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Rules Aren’t Norms (On Better Meeting Hygiene)

Meeting Room by Nan Palmero nanpalmero 14187926777 EDIT

All behavior is adaptive in some way, and organizational cultures are merely manifestations of the cumulative adaptations made by every individual. [1]

1. Rules vs. norms

You’re a senior leader who meets regularly with a team of employees. A typical configuration in my coaching practice is a CEO who sits down with the 5 to 7 members of their executive team every week. Your team meetings are fine, but they could be much more meaningful and productive, and on occasion they’re draining or even demoralizing. This is an ongoing theme in my work with clients, and I think of it as a function of “meeting hygiene”–the ways of interacting that characterize a particular group when they sit down to work together on a consistent basis.

You’ve probably worked as a group to identify some “ground rules” to improve the quality of your meetings–that’s a common exercise and one I’ve conducted myself. [2] But despite these efforts, your meetings haven’t really improved. One reason why is the difference between “rules”–which are what we intend to do, or what we’re supposed to do, and “norms,” which are what we actually do. Richard McAdams of the University of Chicago Law School provides a useful definition of the latter:

[Norms are] informal social regularities that individuals feel obligated to follow because of an internalized sense of duty, because of a fear of external non-legal sanctions, or both. [3]

Economists Uri Gneezy, Andreas Liebbrant and John List offer another:

Norms are patterns of behavior that are based on shared beliefs about how individual group members should behave in a given situation. They are enforced by internal and external sanctions, such as shame or punishment, internalized through social learning and socialization, and may lead to an enduring change in individuals’ motivations, such as their propensity to act pro-socially. [4]

To repeat: Norms are informal social regularities that individuals feel obligated to follow, and patterns of behavior based on shared beliefs about how individuals should behave.

Rules and norms are by no means mutually exclusive, and their influence on our behavior often overlaps. But they are distinct forms of social governance, and if you’re trying to improve the quality of your meetings in a typical organization, it’s important to recognize that rules on their own are often fairly weak, while norms are much more powerful–and often exert significant influence in the absence of any formal rules, for better and for worse.

The problem is that our efforts to influence behavior in organizational life generally involve new or improved rules. And while exercises to create or clarify a set of rules for meetings are well-meaning, these efforts are often futile because in many organizational settings we don’t feel obligated to follow rules, nor are they based on a set of shared beliefs.

We choose to follow rules in organizational life most of the time, but we break them with impunity on a regular basis. Rules rarely generate an internalized sense of duty, and few organizational cultures have the ability to impose sanctions on rule-breakers without provoking a backlash. And rules are often simply imposed from above–they reflect the shared beliefs of the rule-makers, but not of those who are supposed to follow them. Norms are very different. When we violate a norm, we feel that we’ve failed to uphold an important duty, or we fear the sanctions that will result, or both.

2. Where do norms come from?

We are not only gregarious animals, liking to be in sight of our fellows, but we have an innate propensity to get ourselves noticed, and noticed favorably, by our kind.

~William James, The Principles of Psychology [5]

Human beings are deeply social creatures, and UCLA neuroscientist Matthew Lieberman cites a hypothesis that the evolutionary advantage conferred on humans by our larger brains derives not from our enhanced abilities as individual problem-solvers, but from our skill at connecting and cooperating with others, which enables us to work together in much larger groups than other primates. Lieberman notes that this social skill enabled our distant ancestors to deal with predators and other threats more successfully, but it also came at a cost:

The downside of larger groups is that there is increased competition for food and mating partners within the group. If you are on your own and you manage to find food, it’s yours. The larger your group, the more likely it is that one of the others in your group will try to poach it. Primates with strong social skills can limit this downside by forming alliances and friendships with others in the group…

While there is tremendous upside to being part of a group, that is true only if you know how to play the odds and form the right coalitions to avoid the downsides of group living. It requires an expansive capacity for social knowledge. [6]

So we evolved to be keenly aware of our relative social status and our standing in the group, and it is in this context that early humans faced the challenge of how to solve what legal scholar McAdams calls “collective action problems [which] arise when there is a disparity between the individual behavior that maximizes the welfare of the group and the behavior that maximizes the welfare of an individual in the group.” [7]

Today we solve many such collective action problems through the law–but lacking access to a legal system and the authority of the state, our distant ancestors developed something equally powerful (and much less cumbersome) that continues to govern our social life today: norms.

Early research on norms was done by sociologists and anthropologists, and while this work established an essential foundation for our understanding of the concept, in recent decades legal scholars and economists (as noted above) have added further insights. [8] Richard McAdams has developed a theory I find compelling in light of Lieberman’s ideas about the importance of our social orientation: Norms emerge from our need for the esteem of our peers and the anxiety that results when such esteem is withheld. McAdams writes:

The initial force behind norm creation is the desire individuals have for respect or prestige, that is, for the relative esteem of others. Withholding esteem is, under certain conditions, a costless means of inflicting costs on others. These costs are often extremely small… But…dynamic forces can cause the weak desire for esteem to produce powerful norms, sometimes because individuals struggle to avoid deviance, sometimes because they compete to be heroic. [9]

Note that withholding esteem is a “low-cost” means of sanctioning those who violate a norm–this makes it easy for the group to punish violators without imposing a burden on those who observe violations and take action in response. Also, the desire for mutual esteem does not need to be particularly strong–it merely needs to cross some minimal threshold, above which we feel its loss should it be withheld.

