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Got clients or workers in distress? Got people who are distressing you? You’re in luck!

When it comes to accessing mental health treatment, timing can be everything… AND NOW’S THE TIME! (But not for the reasons you might think.)

Nothing says “Time for Therapy” more than the last few months of the year. You can likely guess some of the more common reasons why that’s so. Here in the northern hemisphere, for example, when the days grow shorter and the skies get gloomy, moods can darken, too. All around the globe, work stress mounts as people scramble to finish major projects before year end. And then, of course, there’s all that extra time spent in the warm prickly embrace of extended family. (That’s why my favourite seasonal game is Martha Beck’s Dysfunctional Family Bingo. You only win if your family is crazy, and I always win.)

But one of the major benefits of getting therapy at this time of year has to do with paying for treatment. Most private benefits plans run on the basis of a calendar year. Any funding that hasn’t been used by December 31, 2019 simply vanishes. On January 1, 2020, employees with benefits packages have access to a new pool of funds that will have to see them through the next 12 months.

By booking a series of therapy appointments between November of one year and February or March of the next, your employees or clients may be able to access two years’ worth of benefits in a short period of time. Timing wise, that’s the equivalent of doubling the number of sessions they’re eligible for. (A typical benefits package will cover 2 to 3 sessions for 2019 and 2 or 3 for 2020. These can all be used in a period of a few months.)

Admittedly, that still falls short of the 8 to 10 sessions typically required to treat depression and anxiety; nevertheless, a lot of good work can be done in a compressed period of time with a practitioner who is (a) skilled in short-term treatment approaches and (b) aware of the client’s funding limitations. If the therapy has been proving useful, many people then find ways to self-fund additional sessions. (An encouraging word from family, friends or financial advisors can help them feel confident of their ability to absorb such costs, especially when considered against the costs of NOT getting help.)

Some of the readers of this article are in positions of power within private industry, insurance companies, and Human Resources departments, and it’s to them that I address this paragraph. Most employee benefits packages are woefully inadequate when it comes to coverage for serious mental health concerns (e.g. suicidality, addictions, etc.).Typical packages that I see in Canada provide only $350 to $450 of psychological treatment per calendar year. That amount hasn’t changed appreciably in 25 years. Meanwhile, what is the fastest growing cause of short-term and long-term vocational disability? You guessed it: mental health issues. Disability insurance companies should be throwing money into psychological health care benefits packages if they’re serious about reducing longterm costs, and HR departments should be demanding much more mental health coverage from their benefits providers. If you’ve got the power to influence such matters, please do. This article might give you some ideas.

For the rest of you, let me just encourage you to be champions of mental well-being. Take care of your own mental health and happiness. Look into taking a mental health first aid course so you can sit more compassionately with people in distress. Consider giving time and money to community organizations that are on the front lines of service delivery.

Eggnog plus year-end reports plus psychotherapy. It’s a winning combination. You might want to suggest it at your next family gathering.

My Best-Ever Productivity Hack

What do a retired navy captain, a rubber duck, and a women’s leadership expert have in common?

They’re all productivity superheroes – at least, they are for me.

Like many of you reading this newsletter, I have to create new content on a regular basis. Not producing is not an option. My executive coaching clients need me to follow up on our calls with assignments and written reflections. The conferences that hire me need new keynotes and workshops. My website howls for blogs and updates.

But after I published my book, Advice that Sticks, I hit a slump. Perhaps it was the writer’s equivalent of post-partum blues, but I just couldn’t muster the enthusiasm to write. Unless there was a gun in the form of a deadline pointed at my head, I was finding it really hard to produce anything.

I needed that to change. I decided to take a page out of my own doctoral thesis on procrastination (which I did, indeed, finish!), and stop relying on the fickleness of willpower and/or the stress of last-minute brinksmanship to get things done. I needed, instead, to harness some more reliable human strengths – say, the power of habit, or the power of positivity.

So it was that, several months ago, I invited an unlikely trio to form a virtual writing group with me. We settled on Friday mornings as the time to get stuff out of our heads and into the world. Permit me to introduce you to the crew who have become my productivity hacks:

Dr. David Kloak is a former Navy Captain and chaplain. He’s now an executive career coach with a great big intellect and an even bigger heart. Dave sees synchronicities and creates connections between seemingly disparate fields of work and ideas and people. The guy is an incubator for ideas.

Dr. Mira Brancu is an expert in women’s leadership development, with special savvy in navigating large and complex organizations. She’s a blogger and writer of remarkable quality, someone who has the great gifts of encouragement and insight in equal proportions. Mira gets kind of ferocious, however, when she catches even a whiff of perfectionism. She’ll have none of that.

