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The Stress Doc Letter
Cybernotes from the Online Psychohumorist (tm)

February 2000, No. 2, Sect. 2

Warning: This article may be hazardous to the ironically-impaired!

Two subpar workshops motivate the Stress Doc to grapple with the dysfunctional pieces of the planning and delivery puzzle. And one outcome: a wicked satire, "Top Ten" tips for having a "safe" company retreat.

Planning and Implementing a "Safe," If Not Successful, Company Retreat: Top Ten Commandments and Strategies

In typical double-edged obsessive fashion, recent stellar "Practicing Safe Stress" programs -- a half-day workshop with a large software company and a 1 1/2 day retreat for legal administrators of a 250 attorney law firm -- had me recalling two past programs, workshop performances that gnawed in my gut for months. And while the ruminating had been painful, the past "constructive discontent" paved the way for the uncommon successes. (Hmmm, the two triumphs occurred in seacoast towns -- Charleston, SC and Annapolis, MD. Could that brain food, those oysters on the half shell and Chesapeake crab cakes, have been the real reason for the turnaround?)

Perhaps a cyclothymic nature has me forever linking good news-bad news. My tendency is to grapple with life as half full and half empty. Surely, the world loses a good bit of all or none, good or evil simplicity. Perceiving a Yin-Yang complementarity, the paradoxical harmony of opposites, however fleetingly, provides it's own glimpse behind surface yet veiled appearances. In this world view, irony and absurdity may convey a higher truth, if not intimations of the sublime. Anyway, back to my "nothing succeeds like failure" morality tale...

Around six-eight months ago, I led two workshops for major companies that did not meet my (admittedly high) standards for a successful program. Several segments went fine, but the whole seemed less than the sum of its parts. The first retreat involved an international sales force. Belatedly, it was clear that the group and I did not overtly confront the hovering and intimidating presence of the tyrannical division executive. (Of course, this corporate specter was not at the workshop.)

The second scenario is a face to face meeting with a forward thinking workshop committee. These strategic planners wanted to help division supervisors and managers deal with another round of reorganizational stress. Alas, these managerial-types dismissed any real stress or conflict being effected by upcoming changes. The initial reorganization, a year before, was the volcanic eruption; at most this round would be minor aftershocks for themselves or their employees. The group resisted grappling with the impact or potential consequences of Reorg: Part II. (Ah, if only minor aftershocks didn't stir post-traumatic stress memories. Sort of reminds me of the pompous State Department manager who challenged me: "What do you call it if you don't have any stress?" My immediate, humble reply: "DENIAL!")

In hindsight, I had walked into two pre-workshop planning traps: a) the division sales management in phone conversations never mentioned this micromanaging and threatening superior, and b) the program committee was trying to benignly instill their progressive, high touch agenda on mostly high tech engineering types who more naturally focused on time and task driven issues; the emotional implications of future reorganization was not a high visibility item on their managerial radar screens.

Issues and Interventions

The Moral: The effectiveness of a workshop is constrained to the degree that the leader: a) does not connect to the genuine, often underlying concerns, anxieties and anger that participants are harboring or b) tries to impose a conceptual or emotional agenda not owned or, at least, acknowledged by the participants. On the other hand, sometimes an agenda is designed to be "safe," to avoid corporate civil war or cannibalism; also, to bypass or prevent participants from raising tough issues and voicing frustrations, fears and real recommendations.

With these caveats, and knowing how important it is not to rock a shaky corporate boat in stormy waters, how can one insure a "safe" retreat? Let's start with the environmental context. It's a lean-and-MAN, "do more with less" world; skilled people are in short supply. As a manager, to stem the migration, you realize the importance of occasionally greasing the cogs in your corporate machine. Your employees and supervisors need a pit stop to keep racing around the "24/7" global economy track. So it's time for a company retreat, a time and place where folks can get juiced up and positively motivated. Make sure that your personnel realize their good fortune in having an upper management team worried about their efficiency and productivity, if not their morale and personal welfare. (Imagine, these modern day employees want a work life and a life. Such self-centered wimps!) And if you plan the retreat right, you can even manufacture a harmless, "feel good" ambiance.

Still, it takes much preparation and skillful execution to induce a sense of pseudo-harmony when what you really crave is cutthroat competition among the troops. "Esprit de corps" is for sissies. "It's 'esprit de corpse', stupid." How to select the right workshop facilitator, one who appears to be independent but in actuality will overtly and covertly promote your self-aggrandizing agenda? Well, here's how ¶with the Stress Doc's "Top Ten Commandments for Insuring a Safe, if Not Successful, Company Retreat."

