramatics come in as I describe the pressures these professionals faced -- lack of resources, frustrations with administration and doctors, problems with staff, patients and family members, etc., along with my oral painting of the palpable tension in the workshop boardroom:  "You could cut the tension with a knife."  And then I imitate the military precision-like introductory bursts:  "Walker, W-14, Thompson, W-16, Jones, W-20."

And as quickly as the drama builds, it's suddenly broken, albeit with nervous laughter as I parrot the nurses two favorite survival sayings:  "Do your eight and hit the gate" and "Nine to five and stay alive."

2.  Up the Temperature of Your Warm-up Exercise.  Personally, most workshop warm-ups range from the mundane to the inane; they are much too fluffy and tepid, if not actually timid.  Maybe it's my clinical social work background, but I believe participants are ready for more meaningful and even intimate sharing.  The critical factor is their feeling safe and not personally exposed.  And as previously indicated, an opening that mixes surprise, drama and a little humor greases the desire and opportunity for tension release.

For example, here's an interactive warm-up that doesn't have to be limited to a stress program - my "Three 'B' Stress Barometer Exercise":  "How does your 'Brain,' 'Body' and 'Behavior' tell you when you're under stress?"  (This exercise might be useful when training employees to integrate new and challenging operational policies and procedures.)  Through small group discussion (four-six/group) a "Three 'B''' stress signal list is generated.  Again, everyone can relate and participate.  And the universal nature of stress reduces the barriers to some personal disclosure.

Of course, sometimes you do encounter resistance.  I recall a pompous State Department Manager challenging me with a sneer, "What do you call it if you don't have any stress?"  My immediate one-word reply to Mr. Bluster:  "Denial!"

Actually, there's plenty of opportunity for humorous banter.  For example, I'll play off list items read by the group recorder.  When eating as a stress smoke signal invariably comes up I'll gently break in:  "Be honest, when anxious how many of you sometimes eat more?"  Many hands are raised.  Then I follow with:  "Are there any folks who under stress lose their appetite and eat less?"  Upon seeing a few fluttering hands, my immediate reply:  "And we hate those people, don't we!"  The communal laughter is palpable.

Finally, a robust, widely identifiable warm-up exercise means early on you are engaged in some nascent team building:  while some may be paddling more furiously than others, everyone is in the familiar stress boat.

3.  Create Some Uncertainty, If Not Anxiety.  Within the first ten minutes, the above opening has defied convention and expectations if not generated some edginess or significant surprise.  To review, the mechanisms are:
a) opening with an unconventional mind game ("You're back at school, facing a tough exam…"),
b) providing a dramatic roller coaster story (of the VA Head Nurses) that evokes some tension and then provides some sudden release (through nervous laughter) and
c) moving participants into a moderately revealing and risk-taking "Three 'B' Exercise" before they are ready or, perhaps, before they realize that their emotional disclosure shields are not in their customarily snug self-protective position.

This dynamic start has most people on the edge of their seats.  They are processing some unsettling ideas and emotions.  While often energized by the openness and the sharing, many are also feeling edgy if not a bit vulnerable.  Your audience is being primed for receptivity to task-focused information and supportive interaction that will heighten self-awareness and help participants regain a sense of control.

In addition, you're creating a powerful relationship-building window:  there's no stronger bonding agent between presenter and audience than stress relieving laughter.  (An image of a gifted dance instructor helping nervous neophytes have good-natured laugh at their missteps, flaws and foibles comes to mind.)  And laughter doesn't just help others release and relax.  People are more open to a serious message when it's gift-wrapped with humor!

Actually, this association is key.  Participants will move to the edge, follow your lead even if a bit skeptical, tolerate some uncertainty and, even, gradually "let go" if they feel safe and have sufficient trust in your confidence and conviction.  People will further venture out of their comfort zone if they sense you have a purpose and plan for expanding their skillset and for restoring cognitive-affective equilibrium to their learning space.

4.  Boredom Proof Lecture with Concision and Variety.  I don't know if it's my short attention span or that I quickly tire of hearing myself talk, but I consciously employ two attention sustaining strategies that also limit rambling and help sustain the speaker-listener connection:

a) Deliver Compact and Vivid Learning Bites.  Whether a simple or a complex concept, it gets broken down into manageable chunks of information.  As the article's "Dynamic Top Ten" illustrates, I'm forever developing lists, stages or acronyms to make data more tangible and accessible, memorable and retrievable.  (Of course, this doesn't mitigate the fact that most folks living in Washington, DC, including yours truly, should be mandated for a Twelve-Step Recovery class - Acronyms Anonymous.)  And whenever possible I wrap my presentation abstractions in vivid everyday language.

As an example, let's take my concept of "The Four Stages of Burnout."  Consider my opening descriptor of "Physical, Mental and Emotional Exhaustion":  "Do you ever find you're still holding it together at work, but as soon as you get home it's right for the fridge…get out the Ben & Jerry's or the light beer, put on the tube, hit the sofa…and you're comatose for the rest of the evening?  Or is it just me?  (Almost by definition, just posing a relevant question in the midst of information-based lecture by itself becomes a thought-provoking tool of engagement.)

