The Stress Doc Letter
Cybernotes from the Online Psyumorist (tm)
AUG 2011, No. I, Sec. II
Fight when you can
Take flight when you must
Flow like a dream
In the Phoenix we trust!
Main Essay I:
Click here: Stress Doc: Notes from a Motivational Psychohumorist ™: Retreat
Exercises and Interventions that Changed Organizat
Retreat Exercises and Interventions that Changed Organizational Cultures:
Two Unexpected Discoveries and Declarations
Last week produced a "déjà vu" experience although it was definitely not the
"déjà vu all over again" variety. For only the second time in my speaking career
I received unanticipated feedback from participants of a workshop two or more
years after the actual event. This is not trivial as one of the challenging
aspects of being a speaker and "Motivational Psychohumorist" ™ is whether my
entertaining "soft skills" programs have any tangible long-term consequences.
Delayed feedback is especially meaningful when the workshop or conference event
is a one shot effort or there isn't a planned follow-up.
Before illustrating the present let me fondly recall the past. About five years
ago, at a conference for various legal professionals, a manager from a large DC
law firm greeted me: "Hello, Stress Doc." Upon seeing my sheepishly puzzled
grin, she continued. "Don't you remember you spoke to the managers of our law
firm…And we did the drawing exercise?" (First, the two-hour workshop had likely
been held four or five years prior. To further clarify, the aforementioned
exercise, now named my "Three 'D' -- Discussion-Drawing-Diversity -- Team
Building Exercise," is the closing showstopper at most speaking and workshop
events. Basically it asks groups of 4-6 participants to identify sources of
everyday workplace stress and conflict or to list barriers to more effective and
creative team coordination. After ten minutes of discussion people are given an
equal amount of time to transform their verbal ideas into a visual story or
metaphoric image, e.g., a sinking ship, a slippery mountain slope, a three-ring
circus, a menacing "troublesaurus" stalking the workers at a plant, etc.
Participants then do a "gallery walk" eyeballing their colleagues' images
without discussing their team's creation. Finally, each group selects a
spokesperson and holder for the "show and tell." Of course I remind the groups,
"Don't everybody volunteer to be a holder!" The closing exercise invariably
becomes a "Show and Tell morphing into an 'Aha,' 'I'm Not Alone' and Lampooning
Laughter" experience. It's a visceral-verbal-visual four "c"-ing event -
building "camaraderie, collaboration, creativity and community.")
Enough background, let's return to the manager's story. Once again my silence
triggered another question and explanation: "Don't you remember our "stress
picture" and what you said?" My look must have said, "Tell me more." She
continued: "Our group drew these pigeons overhead with people standing below.
And raining down on the crowd were these brown pellets. Then, before we could
comment further, you chimed in with, 'Oh, Raisinets.'"
While I was mentally patting myself on the back, the woman shared the real
impact of the experience beyond her personal vivid memories and my clever
reframe. As it turned out, the exercise became woven into the corporate culture.
Whenever a stress or crisis issue arose that disrupted all the managers, the
head of the managers would buy a box of Raisinets for all the participants. Talk
about keeping workshop meaning, morale and momentum alive. Now that's an
"emotionally intelligent" leader!
The Name Game
The second vignette involved my leading a day-long "Team Building" offsite for
managers of an IT Division of the Department of Commerce in July 2011. I had led
a somewhat similar retreat with this group two years earlier. For the 2011
retreat I wanted to use a different opening - my "Three 'B' Stress Barometer"
Exercise. Basically, groups of three or four discuss, "How does your 'Brain,
Body and Behavior' let you know when you're under more stress than usual?"
However, the "Three B's" didn't have a chance.
The manager's group clamored for our 2009 icebreaker: "The Nickname Exercise."
They enthusiastically recited names that two years later are still in play and
continue to evoke peals of laughter. Now they desired to give nicknames to the
new managers; some folks even wanted to do a personal name upgrade. (These are
IT geeks and gurus after all!) All this banter provided incontrovertible
evidence of the Director's pithy observation: "That exercise really stuck!"
Let me outline the exercise. In small groups, team members interview each other,
trying to discern quirky yet essential or even contradictory aspects of a
personality or character. Nicknames often reflect a person's passion or talent,
while gently skewering the same. I especially like ones which have a playfully
teasing or self-effacing quality. The best of them are usually visual and
alliterative and may be a play on words. Two years before I had provided some
examples: "The Splendid Splinter" (lean and lanky baseball legend, Ted
Williams), "The Louisville Lip" (Cassius Clay's nickname before he became
Mohammed Ali and "The Greatest") or "Sitting Bull" (which was, of course, not a
nickname but his Native American appellation). Since then, I've added to my
repertoire. One day a Ft. Hood 1st Sergeant who had witnessed my animated
speaking style told his colleagues, "The Doc is a 'firecracker.'" Then a month
later, another workshop participant commented on my meaningful, "philosophical"
approach to subject matter. Now a personal moniker (in addition to "Stress Doc,"
provided me years ago by the TV Editor of the New Orleans' Times Picayune)
jumped out: Philosophical Firecracker! The nickname aptly captures a Yin-Yang
duality - having both an introspective (cave) and extraverted (stage) nature.
