October 2009

I seem to be recommending books these days, so here’s two more that are worth your time:

“Just Listen: Discover the Secret to Getting Through to Absolutely Anyone,” by Mark Goulston, M.D.
Mark’s a good friend and one of the few psychiatrists that have successfully made the transition to working with the business community. What has always impressed me about Mark, are his questions. No one asks as effective and penetrating questions as he does.

“Who’s Got Your Back?” by Keith Ferrazzi
As well as being a friend, I’ve had the pleasure of working with Keith and helping him refine his ideas and concepts. He has an extraordinary ability to take subtle and sophisticated relationship-building concepts and translate them into eminently usable tools for leaders, managers, and salespeople. He is undoubtedly one of the most effective consultants working today in the global business community.

Business Tips
Conflict Avoidance and Corruption: Keeping Your Culture Clean
A short while ago I heard an interesting program on the BBC, which focused on a curious thesis: Namely, that there must be something amiss at the Harvard Business School, since a preponderance of C-Suite people from companies that took “excessive risks” and melted down in the recession, had received their MBA’s from that esteemed institution. The program interviewed a number of business gurus, including the Dean of HBS, and everyone concluded that the School had missed the boat in not emphasizing “business ethics” to a greater degree, in its curriculum.

Now, the BBC usually does good solid reportage, and tries its hardest to bring in all significant points of view (other than in its editorials, which make Lenin look centrist). But this was, undoubtedly, one of its silliest programs. They insisted on treating ethics as a purely intellectual concept; as a legitimate academic discipline. Their premise was that people do unethical, immoral, even criminal acts because they are thinking poorly. And if they just had more and better information, they would then do the right thing. If this were true, we should have rid our culture of smoking at least forty years ago, and the rate at which convicts return to federal prisons (which have had educationally-based rehab programs forever), should be pretty close to zero.

Business ethics, along with other pseudo-disciplines, is a fantasy. Even as a wet-behind-the-ears undergraduate, “ethics” made no sense to me. From my experience, even then, people didn’t do either the right things or the wrong things because they didn’t think enough about it. They did what they did because that’s the way they felt. Their gut feelings drove their behavior. And now, after thirty years of working with people, as educator, therapist, and consultant, it is crystal clear to me, what exactly it is that corrupts people. Put simply, it is a gut-wrenching fear (for many a sheer terror) of conflict. And most often, a potential conflict created by disappointing others. So, instead of engaging in a painful conflict, people withhold information, cut corners in doing business, hide their troubling behaviors, and ultimately, engage in criminality.

I grew up in Chicago, when two cultural phenomena, which dominated the political, economic, and sociological life of the city, were at their zenith – the Democratic Machine and the Mafia. My extended family knew many people in both organizations. None of those people were stupid; and all of them knew that what they were doing was wrong. What they all shared in common was a deep-seated belief that trying to get what they needed in life, by going through established “straight” channels, would be futile and unsuccessful. What this covered, for each and every one of them, was a paralyzing fear of rejection, disappointment, and conflict.

Later in life, I did one of my psychotherapy internships in the prison system, and a few years later than that, I did law enforcement consulting for about five years. What I learned from those two experiences was that our prisons and jails are not full of evil people. They are jam-packed with conflict avoiders. I can’t tell you the number of convicts that told me essentially the same story – “I wouldn’t do what you squares do (to get a job, buy a house, etc.), if you had a gun at my head. It’s way too hard, and it’s only for fools.”

Conflict avoidance is fundamentally a dishonest behavior. Not telling people what you really think, feel, or observe, is a form of lying. We learn it very early in life; that’s why it’s so hard to change it. (When our kids were growing up, they would regularly complain that their grandparents were boring. It took us some time to get up the courage to agree with them. It made those visits a lot less tense when the truth was out.)

Employees who are conflict avoiders are now the greatest risk factor for companies. This gives a whole new meaning to “risk management.” I am never surprised when I learn of corruption in a company. I am surprised that there isn’t a lot more. A little bit of dishonesty goes a long way.

One more point. As there are “gateway drugs,” there are “gateway emotions.” I learned recently that when people start talking about feeling “overwhelmed,” there is a conflict being avoided. The energy being utilized to not deal with something, builds up such momentum, as to create the feeling we call “overwhelmed.” The lesson here is simple, but not necessarily easy. Watch out for your own, and others, conflict avoidance. Nothing can get you into as much trouble. Muster up the courage; bite the bullet, and get it out on the table. You’ll not only feel better, you’ll avoid a lot of grief.

Political and Cultural Observations
The Obama Administration: On The Cutting Edge of Ignorance  
I heard a phrase the other day that caught my attention, because it seemed to capture where we are in the current political landscape – “On the cutting edge of ignorance.” There is no dearth of intellectual or academic brilliance in the current administration. They are not stupid. They simply ignore facts and don’t let knowledge and experience get in the way of ideology. There are three things that stand out in our current dilemma:

First, the unimportance of simple facts, and the lack of attention to unintended consequences, is nothing short of startling. The discussion of health care/insurance reform is the most cogent example of this.

Second, the ironic nature of the Obama administration’s focus on “transformative” change has all but escaped scrutiny. I am less troubled by the attempts to move us toward a European-type nanny state, than I am by the more insidious and regressive attempt to undo the cultural impact of information on all aspects of our lives. What a crowning irony, for the internet President to be the instrument of trying to return us to the pre-information age.