William James, the pioneering psychologist and philosopher, summarizes these ideas concisely: We have an innate propensity to get noticed favorably by our kind.

3. How do we foster productive norms?

Bad feedback [has] more impact than good…and bad information is processed more thoroughly than good. The self is more motivated to avoid bad self-definitions than to pursue good ones.

~Roy Baumeister et al. [10]

While McAdams’ “esteem theory” proposes that the power of norms comes from our desire for the regard of our peers as well as fear of its loss, further research suggests that the latter factor is significantly more influential. This is consistent with a well-established psychological principle that bad experiences register more strongly than good ones–while we will make an effort to win our peers’ esteem, we’ll work even harder to avoid its withdrawal.

Biologist Sergey Gavrilets of the University of Tennessee and environmental scientist Peter Richerson of UC Davis conducted joint research that offers more specific insights into this process: “Norm internalization evolves much more easily and has much larger effects on behavior if groups promote peer punishment of free riders.” [11]

With this we can identify the necessary conditions in a group for the establishment of a productive norm:

  • A set of shared beliefs about how individuals should behave.
  • Sufficient mutual esteem among members so that its withdrawal would be felt as a loss by any individual.
  • A willingness by members to openly acknowledge a norm violation by a peer.
  • A willingness by members to withhold esteem from a peer as a consequence of a norm violation.

In other words, a high-accountability, high-empathy culture. To be clear, this doesn’t mean an authoritarian culture in which group members are being policed by management, but one in which members hold themselves accountable because of their shared beliefs regarding productive behavior and their desire to avoid the loss of mutual esteem. [12]

As a leader, of course, you’re well aware that this may be easy to understand in theory, but it’s very difficult to put into practice. Because it is so difficult, many leaders focus solely on the first condition–creating a set of shared beliefs–and ignore the other three. This results in a set of thoughtful rules, which people agree to but then break as soon as adherence to the rule would be inconvenient for them. No one acknowledges their free-riding behavior, there’s no withdrawal of esteem, and the thoughtful rules never become norms.

This is why relationship-building on a team is so important and why leaders who dismiss it as fluffy bullshit are missing a critical factor in the process of developing productive norms. It’s not about “liking each other”–it’s about the power of mutual esteem. And to be clear, sufficient mutual esteem is a necessary but insufficient condition–what’s also required is a mutual willingness to hold each other accountable, and this is the really hard work.

4. Why is this work so difficult?

Whenever human beings are faced with any issue that contains significant embarrassment or threat, they act in ways that bypass, as best they can, the embarrassment or threat. In order for the bypass to work, it must be covered up.

~Chris Argyris, Overcoming Organizational Defenses [13]

Over the course of a decade I spent more than 2,000 hours facilitating groups of MBA students at Stanford, primarily in the school’s Interpersonal Dynamics course [14], which I later taught for several years, but also in the Leadership Fellows Program, which I helped to launch in 2007. During this same period of time, before focusing my practice on coaching individual clients I consulted to leadership teams that were seeking to work together more effectively. A regularly occurring activity in all of this work was the identification of existing group norms and interventions to encourage more productive behavior. 

This took place through a number of different processes, from highly-structured activities to informal conversations, but a universal response was anxiety, ranging from mild awkwardness to profound distress. As a leader who’s hoping to improve your team’s meeting hygiene, you should anticipate something similar. One of the causes of this pattern is that a candid examination of group norms causes us to acknowledge behaviors–our own and those of others–that we would rather ignore. Such open acknowledgment feels unsafe because it violates a “defense routine,” a term defined by the late Harvard Business School professor Chris Argyris:

[Defense routines] are actions or policies that prevent individuals or segments of the organization from experiencing embarrassment or threat. Simultaneously, they prevent people from identifying and getting rid of the causes of the potential embarrassment or threat. Organizational defensive routines are anti-learning, over-protective, and self-sealing. [15]

Defense routines are universal in organizational life, and they’re predictable and rational responses to the stress and uncertainty we face in most professional environments. Argyris notes that they “are rewarded by most organizational cultures, because the routines indicate a sense of caring and concern for people,” and “minimize the risk of harming or upsetting people.” [16]

The dilemma you face as a leader seeking to foster a culture of productive norms is that, first, any currently existing dysfunctional norms must be openly acknowledged, and then violations of desired norms must be recognized and sanctioned by peers. All of these efforts are likely to trigger feelings of embarrassment and threat (or other vulnerable emotions), thus running headlong into the defense routines that have been carefully crafted with the best of intentions to minimize the risk of harm or upset.

