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The Stress Doc Letter
Cybernotes from the Online Psychohumorist ™

October 1999, No. 1, Sect. 2

In Part IIIb of his violence prevention series "The Stress Doc" examines the sixth of ten strategies and structures for reducing workplace violence. What workshop and workshop leadership qualities help transform a tension-filled reorganizational climate? What group learning and interactive qualities enable participants to harness constructively and creatively anxiety, rage and hostility?

"Going Postal" and Beyond:
Part IIIb Reducing the Risk of Workplace Violence:
The Disarming Art of a "Practicing Safe Stress" Workshop

In this current "lean-and-MEAN" economic climate downsizing almost predictably yields escalating uncertainty and tensions between management and employee groups; animosity may also surface within these groups. Especially in a chronic and unpredictable state of restructuring, overloaded or underutilized employees are ripe for passive-aggressive inertia, harassing and taunting games, emotional volatility and physical violence. As mentioned in Part IIIa, a key intervention strategy is creating a workshop and/or consultation setting that allows people to vent safely their overt, covert or manipulative anger and anxiety. Through the use of imaginative exercises and group interaction, individual and group tension and frustration may be effectively channeled and transformed. Conflict may now partner with collaboration yielding the potential for conciliation, consensus and cohesion.

My intervention work often begins when an organization or a subunit -- such as a division or department -- is experiencing a level of dysfunctional stress that's beyond management's and/or a union's ability to control. One vivid example immediately comes to mind: the "blue collar" government division in a white collar world, castoff by their agency as part of a budget tightening maneuver. The group of sixty was relegated to the basement of a huge federal agency, drifting, marking time, not sure where and when (or if) they would permanently wash up. Not surprisingly, during this period of uncertain survival all were on edge. Racial tensions flared: some white employees pulled up KKK websites; some black employees played speeches of Louis Farrakhan on cassettes. Grievance procedures were escalating. A manager in the Diversity Office finally realized that the government was hemorrhaging money in this administrative Armageddon. Was human blood next?

At this point, "The Stress Doc" was asked to make a house call. The strategy was twofold: a) provide two one-day "Practicing Safe Stress" Workshops, half the division in each program and, hopefully, b) reduce sufficiently various frustrations and hostilities and engender enough confidence and trust so that management, union and employees would all agree to participate in a follow-up team building process.

The challenge of running a program for an overflowing with emotional charge workgroup is, of course, to release real anger without regressing into a primal scream and attack session. How to start transforming individual and group rage and hostility into productive passion and assertion? Towards this end, here are "The Seven Practicing Safe Stress Structures, Skills and Strategies for Transforming On the Edge Work Groups." Go for it!

1) Stimulate Rapid Engagement. After acknowledging some of the specific organizational stressors and tensions confronting the group, I usually recall my VA Hospital Head Nurses war story. Now this bunch knew stress and burnout. Their favorite slogan always gets a laugh: "Do your eight and hit the gate...Nine to five and stay alive."

Next the audience breaks up into smaller groups for a slightly risky but highly achievable task. It's "The Three 'B' Stress Barometer" Exercise: How does your Brain, Body and Behavior let you know when you are under more STRESS than usual? The group discussion begins the empathy and common identity process. (Social psychology researchers have updated the old saw: Misery doesn't just like company. It prefers miserable company!) The report back from each group to the collective, along with my playfully feeding off the group responses with standup patter, evokes knowing laughter. For example, many hands go up when asked if any eat to numb stress. A much small number lose their appetite and eat less under stress. My immediate reply, "We hate these people, don't we," tickles the crowd. The entire process warms beginning affiliation.

2) Make Leadership Presence Felt. Another "B" follows the Stress Barometer Exercise -- a concise yet in-depth outline of "The Four Stages of Burnout": 1) Physical, Mental and Emotional Exhaustion 2) Shame and Doubt 3) Cynicism and Callousness 4) Failure, Helplessness and Crisis.

