How Do You Work With People Who Aren't Self-Aware?

Editor's Note: Have you ever run into this phenomenon - working with people that are not self-aware? Tasha Eurich, an organizational psychologist, spells out how a lack of self-aware peers impacts teamwork and success in this recent HBR article. Read on and enjoy. As always, you can find all my blog posts from 2013 to the present on my website at

Even though self-awareness — knowing who we are and how we’re seen — is vital for job performance, career success, and leadership effectiveness, it’s in remarkably short supply in today’s workplace. In our nearly five-year research program on the subject, we’ve discovered that although 95% of people think they’re self-aware, only 10 to 15% actually are.

At the office, we don’t have to look far to find unaware colleagues — people who, despite past successes, solid qualifications, or irrefutable intelligence, display a complete lack of insight into how they are coming across. In a survey we conducted with 467 working adults in the U.S. across several industries, 99% reported working with at least one such person, and nearly half worked with at least four. Peers were the most frequent offenders (with 73% of respondents reporting at least one unaware peer), followed by direct reports (33%), bosses (32%), and clients (16%).

Un-self-aware colleagues aren’t just frustrating; they can cut a team’s chances of success in half. According to our research, other consequences of working with unaware colleagues include increased stress, decreased motivation, and a higher likelihood of leaving one’s job.

So how do we deal with these situations? Is it possible to help the unaware see themselves more clearly? And if we can’t, what can we do to minimize their damage on our success and happiness?

Understanding the problem

Not all badly-behaving colleagues suffer from a lack of self-awareness and not all who do can be helped. Therefore, you must first determine whether the source of the problem is genuinely someone’s lack of self-awareness. Ask yourself:

What’s behind the tension?

When we’re having trouble working with someone, the problem isn’t always a lack of self-awareness on their part. Interpersonal conflict can arise from different priorities, incompatible communication styles, or a lack of trust.

To determine whether you’re truly dealing with an un-self-aware person, consider how others around them feel. Typically, if someone is unaware, there’s a consensus about their behavior (i.e., it won’t just be you). More specifically, we’ve found several consistent behaviors of un-self-aware individuals:

  • They won’t listen to, or accept critical feedback.

  • They cannot empathize with, or take the perspective of, others.

  • They have difficulty “reading a room” and tailoring their message to their audience.

  • They possess an inflated opinion of their contributions and performance.

  • They are hurtful to others without realizing it.

  • They take credit for successes and blame others for failures.

Where is this person coming from?

In contrast to the unaware, certain difficult colleagues—like office jerks—know exactly what they’re doing, but aren’t willing to change.

I once knew a chief operating officer with a reputation for humiliating his team whenever they disappointed him. When finally confronted about his behavior, his response was, “The best management tool is fear. If they fear you, they will get the work done.” (Unsurprisingly, his superiors did not share his views and fired him several months later).

The most significant difference between the unaware and the Aware-Don’t-Care are their intentions: the unaware genuinely want to be collaborative and productive, but don’t know they’re falling short. Whereas the Aware-Don’t-Care unapologetically acknowledge their behavior (“Of course I’m pushy with clients. It’s the only way to make the sale!”), the unaware can’t see how they’re showing up (“That client meeting went well!”).

Helping the unaware

Once you’ve determined someone suffers from a lack of self-awareness, it’s time to honestly assess whether they can be helped. Think about their intentions and whether they’d want to change. Have you seen them ask for a different perspective or welcome critical feedback? This suggests that it’s possible to help them become more self-aware.

But the odds can be steep. Our survey found that although 70% of people with unaware colleagues have tried to help them improve, only 31% were successful or very successful. And among those who decided not to help, only 21% said they regretted their decision. So before you step in, ask yourself:

Am I the right messenger?

The number one reason our survey respondents gave for not helping an unaware person was that they didn’t think they were the right messenger. It’s true that when helping the unaware, providing good, constructive feedback only gets us part of the way. For someone to truly be open to critical feedback, they must trust us — they must fundamentally believe that we have their best interests at heart. When trust is present, the other person will feel more comfortable being vulnerable, a prerequisite to accepting one’s unaware behavior.

So think about the relationship you have with your unaware colleague: have you gone out of your way to help or support them in the past? And are you confident they will see your feedback for what it is—a show of support to help them get better—rather than inferring a more nefarious motive? Or, are there others who might be better suited to deliver the feedback than you?

Am I willing to accept the worst-case scenario?

The second most common reason people decide not to help the unaware is that the risk is simply too high. As one of our study participants noted, “I may not be able to help, and trying [might] just make them angry.” The consequences of help-gone-awry can range from uncomfortable (tears, the silent treatment, yelling) to career-limiting (an employee might quit; a colleague may try to sabotage us; a boss could fire us).

Here, power differentials are a factor. For example, though unaware bosses have an especially detrimental impact on their employees’ job satisfaction, performance, and well-being, confronting one’s boss is inherently riskier because of the positional power she holds. Conversely, the risk is usually lower with peers, and lower still with direct reports (in fact, if you have an unaware employee, it is literally your job to help them). But regardless of their place on the organizational chart, we must be ready to accept the worst-case scenario should it occur.

If you believe you can help, then what’s the best way to do so? There are certainly many helpful resources on providing high-quality feedback, and most apply with the unaware. There are, however, three practices worth underscoring for these individuals.

First, talk to them in person (our research suggests those who provide feedback via email are 33% less successful). Second, instead of bringing up their behavior out of the blue, practice strategic patience. If possible, wait until your colleague expresses feelings of frustration or dissatisfaction that (unbeknownst to them) are being caused by their unawareness. Ask if you can offer an observation in the spirit of their success and wellbeing (using the word “feedback” risks defensiveness). Third, if they agree, focus on their specific, observable behavior and how it’s limiting their success. End the conversation by reaffirming your support and asking how you can help.

What to do if they don’t change

It’s easy to feel hopeless when you can’t help someone who is unaware. The good news is that although we can’t force insight on them, we can minimize their impact on us.

Mindfully reframe their behavior: The popular workplace practice of mindfulness can be an effective tool for dealing with the unaware. Specifically, noticing what we’re feeling in a given moment allows us to reframe the situation and be more resilient.

Here is one tool to notice but not get drawn into our negative reactions to the unaware. I first came up with the “laugh track” when I had the misfortune of work­ing for an Aware-Don’t-Care boss. One day, after a particularly unpleas­ant encounter, I recalled my favorite TV show growing up, The Mary Tyler Moore Show. Mary’s boss was a surly man named Lou Grant. On a good day, Lou was grumpy; on a bad day, he was downright abusive. But because his comments were followed by a canned laugh track, they became surprisingly endearing. I de­cided that the next time my boss said something horrible, I’d imagine a laugh track behind it instead. I was frequently surprised at how much less hurtful (and occasionally hilarious) this tool rendered him.

Find their humanity: As easy as it can be to forget, even the most unaware among us are still human. If we     remember this, instead of flying off the handle when they’re behaving badly, we can recognize that, at the core, their unaware behavior is a sign that they are struggling. We can adopt the mindset of compassion without judgment.

Researchers have found that honing our compassion skills helps us remain calm in the face of difficult people and situations. As management professor Hooria Jazaieri points out, “there are [negative] consequences…when we are…thinking bad thoughts about someone” — compassion “allows us to let them go.”

Play the long game: When it comes to dealing with the unaware, one of the most important things to remember is that just because they’re that way now doesn’t mean they won’t change in the future. Unaware behaviors sometimes have to be pointed out multiple times before the feedback begins to stick — or, as one of our research participants noted, “Sometimes they have to bump their head enough times to finally see the light.”

In our research, we’ve studied people who made dramatic, transformational improvements in their self-awareness. Though it takes courage, commitment, and humility, it is indeed possible—and whether or not the people around us choose to improve their self-awareness, we have complete control over the choice to improve ours (find a quick, high-level assessment of your self-awareness here). Perhaps that’s where our energy is best spent.

Are You a Critical Thinker?

Note: Critical thinkers are as scarce as hen's teeth. Enjoy. (Previous installments of all of my blogs can be found on my website at

A few years ago, I wrapped up a slightly offbeat assignment into the world of workplace culture. One of the best things that came out of this engagement was not necessarily the results, but, rather, my immersion into a culture of diversified thought.

I happened to meet a Senior Vice President for the Rocky Mountain Region of a big box retailer at a social function, and we started talking about workplace culture and its importance. I shared my experience in assisting businesses and organizations in creating the culture they wanted to create or change and my observations on the same. He was intrigued and suggested we talk further during the following week.

We met at his office, and he assured me that his company was the market leader in big box retail. “Customers will not leave us for our competitors,” he added. “It costs too much to switch to them.” Within weeks, the company's stock had plunged due to a bad earnings report. The SVP was shocked — but he shouldn’t have been. As we talked, I asked him how interested he really was in finding out the reason for this occurrence and shared that, in my experience, most of the ills that any business suffered from stemmed from leadership and rolled downhill from there. 

For more than 30 years, I’ve helped struggling organizations. Sometimes they reach out because they have been mismanaged. Sometimes they have not stayed in front of changing technologies. In a few cases, members of the senior team were simply negligent. But in my experience, these organizational problems shared a root cause: A lack of critical thinking.

Too many business leaders are simply not reasoning through pressing issues, taking the time to evaluate a topic from all sides. Leaders often jump to the first conclusion, whatever the evidence. Even worse, C-suite leaders will just choose the evidence that supports their prior beliefs. A lack of metacognition — or thinking about thinking — is also a significant driver, making people simply overconfident.

The good news is that critical thinking is a learned skill. Based on my personal experience, I’ve pulled together three simple things that you can do to improve your critical thinking skills:

  1. Question assumptions

  2. Reason through logic

  3. Diversify thought

Now, you might be thinking, “I do that already.” And you probably do, but just not as deliberately and thoroughly as you could. Cultivating these three key habits of mind go a long way in helping you become better at an increasingly desired skill in the job market.

1. When I work to turn around an organization, I’ll typically start by questioning the firm’s assumptions. I once visited dozens of stores of a retail chain, posing as a shopper. I soon discovered that the company had presumed that its customers had far more disposable income than they really had. This erroneous belief made the company overprice its clothing. They would have made millions more each year if they had sold lower-priced shirts and pants.

Of course, it’s hard to question everything. Imagine going through your day asking yourself: Is the sky really blue? What if the person next to me isn’t my colleague but her twin sister? How do I really know that the economy won’t implode tomorrow?

The first step in questioning assumptions, then, is figuring out when to challenge assumptions. It turns out; a questioning approach is particularly helpful when the stakes are high.

So if you are in a discussion about long-term company strategy upon which years of effort and expense will be based, be sure to ask fundamental questions about your beliefs: How do you know that business will increase? What does the research say about your expectations about the future of the market? Have you taken time to step into the figurative shoes of your customers as a “secret shopper”?

Another way to question your assumptions is to consider alternatives. You might ask: What if our clients changed? What if our suppliers went out of business? These sorts of questions help you gain new and vital perspectives that help hone your thinking.

2. Years ago, I took on the task of turning around the division of a sporting goods company. The growth of one of its primary product lines had been declining for years. No one could figure out why.

It turned out that the company had made the reasoning mistake of over-generalization, drawing a sweeping conclusion based on limited or insufficient evidence. Namely, the company believed that all of their customers had similar preferences in sporting goods. So it shipped the same products to every store across America.

When I started talking to staff and consumers, we realized that customers in different regions of the US reported very distinct preferences. Because of the extreme heat and humidity, people in the South tend to buy different sporting goods related to water sports than people in the Northeast. For example, they tended to buy the company's products for a completely different reason, like hiking and mountain biking. And those in California led the country in purchases of volleyball and skateboarding equipment.  

For this company, improving their reasoning helped the firm dramatically improve its bottom line. The good news is that the formal practice of logic dates back at least 2,000 years to Aristotle. Over those two millennia, logic has demonstrated its merit by reaching sound conclusions.

So at your organization, pay close attention to the “chain” of logic constructed by a particular argument. Ask yourself: Is the argument supported at every point by evidence? Do all the pieces of evidence build on each other to produce a sound conclusion?

Being aware of common fallacies can also allow you to think more logically. For instance, people often engage in what’s known as “post hoc” thinking. In this fallacy, people believe that “because event Y followed event X, event Y must have been caused by event X.”

So, for instance, a manager may believe that their sales agents rack up more sales in the spring because they’re fired up by the motivational speeches offered at the annual sales conference in February — but until that assumption is tested, there’s no way the manager can know if their belief is correct.

3. Seek out diversity of thought and collaboration

Many look, but few see. By virtue of my background and life experiences, I tend to see things differently from the people around me. This has often played to my advantage. But I’m not immune to groupthink, either. When I’m around people similar to me for whatever reason — age, politics, religion— I try to solicit different points of view. It makes me a better thinker.

It’s natural for people to group themselves together with people who think or act like them. This happens especially readily online, where it’s so easy to find a specific cultural niche. Social media algorithms can narrow our perspectives further, serving up only news that fits our individual beliefs.

This is a problem. If everyone in our social circles thinks as we do, we become more rigid in our thinking, and less likely to change our beliefs based on new information. In fact, the more people listen to people who share their views; research shows the more polarized their views become.