I use references that can be readily visualized, such as having one hand tied behind your back (and the other tied to a cell phone).  Or a pithy rhyme - "a case of the brain strain."  Both techniques enhance personal identification and help sustain student energy and focus.  People now need to discover the second stage - "Shame and Doubt."

b) Break Up the Monologue.  Inject change of pace in the delivery process.  As indicated, a communicational shift can commence simply by asking a question, which then might lead to a significant deviation from the expected path.  For example, after noting how increasing pressure and doubt may manifest in worry over whether colleagues, friends or family members sense there is something wrong"…I'll suddenly ask, "What about this smoke signal?  It's one of my favorites."  I then proceed to let out decidedly audible, exaggerated sighs.  Now with some nervous or knowing audience laughter as a backdrop, I declare:  "Okay, let's have a good group sigh."  Trust me, I often discover audiences ready to audition for The Mormon Tabernacle Choir of Perpetual Sighing.  Again, levity along with physical release tempers the heaviness in the room while stimulating attention.

So even within, actually, especially within, this portion of the workshop, i.e., "The Four Stages," that has the longest lecture component, I'm breaking up any "talking head" tendencies.  Whether engaging the whole audience or having a tug of war with an audience member using an imaginary rope, participants rarely have time to tune out or glaze over.

A Final Caveat

And speaking of glazing, I can't leave this section without commenting on the way many trainers break up their word stream:  the power point slide presentation.  Of course, with certain technical or data based presentations, graphs and pie charts or other visuals are vital.  However, at times heavy slide show reliance reflects trainer avoidance:
a) by not doing your homework, that is, not coming up with a variety of techniques and methods for engaging your audience.  Might we say such an individual is "sliding?" and
b) whether purposeful or not, over-"powering" learners means you are tethered by technology.  Wading into an audience recedes as an option.  The opportunity to more personally interact with participants is "slip sliding away."

Surely folks want concrete tools and techniques, skills and strategies that they can take home and apply.  But people often want a learning environment and experience that's alive and vital, that touches the head and the heart.  As a closing example, let me share a powerful moment at a recent legal education conference in New York City.  A paralegal approached thanking me for "saving her mind, if not her life."  Six months earlier she had participated in my "Kickoff" in a similar conference on the West Coast.  (I don't think she was stalking me.)  At the time she was dissatisfied with her job, but hadn't grasped the depth of her malaise.  It wasn't until she began having "so much fun" doing the interactive exercises (despite their very real worklife focus) that she realized something essential was missing at work and in her life.  Within two months she left her firm and found a new job.  And she's "lovin it."

So let's use this story as a springboard for examining the power of purposeful, playful and passion-generating exercises.


Part I of "Jumpstarting and Energizing Your Presentation and Your Audience" illustrated
the first four of ten strategic concepts, tools and techniques for energizing and exciting the performance-learning experience.  These were:

1.  Quickly Capture People's Attention
2.  Change the Temperature of Your Warm-up Exercise
3.  Create Some Uncertainty, If Not Anxiety
4.  Deliver Key Concepts and Applied Tools in Compact Learning Bites

Part II will conclude with the remaining concepts, tool and techniques:

5.  Use a Multifaceted Crown Jewel-Communal Exercise
6.  Transition from Small Group Consciousness to Sense of Community
7.  Respect and Flow with Attendees' Mindsets
8.  Sprinkle Motivational Humor Throughout
9.  Seven "E"s of Effective Presentation
10. Poignantly Powerful, Playfully Philosophical Close

Until then, start jumping and, of course...Practice Safe Stress!

Heads Up:  Successful Programs [References on Request]

1) West Chester University.
  Two hour Practice Safe Stress Program (stress, team building and humor) with faculty and staff.

2) LTS Corp.  Two hour Practice Safe Stress Program with contractors placed at National Institutes of Health

March 2, 2005

LTS Corporation
7250 Woodmont Avenue   Suite 340
Bethesda, MD  20814
Dear Mark,
I want to thank you for the lively, entertaining, and informative Stress Management Seminar you presented to staff.  As contractors working on-site elbow-to-elbow with the government, there are unique opportunities for conflict and anxiety.  As your interactive session quickly made apparent, our staff across departments were experiencing the same frustration being "guests" in government space.  The staff were very pleased with your seminar.  As you so wisely pointed out, it helps to laugh the stress away.  Drawing silly [yet work stress-related] pictures and role playing were effective techniques for tapping into the issues in a non-threatening manner.
The next time we will try to arrange a longer session, as it was obvious no one was ready to leave...and we didn't even provide food.
Anyway, thanks again for the masterful presentation and I hope that we can do a follow-up in the future.
Virginia Van Brunt
Director of Health Programs
Project Manager

3) EstrinLegalEducation.  Kickoff Speaker, Rebuilding the Fire/Designing the Future for Paralegal Conference in New York City

4) Australian Embassy.  Humor Therapy with all levels of embassy staff.

Mark Gorkin, LICSW, "The Stress Doc" ™,
a psychotherapist, an international/Celebrity Cruise Lines speaker, training/OD consultant and author of Practice Safe Stress:  Healing and Laughing in the Face of Stress, Burnout & Depression and The Four Faces of Anger: Transforming Anger, Rage, and Conflict Into Inspiring Attitude and Behavior.  The Doc is also America Online's "Online Psychohumorist" ™ running his weekly "Shrink Rap and Group Chat."    See his award winning, USA Today Online "HotSite" -- www.stressdoc.com (recently cited as a workplace resource by National Public Radio (NPR).  Email for his monthly newsletter showcased on List-a-Day.com.  For more info on the Doc's speaking and training programs and products, email stressdoc@aol.com or call 202-232-8662.

(c)  Mark Gorkin  2005

Shrink Rap Productions