1. Develop an Agenda That Is Set in Stone. The retreat agenda should be perceived like those ten eternal verities. Event planners must hand down their sacred goals and expectations to the retreat facilitator. (Of course, you can dispense with an outside consultant and just run the show yourself. Honest but not subtle.) Clearly, execs at the top of the pyramid (no master-slave connotation intended) have "the big picture" (or is it rarefied view?). The elite are paid to know what others below think, feel and need, especially those lowly base cadets.

Of course, you can solicit pre-workshop input from employees through a department or company questionnaire. And, since accountability is important, insist that respondents identify themselves. (However, you may get submissions from Bullwinkle the Moose and Rocket J. Squirrel.) In addition, this data can always be archived in such a way as to be virtually unretrievable.

2. Withhold Vital Information. Top management should also keep sensitive information from an outside retreat leader. An example being not informing the same that the department overseer has a Pharaoh complex. (And too often this person is a no-show, which is too bad as his or her presence would almost guarantee an orderly antiseptic program. And pent-up anger which is transformed into retreat bar brawls among staff can be simply explained as evening entertainment.)

3. Beware Real Interactive Exercises. Don't allow these retreat presenters to inject exercises that simulate real office or workplace dynamics or focus on everyday sources of stress and conflict. That's just a formula for group whining and exposing your leadership style to razzing. Limit exercises to the "Trip to Mars" variety where the critical decision-making issue is whether you keep or throw out a bungee cord vs. a vibrator. (Obviously, issues of letting go are central to this organization.)

4. Strictly Follow the Workshop Handout. If at all possible, assemble a workshop handout bible; to present key concepts the retreat leader shall lecture by the book. Providing structure and pre-approved content and tools are vital steps, especially when trying to avoid the spontaneous generation of genuine concerns or a group agenda. Too much venting is a time and energy drainer and deters from focusing on your vision. (And don't get defensive if someone implies your vision is really a hallucination. Just let Mr. Smarty Pants know it's a very fine line.)

5. Tightly Schedule Topics and Breaks. Another way of preventing distraction and deviation is to establish an agenda that breaks up topic areas into fifteen minute intervals highlighting specific learning areas. Emphasize the criticality of the content and strongly urge participants to hold their remarks till some undefined formal Q & A period. Remember, the most objective criteria for a successful program is compulsively covering all retreat agenda components. And toward this end, rigidly stick to time constraints for outlined breaks. It's a sign of goal focus, order and control (not "the hobgoblin of little minds," Mr. Emerson). Skewer stragglers in front of the group. People must take responsibility and learn consequences.

6. Discourage Excessive Group Discussion. The corollary to following tightly a structured agenda is limiting group discussion, especially of the spontaneous variety. Expect participants to raise their hands before speaking. This is a "no brainer." I'm sure you've heard about the consultant with a "let it all hang out" leadership style in a retreat with thirty litigators. Big surprise: the retreat turned into a rout. So it's clearly better to be safe than real.

Limit discussion to confirmation of your points and goals. Especially beware exercises that allow groups to identify the barriers to increased productivity, effective and honest communication and team collaboration and morale. And, of course, discourage problem-solving attempts by reminding attendees that the greater corporate environment or global economy forces are beyond their comprehension, let alone their control.

7. Be Invulnerable. If as a department or division head you decide to attend the retreat (which will likely send shock waves throughout the troops) then make sure that criticism or pointed questioning of you or your top management corps is "Verboten!" Remind people that you all have more important business than holding a gripe session on company time.

Even if the retreat facilitator in a misguided moment encourages you to field some tough questions (naively thinking this may build some rapport between leaders and followers) throw responsibility back on the audience. You know the real leader's paramilitary motivational axiom: First intimidate, then relate! (Or as I believe Charles Colson observed during his Nixon henchmen, pre-"born again" years: "When you've got them by the balls, their hearts and minds will follow!) In fear we trust!

8. Get Serious. Make sure your retreat leader understands the solemnity of this special occasion. Keep this guy on a short humor and fun rope. You don't want any overt or covert message that trivializes or satirizes the importance of the retreat mission. For example, be careful of interactive drawing exercises that allow participants to express real feelings, e.g., like those US Navy personnel drawing sinking ships and menacing sharks circling the water or Army Corps of Engineer participants blowing headquarters to smithereens as visual metaphors of downsizing (or is it "frightsizing") organizational climates.

Don't believe the leader as he or she tries to rationalize this mass insubordination. He'll tell you it's part of the group grief process (or some such psychobabble) that ultimately enables folks to acknowledge their anger and rechannel frustration into productive dialogue and problem-solving. This so-called creative play is just mocking your authority. Remember, planned and spontaneous humor and laughter is a formula for diluting the mental programming value of the retreat. Not only won't people be on the same page, they'll start tearing up the pages. Be vigilant: Humor obliterates the box!