It’s crucial to get outside your personal bubble. You can start small. If you work in accounting, make friends with people in marketing. If you always go to lunch with senior staff, go to a hockey game with your junior colleagues. Training yourself this way will help you escape your usual thinking and gain richer insights.

In team settings, give people the chance to give their opinions independently without the influence of the group. When I ask for advice, for instance, I typically withhold my own preferences and invite team members to email me their opinions in separate notes. This tactic helps prevent people from engaging in groupthink.

While these simple tactics may sound easy or even obvious, they’re rare in practice, particularly in the business world, and too many organizations don’t take the time to engage in robust forms of reasoning. But the important work of critical thinking pays off. While luck plays a role — sometimes small, sometimes significant — in a company’s successes, the most critical business victories are achieved through thinking smart.

How Do You Have Tough Conversations at Work?

Note: It’s never comfortable to be on either side of an awkward conversation. However, being able to have a tough talk or deliver unwelcome news – telling someone they’re not getting that raise, intervening when a direct report’s behavior is off base, reviewing the performance of a team member whose work is falling short – is a core skill that all managers must master. Enjoy. (Previous installments of all of my blogs can be found on my website at

1. Make sure good news outweighs bad

For every one time, you must give constructive feedback, you want to have 10 or more interactions that involve positive feedback. Managers who build a strong relationship based on trust and transparency will have the best foundation for delivering tough messages.

2. Never wing it

“Even if you are an experienced leader or manager, take the time to really prepare ahead for the conversation,” says Elizabeth Freedman, principal at Bates Communications. “Think through what you are going to say and also prepare for what they might say and questions they may ask.”

3. Exercise empathy

“Being criticized raises our fear of rejection, not being good enough to belong. Receiving critical feedback can trigger our fear of being rejected,” says Cheri Torres, a business leadership coach. “The more fear, the less access we have for connecting and working things out together.”

Before having the conversations, consider the other person’s side. What might be inhibiting their performance? What might help? “Find out if there are outside influences that are impacting someone’s performance and behavior,” advises Tony Daniello, director of infrastructure services at Computer Design & Integration.

4. Avoid the "feedback sandwich"

You know the formula where you give a compliment, provide constructive criticism, and then give another compliment? It doesn’t work. “If every conversation starts that way, the individual will always think there is something negative approaching whenever you give them a compliment or positive reinforcement,” Daniello says.

Beth Linderbaum, a management consultant, suggests replacing this approach with a “consistent and authentic rapport with your direct reports where you can share your observations about their performance, hear their insights, and work together to develop a plan forward.”

5. Flip the script

Difficult conversations can be an opportunity for learning and growth, says David O’Hara, president of IT management and consulting firm Improving, but that’s more likely to happen when the conversation is framed positively. “Flip the focus from what is wrong to the outcome you want,” advises Torres.

For example, talk about how an employee’s behavior is putting people off becomes a discussion about why good relations between team members are essential. “Your work is falling short” can be repositioned to “What needs to happen for you to excel.” The bad news about the promotion evolves into a conversation about how to better position for the next opportunity.

6. Be specific

“Conversations need to be direct, regular, and honest,” says Giancarlo Di Vece, president of software development provider Unosquare. “Sugar-coating feedback does nothing for the company nor the underperforming employee.” Particularly within the technology group, those receiving feedback or information on their performance will respond better to detailed input supported by data. That may include concrete examples of behavior, specific instances where the behavior showed up, or times and places it occurred.

“As a leader, you need to evaluate and ensure you have done your due diligence in advance of the conversation,” Freedman says. “Pull your examples together. Gather perspectives from others who have seen this behavior if that is needed to ensure you can provide clarity.”

Also, be as honest and forthcoming as possible. When a leader or manager offers only partial feedback or fails to give the full reason for something, this “reduces the likelihood of their being able to address the problem,” says Freedman.

7.  Replace "but" with "and"

Being thoughtful about language goes a long way toward having a constructive conversation. Instead of saying “You had great visual aids, but you could have given your audience more time for questions” try “You had great visual aids, and next time you might think about adding more time for audience question.”

“The word ‘but’ erases everything that comes before it and can put people on the defensive,” says Linderbaum. “The tweak may seem small but the impact it will have on how the receiver interprets the feedback and how it makes them feel makes a powerful difference.”

8. Offer remedies – and hope

It’s important to give the other party a remediation plan. Daniello always has a “get well” plan in mind for employees that may include additional training or mentoring sessions, for example. “Layout a clearly defined path forward to address the feedback, including timing, milestones, and measures of success,” says Freedman. “This is particularly important if it is in the context of someone not getting a promotion.”

Giving the other person hope – that a raise is still an option, that they can continue to progress in the function – is helpful. Never end the conversation on a negative note, warns Daniello. But avoid giving false hope, Freedman says, as that “can damage both the employee and the leader’s reputation.”

Is It Dangerous to Avoid Conflict at Work?

Note: Conflict, or rather, the lack of conflict is a crucial theme for me right now, especially in the workplace. Enjoy! Previous installments of my weekly blog from 2013 are located on my website at

Over the last couple of years, I've been on a vocal mission exploring the elements that contribute to stability within our work lives. I refer to this as core stability; a confluence of factors, such as psychological safety and the psychological contract that contribute to a robust work-life foundation. (Core stability also applies to organizations, where certain elements serve as a foundation for effectiveness.) This dynamic helps us to become (and remain) engaged and productive, even in the face of challenge and change.

Stability may seem an odd path, especially in the age of relentless innovation and digital transformations. However, for those of us who are troubled by enduring workplace problems, such as poor fit and lack of engagement, stability offers fertile ground.

When you consider the topics that affect stability, conflict — and more specifically the absence of healthy conflict — land on the short list. Clearly, feeling psychologically safe and sharing our thoughts are intimately connected. When we think back on conflict in our own work lives, we might recall the odd argument or the heated discussion concerning a project or client. However, those memories are only part of the conflict story. We must consider all of the moments where we failed to confront an issue. Instances where we hesitated because of the imagined aftermath. (Those "forward flashes" can resemble a work-life apocalypse.)

In the book, The Good Fight — team expert Liane Davey lets us know that avoiding conflict comes with a clear cost, something brilliantly named "Conflict Debt." Conflict debt is the accumulation of emotions and resentment that can occur when we fail to broach the topic. Davey leads us through the emotions that come with that dynamic, exploring the idea that when mastered — conflict builds both courage and confidence. She also explores the roots of why we feel the way we do about conflict. (Her personal conflict story is like so many of our own, laden with avoidance, fear, and judgment.)

There is an absolute hell that we quickly correlate with work-related conflict. In fact, this is often enough to relegate conflict into near oblivion at work. We should be doing the polar opposite of this — actually dancing with it.

"Normalizing healthy conflict" is the goal, Davey explains. I get it.

Ultimately, we sacrifice a bit of ourselves when we avoid conflict. We also negatively affect the strength and quality of our work. Primarily because unresolved conflict doesn't fully dissipate. Sadly, it festers and builds a life of its own.

Have you dealt with your conflict debt?

How Do You Succeed in a "Win-Win" Negotiation?

NOTE: The following is from an interview with a seasoned FBI hostage negotiator, Chris Voss. The question that most people ask themselves as they walk into a negotiation for salary for a job, a raise, or a fee as a consultant is likely some variant of "What am I going to say?" But according to Mr. Voss, that might be the least important thing to keep in mind when negotiating. Enjoy! As always, you can find all of my blogs from 2013 to the present on my website at

Is It Possible to Win a Negotiation Without Taking Anyone Captive?

"Absolutely. The most dangerous negotiation is the one you don't know you're in. People typically only believe they're in a negotiation when dollars are involved. And maybe sometimes they're smart enough to see if there's a commodity that you can count being exchanged. And of course, the commodity that we most commonly exchange is money.

In reality, every single negotiation involves another commodity that's far more important to us which is time—minutes, hours, our investment in time. So even if you're talking about dollars, the commodity of time is always there because there has to be a discussion about how the commodity of dollars is moved ... This is what I learned in hostage negotiation, a ransom demand is irrelevant. Trying to get the money is the challenge ... Price is only one term in any negotiation. In a job negotiation, your salary is only one term. And typically you could take almost any price, or any salary and make that a great deal or a lousy deal depending on the terms."

Isn't Getting the Money a Little More Straightforward in a Salary Negotiation as Opposed to a Hostage Negotiation.

"In a job negotiation, the implementation of that deal is your success that also causes the company to succeed. Most people just say, "Hey look, just pay me a high enough salary and I'll be a superstar." Or "I'm so good, as long as you pay me enough I'm going to be worth it." Two things: What if the position you're taking doesn't give you any sort of authority or influence? Something as small as the job title. You can't implement anything you want to do if you don't have the authority beyond soft power, based on your position to get people to listen to you. You can't be successful without that, and that's one of many terms."

What's Tactical Listening?

"You have to have an understanding of what you're listening for, and it's much more important to have thought that out in advance ... one of the key issues in this is listening for a future between you and the other party ... For a hostage negotiator, when I've got a guy barricaded in a bank or I've got fugitives barricaded in the 27th floor of a high rise apartment—which I've had—the first thing I want to say to him is: "I'm here to make sure you get out alive."

Aren't People Are Often Overly Focused On What to Say—the Script—and Not Listening?

"Yeah exactly, they're focused on what to say, and they're really focused on one objective. Everybody's very focused on getting a good salary, and so then the problem with those two things are the more focused you are, the more you have blinders on. We like to say that the key to flexibility is don't be so sure of what you want that you wouldn't take something better. If you're focused on the number, you do not see the other possibilities.

We'll get back to how you can push that number higher. One of the ways is to talk about other things. The more pleasant you are in an interaction ... there's some data out there that says that people are six times more likely to get what they want if they're likable. So you put yourself in a position to push very hard the more likable that you are. People most of the time think that to push very hard, "I gotta be tough." In reality, it's the opposite: The nicer you are, the harder you can push."

How Do You Put Those Two things Together, Being Nice and Pushing Hard?

"First thing is understanding that it works. Once you know that then it's easy to have confidence in the approach. If I say something to you with a smile, I know you're more likely to collaborate than if I'm really direct ... that's precisely what a hostage negotiator does. The more easy we are, the more reassuring we are, the harder we can push.

Pushing is reminding the other side of what you would like, and what's also very important are calibrated questions. Every question you ask anyone impacts them on two levels: an emotional and an intellectual level. We construct and calibrate every question to have an emotional impact; most people only think of the intellectual impact. We want to have an influence on what that emotional impact is.

For example, "Let's revisit your raise in 3 months," what you want to do is not let that go. Put them in a position that makes them sound like that's an unacceptable response. You ask this question and in this way: "How am I supposed to do that?" You have to use those exact words. There are two or three possible answers to that, and you want to be prepared for all three. One is "You're right, you can't." The very worst possible answer that everyone imagines is "Because you have to." How bad is that? The reality is that there's no downside to that answer, and that's maybe 20 percent of the time."

Why Isn't That Bad?

"First of all, you found out they're not going to budge, which makes you ten times smarter than you were 60 seconds ago. Part of the purpose of what we said is to diagnose whether there's any room in their position. That's critical to how you move forward. Is there any room and can I navigate it? So now you've just found out there's no room, which makes you smarter. And now you can make an informed decision, you know for sure there's only one or two choices—and that's walk away or agree."

What Happens When You Hear Something You Don't Want to Hear?

"Keep focusing on how the other side is reacting the less you react. It's like a magic trick of keeping your own emotions under control. By listening very intently to the other side and also maintaining a positive external demeanor, that moves you from the very emotional side of your brain into the very rational side. That automatically helps you stay calm."

What About the Classic Deflection Like, "It's Not a Good Time?" How Do You Respond to That?

"The first is the question. The second is to say the statement: "It seems like there's nothing you can do." People do not like to feel powerless, what it does is it makes the other side feel like they might be somewhat powerless. They're going to want to search for answers. And certainly, for someone higher than you in the hierarchy, the last thing they want to look to you, a subordinate, is to look powerless. It threatens their identity and authority. They're not going to be comfortable saying yes to that ... The key to any negotiation with the people you work for is deference; there's great power in deference. So you can make a statement if you're very deferential. All you're doing is making an observation about the environment; you're not accusing them directly of that. You're not making a judgment."

Is Research Important Before Entering a Negotiation?

"The important thing is context. The research is helpful, but it may or may not have any impact on your company's ability to pay you that. You have to understand market prices, but you also have to understand a market price does not impact a buyer's ability to pay. Your employer might not be able to pay the price you're looking for ... they actually want to see you not give in and be very pleasant at the same time because they know that's how you're going to deal with them in a continuing basis as you work with them. And they don't want a colleague who gives in, but they also don't want a colleague who's a jerk."

Should You Bring Competing Offers Into the Negotiation?

"You never want the other side to feel like you're taking them hostage. And so a lot of people have really ruined their opportunities by trying to create an auction, and the other side feels very manipulated by that, and that's very problematic. And especially if they don't have the ability to pay. They might not have the ability to give you the salary you're looking for. And so now you kind of take them hostage, and they're going to resent that as well. I don't counsel that. The thing that I most frequently coach current and former students ... we just don't talk about competing salaries because the other side is going to resent it. It's a lot more important to talk about the abilities that they have and the goals for the future that they have."