In fact, most of your team’s current dysfunctional norms are defense routines–strategies to bypass embarrassment or threat–and these social dynamics function only when the bypass is covered up. So uncovering them compels us to admit that we’ve been colluding in the dysfunction, and this itself can be feel embarrassing. Obviously, this is a recipe for A) continued inaction, or B) avoiding the riskier topic of norms in favor of a safe-but-futile discussion about rules.

The key to unlocking this dilemma is the establishment of sufficient psychological safety, a topic that’s been studied extensively by Harvard Business School professor Amy Edmondson. In a psychologically safe organization, Edmondson notes:

Individuals feel they can speak up, express their concerns, and be heard. This is not to say that people are “nice.” A psychologically safe workplace is one where people are not full of fear, and not trying to cover their tracks to avoid being embarrassed or punished.

What I am advocating is candor. Being open. And sometimes that might mean being direct to a fault, knowing that you have a right and a responsibility to ask hard questions about the work: “Is this the right decision? Are we collecting the right data? Do we know the impact this might have on others?” [17]

There are a number of steps you can take as a leader to create a greater sense of safety among your team: listening, encouraging input, and responding appreciatively–especially to unwelcome news. [18] But it’s essential to also consider how your behavior as a leader might undermine these efforts by diminishing safety, triggering a threat response, or reinforcing existing defense routines. [19] As I’ve written before,

Power distorts what others choose to tell us and what we choose to hear, and the more power we have relative to someone else, the more distortion there is in the dialogue. You can and should seek to heighten your self-awareness…but you should also explicitly ask for direct feedback from others and make it safe for employees to point out how you may be making things worse. [20]

Finally, let’s return to the concepts of mutual esteem and accountability, the essential preconditions for the establishment of productive norms. These qualities in a group have the potential to be both the result of and contributors to a greater sense of psychological safety. When we respect and feel close to the people around us, and when we trust that they will tell us the truth in a direct but empathetic way, it’s a safer environment in which to deal with the feelings of vulnerability that inevitably accompany a truly candid conversation about group norms. In this context psychological safety isn’t an end in itself, but, rather, a necessary means to the desired end of a truly high-accountability, high-empathy culture. [21]

5. Questions to resolve for better meeting hygiene.

Below are a number of questions that come up regularly in my work with leaders who are striving to improve their team’s effectiveness, and each one touches on an issue that has the potential to meaningfully affect meeting hygiene. That said, it’s essential to view them in light of the concepts above.

You and your team could have a thorough discussion about each of these issues and craft a brilliant plan to cover every possible situation–and your efforts will largely be wasted in the absence of a psychologically safe environment in which members value each other’s esteem and are willing to hold each other accountable. Rules aren’t norms.

  • Why are we meeting? What happens if we don’t know the answer?
  • Who’s here? Who’s not?
  • What happens if someone who’s supposed to be here is absent?
  • What happens if someone’s here who’s not supposed to be?
  • What are our roles? Who are we to each other?
  • Where are we meeting? If we’re all in the same room, who sits where?
  • If we’re not in the same room, how are we using technology?
  • Who leads the meeting? What does “leading” mean here?
  • What’s on the agenda? Who makes that decision?
  • What level of preparation is required? What happens if someone appears to be unprepared?
  • When do we start? What happens if people are late?
  • How do we start?
  • When do we finish? What happens if we run long?
  • How much time is allotted to each topic? What happens if we run long on a given topic?
  • How do we make decisions? When do we decide how to make a given decision?
  • How do we choose what process we use to make decisions? What happens if we disagree?
  • What’s our policy regarding laptops? What’s our policy regarding phones?
  • How do we express emotion? How do we regulate emotional expression?
  • What’s our shared understanding of the answers to these questions?
  • How do we surface and resolve differences of opinion?


[1] In Defense of Normal

[2] Ground Rules for Meetings

[3] “The Origin, Development, and Regulation of Norms,” page 340 (Richard McAdams, Michigan Law Review, 1997)

[4] Ode to the Sea: Workplace Organizations and Norms of Cooperation, page 2 (Uri Gneezy, Andreas Liebbrant and John List, National Bureau of Economic Research, 2014)

[5] The Principles of Psychology, Chapter X: The Consciousness of Self, page 126 (William James, 1890)

[6] Social: Why Our Brains Are Wired to Connect, pages 33-34 (Matthew Lieberman, 2013)

[7] Social Norms (Cristina Bicchieri, Ryan Muldoon, and Alessandro Sontuoso, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Winter 2018 Edition, Edward Zalta, editor)

[8] “The Origin, Development, and Regulation of Norms,” page 344, note 25

[9] “The Origin, Development, and Regulation of Norms,” page 342

[10] Bad Is Stronger Than Good (Roy Baumeister, Ellen Bratslavsky, Catrin Finkenauer and Kathleen Vohs, Review of General Psychology, 2001)

[11] “Collective action and the evolution of social norm internalization,” page 6068 (Sergey Gavrilets and Peter Richerson, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 2017)