9. Avoid Peer Leadership. Towards the end of the retreat, some facilitators try to encourage audience members to take on a leadership role, especially when simulating a future team meeting. Beware suggestions of forsaking your formal leadership mantle, whereby a staff person runs the group and you become a team member. Employees may notice a difference in energy levels, openness of communication and genuine problem-solving. They may start expecting some real input into decision-making. You definitely are turning over the asylum keys to the inmates.

10. Sink a Save the Retreat Committee. If somehow the group involvement and decision-making gets out of hand, you don't have to crush this Perestroika in the bud. You can neutralize any participatory unrest and still be seen as open-minded by creating the illusion of meaningful input. For example, let the group generate problem-solving action items and time frames. Encourage the participants to send their strategies to some Matrix Management Team whose charge is to keep the retreat promise alive. (This is especially effective when a field unit sends their suggestions to Headquarters.) This team of Retreat Oversight Committee Keepers (ROCK) will carefully and eternally study and evaluate the very complex issues list. Naturally, feedback or problem-solving pilot projects must be dismissed as premature, superficial and reckless.

Of course, with a little foresight, you might not have to get started at all. Selecting the right people is key, that is, people with schedules impossible to coordinate. It should take at least three to six months to have your inaugural session. Trust me, this process will keep any survivng, optimistic post-retreat energy and progressive ideas trapped between a ROCK and a hard place!

Now forewarned with your "Top Ten" Commandments and Strategies, you should be able schedule retreats with impunity. Do this often enough and employees will start grumbling, "Not another retreat!" And then be prepared for your greatest triumph: when employees turn down any opportunities for meaningful input in their working operations and are relieved to comply robotically with your program. You have just trained them to‚€¶.Practice Learned Helplessness!


1) For all cyberspace travelers, there's the new Ask the Stress Doc Q & A -- Work Stress Digital City - Washington, DC - Ask the Stres... and Love and Relationships Digital City - Washington, DC - Relations . Also, check the Doc's Q & A Archives: Stress Doc's Q&A and Q&A: Love and Relationships .

A QUICK GUIDE TO ENTERING WEBMD LIVE EVENTS: by Jon Roig, Producer for Healtheon-WebMD, jroig@webmd.net

1) Go to WebMD -- the URL is http://webmd.com. As far as browsers go, both Internet Explorer and Netscape seem about equal, as long as you're using a reasonably recent version. Mac users generally have the best luck with Internet Explorer 4.5 with OS 8.6or better.

2) If you have not yet done so, please create an account. This will take approximately 10 minutes, so if you're planning on joining an event, you might wish to set aside some time to do so... * Click the "Login" button on the top navbar, just underneath the WebMD Health logo. * Click the "Become A Member" button * Please fill in the required fields: Nickname, Password, Email Address etc... * Click accept -- it'll let you know if you've missed fields.

* There's no need to create a member profile right now, although you can if you like, of course.

3) Click the "WebMD LIVE Events" button -- it's on the left side, under "Home and News" and above "Member to Member"

4) This will take you to a list of upcoming events. Choose the one you want to enter by clicking on the title.

5) At the top of the announcement for the event, you should see an "Enter this Event" button. Click it.

6) This will then take you into the chat. At the top of the screen, you'll see the Terms and Conditions page. Please take a moment to read these, as they include information about general use of our live events areas, our privacy statement, general info, etc...

*A quick note about privacy* Obviously, we don't sell individual user's data to anyone, but we've heard stories of people getting spammed as a result of posting email addresses to our message boards. In a general sense, if privacy is a major concern and you want to post an email address on the boards, then get yourself an account with Hotmail or some similar anonymous email service. We don't necessarily endorse any specific service, but there are several good ones out there.

7) Click "Enter Chat" This will take you to our live event area, where the event of your choice is taking taking place.

The upper portion of the screen is where the conversation itself will be taking place. Feel free to ask you question at any time by typing "/ask" followed by your query... EX. /ask What are some constructive ways that I can quit smoking? -------------------------------------------------------------

Mark Gorkin, LICSW, known as "The Stress Doc," is the Internet's and America Online's "Online Psychohumorist". An experienced psychotherapist, The Doc is a nationally recognized speaker and training and OD consultant specializing in Stress, Anger Management, Reorganizational Change, Team Building and HUMOR! His writings are syndicated by iSyndicate.com and appear in a wide variety of online and offline forums and publications, including AOL's Online Psych and Business Know How, WorkforceOnline, Mental Health Net, Financial Services Journal Online, Paradigm Magazine and Counseling Today. Check out his USA Today Online "Hotsite" Website -- www.stressdoc.com . For info on his workshops or for his free newsletter, email stressdoc@aol.com or call 202-232-8662. Spring 2000, look for Practice Safe Stress with The Stress Doc, published by AdviceZone.com.

(c) Mark Gorkin 2000 Shrink Rap‚„Ę Productions

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