Can a Negotiation Become an Audition?

NOTE: The following is the conclusion from an interview with seasoned FBI hostage negotiator, Chris Voss. The question that most people ask themselves as they walk into a negotiation for salary for a job, a raise, or a fee as a consultant is likely some variant of "What am I going to say?" But according to Mr. Voss, that might be the least important thing to keep in mind when negotiating. Enjoy! As always, you can find all of my blogs from 2013 to the present on my website at  

Negotiation or Audition?

"The most useful thing to keep in mind really is this is a bit of an audition for how you're going to interact with these people if you make the team. So they want someone who is pleasant and doesn't give in. That's what they're hoping for because at some point in time, you're going to be their champion, and they're going to want you to be able to stand up for them the same way that you stand up for yourself and maintain good relationships. Then, within that context, you've got a lot of latitude.

"Once you can do those two things, you've now got an awful lot of latitude to be able to pleasantly persist, if you will, because people are going to want to collaborate with you. They're going to want to find solutions, especially if you want to invest in their future as well. How do you turn this from being all about you to being about us? Because now they want to take a chance on you. They want to give you more latitude if it's about us. It becomes us when you start talking with them about 'how do we prosper together? How can I be involved in making sure this company prospers?"

What's a Good Way to Deal With the Tricky Question of "Anchoring?" 

"The first thing to do is say, very gently, "Are you making me an offer, or are you fishing for information?" That's the first response, and you have to wait to see how they respond from that point forward. Now, understand that in any negotiation, and this is a negotiation like any other, they've got a range of numbers in mind to begin with, and what they're trying to do is they're trying to collect information so that they properly categorize you, and then you land in that range. Now, the harder that you force to get to the top of that range, the less give there's going to be on other issues that might be more important, so it's generally not a good idea to get to the absolute top of that range."

"But the next thing to ask is, after you've asked a couple of times and you say to the other side, "Alright, I'm sure you have a range in mind." And people are a lot more comfortable responding with a range than responding with a given number. They're much more likely to respond. So what you've done is, you want to continue to be responsive to their question, but you're not putting yourself in a position where you're going to get cornered over a number. And this is not the same thing as stalling. This is responding to different things within what they've said as opposed to ducking the answer entirely. And then, what you should do is, if you know the market, if they're still pushing you, pushing you, pushing you, pushing you and they still haven't thrown a number out, what you need to do then is throw out a range yourself, and it's got to be a high range."

What's the Role of Empathy in Negotiations?

"I view it as being critical. It's critical to negotiations. Typically what people think is, "I either have to be assertive or I have to be empathetic." So what that means is, in order for me to try to push even harder for what I want, that means I have to be less understanding of their position, which, when you put it like that, it makes absolutely no sense ... That sounds like nonsense when you put it like that, but nobody realizes that's what they're saying. "I want to push harder for what I'm going to get, so I need to push harder instead of being understanding." And we've actually taken a bit of a spin on empathy, and we refer to it as a 'proactive empathy.' Because now that you begin to recognize that everything you say is going to have an emotional impact on the other side, and most of these impacts are imminently predictable, what you now do is you begin to navigate these emotions before they even occur, if that doesn't sound like too much mumbo-jumbo."

Is That Hard to Do?

"It takes some practice, and I think you had a question about preparation as well. And that's exactly the issue. Most people only prepare for the numbers, they don't prepare for the emotional dynamics that the negotiation is going to engage in. So this is just simply adding in your preparation, adding a little bit more preparation to understand the emotional dynamics. Like if I ask you for more money than you can pay, you're obviously going to become uncomfortable with that. You don't have to be a genius to know that. It's effectively a proactive application of emotional intelligence."

Research Has Shown That Women Negotiate Starting Offers At a Much Lower Rate Than Men

"In Lean In, Sheryl Sandberg recommends that women use "we" and communal language to negotiate in order to avoid social costs. It's a good approach in that what you're trying to do there is you're trying to create the collaborative relationship there. What I would do is take it a step farther. You know, the hostage negotiator, from the very beginning, "I want to talk about how I'm going to help you with your future. I'm here to make sure that you live." That's all about me salvaging your future. So let's take the Sheryl Sandberg and take it the next level up to the hostage negotiator approach. Sheryl Sandberg is about here and now. Let's be partners now. And a hostage negotiator is: Here's a vision of the future that we both exist in. So that's taking what she's talking about a step farther. How do you hire me in a way that your company flourishes because you hired me? And all of a sudden, the other side, the emotional impact there is, "Wow, you want me to flourish. You're not here just to make you well and happy, you want to make me wealthy too by our collaboration."

"How is you giving me what I want a path to what you want? Everybody's interactions is we all say to ourselves, what's in it for me? Why should I do this for this person? Well, it gets me what I want. And what's the thing that we can all agree to begin with. In business, we can all agree that we want to be wealthy. A hostage negotiator's agreement with the guy who's barricaded is, "I want you to live." So if my approach to you is, "I want you to be famous for hiring me. I want your promotions in many cases to come because I was so successful because you hired me, working for you. I propelled your career as a great hire." You want to say things that make the other side stop and think and then rethink their position. And they'll only rethink that position if it benefits them. So that's how you take, in an employment negotiation, you want them to rethink their position where they're thinking of you as being a critical component of their future success."

Is the Bottom Line to Keep Everybody Feeling Good?

"It is because the profitability of any agreement, the success of any agreement, comes from implementation. And you need happy partners because you need them to implement. So you only find out if you make your money after the agreement when you go to implement it. And if they're mad at me, if they're unhappy with me, then that implementation is horrible. Every chance they get to not do something, they're going to cut a corner, or they're going to deny me a benefit because they're going to be mad about how I got them into the agreement. They're going to remember how I got them into the agreement. I know they're going to remember how we got into it. I need them to remember it in a positive way."

Do You Focus On Fairness?

"That's really tricky. We call fairness the "F-word." Fairness is the "F-word." Well, and actually, if you start to listen for it, you'll find that fairness comes out on almost every single negotiation, and when it gets thrown out there, it's a word that punches people's buttons in one of the most subtle ways possible. And so people use it in one of two ways. If I'm a negotiator, I'll use it against you because I know that I can knock you back on your heels emotionally. If we're in a deal, and I want to be a cutthroat, I'm going to say, "Look, I've given you a fair offer." Now, for you to protest against that, what I've just done is accuse you of being unfair towards me. And that's why the cutthroats do it because nobody sees it. It is a stealth attack from a cutthroat negotiator."

"Knowing that it's there and knowing that it comes up in every negotiation, again we've got to be proactive about it. And so, instead of me saying, "What I offered you was fair." Before I get to the offer, I'll say, "I want to make sure you feel I've treated you fairly. And the minute you think I haven't, I want you to tell me." Not only do you give that out, you encourage them to take that out."

"I was coaching a client in an internal compensation negotiation recently, where he knew they were trying to give him less than what they owed him, and he needed to make his case as to why they were wrong. So what I told him to do was, I said at the very beginning, you tell them that if at moment you're being unfair with them, for them to stop you. And what he did was then he laid out his entire case without interruption when otherwise they would've been looking to interrupt him. And then because all his points were valid, then when he shut up. He went silent. He did what we call an 'effective pause.' Their reaction was, well, there wasn't anything that you said that was unfair. So it tends to keep people in sort of a rational frame of mind and make them more open to listening to you."

"That's the emotional calculation you're going for. Either the "F-word" is going to come out, after people are upset and they throw out the "F-word" you know that not only are you in trouble at the moment you've been in trouble for a while. Or you take a proactive approach and you diffuse it before the missile gets launched."

Chris Voss, now an adjunct professor at Georgetown University's McDonough School of Business, spent 24 years at the FBI. After retirement, Voss founded The Black Swan Group to bring negotiation know-how to the business world.

Are Soft Skills Really That Soft?

NOTE: The following is about one of my pet peeves - the denigration of "soft" skills; the skill-set that is delegated to a quality that's less important than the "hard" skill-set we all know and love to hate. Enjoy! As always, you can find all of my blogs from 2013 to the present on my website at

I have a serious issue with the term "soft skills." You know, those skills that the United States Department of Labor lists as Communication; Enthusiasm and Attitude; Teamwork; Networking; Problem Solving and Critical Thinking; and Professionalism. Every one of those skills is absolutely critical to success in today's business environment, and calling them "soft" subtly diminishes their importance. Like A Boy Named Sue, soft skills have an image problem, and we need to change that.

"Hard skills" don't have that image problem. "Hard" connotes tangibility, certainty, and measurability. You have that knowledge, you have that skill, and you are hired to use that knowledge and perform that skill and bring value to the company. Hard skills are essential because without skill and knowledge nothing gets done.

But today, relying solely on hard skills won't get the job done either. As we move away from the literal and figurative bricks-and-mortar production model, and toward a more virtual and collaborative workspace, soft skills are arguably more essential than hard skills. After all, when breakdowns happen at your organization, is it because your employees didn't have the specific knowledge or expertise to do the job? Not really. We can determine hard skills reasonably quickly and get people in the right positions. Failures are far more likely to arise when there's a communication breakdown, a toxic team dynamic, or a lack of critical thinking. Soft skills don't seem so soft when you think about it that way.

If I had my way, there would be a line item on the balance sheet entitled "Human Performance." After all, aren't most modern companies valued through the quality of their employees just as much as, if not more than, the number of their hard assets?

The Human Performance value would reflect employees' overall engagement and motivation, as well as a company's ability to execute, innovate, adapt, and ultimately grow. The Human Performance line item would be a reliable indicator of company health--if it is well suited to produce in an ever-changing world, and if its employees are creating results that recognize and capitalize on opportunities.

Organizations that understand that culture drives results also understand the importance of Human Performance to good culture. My friend Patrick experienced that first hand. He was in an interview several years ago for a job in an industry that was utterly foreign to him. He had good work experience, but very little of it matched up with the job description. The interview was going well, and his inexperience came up; Patrick readily admitted his lack of knowledge and expressed his willingness to learn. At that point, the interviewer (and his future boss) said to Patrick, "I don't care if you don't know the job; we can teach you that. I really just wanted to see if you were a fit with our culture."

Patrick will never forget that interview because it led to the best job, with the best culture, the best boss, and the most successful company he's ever worked for. He learned how to do the work because the culture allowed for it.

Many things can contribute to a good company culture; here are four aspects that I believe are paramount:

1. Respect The Individual

People appreciate being valued for their unique contributions to a situation, and, as Daniel Pink recently theorized in Drive, this is generally an employee’s number one motivation to work.  The Dalai Lama was recently quoted as saying, “Everyone is born into the world as a person, and everyone leaves the world as a person. Yet we tend to forget that fact when interacting with others.”

2. Positive Environment

Studies show that a positive work environment affects the brain, increases employee engagement and that people are generally happier while at work.  According to Shawn Achor, a positive psychology expert and bestselling author of 'The Happy Secret to Better Work,' “When we are positive, our brains become more engaged, creative, motivated, energetic, resilient, and productive at work.”

3. Clear Goals and Provide Regular Encouragement

Individuals appreciate knowing where they stand and how their personal contributions impact the whole. Establishing achievable goals, particularly together, means you’re both on the same page about what is expected and how they can contribute. Having measurable steps means you can routinely gauge their progress and provide consistent encouragement.

Remember that people usually appreciate timely feedback. If they are struggling to meet their goal, chances are they will want to address this as soon as possible, as opposed to only hearing about it at their annual review. Additionally, being recognized for a significant contribution is likely to have a more positive impact on the individual if it is done within a few days of achieving the accomplishment.

4. Engage Beyond Work

Find ways to engage with each other beyond work. At some companies which with I have worked, they have monthly staff celebrations in a non-work environment. Sometimes they go bowling, other times they watch a movie, and occasionally, if the weather is nice, they’ll have a BBQ lunch. The point is to come together more as people than co-workers and to get to know each other at a deeper level. It may only be an hour or two, but, it helps to promote the value of family and build camaraderie.

So next time you hear the term "soft skills," know how important they really are. Just because they are misnamed doesn't mean they aren't vital to your organization's success.

What Can We Do?

NOTE: The following is from my friend, Paul McCusker, Senior Director of Content Creation at the Augustine Institute Graduate School of Theology in Denver, CO, and the world. I saw this on my Facebook feed, and I was so struck by how Paul so eloquently put how I feel and wonder that I asked for his permission to post this here. Enjoy! As always, you can find all of my blogs from 2013 to the present on my website at

"I suspect that, sadly, some of us are angry because we live in a constant state of disappointment. Our dreams don’t line up with reality. Our wants are often contrary to our real needs. We resent that our actions sometimes have painful consequences. We cannot make sense of people who disagree with us because we think, if they had half a brain, they would agree with us. Our idealism, as lofty and noble as it may seem, collapses under the weight of practicalities. We struggle to maintain irreconcilable views. We are annoyed because of the fracture between how we want all people to live versus how they really live. We despise others for not fulfilling our unrealistic expectations. We want others to understand our mistakes but can't seem to forgive them for theirs - and want the iron fist of retribution to come down on them. We have accepted platitudes that cannot succeed because they do not recognize the human condition. Little wonder we are in a constant state of anger. No surprise that we scream loudly and often.