After acknowledging my own burnout experience as an unrealistically idealistic doctoral student ("when academic flashdancing whirled to a burnout tango") solid illustration of the erosive spiral and playful asides are interwoven. Participants even engage in a couple of heavy labored group sighs.)

The four stages are no longer abstract. The information has hit home; many feel vulnerable. Some come up during the break wondering, "Have you been lookin in my window!"

The tension is broken upon revelation of a secret identity: my pioneering the field of psychologically humorous rap music called, naturally enough, "Shrink Rap" Productions. Believe me, when performing in Blues Brothers hat, black sunglasses and black tambourine my "on the edge" and outrageous persona are assured. Here's a taste:

When it comes to feelings do you stuff them inside? Is tough John Wayne your emotional guide? And it's not just men so proud and tightlipped. For every Rambo there seems to be a Rambette!...

The boss makes demands yet gives little control So you prey on chocolate and wish life were dull. But office desk's a mess, often skipping meals Inside your car looks like a pocketbook on wheels. (Email stressdoc@aol.com if you'd like the entire "Stress Doc's Stress Rap" lyric.)

Clearly, there's a signal: while serious, this program won't be solemn or boring. By demonstrating, if not modeling, some creative rage in the outrageous barriers to more open expression of feeling, including aggression, are being challenged. The Doc is clearly not a management clone or stuffed shirt. By playfully spoofing management as well as myself, a safe climate for the expression of anger and other vulnerable emotions is evolving. Also, informing an audience that I'm battle-tested as an ex stress and violence prevention consultant for the US Postal Service both gets a laugh and strengthens my anger management leadership legitimacy.

3) Transform Creatively Charged Issues and Emotions. A natural followup to the, "How you know you're really stressed" Exercise is, "What are the sources of stress and burnout in your everyday operations?" The playing field, again, is the small group; this time for a discussion and drawing exercise. After itemizing individual stressors, I challenge the interactive foursome, to pull together a group picture, that is, a symbol or a collective story or, even, a Dilbert-like cartoon. Colorful and outrageous imagery is encouraged with colored markers and large flip chart paper. Believe me, stalking dinosaurs, circling sharks, sinking ships, exploding buildings (clients include the US Navy and Army Corps of Engineers), devils with whips, tornadoes, etc., compete for prominent display.

While groups start out contemplating seriously frustrating issues, laughter eventually grows and rings throughout the room. Of course, this is exactly the point. By first discussing their individual perspectives, members discover some common problems and concerns. And this too fuels the group bonding -- misery likes misery -- process. Invariably, folks find the small group sharing and attentive listening very supportive. (I warn the groups that the discussion phase is time-limited: "So even if you discover a member in dire need of some group psychotherapy, try to resist. Everyone gets a chance to talk.")

And the picture phase allows for some drawing-acting out and blowing off angry steam. People lampoon uncontrollable or threatening situations and those ego-power hungry authorities. For the latter, the implicit message is, "You may think you're 'hot stuff,' but I can stick a pin in your inflated ego and release all the hot air!"

Also, the fact that there is no one right answer, that everyone's input ads to the richness of the drawing, also enhances group solidarity. In a debriefing I underscore the creative nature of the process: emotional sharing, time-limitd focus and some goal urgency, free association, group brainstorming, exaggerated verbal and visual expression, no one person has the right answer and the challenge of interconnecting this rich mix of ideas, emotions and elements in some integrated design. This group process usually yields "a whole greater than the sum of its parts." You have the essence of imaginative problem-solving and dynamic team performance. A collection of individuals has transformed their personal tension into compassionate and creative teamwork.

4) Uncover the Real Agendas. The challenge of successfully leading a workshop begins way before program day. It often commences when management or the representative(s) of the specific work unit brief you about the department, division or organization and its operational context. More than providing background history, this person is usually trying to establish and shape the agenda. While workshop structure and having an agenda are useful, if followed too rigidly they can become, to paraphrase Emerson, "the hobgoblin of little" (workshops) or yield workshops with limited value. The reason is simple: the person or committee setting the workshop agenda may have their own agenda. The issues, especially those skeleton in the closet issues most on participants hearts and minds are overlooked, purposefully or otherwise.