[12] Accountability and Empathy (Are Not Mutually Exclusive)

[13] Overcoming Organizational Defenses: Facilitating Organizational Learning, page 25 (Chris Argyris, 1990)

[14] Interpersonal Dynamics

[15] Overcoming Organizational Defenses, page 25

[16] Overcoming Organizational Defenses, page 29

[17] Make Your Employees Feel Psychologically Safe (Martha Lagace interviewing Amy Edmondson, Harvard Business School Working Knowledge, 2018)

[18] How Fearless Organizations Succeed (Amy Edmondson, strategy+business, 2018. Excerpted from The Fearless Organization: Creating Psychological Safety in the Workplace for Learning, Innovation, and Growth.)

[19] How Leaders Create Safety (and Danger)

[20] Hammering Eggs (Leadership and Problem-Solving)

[21] Accountability and Empathy (Are Not Mutually Exclusive)

For Further Reading

Checking In: Start Meetings by Listening More

Leadership, Decision-Making and Emotion Management

Building the Emotional Intelligence of Groups (Vanessa Druskat and Steven Wolff, Harvard Business Review, 2001)

Building a Feedback-Rich Culture

Do We Really Need Another Meeting? The Science of Workplace Meetings (Joseph Mroz, Joseph Allen, Dana Verhoeven, and Marissa Shuffler, Current Directions in Psychological Science, 2018)

Photo by Nan Palmero. Yay Flickr and Creative Commons.

Conform to the Culture Just Enough

Conformity by Carleton Thomas Anderson ctanderson 8730481504 EDIT

Leaders must conform enough if they are to make the connections necessary to deliver change. Leaders who succeed in changing organizations challenge the norms–but rarely all of them, all at once… To change an organization, the leader must first gain at least minimal acceptance as a member.

~Rob Goffee and Gareth Jones [1]

You’re in a new leadership role, you see some room for improvement, and you want to make some changes. If you’re one of my coaching clients, the title of this post will be a recurring theme in our conversations. Unless it’s a turnaround in which the intent is to radically transform a dysfunctional culture, your success will hinge on your ability to conform just enough. If you conform too much, you’ll miss opportunities to influence positive change and make a difference. And if you don’t conform enough, your efforts will be ignored or rebuffed, and eventually you’ll burn out or be rejected.

The first challenge is clarifying just what we mean by “culture”–it’s an elastic word that stretches to accommodate a wide range of concepts, especially when we’re talking about “culture fit.” Michael Watkins of the International Institute of Management Development offers a useful set of distinct but overlapping definitions:

Culture is consistent, observable patterns of behavior in organizations…

Culture is a process of “sense-making” in organizations [which] moves the definition of culture beyond patterns of behavior into the realm of jointly-held beliefs and interpretations about “what is…”

Culture is a carrier of meaning. Cultures provide not only a shared view of “what is” but also of “why is.” In this view, culture is about “the story” in which people in the organization are embedded, and the values and rituals that reinforce that narrative…

Culture is a social control system. Here the focus is the role of culture in promoting and reinforcing “right” thinking and behaving, and sanctioning “wrong” thinking and behaving. Key in this definition of culture is the idea of behavioral “norms” that must be upheld, and associated social sanctions that are imposed on those who don’t “stay within the lines…”

Culture is a form of protection that has evolved from situational pressures. It prevents “wrong thinking” and “wrong people” from entering the organization in the first place. [2]

Note the many layers and elements here: behavior, beliefs, meaning, narrative, norms. One of your most important tasks as a new leader is to explore and understand all of these aspects of your new culture. Without this awareness it’s impossible to know when you’re conforming just enough. So what does this look like in practice? Here are four tactics:

1. Pay Attention

Anthropologist and author Grant McCracken offers some invaluable advice: “Notice everything and pay attention to things that puzzle. Pay attention to things that demand your attention and then refuse your understanding. Pay attention to the failure of attention.” [3]

As a new member many aspects of the surrounding culture will seem curious or unusual or even irrational. This is invaluable data, and it won’t be available to you indefinitely. As the culture grows familiar, it will become less visible to you–it will simply be “the way we are.” With a fresh set of eyes you’ll be able to see more clearly the behaviors, beliefs, meanings, narratives and norms that make up your new cultural landscape–but only if you’re actively looking for them.

This sounds easy but can be difficult to implement: New environments compel us to make many more decisions than usual; you’re probably feeling pressure to get up to speed quickly; and the company may not have a well-crafted onboarding plan (or any plan at all.) Time spent observing the culture can seem like a luxury when there’s a lot to do and you’re feeling depleted. So give some thought to how you might “onboard yourself,” and in that process recognize the long-term importance of investing time in these efforts. [4]

2. Ask Around

Much of this data will be tacit, undocumented, and assumed, so it won’t be sufficient to merely observe–you’ll also have to inquire. You started doing this weeks or even months ago during the hiring process, but there are limits on how much can be learned about an organization’s culture by a prospective candidate: Interviewers are highly motivated to portray the culture in the best possible light, not only to land the prospect, but also to re-affirm their continued commitment to the organization. Candidates are reluctant to ask certain questions or point out potential concerns, for fear that they’ll be deemed “not a fit.” And even in more candid conversations employees may be unable to identify aspects of their culture with much specificity because it’s become less visible to them–it’s the water in which they swim.