What Can We Do?
I suppose we must accept that Humanity is deeply flawed, situations are complex, what we want is not what we should always have, aspirations are not easily fulfilled, freedom comes with a cost and accomplishment requires hard work, there is no perfect form of government, our heroes are not always good or holy or pure, and our adversaries are not always evil. Yet, while we struggle to accept those difficult realities, we shouldn't give in to seething anger - which is a form of despair that we take out on others. If nothing else, relentless anger is a suicide mission that destroys the one who is relentlessly angry. Better that we count to ten slowly (sometimes to twenty or thirty) before reacting. Restraint often requires more strength than expression. Give the benefit of the doubt to others’ motives and due consideration to their point of view. Allow for a measure of grace and forgiveness. Be benevolent. And if we must fight for our cause, then do so with integrity and the well-intended purpose not to destroy but to rebuild and restore.

In the end, what other option do I have? Now all I need is for God to grant me the means to actually do what should be done."
Well done and well said, Paul.

Widening the Lens

NOTE: Thank you for the excellent feedback on last week's post about "Whatever Happened to Complicated Conversations?" I think that many of the questions I received will be answered in the following post.  Enjoy. As always, you can find all of my blogs from 2013 to the present on my website at

"The lesson for anyone) working amidst intractable conflict: complicate the narrative. First, complexity leads to a fuller, more accurate story. Secondly, it boosts the odds that your work will matter — particularly if it is about a polarizing issue. When people encounter complexity, they become more curious and less closed off to new information. They listen, in other words." Amanda Ripley, Atlantic Magazine - June 2018

1. Amplify Contradictions

In heated conversations, there are many things that we cannot do. But we can destabilize the narrative. We can remind people that life is not as coherent as we’d like. Otherwise, the spiral to simplicity is all but certain: As the conflict progresses, the narratives get skinnier. I see this in every kind of dispute, across dinner tables and halls of government. Think about the first fight you had with your significant other; there’s a lot of confusion. But as time goes by, the story gets consolidated, and they can tell you in three minutes what a jerk their partner is. And the same is true in international conflicts. But if we destabilize the narratives, people tend to exhale; they keep arguing, but they holster their weapons.

2. Widen the Lens

Decades of research have shown that when the media widens the lens, the public reacts differently. Starting in the 1990s, Stanford political science professor Shanto Iyengar exposed people to two kinds of TV news stories: wider-lens stories (which he called “thematic” and which focused on broader trends or systemic issues, like, the causes of poverty) and narrow-lens stories (which he labeled “episodic” and which focused on one individual or event, for example, one welfare mother or homeless man).

Again and again, people who watched the narrow-lens stories on the welfare mother were more likely to blame individuals for poverty afterward, even if the story of the welfare mother was compassionately rendered. By contrast, people who saw the wider-lens stories were more likely to blame the government and society for the problems of poverty. The wider the lens, the wider the blame, in other words.

In reality, most stories include both wide and narrow-lens moments; a feature on a welfare mother will still invariably include a few lines about the status of job-training programs or government spending. But as Iyengar showed in his book 'Is Anyone Responsible?', TV news segments are dominated by a narrow focus. As a result, TV news unintentionally lets politicians off the hook, Iyengar wrote, because of the framing of most stories. The narrow-lens nudges the public to hold individuals accountable for the ills of society, rather than corporate leaders or government officials. We don’t connect the dots.

Great storytelling always zooms in on individual people or incidents; I don’t know many other ways to bring a complicated problem to life in ways that people will remember. But if the media doesn’t then zoom out again, connecting the welfare mother or, say, the controversial sculpture to a more significant problem, then the news media just feeds into a human bias. If we’re all focused on whatever small threat is right in front of us, it’s easy to miss the big catastrophe unfolding around us.

3. Ask Questions that Get to People’s Motivations

Mediators spend a lot of their energy on this idea of digging underneath the conflict. They have dozens of tricks to get people to stop talking about their usual gripes, which they call “positions” and start talking about the story underneath that story, also known as “interests” or “values.”

Opposing Obamacare is a position; a belief in self-sufficiency is, for many people, the value underlying their position. Whether you agree or not, these deeper motivations matter far more to the debate than the facts of the conflict (and also happen to be more interesting).

People are driven by their gut and heart, not their reasoning, as New York University social psychologist Haidt explains in 'The Righteous Mind,' citing research going back decades. In fact, superficial self-interest has never been a good predictor of political behavior. (Note to the media; it might be time to stop doing stories on how Trump voters in the Rust Belt voted against their economic interests; that’s about as insightful as a story revealing that beach-goers don’t wear sunscreen.)

Instead, Haidt identifies six moral foundations that form the basis of political thought: care, fairness, liberty, loyalty, authority, and sanctity. These are the golden tickets to the human condition. Liberals (and liberal members of the media) tend to be very conscious of three of these foundations: care, fairness, and liberty. Conservatives are especially attuned to loyalty, authority, and sanctity, but they care about all six. And conservative politicians reliably play all six notes, Haidt argues.

Conservatives (and conservative media) have a systemic advantage as a result. They can motivate more people more often because they hit more notes. (Notice how Democratic leaders still do not talk very often about Trump’s disloyalty to America, his cabinet members, and his wives, in those terms, despite being bombarded with evidence of such disloyalty. They complain more often about injustice, indecency, and unkindness because those are the notes they most like to play.)

If the media wanted to broaden their audiences, they need to speak to all six moral foundations. If any of us want to understand what’s underneath someone’s political rage, we need to follow stories to these moral roots, just like mediators. People tend to keep describing their stories in the same way. In mediation, you try to flip that over and say, "How did you come to that? Why is this story important to you? How do you feel when you tell it to me?” Those questions may seem touchy-feely, but it’s surprising how rarely people get asked them. You see people kind of blink and go, "I never thought of it that way.”

These kinds of questions reveal deeper motivations, beyond the immediate conflict. Sometimes, the entire conflict disappears when this happens — because people suddenly realize they agree on what matters most. More often, the questions reveal that the dispute is about something other than what everyone thought. “Experienced mediators love telling stories like this,” says Mary Conger, a mediator who co-founded the American Dialogue Project, which matches Americans up for conversations across political divides. “We all thought we were in the room for an entirely different reason. It unlocks this world of possibilities.

Of course, it’s easier to get regular people to dig into their backstories; upending the script of a well-rehearsed executive or politician can be impossible, no matter what questions they are asked. But there are ways to get underneath the surface, even with politicians, with a question like, "I want to know why you feel this way.”

Here are some specific questions that mediators suggest that anyone could ask to get underneath the usual talking points:

  • What is oversimplified about this issue?
  • How has this conflict affected your life?
  • What do you think the other side wants?
  • What’s the question nobody is asking?
  • What do you and your supporters need to learn about the other side to understand them better?

4. Listen More, and Better

Americans’ trust in mass media (newspapers, TV, and radio) “to report the news fully, accurately and fairly” is at its lowest level in Gallup polling history, dating back to 1972. The problem is serious among Democrats, and dire among Republicans — only 14% of whom say they trust the media. We can debate the reasons for this, but we’ll eventually just be talking to ourselves. Our stories don’t matter if we are not believed.

One of the most common mistakes is to miss very subtle cues. For example, the observant teacher might ask students how things are going and accept the first answer she gets, which is usually, “Great!” Later, when that same teacher got the students’ grade reports, she’d realize things were not great. Like all humans, the students had been reluctant to lead with their vulnerability. We talk about what we’re comfortable and confident with first, and what you think the person wants to hear. When you really want someone to go further is honestly when you get the essential information.

I think to learn to listen not just to what people say, but to their “gap words,” or the things that they don’t say. If they hesitate, for example, before answering a question about their last math test, or if they dodge a question altogether. Then it is time to dig deeper. Asking important questions multiple times, sometimes weeks apart, and almost always gets different answers. Usually, each response is accurate, and each represents a separate piece of the story. Most of all, itis critical to keep an open mind for as long as possible in every conversation. It’s so easy to go in with the thought that you know exactly what is going on, which shuts down other possibilities.

Another related and widespread strategy for building trust is to double check; to give the person a distillation of what you thought they meant and see what they say. This is called looping for understanding;” try doing it every time you feel you’ve heard someone say one thing that is important to him or her.

Our brains make rapid assumptions that we aren’t even aware we’re making. We are wrong more often than we think. To understand what someone means requires a lot of double-checking. It’s a simple tactic that sounds something like this: “So you were disappointed by the Mayor’s actions because you care deeply about what happens to the kids in this school system. Is that right?”

Granted, I don’t always have the self-control to loop. But when I do pull it off, it always helps, lowering the heat of the conversation and the odds it will go wrong. This sounds squishy, but it is a key to the kingdom. Having someone articulate your most crucial message proves that you’ve been understood, which is all most of us want.

“When people feel heard and seen as they wish to be heard and seen, they relax their guard,” says Melissa Weintraub, the co-founder of Resetting the Table. “It’s both very simple and very hard to accomplish. We have to give them the most powerful and eloquent articulation of their own thinking.” Then and only then will people even begin to consider information that does not fit their usual narratives. In fact, this is one of the only ways to get people to listen when they are emotional or entrenched in a particular worldview. Humans need to be heard before they will listen.

In other words, trust is mutual. It’s easier to get trust if you give it.

5. Expose People to the Other Tribe

The most powerful way to get people to stop demonizing each other, as decades of research into racial prejudice have shown, is to introduce them to one another. The technical term is “contact theory,” but it just means that once people have met and kind of liked each other, they have a harder time caricaturing one another. Genuine human connections permanently complicate our narratives. Communities with more cross-cutting relationships tend to be less violent and more tolerant.

The media can introduce people in at least two ways: vicariously, through good storytelling, or literally, by bringing communities together in live or virtual events. But doing this right is harder than it sounds. And it’s possible to make things worse if certain conditions are not in place.

Vicarious storytelling can unintentionally narrow the lens, as previously discussed, by focusing on individual accountability instead of systemic ills. It is essential to widen the lens and connect a particular representative of the “other” tribe to a broader history and story — or the story can end up just confirming the audience’s biases.

Literal convenings, meanwhile, are happening more often as more media outlets look to subscribers to support their work over the long term, instead of depending on drive-by clicks. But here again, the execution makes all the difference. It’s essential, for example, that everyone invited to a community gathering feels like they are on equal footing. The situation needs to be non-threatening and fair (so you wouldn’t want to host a conversation about race in the whitest neighborhood in town, for example).

There should be moments of levity and shared history or purpose, too. And ideally food. People still bond when they break bread, just as they always have. These details matter a lot, just as much as the substance of the conversation.

The best conversations across differences usually start with personal questions like, “Which of your life experiences have shaped your political views?” When we tell our own story, we tend to speak with more nuance, because real life is not a bumper sticker.

6. Counter Confirmation Bias (Carefully)

One of the most well-studied biases in the human portfolio is confirmation bias, our nasty habit of believing news that confirms our pre-existing narratives and dismissing everything else.

Worse yet, people exposed to information that challenges their views can actually end up more convinced that they are right. (And more educated people are not necessarily less biased in this way. For example, scientific literacy and numeracy are not reliable predictors of believing climate change poses a severe risk to the public, as Dartmouth professor Brendan Nyhan has found.)

That’s because people don’t decide to accept something based on its statistical validity. That’s just not how our brains have evolved to work. We judge information based on its source and its harmony with our other beliefs. As Daniel Kahneman puts it in Thinking Fast and Slow: “How do you know if a statement is true? If it is strongly linked by logic or association with other beliefs or preferences you hold or comes from a source you trust and like, you will feel a sense of cognitive ease.”

So one way to gently counter confirmation bias is to create a little cognitive ease first: for example, use sources from a wide range of tribes. If you’re doing a story about the scientific evidence for the safety of vaccines, and you know your most liberal readers are highly suspicious of this argument, it would be best to use sources that surprise them, ideally ones from their tribe.

Another tactic is to use graphics instead of text. In a series of experiments, Nyhan and colleagues found that presenting information visually increased the accuracy of people’s beliefs about charged issues, including the number of insurgent attacks in Iraq after the U.S. troop surge and the change in global temperatures over the past 30 years.

Cognitive ease also comes from a feeling of hope. Uncomfortable information that could generate fear (such as a report on the devastation of this year’s flu epidemic) is more palatable to people if it comes with a side of specific actions that people can take in response (such as a list of pharmacies offering free flu shots along with their hours of operation).

In a meta-analysis of more than 100 studies on fear messaging, researchers found that fear without a sense of agency backfires, leading people to respond with denial, avoidance, and disgust. The vast majority of news stories function precisely this way, which should give us pause. Generating denial, restraint, and disgust cannot be a good business model. But when people are reminded that a problem has possible solutions (some of which they agree with and can act on shortly), they are more open to considering the warning.