Returning to our IT Managers, these folks came up with a bounty of nicknames,
both past and present: "Hit and Run," (a troubleshooting consultant), "Southern
Comfort," (a name reflecting both family geography and a mostly soft spoken,
empathic temperament) and "The Logical Lotus" (an analytical Asian woman). Some
people had been anticipating this exercise, one fellow changed his to "The Great
Kudzu" (as he has to be everywhere; I don't recall his original name), another
Director chose "Crazy Glue" over "Super Glue" (though it was clear he was viewed
as instrumental in keeping the division together, if just barely, on the
functional side of "more work than can ever be managed" chaos).
Still…Not the Whole Story
While the Nickname Exercise had staying power, this time around it was our
beginning and ending process that truly was empowering. By going with the group
flow and frolic and delaying my planned opening agenda, we all immediately began
to bond. And clearly, I was comfortable sharing the reins of control with the
group. An unspoken question often hovering in the retreat workshop shadows: what
is the optimal balance between spontaneity and structure?
After "Nickname: Part II," I orchestrated a series of exercises culminating in
one that would have small groups problem solving division-specific issues
related to communication and role-boundary-follow-up breakdowns. Just as I was
about to introduce this problem-solving exercise, "The Logical Lotus" asked if
we could begin addressing communication and coordination issues specific to the
group. Clearly, the managers and I were converging towards the same
spontaneous-structured agenda page. And my subsequent role transition from
workshop leader to group process observer-participant, actually sharing the
facilitator role and once again following the group's lead, appeared critical to
our evolving success as a working partnership. Consider these illustrative
U.S. Department of Commerce | International Trade Administration
[One-day Management Retreat/team building workshop/facilitation for 15
Information Technology Division Managers, Glen Allen, VA]
July 12, 2011
Thanks Mark. I too appreciated the way you let us run with our own issues during
the second half of our session, and agree with you that between the two of us,
we helped the group produce some useful outcomes.
The challenge now is follow up. Haha!
I've got a return engagement for you on our list of follow-up actions, so I'm
hoping it will not be too far in the future. It sounded like the fall would be a
Thanks for your contribution to our team in the two sessions we have had with
you. It has been fun and productive.
Director, IT Policy and Coordination
Office of the CIO
U.S. Department of Commerce | International Trade Administration
July 8, 2011
Thank you for bending your program backwards to help us applying your approach
to our daily problems. I think we understood better and learned more solid both
our problems and your approach. Your facilitation pushed us to think, take
actions, and be accountable for result.
Thank you for including me in your newsletter list. I'm looking forward to
learning more your wisdom and approach.
[Editor's note: "The Logical Lotus"]
Two vignettes unexpectedly reveal the staying power of group exercises as well
as their impact on organizational culture. The discoveries were illustrated by
chance and planned encounters which enabled reflecting on past experience as
well as understanding and going with the group process flow. Key factors
include: a) interactive and imaginative exercises that allow for participants to
poke playful fun, b) meaningful sharing and creative interplay strengthening a
sense of camaraderie and community, and c) the leader or facilitator recognizing
the meaning of the interchange while acknowledging and following the group's
pain and passion, energy and ideas. Words to cultivate a collaborative culture
and to help one and all…Practice Safe Stress!
From Grief to Growth: Positively Influencing Individuals and Organizations
The extraordinary reader response to my essay/eulogy, "Requiem for a 'Last Angry
Man,'" about my father's recent death and our complex, ebbing and flowing
father-son conflicts and courageous connections (Click here: Stress Doc: Notes
from a Motivational Psychohumorist ™: A Requiem for a "Last Angry Man": A Son's
Eulogy or http://www-stressdoc-com.blogspot.com/2011/07/requiem-for-last-angry-man-sons-eulogy.html
) has convinced me that many folks are grappling with, consciously or not: a)
unfinished prior grieving for a deceased parent or loss of a significant person
and b) anticipatory grieving for an elderly or infirm parent. (As a reader
reminded me, grieving is never truly finished; person-situation transformation
and the concomitant memories as well as the complex emotional responses to
life-role-relationship-health transitions are basically forever.) Also, as an
expert in the areas of stress, change and loss, I'm all too aware that this
seemingly dormant psychological dynamic is aroused and intensified when a person
or organization is caught in a rapidly swirling and consuming web of change and
uncertainty. And today's psycho-seismic shifting ranges from the economic to the
technologic, from the reorganizational to the cultural. Individual and group
perception, motivation and performance may well be adversely affected by a
climate of ongoing stress and frustration. An individual and/or system may have
to grapple with both the memories of past painful experience as well as a
present day sense of helplessness or being "out of control."