Presumably you learned enough about the culture to convince you to accept the opportunity, but you potentially have access to much more information now that you’re in the role–and yet you’ll surface this additional data only by engaging your new colleagues in dialogue. Your onboarding plan (whether it’s official or one you’ve constructed for yourself) should include a series of conversations with people from across the organization, and every one of those exchanges is an opportunity to learn something about the culture.

There’s a parallel with the field of ethnography, in which researchers immerse themselves in a culture in order to empathetically understand what it’s like to be a member. Drawing upon this process, McCracken reminds us to distinguish among the various “layers of knowledge” that can be unearthed through skillful conversation:

What the other person knows and can offer easily.

What the other person knows and can report with prompting.

What the other person does not know they know but can reveal with prompting.

What the other person does not know, cannot report, and cannot reveal, but the questioner can gather from one conversation.

What the other person does not know, cannot report, and cannot reveal, but the questioner can gather from multiple conversations. [5]

3. Lead with Warmth

There’s an important balance to strike in the process of conducting these conversations: It can be helpful to be perceived as “a new person eager to learn,” because many colleagues will be equally eager to educate you (in part to win you over to their way of thinking.) And it will be problematic if you’re perceived as “a nosy outsider”–that sows distrust and raises questions about your motives.

The key is to seek to build trust from the very first interaction with every one of your new colleagues. But many new leaders often try to establish themselves by demonstrating their mastery and competence–they lead with strength. Harvard Business School professor Amy Cuddy and her co-authors Matthew Kohut and John Neffinger have studied the value of an alternative approach–leading with warmth:

Leaders who project strength before establishing trust run the risk of eliciting fear, and along with it a host of dysfunctional behaviors. Fear can undermine cognitive potential, creativity, and problem solving, and cause employees to get stuck and even disengage…

A growing body of research suggests that the way to influence–and to lead–is to begin with warmth. Warmth is the conduit of influence: It facilitates trust and the communication and absorption of ideas. Even a few small nonverbal signals–a nod, a smile, an open gesture–can show people that you’re pleased to be in their company and attentive to their concerns. Prioritizing warmth helps you connect immediately with those around you, demonstrating that you hear them, understand them, and can be trusted by them. [6]

Being perceived as a warm and empathetic person is not an end in itself in a leadership role, of course. You will also surely be called upon to hold people accountable–but those are not mutually exclusive characteristics in a leader. [7]

4. Learn to Translate

The opportunities for improvement that you see in your new culture are informed by what you’ve learned from your previous cultures, and your ability to offer a broader perspective likely played a part in landing this leadership role. Perhaps your success in your last organization is what led to this new opportunity, or perhaps you’ve been exploring leadership skills and organizational culture in a training program like my MBA students at Stanford. Whatever path you’ve followed, the final step will be taking what you’ve learned and translating it to fit your new culture.

A key in this process is eliminating any terminology from your vocabulary that might be perceived by your new culture as “jargon.” The late activist Abbie Hoffman advised anyone seeking to foster change to “Be very conscious of your language”:

It cannot be stressed too strongly how much language shapes your environment… You can’t afford the luxury of being boring or of creating a language that the average person cannot understand. Avoid, for example, using initials for the full name of an agency. Even if all the people you are addressing know that EPA stands for Environmental Protection Agency…say the full name. Why? As a reminder not to slip into the language of the bureaucracy. Those in power can, but not the challengers. [8]

The equivalent of Hoffman’s bureaucratic acronyms are any catchphrases you learned in your previous cultures. They were helpful shorthand when everyone understand them, but when you take these linguistic shortcuts in your new culture you run the risk of alienating a potential ally simply because you’re not speaking their language. No matter how compelling your ideas, they must be presented in terms that align with your new culture’s native vocabulary and communication style.

A further step is distilling the conceptual lessons you’ve drawn from your previous cultures and translating those ideas into behaviors that will conform just enough to the norms of your new culture. An example that comes up frequently in my work is the role of vulnerability in organizational life, which is a hallmark of the experiential learning curriculum at Stanford. [9]. Expressions of vulnerability typically evoke empathy, so in circumstances where a greater degree of empathy would increase mutual understanding or resolve a conflict, a leader who can convey and demonstrate vulnerability will have a powerful advantage. [10]

But “vulnerability” comes in an endless number of forms, and each culture has a set of norms that define acceptable expressions of vulnerability by a leader. If you deviate too far from these norms, the culture won’t be able to accommodate your behavior–and if all you do is conform to those norms, you’ll fail to help the culture evolve and will miss opportunities to take advantage of your prior training. The key, as always, is to conform just enough.