Finally, some simple advice: it’s important not to repeat a false belief to correct it. If people are told Barack Obama is not Muslim, many will remember that he is Muslim. The negative vanishes merely from their minds because it doesn’t fit with their pre-existing biases. The best way to counter this disturbing tendency is just to state that Obama is Christian, and avoid ringing any false notes altogether.

Breaking the Narrative

Humans share a tendency to simplify and demonize, it’s true, but we also share a desire for understanding. Encouragingly, perhaps, we are starting to see sporadic examples of high-profile journalists trying to break through the tribalism. Jake Tapper held a CNN town hall on gun violence earlier this year, in response to the Parkland, FL, school shooting. Even Glenn Beck has tried in recent years to get his audience to stop demonizing the other side and hear more complexity.

In all these encounters, the media personalities seem to have good intentions. They want to do this differently; they just lack the skills. It’s like watching your grandfather use Twitter; he could learn, but it probably won’t happen naturally.

Talking to people in high conflict is a piece of our clinical training that wasn’t properly handled, and now we are dangerous. The result is not just boring TV; we are adding to the toxicity when we don’t intend to. The reaction to Tapper’s town hall, on TV and social media, was a shrieking match between FOX News supporters, who accused CNN of feeding questions to the students, and CNN supporters, who accused the critics of lying and applauded their righteousness.

Interestingly, it was left to the politician, Senator Marco Rubio, who participated in the town hall despite being wildly outnumbered politically, to explain what was at stake:

“We are a nation of people that no longer speak to each other. We are a nation of people who have stopped being friends with people because [of whom] they voted for in the last election,” he said. “We’re a nation of people that have isolated ourselves politically and to a point where discussions like this have become very difficult.” And indeed, it was a tough night for Rubio. But it could have been so much more than painful. It could have been revealing.

The media need to learn to amplify contradictions and widen the lens on paralyzing debates. We need to ask questions that uncover people’s motivations. All of us could learn to listen better. As researchers have established in hundreds of experiments over the past half-century, the way to counter the kind of tribal prejudice we are seeing is to expose people to the other tribe or new information in ways they can accept. When conflict is cliché, complexity is breaking news.

Next Week: I Don't Know Yet!


Whatever Happened to Complicated Conversations?

When people encounter complexity, they become more curious and less closed off to new information.

NOTE: Thank you to all that sent me comments about my last blog about Grace, Civility, and Humility. This week, I think I might have one of the answers to why those values have declined in American culture. Enjoy. As always, you can find all of my blogs from 2013 to the present on my website at

The Rise of Technology and Bytes
I am an avid user of today's technology; not all of it; but I have a smartphone, tablet, and desktop, in addition to using various social media outlets and many phone apps. I also just finished Walter Isaacson's book, 'The Innovators', which tracks the people that got us to where we are today in the age of computer usage as an everyday occurrence. (BTW - the first computer language was created by a woman mathematician, Ada Lovelace, in 1843!)

After reading this tome, covering a time span stretching from 1843 to 2014, I have come to a conclusion and a theory.  Technology has missed its primary aim of simplifying our lives by accelerating and simplifying mundane tasks and hopefully, leaving us more time for working to live rather than living to work.

What's That You Say?
I will agree that computing technology succeeded in some of its goals, but it has crippled us in so many other ways. Specifically, it has completely evolved to a time of where oversimplification rules our social interactions. As its creators and masters, we have allowed our machines to dictate and shape how we communicate with each other; i.e., in bits and bytes. Our attention spans have degraded over the past 30 years during the explosive growth and capability of personal computing to where we have tried to compress meaningful communication with our fellow travelers on planet Earth into 280 characters with such apps as Twitter, and 160 characters for text messages. Still, others use email and user forums as their cyber weapon, using their keyboard crusader skills to hurl flames and slash at other people such as they never would if they were standing face-to-face with each other. See, in that I am writing on this subject, I am guilty of it, too!

Human Beings Are Far More Complex than Machines and Bytes
Each person has their own set of complexities, with their own hopes and dreams, and their own personalities. That richness of human experience cannot be measured in bits and bytes, nor can a machine or a device truly develop a relationship with another human being. While a cyber device may serve as a starter to bridge the gap of time and location, it takes time and face-to-face interaction to nurture the growth and development of a relationship.

Language is Very Engaging and Far More Effective Than Texting
I believe that we have allowed computing technology, tweeting, and text messaging, etc., to supplant conversation and serious discussion, period. Why?

  1. For one, we avoid conflict and conflicting situations like the plague.
  2. Second, we as humans, like to simplify things, but perhaps we have gone too far and are vastly oversimplifying very complex situations and have used our computing and communicating technology to further that practice.
  3. Third, in 2018, our country (and possibly the world) has become polarized to such a degree that most of us see everyday situations as either black or white, this way or that way, and finally, "You're either with us or against us!" In other words, tribalism.
  4. Last, our elected officials further propagate this type of dialogue by promoting divisiveness to please their constituencies. And, worse, we allow ourselves to be used by demagogues on both sides of the aisle, amplifying their insults, instead of exposing their motivations. As a result, instead of engaging in real conflict, we have allowed it to escalate and snuffed the complexity out of conversations.

How Did This Happen?
The media understands certain things about human psychology: they know how to grab the brain’s attention and stimulate fear, sadness or anger. As humans, we can summon outrage in five words or less. We value the ancient power of storytelling, and we get that good stories do require conflict, characters, and scene. But in the present era of tribalism, it feels like we’ve reached our collective limitations. Conflict is crucial because it is what moves a democracy forward. But, as long as the media is content to let conflict sit like it is, it is abdicating the power it once had to help people find a way through the conflict.

(The following is excerpted from an excellent article:

Your Brain In Conflict
Researchers have a name for the kind of divide America is currently experiencing. They call this an “intractable conflict,” as social psychologist Peter T. Coleman describes in his book 'The Five Percent,' and it’s very similar to the kind of nasty feuds that emerge in about one out of every 20 conflicts worldwide. In this dynamic, people’s encounters with the other tribe (political, religious, ethnic, racial or otherwise) become more and more charged. And the brain behaves differently in charged interactions. It’s impossible to feel curious, for example, while also feeling threatened.

In this hypervigilant state, we feel an instinctive need to defend our side and attack the other. That anxiety renders us immune to new information. In other words: no amount of investigative reporting or leaked documents will change our mind, no matter what.

Intractable conflicts feed upon themselves. The more we try to stop the conflict, the worse it gets. These feuds “seem to have a power of their own that is inexplicable and total, driving people and groups to act in ways that go against their best interests and sow the seeds of their ruin,” Coleman writes. “We often think we understand these conflicts and can choose how to react to them, that we have options. We are usually mistaken, however.”

Once we get drawn in, the conflict takes control. Complexity collapses, and the us-versus-them narrative sucks the oxygen from the room. “Over time, people grow increasingly certain of the obvious rightness of their views and increasingly baffled by what seems like unreasonable, malicious, extreme or crazy beliefs and actions of others,” according to training literature from Resetting the Table, an organization that helps people talk across profound differences in the Middle East and the U.S.

The cost of intractable conflict is also predictable. “Everyone loses,” writes Resetting the Table’s co-founder Eyal Rabinovitch. “Such conflicts undermine the dignity and integrity of all involved and stand as obstacles to creative thinking and wise solutions.”

There are ways to disrupt an intractable conflict, as history bears out. Over decades of work, in laboratories and on the margins of battlefields, scholars have identified dozens of ways to break out of the trap, some of which are directly relevant to the media.

In every case, the goal is not to wash away the conflict; it’s to help people wade in and out of the muck (and back in again) with their humanity intact. Americans will continue to disagree, always; but with well-timed nudges, we can help people regain their peripheral vision at the same time. Otherwise, we can be sure of at least one thing: we will all miss things that matter.

Next Week: Amplifying Contradictions


What Ever Happened to Grace, Civility and Humility?

NOTE: This is my latest observation on cultural life in America. It is in severe decline. It is primarily centered around the decline in grace, civility, and humility. Enjoy. As always, you can find all of my blogs from 2013 to the present on my website at

Mr. Earl

Lately, I have come to the conclusion that life in America is becoming much like a cat we once owned named Mr. Earl that was always independent but would allow polite interaction with him. As he got older, he started to be absent for more of each day until, finally, he didn't come home at all. We looked everywhere and posted signs/photos on telephone poles, but no cat. Six months later, I was walking in the woods near our house, and there he was, perched on a tree limb, but ran away as soon as I approached him. I kept looking, and one day I found him again; this time I had brought food that he liked and put it on the ground nearby. He approached it, but when I moved forward toward him, he snarled and hissed at me like a wild animal. I backed off and realized he had gone feral, so I left him alone after that.

U.S. Grant & Robert E. Lee

In recent months I have read the complete biographies of Ulysses Simpson Grant and Robert E. Lee. These two men fascinate me as they shared three character traits that are noticeably absent from the current dialogue, be it political, social, or cultural in nature. These traits are grace, civility, and humility, and they exemplified these traits constantly in their behavior toward one another as they threw vast armies against each other in the final year of the American Civil War, and all the way to the end at Appomattox Courthouse in April 1865.

Now, I realize that the Civil War still remains as the bloodiest conflict in American History, with over 750,000 people from both sides killed in action over a four year period, so how do grace, civility, and humility equate to that shocking death figure. Simple. Even as both commanding generals were firmly committed to winning for their respective sides as the North or the South, the way they conducted themselves during and at the end are notable in that they respected one another for their beliefs, although widely differing, still allowed them to call truces after battles to collect the wounded and the dead.

The ultimate personification of their behavior came on the morning of April 9, 1865, when Lee's Army of Northern Virginia was finally defeated at the Battle of Appomattox Courthouse by the Union Army of the Potomac. Lee and Grant met that afternoon at the Courthouse to formalize the surrender. Grant surprised Lee and most everyone else (except Abraham Lincoln) when he accepted Lee's surrender with the provisions that he and his men could walk away with all of their possessions, including their horses, but minus their weapons!

Even after the war was over and Grant was named Commander of all Union Armies, he resisted any efforts to prosecute Lee and any of his commanders and men for treason over the secession of the south from the north in 1861. In 1868, President Andrew Johnson formalized it all by pardoning all involved in the creation of the Civil War, including the President of the Confederate nation, Jefferson Davis.

Fast Forward to 2018

I believe that US Grant and Robert E. Lee would both be rolling over in their graves right now if they could get a quick peek at the world today. I also believe we are at a tipping point in America where we have bid goodbye to grace, civility, and humility, possibly forever. The majority of our political leaders do not exemplify nor do they personify by their daily behavior any of the values we once cherished and held dear to our core.


Aside from the popularity in the decline in critical thinking and the growth of emotion-based thinking; ergo, ideology, as evidenced by all of the media engaged in news reporting (watch this short clip - we seem to have adopted a bias toward discussion and debate as a zero-sum game where, if one side wins, the other side has to lose just as much as the other has to win!

How Do We Fix This?

I like to talk to people from various points of view, in order to keep my own perspective sound; in fact, I keep in mind a phrase from Karl Weick, Professor of Organizational Behavior and Psychology at the University of Michigan, as I head into discussions; "Speak as is if you're right; listen as if you're wrong."

  • How do you speak as if you are right? Your message should be simple, clear and direct with sufficient courage to act on what you know.
  • How do you listen as if you are wrong? Generally, with humility and some reasonable doubt about what you know (after all, there might be more to know…). This quote from Scott Card sums up the human condition nicely; “This is how humans are: we question all our beliefs, except for the ones we really believe, and those we never think to question.”

So, How Do You Have a Serious Discussion?

An excellent article appeared in The Atlantic just two days ago by Eric Liu, former speech writer for Bill Clinton. He maintains that there are "Five Features of a Better Argument," which I interpret to encompass any serious discussion. He believes that “we don’t need fewer arguments today; we need less stupid ones” through his work for the Better Arguments Project, which strives to host more constructive civic exchanges all around the United States. He has developed a framework for this; among its central tenets, are:

  1. Take Winning Off the Table: Rather than seeking victory, the goal should be truth-seeking, with reinstitution of civility in service of achieving it. Participants are charged with arguing to understand better.
  2. Prioritize Relationships and Listen Passionately: As one audience member put it, the most constructive and rewarding arguments they’ve ever had involved people with whom maintaining a good relationship afterward was a high priority—an impetus for speaking and listening carefully.
  3. Pay Attention to Context: One aspect of this concerns history,” Liu said. “Every fight we have today, about immigration, about taxes, about the minimum wage, is a recapitulation of one of those core American arguments—about liberty versus equality, about central government versus local control, or individual responsibility versus collective responsibility—and the history of civic debates in this country has something to teach us about how we can make our way through this conversations today. A second element is about emotion. If someone comes at you in an angry way, you have to adjust how you’re going to come back at them. And you have a choice about whether you’re going to mirror and double down or if you’re going to be the one to say, I’m gonna be the grown-up here, and I’m going to deescalate—being emotionally intelligent about the patterns that we fall into.”
  4. Embrace Vulnerability: “Every one of us can relate to the feeling, ‘I didn’t start this, I’m not going to extend the olive branch.’ Extend the olive branch,” Liu said.
  5. Be Open: “You cannot possibly change another person’s mind,” Liu said, “if you’re not willing to have your own mind changed. You may be able to rack up debater’s points. But you won’t change their mind if they sense you aren’t willing to have your mind changed. It’s a matter of mindset but also ‘heart-set.’”