I will be developing a program to help organizational personnel -- individually
and collectively -- deal with ongoing transition and the opportunities in a
"grief to growth" discovery process. This powerful emotional progression (or
regression, if attention is not paid) may be triggered by such events as the
passing of a significant family member, the break-up of a relationship, the loss
of a former company head (or informal task or support leader) due to retirement
or illness, and the loss of colleagues through downsizing and regime change.
Look for an email shortly. Or feel free to email email@example.com or call
301-875-2567 with any questions.
The Murray Story: Encouraging Connection through Conflict
For now, consider this story of Murray, a once middle-aged salesman with a
mid-sized company in New York City. (FYI, having lost his parents as a young
child, Murray was raised in an orphanage. Murray had always been a fighter,
e.g., a SGT who fought overseas in WWII, and despite the passing of decades, I
believe his reactions below were fueled by more than just challenging present
circumstances.) My parents' friends, Murray and Lorraine, were visiting when I
happened by. An experienced and successful salesman, Murray was fuming. The old
company president had recently retired and put his abrasive, domineering
son-in-law in charge. Murray, a classic "Type A" competitor, wasn't taking
orders from anyone, especially from "some jerk" half his age.
After listening to Murray's harangue, the young boss seemed inexperienced and
insecure, being overly aggressive to provide defensive cover. I suggested Murray
tell him that, "I miss the old man, and while I'm not always crazy about your
leadership style, I must admit you're keeping me sharp." Murray, of course,
exploded: "Forget it. I wanna murder this kid. I'm not doing anything that gets
him one up on me!"
Two weeks later, again at my folks' place, I bumped into Murray. He was still
quite disgruntled. This time, Murray dismissed me with a growl and a backhanded
sweep when I recalled my strategy. Two weeks went by when Murray's wife
unexpectedly called: "Mark, you won't believe this. Murray finally did what you
suggested... and it worked." Not only had the young boss eased up on Murray, but
he put Murray in charge on long-range planning and sales. (Lorraine shared that
Murray, before the overture, had grown increasingly depressed. I can just
imagine Lorraine saying, "Enough already," and threatening Murray with eviction
if he didn't do something.)
Why did the Murray gambit work? Let's analyze this conflict resolution process:
Need To Grieve
In order to let go temporarily of his dominance-submission mindset, Murray had
to release his rage then, ironically, "hit bottom." Murray was still grieving
the company changes and likely displacing some anger for the departed "old man"
onto "this kid." (And of course, Murray had lost more than one "old man" during
his lifetime.) Until one is at a loss and in sufficient pain, new approaches
are often rejected. Cumulative pressure can be an ally; so too Lorraine's dose
Play Up Or Open UP
Did Murray play up to the new boss! While initially feeling humiliated, I say
Murray took the high road. First, he did express genuine frustration with the
changing-of-the-company-guard. And while Murray felt more wounded than "sharp,"
by cutting the "win/lose" cord the real challenge and opportunity was unleashed:
transforming Murray from grizzled salesman to elder statesman.
Position Vs. Interest
Initially, these ego-driven men were trapped in their self-defeating power
positions. Each was depriving not just the other, but themselves. Clearly, this
inexperienced boss needed an ally with historical perspective and the big
picture. It was in the junior's interest to rely on Murray. It was also in
Murray's interest to provide mixed feedback that could be received as a
begrudging (hence more believable) compliment.
Recognition helped defuse youthful anxiety and aggression. And, Murray's
initiative was certainly paid back with "interest." Finally, while Murray would
not admit it, I'm sure he enjoyed the role of mentor -- a one-up position.
No need to worry about this process fundamentally changing Murray. When I saw
him again, and mentioned hearing that things were better at work, Murray didn't
give an inch. His only reply: "Yeah, the jerk's finally off my back!"
The moral of the story: Seek the higher power of Stress Doc humor - May the
Farce Be with You!
Mark Gorkin, MSW, LICSW, "The Stress Doc" ™, a Licensed Clinical Social
Worker, is an acclaimed keynote & kickoff speaker, webinar presenter, as well as
"Motivational Humorist & Team Communication Catalyst" known for his interactive,
inspiring and FUN programs for both government agencies and major corporations.
In addition, the "Doc" is a team building and organizational development
consultant. He is providing "Stress and Communication, as well as Managing
Change, Leadership and Team Building" programs for the 1st Cavalry Division and
13th Expeditionary Support Command, Ft. Hood, Texas and for Army Community
Services and Family Advocacy Programs at Ft. Meade, MD and Ft. Belvoir, VA as
well as Andrews Air Force Base/Behavioral Medicine Services. Mark has also
rotated as a Military & Family Life Consultant (MFLC) at Ft. Campbell, KY. A
former Stress and Violence Prevention Consultant for the US Postal Service, The
Stress Doc is the author of Practice Safe Stress and of The Four Faces
of Anger. See his award-winning, USA Today Online "HotSite" --
www.stressdoc.com -- called a "workplace resource" by National Public Radio
(NPR). For more info on the Doc's "Practice Safe Stress" programs or to receive
his free e-newsletter, email firstname.lastname@example.org or call 301-875-2567.
(c) Mark Gorkin 2011
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