A yellow rubber duck with an orange beak

Then there’s my buddy, the rubber duck. I don’t know much about him, sorry to say, other than he’s a Chinese expatriate. Unlike Mira and Dave, he’s intellectually dense and doesn’t do a whole heck of a lot. But he IS cute and he IS a superb listener, and thus has a vital role in my Friday mornings.

We’ve figured out a great routine, the good doctors and the duck and I. First, we connect on Skype for five minutes to set our intentions for the next two hours. We check in an hour later to give an update and ask for any quick help we might need. We Skype again at the end of the second hour to report on progress and wish each other well in the week ahead.

The duck doesn’t actually participate IN the calls; he is, however, ON call to haul me out of trouble in my writing. Talking to the duck is a strategy I learned from Daniel Pink in one his earliest Pinkcasts. When I am getting bogged down in my tendency to be abstrusepedantic, or byzantine, I explain the passage to the duck, who insists on plain and simple and direct. He’s annoyingly relentless about it. That’s a good quality in a productivity superhero.

Accountability, routine, delightful companions, and an uncompromising insistence on keeping it simple – these are the elements of a writing practice that feels less like gun-to-the-head and more like so-glad-to-be-here. They’re the reason I don’t even think about blowing off writing time any more.

I’m currently experimenting with similar ideas for getting to the gym more often. The duck is willing to give it a go. Both of us need to slenderize our thighs. (It’s probably all that time we spend writing.)

The Journey from Feedback Weenie to Feedback Zealot 

Early on in my career, both giving and receiving feedback was a painful endeavour for me. Knowing I was about to receive it brought back memories of ogre-like judges at music festivals, red ink on term papers, and rejected summer job applications. Knowing I had to give it was scarcely better. I worried my words would either wound a tender-hearted recipient, or trigger enraged blowback from a narcissistic one — say, like Glenn Close in Fatal Attraction boiling the pet bunny of the lover who rejected her. Yup, it was that bad. I was a feedback weenie, for sure.

So was Reza, one of my executive coaching clients. “I grew up in the bad old days of spanking,” Reza reported to me. “Whenever my dad was about to spank me, he would always say, ‘Son, this is going to hurt me way more than it hurts you’, and I would always think ‘Yeah, right!’ But now that I am in a position of having to mete out the equivalent of verbal discipline to my own staff, I understand what my dad meant. I absolutely HATE giving anything other than glowing evaluations.”

New York University researchers Tessa West and Katherine Thorson have been able to quantify the stress of feedback. They ran a study in which participants were asked first to engage in a mock negotiation, and then to provide feedback to their counterparts in that negotiation. Everyone was monitored for physiological and behavioural signs of stress. The results showed that subjects’ heart rates increased by as much as 50% over baseline, indicative of moderate to extreme levels of duress. There were equally sharp spikes in arousal for the feedback givers and the feedback recipients.

Want to add stress to a leader’s day? Add “deliver feedback” to his or her To Do list!

There are ways to decrease that stress. Dr. Brodie Gregory Riordan is a self-described “feedback zealot”. Her research findings have much to tell us about the art and science of feedback delivery. Here are three ways to begin :

1. Shift Attitudes through Observation

The first step often has to be a shift in attitude. Reza, for example, needed to start viewing feedback less like a harsh act of discipline and more like a caring act of teaching or coaching. I gave him an assignment to notice how many people and businesses actually went out of their way to ask him for his feedback.

By the end of a single week of observation, he had a very long list. His dentist asked him if he needed more freezing; his waiter asked him if the meal was to his liking; his personal trainer asked him if he had been excessively sore after the last workout; and on it went. This period of observation significantly changed his outlook. He saw that it was entirely possible for feedback to benefit not only performance but also relationships.

2. Proactively Ask for Feedback 

Fortified with this insight, leaders can move on to the next step: asking for feedback more regularly. That can be a hard thing for a boss to ask for, and a harder thing for employees to provide. Reza wisely started small – asking for ways to improve vacation bidding, for example, and for means of enhancing the safety of his factory – and then he worked up to meatier issues. And he taught his staff to do likewise.

The NYU researchers West and Thorson confirm that this is, indeed, a simple but powerful strategy to reduce the pain of feedback. Developing a workplace culture in which people learn to ask for feedback in a pro-active manner greatly reduces their bioreactivity. It’s hard for people to learn when they’re braced for impact; they are far more likely to benefit from it when they’re in a state of non-defensive receptivity.