[1] Why Should Anyone Be Led By You?, pages 109-110 (Rob Goffee and Gareth Jones, 2006/2015)

[2] What Is Organizational Culture? (Michael Watkins, Harvard Business Review, 2013)

[3] Account planners and fearless noticing (Grant McCracken, 2007)

[4] A Checklist for Someone About to Take on a Tougher Job

[5] The Six Layers of Knowledge and Better Conversations

[6] Connect, Then Lead (Amy Cuddy, Matthew Kohut and John Neffinger, Harvard Business Review, 2013)

[7] Accountability and Empathy

[8] “How to Fight City Hall” (Abbie Hoffman, originally published in Parade, 1984, currently available in The Best of Abbie Hoffman, 1993)

[9] The Art of Self-Coaching, Class 7: Vulnerability

[10] Brené Brown, Vulnerability, Empathy and Leadership

For Further Reading

Two Sides of Trust

First Impressions

The Accumulation of Cultural Debt

Photo by Carleton Thomas Anderson. Yay Flickr and Creative Commons.

XYZ (On Team Development)


In 2013-14 I had the privilege of coaching Tere Pérez, a second-year MBA student in Stanford’s Leadership Fellows program, and she created this simple but powerful exercise to help the group of first-year students she was coaching better understand how they were working together. It’s not just for MBAs–any team could use it to explore their ongoing development:

Have each member of the team write down their answers to the following statements:

Since we started, our team has become [X].

My greatest contribution to the team has been [Y].

I’ll get more out of our time together if I [Z].

After everyone has finished taking notes, address each of the three topics as a group. Be sure to elicit input from everyone–this may require a structured process of reporting out before open discussion.

For Further Reading

Building the Emotional Intelligence of Groups, (Vanessa Druskat and Steven Wolff, Harvard Business Review, 2001)

Huddle Up! (Building Group Cohesion)

Symptoms of Group Strength

Safety, Trust, Intimacy

Photo via the Spline Doctors.

You Can’t Steer a Parked Car

Parked Car by IwateBuddy brucewood 496159261 EDIT

I didn’t coin the title of this post, and I wish I could remember where I heard it first, because it does come up frequently in my coaching practice.

When we suspect we’re not headed in the right direction, we often slow down and lose momentum, and sometimes we stall out entirely.

But it’s very difficult–and perhaps impossible–to change direction when we’re not moving at all.

The key is to move forward judiciously and thoughtfully, and to use the resulting momentum to adjust our trajectory in the process.

What does this look like in practice?

Thanks to Ryan Caldbeck.

Photo by IwateBuddy. Yay Flickr and Creative Commons.

Accountability and Empathy (Are Not Mutually Exclusive)


When we’re in a leadership role or a position of authority, we’re faced with the task of both holding people accountable and empathizing with their difficulties (some of which we’ve caused), and how the members of a given group respond to this challenge defines that group’s culture. The leader is in a unique position to influence the culture, through the behaviors they model, acknowledge, ignore, reward and punish, but ultimately every member of the group has some responsibility for the culture that emerges…

So how do we get to Paradise? Obviously there’s no simple solution–but there is one easy way to guarantee failure, and that’s making the assumption that either we can hold people accountable or we can empathize with them. In part, this stems from the mistaken idea that empathy is the same thing as agreement. [1]

As a leader you’re probably facing some version of this challenge–it’s one of the most common issues I discuss with coaching clients. But based on the experience of leaders in my practice, I view the belief that we can either hold people accountable or empathize with them as a false dichotomy. That widely-held mental model of leadership presumes that accountability and empathy are endpoints along a single dimension. But an alternative model encourages us to view accountability and empathy as distinct aspects of an organization’s culture–and, by extension, of the leader’s behavior.

Before we explore the leadership practices that contribute to an optimal organizational culture, let’s consider the alternatives:


In a low-accountability, low empathy culture the emphasis is on avoiding mistakes and minimizing personal responsibility. Management cares little about employees’ needs, and employees make the minimum effort required to complete necessary work. While such profound dysfunction may be typical in any number of industries, it’s exceedingly rare among the organizations I’ve observed as a coach.

If you find yourself in a Nightmare like this, my only advice is to wake up, get out, and take your best people with you.


In a high-accountability, low-empathy culture there’s a strong emphasis on production and minimal regard for people’s needs. Rewards are allocated strictly for performance, and productivity is maximized through punishments for failure to follow clearly defined rules. This Bootcamp approach to management has been common throughout human history, and it remains the norm in many industries today.

The historical prevalence of this approach to social organization is curious in light of evidence suggesting that hundreds of thousand years ago the first human beings evolved to work together in cooperative harmony–it’s possible that this was the key factor that allowed our distant ancestors to overcome their natural disadvantages against predators and harsh environmental conditions. [2]

But it’s also plausible that our ancestors developed a cooperative approach in order to band together in the struggle against nature, and conflict with other humans was rare because the overall population was so low. Depictions of violent inter-group conflict become common in cave art beginning roughly 12,000 years ago, and perhaps this was the crisis that triggered the development of more hierarchical social structures characterized by antagonism and strife. [3]

Whatever our evolutionary heritage, most people have worked in Bootcamp organizational cultures for millennia, and this model has deeply informed our conventional ideas about leadership.