The key, for example, becomes expanding management's agenda into a collective one. I now do this during the second part of the discussion-drawing exercise...the "fashion show" part of the program. The small groups choose a spokesperson who holds up and explains the drawing. When time permits, the audience has a chance to free associate to the group images before the explanation. Again, the sense of small group commonality and community spreads throughout all groups. And the gales of laughter at the images and animated explanations further solidify the small to large group bonding process.

Before the spokespersons come to the stage, I ask each of the small groups to generate separately two key questions related to operational productivity and goal achievement, group morale and team functioning and/or individual stress levels, job satisfaction and coping capacity. With the growing group cohesion the emerging questions have boldness, often going to the heart of key unrealistic or exploitative demands, seeming uncontrollable forces, closet skeletons and genuine employee grievances. The questions also help flush out areas where employees are misperceiving or inflating management's intentions.

As two different workshop groups both grappling with downsizing issues and organizational uncertainty recently articulated: "Why should we care?" and "When is enough enough?" In the ensuing discussion, employee frustration and a sense of abandonment was batted around, but so too the reality that management often has less predictable or rational control of a reorganizational process than employees imagine. Both sides get a chance to walk and squawk in the other's shoes.

5) Grapple Constructively with Group Prioritized Grievances. Let me expand upon the above issue generation exercise. Clearly, these questions are provocative hot potatoes. Interactive structures must be activated to allow thoughtful and emotionally charge discussion and debate without regressing into a primal encounter session.

The first exercise assigns a hot potato issues to the various task groups. Each group has six-eight members. The instruction for this "Barriers-Bridges" Exercise is basic: Identify "barriers" or obstacles to overcoming the group generated dysfunctional issue, e.g., "How to overcome isolation and lack of communication between division departments" (what one Midwest manager called the "silo syndrome"). And, "Propose strategic "Bridges" that will enable the organization or division to begin effective problem-solving. What actions will span obstacles? What will enable the organizational entities and individuals to get closer to the promised land?

After each group generates its barriers and bridges it shares them with the collective, with this understanding: the other groups are to constructively critique the barriers and, especially, the proposed strategies and solutions. Does the task group's barrier assessments and bridges provide the foundation for realistically solid or for shaky, "rose colored" bridges? By encouraging honest yet non-hostile feedback ("tough love," if you will) the level of discussion gels real. This exchange does not have the quality of a perfunctory, party-line discussion. As a manager recently acknowledged, "Every once in a while I need to have my belief system rocked!"

The barriers and bridges are edited and expanded by the parts-whole debate. The resulting ideas are itemized on a flip chart, then taped to a wall, eventually to become raw material for closing "next step" action items.

The following exercise grapples with the hottest of the remaining potatoes, further pushing the risk-taking and public performance envelope: group role play. Once again, interactivity is used to mix up the group membership; people who usually have little work connection or social affiliation must work together. Groups range in size between five and six. They are to use role interaction to identify a real, everyday conflict situation and then will develop a script and act out an effective strategy, if not a solution, to handling the problem.

You'd be surprised at the theatrical, if not hysterical, acting talent in groups, especially when having the chance to play out stress and frustration around a common aggravation or uncommonly challenging nemesis. Participants know their parts all too well. And the slightly exaggerated dialogue and interaction, again, has the audience engrossed and periodically howling at the truth and absurdity of the depiction. Like wolves in a pack, these group howls release primal aggression and channel individual energy into a collaborative ensemble.

When a Retreat Turned Into a Rout

Clearly, when allowing for such free flowing, emotionally charged group interaction the leader must be vigilant against the skit blatantly attacking or scapegoating a single individual, section, etc. I'm reminded of a call received over a dozen years ago from the administrator of a Houston, TX law firm. She wanted to know if I could lead a stress retreat for thirty trial lawyers. Before I could reply, she was announcing a caveat: last year's retreat leader had a "let it all hang out" leadership style. Big surprise...these aggressive verbal swordsmen cut each other to pieces. I momentarily won her over with some healing humor. I had the answer: "You need a workshop to help these legal predators "Practice Safe Stress.'" (By the way, this semantic conception occurred just as the AIDS epidemic was penetrating mass consciousness.)