How Much has the United States Changed Since 1865? If I could have both U.S. Grant and Robert E. Lee in front of me now as I outlined Mr. Liu's five excellent points, they would most likely ask me in the vernacular of today's speech with, "What's New About That?" 


The "Best" Incompetent Leader

NOTE: I think about leadership all the time, primarily because there is such an absence of it in today's world. The following article in the March issue of the Harvard Business Review by Scott Gregory describes the epitome of the worst type of leader. Enjoy. As always, you can find all of my blogs from 2013 to the present on my website at

A young friend recently remarked that the worst boss he ever had would provide him with feedback that always consisted of “You’re doing a great job.” But they both knew it wasn’t true — the organization was in disarray, turnover was excessive, and customers were not happy. My friend was giving it his all, but he needed more support and better feedback than he received. He wanted a leader who would be around when he needed them, and who would give him substantive advice, not platitudes. As a measure of his frustration, he said, “I would rather have had a boss who yelled at me or made unrealistic demands than this one, who provided empty praise.”

Researchers have studied managerial derailment — or the dark side of leadership — for many years. The key derailment characteristics of bad managers are well documented and fall into three broad behavioral categories: (1) “moving away behaviors,” which create distance from others through hyper-emotionality, diminished communication, and skepticism that erodes trust; (2) “moving against behaviors,” which overpower and manipulate people while aggrandizing the self; and (3) “moving toward behaviors,” which include being ingratiating, overly conforming, and reluctant to take chances or stand up for one’s team. The popular media is full of examples of bad leaders in government, academia, and business with these characteristics. However, my friend was describing something arguably worse than an incompetent boss. His manager was not overtly misbehaving, nor was he a ranting, narcissistic sociopath. Rather, his boss was a leader in title only — his role was leadership, but he provided none. My friend was experiencing absentee leadership, and unfortunately, he is not alone. Absentee leadership rarely comes up in today’s leadership or business literature, but research shows that it is the most common form of incompetent leadership.

Absentee leaders are people in leadership roles who are psychologically absent from them. They were promoted into management, and enjoy the privileges and rewards of a leadership role, but avoid meaningful involvement with their teams. Absentee leadership resembles the concept of rent-seeking in economics — taking value out of an organization without putting value in. As such, they represent a special case of laissez-faire leadership, but one that is distinguished by its destructiveness.

Having a boss who lets you do as you please may sound ideal, especially if you are being bullied and micromanaged by your current boss. However, a 2015 survey of 1,000 working adults showed that eight of the top nine complaints about leaders concerned behaviors that were absent; employees were most concerned about what their bosses didn’t do. Clearly, from the employee’s perspective, absentee leadership is a significant problem, and it is even more troublesome than other, more overt forms of bad leadership.

Research shows that being ignored by one’s boss is more alienating than being treated poorly. The impact of absentee leadership on job satisfaction outlasts the impact of both constructive and overtly destructive forms of leadership. Constructive leadership immediately improves job satisfaction, but the effects dwindle quickly. Destructive leadership immediately degrades job satisfaction, but the effects dissipate after about six months. In contrast, the impact of absentee leadership takes longer to appear, but it degrades subordinates’ job satisfaction for at least two years. It also is related to a number of other negative outcomes for employees, like role ambiguity, health complaints, and increased bullying from team members. Absentee leadership creates employee stress, which can lead to poor employee health outcomes and talent drain, which then impact an organization’s bottom line.

If absentee leadership is so destructive, why don’t we read more about it in the business literature? Consider a story I recently heard about the dean of a well-known law school: Two senior, well-regarded faculty members called the provost to complain about their dean because, they said, he wouldn’t do anything. The provost responded by saying that he had a dean who was a drunk, a dean who was accused of sexual harassment, and a dean who was accused of misusing funds, but the law school dean never caused him any problems. So, the provost said, the faculty members would just have to deal with their dean.

Like the provost in this example, many organizations don’t confront absentee leaders because they have other managers whose behavior is more overtly destructive. Because absentee leaders don’t actively make trouble, their negative impact on organizations can be difficult to detect, and when it is detected, it often is considered a low-priority problem. Thus, absentee leaders are often silent organization killers. Left unchecked, absentee leaders clog an organization’s succession arteries, blocking potentially more effective people from moving into important roles while adding little to productivity. Absentee leaders rarely engage in unforgivable bouts of bad behavior, and are rarely the subject of ethics investigations resulting from employee hotline calls. As a result, their negative effect on organizations accumulates over time, largely unchecked.

If your organization is one of the relatively few with effective selection and promotion methods in place, then it may be able to identify effective and destructive leaders. Even if your organization isn’t great at talent identification, both types of leaders are easy to spot once they are on the job. They also produce predictable organizational outcomes: Constructive leadership creates high engagement and productivity, while destructive leadership kills engagement and productivity. The chances are good, however, that your organization is unaware of its absentee leaders, because they specialize in flying under the radar by not doing anything that attracts attention. Nonetheless, the adhesiveness of their negative impact may be slowly harming the company.

The war for leadership talent is real, and organizations with the best leaders will win. Reviewing your organization’s management positions for absentee leaders and doing something about them can improve your talent management arsenal. It’s likely that your competitors are overlooking this issue or choosing not to do anything about it, like the university provost. Doing nothing about absentee leaders is easy. Just ask any absentee leader.

Do Left-Handed People Think & Feel Differently?

NOTE: I will admit it - I am left-handed and was stigmatized as a child, especially in a parochial elementary school where the nuns were smacking my left hand for trying to write with it!  This December 2016 article from Huff Post explains some of the challenges with being "left behind." Enjoy. As always, you can find all of my blogs from 2013 to the present on my website at

Lefties Unite!
Lefties historically have tended to get left behind. Until relatively recently, being left-handed was stigmatized, sometimes as an abnormality or sign of weakness. Left-handed children were forced to learn to write with their right hands, often to their significant disadvantage. 

Of course, we now know that there’s nothing wrong with being left-handed. As University of Toledo psychologist Stephen Christman recently explained in Scientific American, there’s almost no evidence to suggest that lefties are at any sort of physical or psychological disadvantage. For one thing, lefties have comprised roughly 10 percent to 15 percent of the general population for many thousands of years. The fact that the trait has remained stable over many generations suggests that left-handedness is not an evolutionary weakness, as many psychologists of the past believed. 

But handedness does come with specific physiological and neurological differences. Research remains incomplete, but here are some things we know about the unique cognitive and psychological profiles of the left-handed: 

They may be quicker thinkers. 

Lefties may be able to use both sides of their brain more easily and efficiently. 

According to an Australian study published in 2006 in the journal Neuropsychology, left-handed people tend to have faster connections between the right and left hemispheres of the brain, which leads to quicker information processing. The study authors measured participants’ performance on a task that assessed transfer time between brain hemispheres, and one that required them to use both sides of their brain at the same time. 

The research revealed that left-handed participants were faster at processing information across the two sides of the brain ― a cognitive advantage that could benefit them in things like video games and sports.   

They may be left-favoring in decision-making processes. 

The hand you use may have a surprising effect on the way you judge abstract ideas, like value, intelligence, and honesty.

A 2009 Stanford University study found that left-handed and right-handed people may engage in an implicit favoring of their dominant side. In the study, participants viewed two columns of illustrations and were asked to judge which seemed more happy, honest, intelligent and attractive. Left-handers implicitly chose illustrations in the left column, and righties tended to select images on the right side. 

"For left-handed people, implicitly, they think the good stuff is on the left and bad stuff is on the right, even though consciously, explicitly, everything in language and culture is telling them the exact opposite,” the study’s lead author, psychologist Daniel Casasanto, said in a statement. 

Lefties have the upper hand in some sports. 

While less than 15 percent of the general population is left-handed, 25 percent of Major League baseball players are lefties. Why? It may be because they tend to have faster reaction times, as the 2006 Australian study cited above found.

But there’s another reason. Studies have found that lefties seem to have a real advantage in interactive sports, such as boxing, fencing, tennis, and baseball ― but this advantage doesn’t extend to non-interactive sports, like gymnastics and diving. It’s possible that because of their different physical orientation and movements, lefties can throw off right-handed opponents, who are used to going up against other righties. 

Their brains may organize emotion differently. 

Your dominant hand may determine how emotions are arranged in your brain. A 2012 study published in the journal PLoS ONE found that in left-handers, motivation was associated with higher activity in the right hemisphere of the brain, while the opposite was true of right-handers.  

This may have significant implications in caring for anxiety and mood disorders, which are sometimes treated using brain stimulation to increase neural activity in the left hemisphere.

“Given what we show here, this treatment, which helps right-handers, may be detrimental to left-handers ― the exact opposite of what they need,” one of the study’s authors, psychologist Geoffrey Brookshire, said in a statement. 

Lefties may be more creative thinkers. 

Many experts and studies have suggested a link between left-handedness and creativity. Is it real? Quite possibly. Some research has found that lefties are better at divergent thinking (the ability to think of many solutions to a single problem), a cognitive hallmark of creativity. However, it’s important to note that studies show correlation, not causality, so the findings aren’t entirely conclusive. 

Another possibility, proposed by University College London psychologist Chris McManus in his book Right-Hand, Left-Hand, is that the brains of lefties have a more highly developed right hemisphere, which has been suggested to be more involved in creative thinking. 

There’s one additional potential link between left-handedness and creativity ― one that’s speculative but still intriguing. Growing up in the left-handed minority and seeing themselves as different from their peers, some children may come to develop what’s known as an “outsider’s mindset,” or a tendency to have a self-image that’s more individualized rather than group-oriented. Such a mindset can predispose a person to develop qualities like independence and non-conformity, which psychologists have linked to creative thinking and innovation. 

Passages - Richard Reardon

NOTE: This blog was initially published in 2014 as part of a series I wrote about the most unforgettable people I have known in my life. I learned this morning that Richard passed away in September of this year after a battle with cancer. I knew Richard, and he served as a life-altering thinking partner to not only me but to many others that he worked with as well. I have never met anyone else that is as skilled as a critical thinker as he was. He will be much missed by all those who knew him. As always, you can find all of my blogs from 2013 to the present on my website at

I met Richard Reardon in 2011, when my colleague, Chris Hutchinson, suggested that I should chat with him to see where my professional gaps were, even with all of my unusual and extensive work, as well as, my life experiences.

Our first call was utterly bewildering as he started to ask me questions about various subjects related to how I conducted my consulting practice and how I interacted with clients. I got a little defensive and suggested that after 25 years of consulting work, I thought I knew what I was doing. Well, guess what; I really didn't know all that I thought I did or needed to know.

So began an over 2-year weekly journey with Richard to explore how I could always be better at serving clients in a way that would allow for transference of skills vs. me always being the expert that had all of the answers. What's more, how to provide real and measurable value.

The first three months were the hardest learning experience I have ever had, with me hanging up the phone at the end of each call feeling more and more stupid and frustrated than the previous call. I even considered calling it off, but I was also intrigued that this old dog (yours truly) might be able to learn some new tricks!

What I learned from Richard could fill a few volumes, but here are some jewels that I can share with you now:

  1. Know the difference between "why, what," and "how" - too many people in the world of work often skip right over the "why"and the "what" and start figuring out "how" to get something done before they even decide why and what it is that they are doing. In the world of American business, this is almost an epidemic. I see many so-called strategic plans that people have paid a lot of money to a consultant to execute that are actually just operational plans. I would summarize this lesson into five words - achieving clarity about what's important.
  2.  Don't take on other people's limitations as you decide how you are going to negotiate with, interact with, and work with them. Too often, potential clients, as well as current clients will "project" their fears and limitations onto you, when they really don't know what it is that they are thinking about. Helping them to decide what is really critical and what they would like to achieve will serve both parties well, as you continue to build a relationship between you and them. I would summarize this lesson into two words - getting focus.
  3.  Most of all, I learned from Richard that the present world of work is too complex to go it alone and we can all benefit from having someone to be an objective thinking partner, sounding board, and even just a person to vent frustrations with that can respond in a non-judgmental way and defuse possible inappropriate actions. I would summarize this lesson into six words - no one can be an island!

How does some of this translate into my daily work life? Well, for one, before I go into any meeting, whether it be with a current client or someone I am meeting for the first time, I ask myself, out loud, "What do I want to accomplish here?" Then, I do the same at the beginning of the meeting; setting, by agreement with the other party, a time limit and what we would like to accomplish, the ways that the meeting could end and then any possible future connections we could make. 

Here is the best part about Richard; he was so good at what he did that I never even met him - he lived in L.A. and I was in Colorado - we spent a few hundred hours on the phone between 2011 and 2103 and the only way I know what he looks like is through his LinkedIn photo. That's how good he was at what he did.

We'll all miss you, Richard.

Letter to a Young Friend Seeking Advice

NOTE: J.R.R. Tolkien has been paraphrased by many when he wrote the following; "All that glitters is not gold" in his groundbreaking trilogy, 'The Lord of the Rings.' I took that theme and wrote this letter to a young person that asked for my advice about decisions regarding their future. As always, you can find all my blog posts from 2013 to the present on my website at

Time Out!