3. Keep Feedback Specific and Timely 

A third strategy for reducing the pain of giving feedback is to confine your comments to specific behaviours, offering them as soon as possible after the behaviour occurs. Being specific and timely keeps leaders from extremes of turning feedback sessions into character assassinations, on the one hand, and from fretful avoidance, on the other.

This overlaps nicely with what we know about receiving feedback. Studies show that people prefer to receive any corrective or negative feedback when they are part-way through a task, while they are still in a position to do something about it. It can be completely dispiriting to receive criticism after it’s too late to fix the problem. Giving employees the chance to correct course mid-stream – something that is sometimes referred to as feedforward – is a winning strategy for leaders.

Need some strength for your own journey from Feedback Weenie to Feedback Zealot? Here are some interesting and helpful reads:

The New One Minute Manager, by Ken Blanchard and Spencer Johnson.
The authors teach one basic strategy for three different kinds of feedback scenarios. This is a great way to begin the journey.

What Got You Here Won’t Get You There, by Marshall Goldsmith.
This book is the perfect primer on feedforward.

Using Neuroscience to Make Feedback Work and Feel Better.
Written by David Rock, Beth Jones and Chris Weller at the NeuroLeadership Institute, this article is an engaging summary of the study by West and Thorson that I cited earlier in this blog.

From Maria von Trapp to Vlad the Impaler (and Back Again): The Tale of a Mission-Driven Bully

In last week’s Oh Behave! blog post, I wrote about three different ways of getting bullies into an organization. Hiring a Sociopath and Incentivizing Bad Behaviour were two of them. The third pathway was one I dubbed the Mission-Driven Path. You can read more about these very different pathways here.

Maria was one of those Mission-Driven bullies. A principled and brilliant engineer, she had been one of the first hires of a start-up firm that focused on technologies for environmental restoration. Her talent, passion and interpersonal skills were credited with much of the company’s early success in both technical excellence AND innovative workplace culture.

But then they lost a major grant, putting several key initiatives in danger. Maria began working around the clock to try and ensure that projects went ahead and no jobs were lost. She became ragged from stress and from lack of sleep. And that was the point when, according to the company’s founder, “The ever-cheerful leader that we’d teasingly nicknamed Maria von Trapp turned into our very own Vlad the Impaler.” Three critical ‘ingredients’– passion for a cause, a threat to the organization’s viability, and massive personal depletion — had come together to create a bully out of a most unlikely candidate.

Maria began publicly berating her staff for not working as hard as she was. She cut people off mid-sentence and rejected all ideas that didn’t originate from her own mind. She was easily triggered into verbal tirades and displays of temper.

The owner was candid about his own mistakes in dealing with Maria’s metamorphosis. He admitted, “First I dismissed and then I downplayed the complaints that came my way. I told people that she was under a lot of stress trying to save some important projects, and I asked them to cut her some slack.”

But when unusual silences began to reign in their normally spirited lunchroom, and absenteeism mounted, and finally two people quit, he could no longer ignore the evidence: Maria was a problem. So his question for me was … wait for it….

How do you solve a problem like Maria?

The approach had to be multi-pronged in this case, as harm had been done to the workplace culture as well as to individuals. The recovery plan had to start at the top. The owner took immediate and public responsibility for addressing the damage he’d allowed Maria to do to herself and her team by not intervening sooner. He made a firm commitment to solving his company’s cash flow crunch, “the thing that got us into this mess in the first place”. He reallocated Maria’s patently ridiculous and unmanageable workload. He implemented new policies around overtime, and insisted that ALL employees take the vacation time that was due them.

At the same time, staff were invited to participate in the creation of bespoke Respectful Workplace guidelines. Crucially, in the months that followed, team members were given time to learn and practice effective means of having difficult conversations.

As for Maria, aka Vlad? She was ordered to take time off, time that was needed to address her state of utter mental and physical depletion. As soon as she was reasonably restored, she began working with me to develop strategies for repairing the damage she had caused to her team, herself, and her reputation.

Maria was a terrific coaching client, as it turned out. She possessed the trifecta of qualities deemed crucial for coaching success by Dr. Marshall Goldsmith: namely, courage, humility and discipline. Maria already had these characteristics in abundance, which made my job easier. Other Mission-Driven bullies I’ve worked with have had to wrestle with their own pride and defensiveness before they could make progress. The willingness to do so is one of the things that differentiates people who can be reintegrated into the team from those who need to move on.

This company was lucky. The team forgave Maria, the owner dealt with his cash flow problems, and  the organization recovered both financially and relationally. What is clear, however, is that prevention remains the best cure for this problem. The take home message for business owners? Pay attention to cash reserves. Create Respectful Workplace guidelines, and use infractions as training opportunities. And finally, actively combat the tendency of loyal, passionate employees to sacrifice their well-being for your company’s benefit. Failure to do so may bite you in the neck.