Alas, clever words could not compete with lingering wounds and anticipatory anxieties. The Executive Committee of the firm chose not just to play it safe, but to practice abstinence. The upcoming retreat theme: "Upgrading Computer Skills."

6) Orchestrate Collaborative Conflict and Challenging Consensus. Whether overseeing barriers and bridges dialogue or being an overt or subtle director of the role play exercise, the workshop leader's task is to facilitate constructive means and productive ends, such that the latter evolve from the former. The challenge is transforming an arena for battle into an orchestra stage. My goal is to help the various orchestral sections (or organizational departments or teams) both play their best sectional music and to have various groups stimulate, riff and, even, harmonize with one another. And when an individual or a team is being dysfunctionally dissonant or, conversely, when groupthink is stifling individual imagination or creative deviation, my task is to make parts and whole engage in a vital but not hostile, give and take. My motto: "Recover the energy...discover the synergy!"

Toward this end, some basic conceptualization, communication and conflict-resolution skills and strategies: a. Confront or set limits on mean-spirited or excessively aggressive expression or exchanges, b. Establish the norm that taking responsibility "I" message feedback replaces attacking or blaming "You" messages; (look for a variety of assertive communication writings on my website -- www.stressdoc.com; click "Psychohumor Essays" link, then anger and power struggle categories), c. Challenge people to resist and transcend all or none, black or white thinking and categorizing; help folks understand that the glass is often half empty and half full, d. Enable participants to expand their perspective; when we allow other's to state their point of view and openly disagree with a competing position, the path is often being laid for further reflection and future attitude change, and e. Remember, most people don't want to be attacked for a contrary position. However, they don't necessarily expect you to embrace their belief. They just want to be heard. Consider these Stress Doc maxims: -- Acknowledgment does not mean agreement -- Difference and disagreement does not equal disapproval and disloyalty

As American author, F. Scott Fitzgerald observed: "The test of a first rate intellect is the capacity to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function. For example, one should see things as hopeless yet be determined to make them otherwise." This is a challenge both for the leader and the orchestra.

7) Establish Followup Schedule and Priorities. Between the various analytic exercises and debates, role plays and spontaneous group discussion, numerous problem-solving ideas and action items will likely be generated. Before reaching workshop closure, several steps are required: a. Have the group prioritize three to six next step action items; too many items will dilute the focus. Also, initially hold off tackling the most complex issues, unless truly an emergency. Start with a problem and process that will likely yield a "success." b. Assign responsibility for overseeing objectives and goal-oriented work on action items. This organizational change catalyst does not have to be a supervisor or manager. It needs to be someone with a vested interest in resolving the problem. c. Form an employee-management "Save the Retreat" Committee composed of people across departments, specializations and organizational hierarchies, d. Establish individual and/or group time lines for achieving action item objectives; plan for a feedback meeting both to the matrix committee and to the collective, and e. Reach consensus on proposed organizational change targets and implementation strategies and effectiveness evaluation measures. Perhaps most of all, take to heart this working definition of consensus: "Whereby everyone gives up a little for the benefit of the whole and to achieve a greater good."

In conclusion, this essay focused on reducing workplace violence through the design and implementation of a series of workshop activities and interactions under the guidance of orchestral-type leadership. With genuine good faith engagement, not only will aggression begin to be productively channeled but so too a team building process. More next time on this process and the concluding violence reducing strategies. Until then, of course..."Practice Safe Stress!

Mark Gorkin, LICSW, the Stress Doc, a psychotherapist and nationally recognized speaker, trainer, consultant and author, is also known as AOL's and the internet's "Online Psychohumorist" ™. Check out his USA Today Online "Hot Site" website - www.stressdoc.com  and his page on AOL/Online Psych, Keyword: Stress Doc

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