I have taken two life breaks (so far) in my short sixty-five years on the planet. The first was in fall 1976 when I left college at the end of my junior year and moved to Spain. Backing up a little; I was discharged from the Green Machine in April 1973 started college in the fall of 1973 - probably a little bit too short of a transition time but I did not know that then. I was motivated! I sat in the front of all my classes and asked lots of questions - I figured that I was paying the professors' salaries, so I needed to know all that they knew.

Then, after going to school full-time, summers included, I hit the wall of "why am I doing this?" in the winter of 1974-1975 and barely made it to May of that year. At the same time, I had been hang-gliding for about a year and decided I needed to see what that was all about on a full-time basis. I had a friend named Stuart who was an incredible pilot and was pioneering new advances in design and practices for flying hang gliders. He had constructed a flight park for gliders on a farmer's field and hills in mid-state New Hampshire, and it was literally "taking off."

Unfortunately for Stuart, what he did not know, combined with hubris proved to be fatal for him. On a beautiful summer day in early June, as he took off from a concrete ramp at the flight park, he had just entered a turn, stalled, went inverted, and the glider structurally failed. He then spiraled down to the ground from 500 feet and died from the impact.

Getting High in the Sky!

Before he died, Stuart had mentioned that he had been in Spain at a ski area in the Pyrenees the previous winter flying hang gliders and getting paid for it, but he did not want to go back. He said that he could connect me with the right people for me to go and take his place, with a living situation and a job! I thought about it for one second and said yes. Even better, his Spanish girlfriend (my living situation) was coming to the US to tour around with him after the summer of 1976. His girlfriend, Amaya, was present when Stuart's glider folded up like an inverted umbrella and was first at his side as he died. After the funeral, she left to return home to Spain, and I thought the whole dream in Spain was over.

The farmer that owned the flight park called me shortly after Stuart's accident and asked me if I could take Stuart's place for the summer to manage the park, and I immediately agreed. It was a great summer; I flew a lot, taught a lot, and just plain had a great time. In August, I received a call from a gentleman in Barcelona who was calling to inquire when I was coming to Spain! I was floored but said I could be there in early October. He gave me some details, we conversed a few more times by phone and post, until I jumped on an all-night flight from Boston to Madrid in October of 1975. Good to my caller's word, a young woman named Elena, was waiting for me at the airport and was there to transport me on the 12-hour drive to Arties, Spain. After a very long and slow trip in her Citroen Dos Caballos, we arrived at midnight to my new home; Amaya's personal residence, in a village built by the Romans in the 4th century.

Es Espana

The following year was a fantastic learning experience for language, culture, life, self-imposed poverty, and knowing how different Spaniards were from Americans. After six months, I could function at an 8th grade level in Spanish; enough to freely converse with the locals and business contacts. I also then started to understand that I would most likely never become Spanish - our two cultures were too far apart. Nonetheless, I continued on; after becoming a Spanish resident, I competed and became a member of the six-person Spanish National Hang Gliding Team going to Kossen, Austria in July 1976, for the International Competition. We numbered 4 Spaniards, one Australian, and me. (It was very new sport in Spain, and there were only 4 Spaniards that could qualify to fly at a high level of competence.) We did a great job of representing the national flag, but we got "whupped" by the Americans and the Germans.

After returning to the mountains, I had become increasingly bored with the sameness of the hang gliding life and the singular points of conversation with my comrades. In August of that year, we went to the Canary Islands for a regional competition. A serendipitous fluke in the trade winds produced a steady 20mph wind for an entire day with me flying a record 8 hours at 500 feet off some cliffs on the coastline of Grand Canary Island. When I landed; rather than feeling elated, I was just empty. I realized that I had climbed the far-off mountain I had always sought, and I was finished with hang gliding.

Shortly after that, I packed up and left for Boston. Before I went, I called the Dean of Admissions at my college and inquired if I could be admitted for the fall season, set to begin in just a few weeks. I had GI Bill and access to student loans, so he responded in the affirmative. I came home, ready to finish my final year and it was a great one.

What did I learn from this fantastic year in Spain? A couple of, I was not Spanish and never would be; I am an American and always will be. The laid-back Spanish lifestyle just didn't work for me, even though I love the people and will forever treasure the time I spent there.

The Wizard of Oz

Two, I finally realized that I was really looking for myself - fulfilling the old phrase - "who am I" and I did not find that answer. I happened to catch the classic 1939 movie, ‘The Wizard of Oz’ while I was in Spain (in Spanish!) and a couple of lines from that excellent adult movie resonated with me. One was when the team had returned from killing the Wicked Witch of the West and were seeking their rewards from the Wizard. Even though he could not produce what they wanted, he did change their thinking about what they thought they desired. The best one was for the scarecrow who wanted a brain. The Wizard responded, "You don't need a brain; you need a diploma." Such wisdom.

Then he finally came to Dorothy, and the plot takes us all the way back to Kansas when she wakes up, and everyone she loves is all around her. At some point, she states, "What I learned was, that if you can't find your heart's desire in your own backyard, then it isn't really your heart's desire." Wow! That hit me hard as I realized that it was true for me, too. I had traveled 3,500 miles to find out what I already knew. Would I trade that year for another? Never.

Seek and Ye Shall Find

This is where you come in, my friend. Go and seek what you want in far off places. Find your smile and enjoy your life. Even if you don't find any answers, the journey alone will be worth it. In closing, "Adventure is never in the guidebook and beauty is not on the map."

"Sex, Power, & Hysteria"

NOTE: MY APOLOGIES!! Due to operator error and a very efficient list server, I re-sent last week's blog by Bruce Boesky under a title I was considering for this week's offering. Here is the correct post for this week.  As always, you can find all my blog posts from 2013 to the present on my website at

Now That I Have Your Attention
I have been observing a significant and long overdue social change coming about since Harvey Weinstein was outed in October as being a sexual predator and has been at least for two decades. I think that all of the news and subsequent outings of other predators has served to empower all people that have been affected by a predator, male and female, to come forward and state, "Me, too." I say, "Bravo!"

"She's a Witch!"
In 1975 the genius British comedy troupe, Monty Python, released the first of many hilarious and controversial movies,
'Monty Python and The Holy Grail.' There is a scene in the film where a group of medieval villagers is clustered around an officious looking person on a platform leading a mock trial of a woman who has been accused of being a witch. One gent steps forward and screams, "She turned me into a newt!" The crowd grows quiet and sheepishly, the same gent (obviously now not a newt) states, "Well, I got better." The crowd immediately roars out, "She's a witch!" She is then summarily dunked into a pond and drowned as a witch.

Historically, this same type of sordid event happened in Europe as well as in the colonies of New England. The Salem Witch Trials were a series of hearings and prosecutions of people accused of witchcraft in colonial Massachusetts between February 1692 and May 1693. The trials resulted in the executions of twenty people, fourteen of them women, and all but one by hanging. Five others (including two infant children) died in prison.

Twelve other women had previously been executed in Massachusetts and Connecticut during the 17th century. Despite being generally known as the Salem Witch Trials, the preliminary hearings in 1692 were conducted in several towns: Salem Village (now Danvers), Salem Town, Ipswich, and Andover. The most infamous trials were conducted by the Court of Oyer and Terminer in 1692 in Salem Town.

The episode is one of Colonial America's most notorious cases of mass hysteria. It has been used in political rhetoric and popular literature as a vivid cautionary tale about the dangers of isolationism, religious extremism, false accusations, and lapses in due process.

My Story
From 1987 to 1990 I was the CEO of a statewide medical society. Walking into my first role as the titled leader of an organization, I was very enthusiastic about all of the challenges facing me; shortage of revenue, a dysfunctional Board, and staff morale problems. What I wasn't prepared for was what my predecessor warned me about as he walked out the door; "Be careful about the Program Director, she's a black widow and poisonous to the entire organization."  Incredulous, I asked him why he didn't address this personnel issue in the seven years he had been there. He responded that he feared a lawsuit and wished me "good luck" on his way out the door. WOW!

Over the next several months his parting remarks became all too true and, according to the terms of the personnel policies, I was forced to put her into a 90-day probationary status. This was after I had issued countless verbal and written warnings about her lack of professionalism and her propensity to foment toxic office politics, as well as not doing her job! At the end of the 90-day period, I terminated her employment, but I had to escort her to the office door since she refused to leave.

Within two weeks, a lawsuit arrived on my desk from her lawyer, claiming that I had wrongfully terminated her, sexually harassed her and that her dismissal was due to racial discrimination. Consulting with our lawyer, he stated that, "in the vernacular, this is called a kitchen sink lawsuit; throw everything at the wall and see what sticks." Upon informing the Board, there was a mixed reaction to this news; half of them wanted to accede to her demands, the other half wanted to fight it. I weighed in and said I wanted to go forth and take this issue to the wall - I was not in the wrong. They agreed, but I could already see that their confidence in me had ebbed a bit.

Over the next 18 months, both sides' lawyers started the discovery process of trading letters, performed depositions,
and prepared for a point when we could make a reasonable judgment of whether we wanted to go to trial or settle. Finally, it was my turn to be deposed by her lawyer, an all-day affair in a room with hot lights and no AC. At the end of the day, her lawyer looked deflated, and when my attorney and I returned to his office, there was an urgent message for a return call to her lawyer. I stayed for that call and listened in a while her attorney offered an enormous reduction from $500,000 in her client's demands for restitution and other items. My attorney looked at me, and I said emphatically, "Hell, no."

The next day completed my deposition, and then it was her turn. My attorney systematically took her claims apart to where it became clear to everyone in the room that she was lying and at the end of the day, her attorney slumped forward on her elbows and asked my attorney if she could call him again. This time she offered to throw out everything but a face-saving amount for $10,000 and a hold harmless document which we would both sign and then get on with our lives. Initially, I said no again, but my attorney reminded me that it could be two more years before we went to trial and didn't I want to be rid of this whole mess? At that, I agreed, and we all walked away.

Here is My Point
I am not trying to straddle the divide between the sexes; I fall squarely on one side of the chasm and, as a result of the preceding two-year hell of my own experience, I virtually sweat when I sniff sex panic. But here is where I pull it all together, from Monty Python to the Salem witch trials and all of the way to today's news. I am concerned about two fundamental things - moral panic and context.

A moral panic is always a reaction to something that has been there all along but has evaded attention—until a particular crime captures the public imagination. Sex panics in the past have begun with actual crimes but led to outsize penalties and, more importantly, to a generalized sense of danger. The object of fear in America’s recent sex panics is the sexual predator, a concept that took hold in the nineteen-nineties. The sexual predator is characterized by his qualities perhaps more than his actions—hence the need for preventive detention and sex-offender registries. The word “predator” is once again, unnervingly, becoming central to the conversation.

What has also been missing for me in the last three months of news has been context. The moral outrage and the
response have been very similar to the cry, "She's a witch!" I would like to see the latest sex panic news not just spit out almost in real-time, but very similar to a legal proceeding, have both sides present the context of the alleged transgressions so that we can make our own judgment versus the defendant being tried in absentia by the mainstream media.

The Bad News
The current balance of power favors men so much that it’s more than likely that the guilty will get away with it than the innocent will suffer. Still, we would do well to be aware of the risks to our perception of sex, and to this culture, as it grows ever more divided.

An Ego Boost or Self Delusion?

Note: I recently met a gentleman named Carl Dierschow, who owns/runs a consulting company called "Small Fish Business Consulting" ( We had a great discussion centered around our philosophy, what we do and the services we provide. I guess he enjoyed the conversation so much he asked for my permission to write a blog post of his own about me! Enjoy! Previous installments of my weekly blog are located on my website at

Carl Dierschow SM article.png

By Any Other Name, It is Still the Same!

Note: I have always wondered why we are obsessed with symptoms, instead of causes. This past week's accumulation of events makes me ponder and write. Enjoy! Previous installments of my weekly blog are located on my website at

Why Are We Lonely at Work?
“While dozens of technology tools should help us communicate in more personal ways, they do not. Instead, they often isolate people,” author Dave Crenshaw writes. In the workplace, people are in the habit of switchtasking (the reality of multitasking), moving from activity to activity — and we carry that over into communication. But you can unlearn the habit: Try to consciously slow your brain down while speaking with someone and focus on the conversation. “When you do this, jumping in and out of email while having a conversation with a coworker, you are conditioning your mind to view human beings as nothing more than vending machines.” Dave Crenshaw*

Why Are We Lonely in Life?
We're living in what I call an epidemic of loneliness. Recent research has shown that many of the people we feel close to probably don't reciprocate the feeling. Millions of men feel like they have no one they could turn to for emotional support. In 2015, TIME magazine—never one to shy away from big bold pronouncements—ran a story titled, "Why Loneliness May Be the Next Big Public-Health Issue." And recently, the New York Times even pointedly questioned whether your friends actually like you.

American culture is so far off the scales in this idea of separation and individuation. It's embedded in our DNA at this point. So at the very get-go, when we're little kids, we get fed into the competitive pipeline, and that gets reinforced—the more and more you do on your own, the better person you are. That becomes the value: "I should be able to do these things on my own."