Here are some additional resources:

What Got You Here Won’t Get You There by Marshall Goldsmith

The Bully-Free Workplace by Gary Namie and Ruth Namie

Sleep Well, Lead Better – article from Harvard Business Review

How do You Solve a Problem Like Maria? (Come on, you know you want to listen to it!)

How to Grow a Bully

Once again this week, I was contacted by a company whose employees are alleging bullying and harassment from one of their leaders.  Once again, the company involved expressed shock about the emergence of the misbehaviour. Whenever I field these calls, I usually am told something along the lines of,  “He/she has always been such a good person / a sweetheart / an ethical stalwart. We can’t understand what’s happened!” I CAN understand it, and I feel for all concerned.

I’ve learned that there are several different ways to get a bully in the workplace.

Route #1: The sociopath.

The easiest way to get a bully on the payroll is simply to hire a sociopath, someone who lacks both the empathy and the capacity for guilt that are present in most human beings. (If you can’t find a sociopath, you could always settle for a narcissist.) Such people often turn in great results, but they do so by manipulating and exploiting their staff and co-workers, creating favourites and outcasts, and resorting to lying, cheating, disavowing or blaming in order to make themselves look good.

These kinds of bullies arrive ready-made. They usually have left tell-tale paths of destruction behind them, in every other organization that they have worked for. Prevention is the best cure for dealing with them. We need to get better at screening out sociopaths and narcissists during the interviewing and hiring process. If and when they do slither into our tent, we must act decisively and rapidly in response to their ethical violations.

Let me be really clear, here: Do NOT attempt to offer these people rehabilitative coaching. Fire them.

Route #2: The incentive path.

Another pathway to getting a workplace bully is by creating the conditions for employees’ personal ambitions to grow overdeveloped and unchecked. In their hyper-focused efforts to meet a target, merit a bonus, or kiss up to a superior, some managers can start to view their staff as mere tools that can be treated aggressively and set aside dismissively. Such leaders can sometimes be turned back into decent human beings through rapid and unambiguous feedback about their effects on others. If this has happened in your company, you will need to take the additional step of re-thinking or even eliminating your incentive programmes, as they can become unwitting crucibles for all kinds of unethical, aggressive behaviours.

Route #3: The mission-driven path.

The third path to bullying is what I’ve come to think of as the mission-driven path. In my experience, this kind of bully-out-of-the-blue phenomenon is especially apt to emerge in charitable organizations, social enterprises, family businesses, or start-up companies that have undergone rapid growth. It happens when you (1) take fine, fine people who are deeply committed to their employer, (2) work them so hard that they become physically exhausted and mentally depleted, and then (3) cut their budgets or staffing so deeply that they fear the company’s survival (or the success of the mission) is in jeopardy. They start to drive everyone relentlessly – including, most especially, themselves — in their frenetic attempts to keep everything afloat. Characterologically, these people are about as far from sociopaths as it is possible to get; behaviourally, however, they can look awfully similar in a time of crisis.

If one of your best people seems to be morphing into Genghis Khan, you’ll need to push ‘Reset’ in a hurry. I’ll write more about this in a subsequent post. In the meantime, ensure that your company has Respectful Workplace guidelines in place. Then TRAIN PEOPLE in how to use those guidelines to engage in respectful, assertive conversations about behaviours of concern.

Here are some additional resources:

The Bully-Free Workplace by Gary Namie and Ruth Namie

Take the Bully by the Horns by Sam Horn

Any of Dan Ariely’s scholarly articles and blog posts on Incentives – start with danariely.com

Introducing a new coaching blog for emerging leaders: Oh Behave!

Much of my coaching is aimed at helping leaders tweak a few key behaviours that are lowering the ceiling on their effectiveness. These often involve addressing some things that the leaders need to STOP doing, and an additional few things that they must START and CONTINUE doing. Repeatedly. ‘Til kingdom comes.

Leaders’ attempts to change their behaviour often flag quickly, the result of one or more of the following factors:

  1. They choose the wrong thing to change
  2. They don’t know what triggers or maintains their bad habits
  3. They don’t have adequate reminders or supports in place to keep their efforts going
  4. They have no way of getting regular, honest feedback from key team members who are in a position to observe them
  5. Something else comes up

Behavioural coaching is one methodology used by successful leaders to overcome these problems, and to keep themselves on a growth trajectory.

Oh Behave! Is a new blog series aimed at highlighting some of the best and some of the worst of leadership behaviours. I hope you will find it both interesting and helpful.

via Gfycat