In a low-accountability, high-empathy culture meeting employees’ needs is a paramount priority, resulting in warm relationships, a comfortable, friendly atmosphere and a relatively relaxed pace. Management maximizes employees’ security and comfort in the hope that improved productivity will be the result.

This approach to management has found fertile soil in recent years, but its roots go back to the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The inhumane working conditions that characterized the early industrial era resulted in increasingly violent labor unrest, which led to the emergence of “industrial/organizational psychology” and “labor relations.” These fields sought to rationalize management through the application of scientific and psychological principles, contributing to improvements in working conditions sought by labor advocates and progressive reformers. [4]

In some settings this movement led to an organizational culture diametrically opposed to the Bootcamp–the Daycare. And while we might associate this culture with a stereotypical 21st century startup, MIT professor Douglas McGregor was already noting the contrast between a “hard” and “soft” approach to management in 1957:

At one extreme, management can be “hard” or “strong.” The methods for directing behavior involve coercion and threat (usually disguised), close supervision, tight controls over behavior. At the other extreme, management can be “soft” or “weak.” The methods for directing behavior involve being permissive, satisfying people’s demands, achieving harmony. Then they will be tractable, accept direction. This range has been fairly completely explored during the past half century… [5]

While a Daycare culture is feasible only in organizations that rely on relatively small numbers of highly-educated knowledge workers to create large financial gains, as an executive coach working primarily with technology CEOs in San Francisco, I’ve observed many such companies over the years, and it’s a model that has come to characterize Silicon Valley. (In business school I took a class with John Morgridge, who became CEO of Cisco in 1988 when it had just 34 employees–today it has 74,000. A perk for tech company workers in the ’80s was free soda, but Morgridge was aghast when he realized that the company’s annual budget for Coca-Cola was over $1 million. If he were alive today, I can only imagine what he would think. [6])


A dilemma is that neither the Bootcamp nor the Daycare is an optimal organizational culture–they each present a particular set of challenges that can undermine productivity. Returning to McGregor’s observations:

This range [between “‘hard” and “soft” management] has been fairly completely explored during the past half century, and management has learned some things from the exploration. There are difficulties in the “hard” approach. Force breeds counterforces: restriction of output, antagonism, militant unionism, subtle but effective sabotage of management objectives. This approach is especially difficult during times of full employment.

There are also difficulties in the “soft” approach. It leads frequently to the abdication of management—-to harmony, perhaps, but to indifferent performance. People take advantage of the soft approach. They continually expect more, but they give less and less. [7]

So often leaders feel that they have to choose one approach or the other–they must either hold people accountable in a Bootcamp or empathize with them in a Daycare (and accept one or the other set of difficulties articulated by McGregor.) But this is a false dichotomy. There is a better way.


The goal is a high-accountability, high-empathy culture, in which management and employees are fully committed to the organization’s needs and to each other. A shared sense of mission, strong feelings of ownership and responsibility, and relationships built on mutual trust and respect contribute to superior organizational results.

When employees feel compelled to stay, it’s easy to run a Bootcamp–to hold people accountable without expressing empathy. And when management has sufficient resources, it’s even easier to run a Daycare–to express empathy without holding people accountable. But both of these models impose substantial costs and, for many organizations, yield sub-optimal results. The task is to hold people accountable while also empathizing with them, and while this is easy to understand, it’s hard to put into practice. This is one of the most difficult aspects of leadership–which is one reason why high-accountability, high-empathy cultures are so rare.

While you can’t mandate your organizational culture as a leader, you can shape its evolution through every interpersonal interaction and every message you deliver. Particularly if you’re a leader in a new or rapidly growing organization, your behavior sets a standard that influences how all employees interact with each other. So how do you build a high-accountability, high-empathy culture? There are three core concepts to bear in mind:

Update your models.

Accountability is not bullying.

Empathy is not agreement.

Update Your Models

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The first rule is that you’ve got to have multiple models–because if you just have one or two that you’re using, the nature of human psychology is such that you’ll torture reality so that it fits your models, or at least you’ll think it does.

~Charlie Munger [8]

We navigate the world through a set of mental models–conceptual frameworks and operating theories about how things work that enable us to make sense of a given situation and behave in ways that will allow us to achieve our goals. As a leader, your mental models have undoubtedly contributed to your success, and yet, as I’ve written before,

We construct our mental models out of the meaning we extract from experience, and there’s inevitably a loss of fidelity as we focus on certain aspects of an experience (while ignoring others), interpret that data, and then conceptualize it as a general principle. And the gap that exists between our mental models and reality will continually increase over time unless we compel ourselves to test our assumptions, gather new data and update our models–which requires consistent effort. [9]

It’s essential to understand your mental models of leadership and update them on an ongoing basis to fit your present circumstances, rather than “torturing reality” to fit your models. If, like many leaders, you believe you can either hold people accountable or empathize with them, the starting point is recognizing that this is merely a model, a working theory about how to interact with your employees most effectively–and it’s one you can change.