But then we find a partner and the very skills that would actually allow us to have a good, stable relationship and partnership in life tend to be missing. For some people, they're so competitive that it's hard for them to move into that place of not being domineering, and not being the one who's right. For other people, it's literally just missing the skill set. How does one argue, how do we listen, how do we speak your voice—all of those absolutely essential relational skills get lost in this hyper-intense competition to stand alone at the top of the heap.

Relationship is at the core of human health and well-being, not isolation. Not individuation. Everything grows out of relationships, not away from relationships—we have the model that from when you're born, socialization leads to ever-increasing levels of independence. That central premise just gets us off to the wrong start.

WHO Prediction
The World Health Organization stated on March 30, 2017, thatdepression (depression is a common mental illness characterized by persistent sadness and a loss of interest in activities that people typically enjoy, accompanied by an inability to carry out daily activities, for 14 days or longer) is the leading cause of ill health and disability worldwide. According to the latest estimates from WHO, more than 300 million people are now living with depression, an increase of more than 18% between 2005 and 2015. Lack of support for people with mental disorders, coupled with a fear of stigma, prevent many from accessing the treatment they need to live healthy, productive lives. By 2025 they predict that figure to increase to 1 in 5 people worldwide will be living with depression.

Here's the Really Bad News
Fewer than 25 percent of people across the world have access to treatments for depression. The World Health Organization recently studied what it calls the “treatment gaps” in mental health care and found that worldwide, the median rate for untreated depression is approximately 50 percent.

The Results?
People with depression typically have several of the following: a loss of energy; a change in appetite; sleeping more or less; anxiety; reduced concentration; indecisiveness; restlessness; feelings of worthlessness, guilt, or hopelessness; and thoughts of self-harm or suicide. As a result, they also become increasingly isolated from other people and develop a profound inability to form relationships.

Ronald Reagan Started the Ball Rolling
Really? What did he do? Let all of the mentally ill patients loose? Well, yes, that’s precisely what he did.

In 1963, President John F. Kennedy signed the Community Mental Health Act to provide federal funding for the construction of community-based preventive care and treatment facilities. By 1977, there were over 650 community health facilities in the US serving over 1.9 million mnetally ill patients a year.

When Reagan was elected President in 1980, he discarded a law proposed by his predecessor, Jimmy Carter, that would have continued funding these same federal community mental health centers. This basically eliminated services for people struggling with mental illness. Federal mental health spending decreased by 30%. More than one million patients were released as a result of this legislation. Some were taken in by nursing homes, many became institutionalized in prisons, and the rest became homeless.

He made similar decisions while he was the governor of California, releasing more than half of the state’s mental hospital patients and passing a law that abolished involuntary hospitalization of people struggling with mental illness. This started a national trend of de-institutionalization. In other words, if someone is struggling with mental illness, they can only be helped if they ask for it. But, wait. Isn’t one of the characteristics of severe mental illness not having an accurate sense of reality? Doesn’t that mean a person may not even realize he or she is mentally ill?

Here's My Point
Taking a theme from my strategic planning playbook, we in America have a hard time distinguishing between the critical hierarchy of Why, What, and How. As a rule, we default to the how because that's most comfortable and we are good at it - just go to YouTube, and you can easily find out how to do anything from fixing your lawnmower to making a perfect chocolate cake.

Last weekend, yet another human being took it upon himself to eliminate other humans violently and horrifyingly. Did he have a mental illness? The American Psychiatric Association defines that as, "Mental illnesses are health conditions involving changes in thinking, emotion or behavior (or a combination of these). Mental illnesses are associated with distress and problems functioning in social, work or family activities." By their definition, the answer is assured yes.

Here is where Why, What, and How come into the picture. Rather than focusing on why he did what he did, or the reasons for what he did, as a nation and our government jump right to the how of what he did and the quick fix - banning certain types of firearms. This is only a bandaid to the more significant questions around what we as human beings have come to in the 21st century - how do we use technology so that it improves real communication between us and not separate us? And, when will we address the severe and socially stigmatizing issue of recognizing mental illness for what it is? Mental illness is nothing to be ashamed of. It is a medical problem, just like heart disease, diabetes, or cancer.

* Dave Crenshaw is the master of building productive leaders. He has appeared in Time magazine, USA Today, FastCompany, and the BBC News. He has written three books and counting, including The Myth of Multitasking which was published in six languages and is a time management bestseller.

What? A Value Proposition for Non-Profits?

Note: Value propositions are essential for any company; why not non-profit corporations? Here are two case histories of recent nonprofit clients that needed some help with that. Enjoy! Previous installments of my weekly blog can be found on my website at

A Little Background

In 2016 Americans donated $379 billion to nonprofits in the USA. This is a record-setting amount since statistics started being kept in 1954. What is even better about that number is that, after adjusting for inflation, charitable giving by Americans was seven times as big in 2016 as it was 62 years earlier.

Of course, one reason total giving went up is that the U.S. population almost doubled. But if we recalculate inflation-adjusted charitable giving on a per capita basis, we see that has also soared: by 3.5 times! (Source - Philanthropy Roundtable -

Set the Wayback Machine, Sherman!

In 1978, my first professional job was as the Director of Business Development and the Foundation for a community college just south of Seattle, WA. At that time, there were just over 300,000 501(c)3 corporations (nonprofits) in the US and Americans donated $100 billion during that year. In 2017, there are 1.7 million nonprofits in the US, and as you saw above, Americans donated $379 billion to these entities.

At that time, as it is now, most donations come from individuals who have disposable income - historically most people start giving gifts in their early 40's - and by comparison to today's giving environment, if you asked someone for a gift, you probably got one. I credit this to a number of factors, but here are a couple of biggies; there were far fewer nonprofits, and there was more institutional trust in companies and organizations. (NOTE: Today, just asking doesn't necessarily get you a gift, but it's a good start!)

 All of the above serves as a backdrop for the subject of this article; i.e., the value proposition for a nonprofit; ergo, their mission statement. Because of the nature of the beast - a community college - we had to create a value proposition since alumnae attending a community college in 1978 weren't there for acquiring socialization skills; they were there to learn a trade like welding or carpentry, or a degree in something like accounting or drafting. Minus the nostalgia of a shared experience gained in the traditional halls of higher education we couldn't count on alum's for support nor could we look toward corporations or foundations for funding - community colleges in Washington State were entirely funded by legislative action tied to the taxes that residents paid to the state treasury.

Who Was Left?

The only body of people remaining to look to for support was the residents of the local community; about 30,000 good people who lived there because it was a bedroom community of Seattle just 25 miles away and the Boeing Company,

employing 80,000 workers, was even closer. Once an agricultural town, urban sprawl had made land much too valuable for that endeavor and so houses were being built like crazy on what used to be vast cornfields. What was missing in this transition from an agrarian environment to a city was an identity and pride of place.

The college foundation convened the first of several meetings with city government departments to form a partnership between the two entities to surface common issues and solutions provided in some cases by - you guessed it - the community college! Over the several years I was there, we were very successful in bringing the city together with the college by making the college a valuable community asset as well as an essential partner with the city. (How we did that could be the subject of another post. Here'a hint, though; think about philanthropy as the vehicle for funding the margin of excellence!)

To the Point

In the past several months I was involved with two separate nonprofits desiring to support their expansion plans through philanthropic investment. Here are the scenarios and results as follows:

Client A

Client A wisely undertook a planning study to ask their most valuable customers if they would assist in supporting their expansion plans. The result was telling - all of the major potential investors could not ascertain the substance of their value proposition! In this particular situation, the value proposition was actually present, but the client had not realized how important this was in today's charitable fundraising market, so it had never been communicated by the client to their customers.

In 1978 this client would have most likely succeeded in raising the money they desired because the underlying message they were broadcasting to their customer base was, "Trust us to know what's the best use for your philanthropic investment."  In 2017, that just doesn't fly. Our final recommendation to them was to assemble this information, package it, and communicate a strong and relevant value proposition to their customer base and, only then ask them again for an investment.

Client B

This client, a university, also commissioned us to do a planning study with a similar audience to Client A's, but their value proposition was some 20-30 years out-of-date. Their message to their constituency was, in essence, "Give us money because we need it."  What made this even a harder sell was that they were surrounded by 100+ other universities essentially asking the same customers for the same thing. Looking at the Venn Diagram, what was missing for Client B was a lack of understanding of themselves and clarity of all three of the critical circles in the diagram, and as a result, they could not iterate their value proposition clearly to their customer base. Our recommendation to them was to:

  • Review their mission statement (value proposition) and update it to more clearly differentiate themselves from the other 100+ marketplace offerings, research who their primary customers were, and what their customers needed in comparison to what they were offering;
  • Then, review the plan we discussed with their investors, take the time to thoughtfully craft a more relevant plan in line with their new value proposition; and,
  • Start the process of preparing to go back to their constituencies at a later date. 


Modern-day nonprofits looking to raise millions (or billions) should be looking for wealthy philanthropic investors to partner with them to solve common issues and challenges versus looking for a handout. Collaboration and partnering are two very key words in today's philanthropic arena, as donors are demanding more efficiency and less duplication of effort from the 1.7 million non-profits in America.

The Answer to the Question?

Hopefully, you can now respond to the primary question asked by this post with a resounding YES! Nonprofits need a stronger value proposition more than ever; the competition for the charitable dollar in 2017 is fierce and (most) major donors do not make giving decisions based primarily on emotion as many of them once did. Rather, they look at it much like they would for any investment; what's the R.O.I.; in other words, if I give $100,000, what can the nonprofit do with that money to multiply it to $1,000,000 in programs and services for the populations which they serve?






What Does Great Communication Look Like?

Note:  Working on a new piece that's not quite finished and since it is a holiday weekend, here's some great wisdom from Elon Musk from Inc. Magazine that I really like. Enjoy!

Throughout the years, billionaire entrepreneur Elon Musk has demonstrated the art of masterful communication.

The following is a perfect example: It's a copy of a previously unpublished email Musk sent to Tesla employees a few years ago. Sent with the subject line "Communication Within Tesla," it explains the problem with how information is transmitted in most companies, and how things should be different at Tesla.

Here's the email (which Tesla has verified was sent to all employees):

Subject: Communication Within Tesla

There are two schools of thought about how information should flow within companies. By far the most common way is chain of command, which means that you always flow communication through your manager. The problem with this approach is that, while it serves to enhance the power of the manager, it fails to serve the company.

Instead of a problem getting solved quickly, where a person in one dept talks to a person in another dept and makes the right thing happen, people are forced to talk to their manager who talks to their manager who talks to the manager in the other dept who talks to someone on his team. Then the info has to flow back the other way again. This is incredibly dumb. Any manager who allows this to happen, let alone encourages it, will soon find themselves working at another company. No kidding.

Anyone at Tesla can and should email/talk to anyone else according to what they think is the fastest way to solve a problem for the benefit of the whole company. You can talk to your manager's manager without his permission, you can talk directly to a VP in another dept, you can talk to me, you can talk to anyone without anyone else's permission. Moreover, you should consider yourself obligated to do so until the right thing happens. The point here is not random chitchat, but rather ensuring that we execute ultra-fast and well. We obviously cannot compete with the big car companies in size, so we must do so with intelligence and agility.

One final point is that managers should work hard to ensure that they are not creating silos within the company that create an us vs. them mentality or impede communication in any way. This is unfortunately a natural tendency and needs to be actively fought. How can it possibly help Tesla for depts to erect barriers between themselves or see their success as relative within the company instead of collective? We are all in the same boat. Always view yourself as working for the good of the company and never your dept.


I'm a huge fan of the message this email communicates, namely:

Communication that is forced to go through the "proper channels" is a recipe for

  • Killing great ideas; and
  • Burying the feedback a company needs to thrive.

There's only one problem with Musk's proposed solution - It's extremely difficult to cultivate in the real world.

Why Great Communication Is Hard

All companies say they value transparency and honesty. Most are lying.

Has Musk been able to achieve this type of environment (where communication is free-flowing and departments work together) at Tesla? I have no idea.

However, I worked several years for a nonprofit that did exemplify this way of thinking. It was an extremely mission-driven organization, one in which nearly everyone bought into the philosophy because they saw managers and executives walking the walk. (In fact, it was a personal experience there that inspired my very first column on After leaving that organization and consulting for dozens of others, I realized just how rare this type of workplace is.

So how do you build a company culture in which employees actually work together, instead of against one another?

Ask yourself the following:

  • Do I see the big picture in my organization? Does my team?
  • Do I encourage dissenting opinions and viewpoints? Do I reward employees for giving me authentic feedback, even if I don't agree with it?
  • Do I demonstrate empathy, by taking employees' problems seriously--and actively helping them find solutions?
  • Do I promote an environment that encourages growth, even if it means (at times) losing a great employee to another team, another department--or even another company?

Of course, leaders have to set the example. That means looking beyond individual achievements and key performance indicators, which takes courage, insight, and emotional intelligence. It means making yourself available to hear as many voices as possible.

Above all, it means being ready to hear what employees really think.

Because the first step to solving a problem is knowing it's there in the first place.