Third, the core similarities between the Bush Administration and the Obama Administration are stunning. Ideology reigns supreme, and ignorance of how our culture works, is identical. (I know it’s hard for those afflicted with Bush derangement syndrome to view him as an ideologue; perhaps because they saw themselves in his rigidity.) There is no fundamental difference between Bush’s moralizing and self-righteous religiosity, and Obama’s country-deprecating monologues and anti-capitalist victim mongering. Both are patronizing and demeaning, and ultimately depreciate people’s ability to assess their environment and make choices for themselves.

Let’s look at health care/insurance reform. I think that preventive care is a good and noble idea, and it would be wonderful if every citizen could utilize it. Unfortunately, the facts are that the last thing it does is save money. There is not one reputable study that indicates that. In fact, in the case of diabetes “adding in the cost of the preventive services raises the overall cost of care” (Health Affairs journal). And according to the New England Journal of Medicine, “. . . preventive services add to health care costs, not reduce them.”

Likewise, why do you think insurance companies exclude pre-existing conditions? Because no other single factor escalates the cost of care for everyone else. Particularly, when these conditions are chronic, debilitating, and require extensive, and expensive care. This is, then, not about punishing patients, nor demonizing insurance companies. It is about reality.
To my knowledge, there has been no public debate over these facts. There would be a way, however, to accommodate both of these issues. Put a cap on malpractice awards and move to a “loser pays” system. And allow insurance companies to cross state lines, and thereby dramatically increase the size of insurance pools. None of this, however, is currently on the table.

As I wrote in my first book – “Working Without A Net” – information impacts a culture, most dramatically, in two ways. First, it significantly increases the nature and frequency of conflict in all relationships. When people have more information, their expectations rise, they challenge more, and this generates more conflict. This may be good or bad, depending upon your point of view (cf. my comments in the “Business” section of this newsletter). The other thing that information does to a society is to methodically erode traditional notions of security, based upon a reliance and dependence upon institutions and organizations outside of the individual (i.e. businesses, government, social safety nets, etc.). It then replaces them with a new form of security, based upon an internal sense of self-reliance and individual marketability. This process has been occurring since the 1980’s and has manifested itself in phenomena like free-agent workers, the virtual workplace, the steady erosion of corporate benefits, the redefinition of “community” ala the internet, etc. This has been a scary and disorienting transition, from security being something external, to security being something internal. And for most people this change has come about in bits and pieces, with little realization of the big picture. By and large, most politicians are clueless vis-à-vis this shift, and have done little to help people adapt to this new reality. Obama is not only continuing this tradition, he is trying his best to reverse reality. No one has the power to stop this cultural evolution, unless they can completely shut down the manufacture and distribution of information. It has to be a cruel irony that the maven of information is going all out to combat and reverse its effects.

Ideologues are ultimately elitists and non-risk takers. They hate being wrong, they dread failure, and they want to avoid pain (especially their own) at any cost. They see no point in experiencing the discomfort that comes with growth and learning, and want to construct a social apparatus that is as comfortable as possible, regardless of the price. So the idea that people make choices not to take risks, and that these choices then limit their lives (unless they change them) is abhorrent and repugnant. These people, then, must be protected from themselves and taken care of by others who know better then them, what is good for them.

What we are dealing with now, in the political landscape, is worse, even, than the attempt to generate class warfare. It is much more damaging. It is the introduction of a new domestic colonialism, with its own noblesse oblige. Those without formal education, the requisite job skills, and a lack of relationship-building and decision-making skills, are the new “primitives.” The new idiot class that has to be care taken and provided for because of its innate incompetence. With all the resources available to people in this culture, it is not only preposterous to engage in this orgy of victim-mongering, it is shameful and racist. And add to this, the coordinated effort to demonize successful people and organizations (and guilt them into supporting a massive expansion of entitlements) and you have a perfect prescription for dulling this society into mediocrity.

What we are dealing with now is tricky. In my clinical practice it was very hard to help people see how those who had been so “nice” to them could have done them so much harm. It’s like being molested by the clergy. Remember that those who are doing things for you and to you, which are “for your own good,” usually have the evilest intent.

Personal Notes
The Luckiest Guy In The World  
In the midst of our economic meltdown and our political “transformation,” I’ve had an epiphany: I am, without a doubt, one of the luckiest, most privileged people in the world. This realization came about, a few weeks ago, during a fairly pedestrian task that I have probably done, a few thousand times.

On a beautiful sunny Sunday, Arleah and I decided to take the mule (Kawasaki, not animal) and ride down to the mailbox and get the paper. About half-way down, I was struck by how green and spectacular everything was looking that day. The trees were brighter than ever and the mountains seemed taller than I had ever seen them before. All of a sudden, I found myself tearing up and appreciating all the important things in my life. The dogs were running around freely, clearly enjoying themselves. I’ve always been touched by their freedom (they’ve never been on leashes); don’t quite know why it moves me the way it does. We get to live in one of the most beautiful places in the world, and the community has welcomed us back, with open arms, since we decided to spend more and more of our time here.

I was then struck by the fact that I have always loved my work. I’ve done five or six different professions by now, and they’ve all been about teaching people new things and changing their lives. And none of them have ever felt like “work.”

I then looked over at Arleah and was flooded with feelings. We’ve been together now for almost 32 years. I can’t remember a time before her and I can’t envision a life without her. Her smile and her laugh have always made me feel good with myself and with the world. I have not only always loved her; I have always admired her – her insights, her commitment to her clients, and most of all, her commitment to her own growth. That we found each other has always seemed miraculous to me. Things are good!

I have always, and probably always will, think deeply and constantly about where our world is going, and how it can be better. But I also realize that there has to be some tempering of that. I know now where that comes from.


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