But the work of identifying, exploring and updating your mental models won’t happen when you’re distracted by constant interruptions in a hectic office, struggling to get through an endless to-do list. Instead…

Once you’ve begun the process of updating your models of leadership to incorporate the idea that you can hold people accountable and empathize with them, it’s time to experiment with some behaviors that will allow you to put this into practice.

Accountability Is Not Bullying

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One of the reasons many leaders believe they can either hold people accountable or empathize with them is a misunderstanding of what is meant by “accountability.” We often assume it entails a combative stance in an antagonistic interaction, with the goal of enforcing compliance–but that’s not holding someone accountable, that’s bullying them. And while bullying may be tolerated in a Bootcamp, it doesn’t work in Paradise (and it will terrify people in a Daycare, resulting in you being escorted from the premises.)

Accountability certainly involves documenting commitments, clarifying expectations, monitoring progress, and rigorous candor, but none of this need feel hostile or aggressive. The key here is emotion regulation–which is very distinct from suppression. Strong emotions can easily be stirred up in an accountability conversation, but the point isn’t to pretend you’re not feeling them–this generally fails. As former coach Vickie Gray has noted, “Holding back your feelings doesn’t keep them hidden, it just makes your behavior incoherent.” [10]

Three lessons I learned from Scott Bristol, one of my mentors in Interpersonal Dynamics at Stanford [11], are critically important here:

  • Expressions of anger readily capture our attention because they signal a potential threat, but we generally turn away from others’ anger and distance ourselves from it as soon as possible to manage our distress.
  • In contrast, we turn toward most expressions of vulnerability, such as fear and hurt, which may derive from our evolutionary history of cooperation, as noted above.
  • Most expressions of anger are manifestations of a deeper (and often unexpressed) fear or hurt.

Accountability conversations become necessary when commitments are unfulfilled or expectations go unmet, and such exchanges can easily trigger strong feelings on all sides. As the leader you may well feel angry or frustrated–but note the three points above. Expressions of anger will capture your employees’ attention, but if the experience is too distressing they will seek to distance themselves from you (psychologically or literally) as soon as possible. It’s also quite possible that your frustration, even if justifiable, is a self-protective response covering up a more vulnerable set of feelings–anxiety in the face of potential failure, or disappointment at the lack of support from your team, or embarrassment at your own culpability.

The key, again, is emotion regulation: Sensing the early physiological signs of incipient emotions so that you can take action sooner. Comprehending precisely what you’re feeling and giving it an appropriate label (and recognizing the fear and hurt that may lie beneath any anger or frustration.) Expressing those vulnerable emotions in a way that fits the surrounding culture. Thoughtfully choosing your language and non-verbal forms of expression to communicate in ways that will help you achieve your goals more effectively.

And these steps will not happen by accident–they rest on a foundation of consistent personal and organizational practices: 

Finally, note that while I’m emphasizing your behavior as a leader in the process of holding employees accountable, that’s not because high-accountability cultures should be authoritarian hierarchies. Your personal behavior matters because it will be closely scrutinized and highly influential, for better and for worse. The larger goal is the establishment of a culture in which people hold themselves accountable–and that occurs under conditions of mutual empathy.

Empathy Is Not Agreement

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Just what do we mean by “empathy” in this context? The most useful definition for our purposes was developed by Theresa Wiseman, a medical professor and researcher at the University of Southampton, who was researching the topic because of its importance for nursing and medical care. Wiseman identified four defining attributes of empathy:

1. The ability to see the world as another person sees it. (“Without this, empathy cannot occur,” Wiseman wrote.)

2. The ability to understand another person’s feelings.

3. The ability to suspend judgment.

4. The ability to communicate this understanding, which is essential “if empathy is to be felt.” [12]

Why does this matter so much? What makes empathy so important in organizational life? The answer comes from the work of Brené Brown, a research professor at the University of Houston’s Graduate School of Social Work who has dedicated her career to the study of such topics as vulnerability, empathy, courage and shame:

If you think about connection on a continuum…anchoring [one] end of of that continuum is empathy. It is what moves us toward deep, meaningful relationship. On the other side of the continuum is shame. It absolutely unravels our relationships and our connections with other people… Empathy is about being vulnerable with people in their vulnerability. [13]

Note the significance of this “empathy-shame continuum” in a setting where you’re seeking to hold people accountable. We often associate shame with grave personal misdeeds, but it’s actually a common experience in organizational life. Even if you’re able to successfully employ the practices discussed above and hold productive accountability conversations, it’s likely that anyone who has failed to fulfill their commitments, meet expectations, or achieve their goals will feel some degree of shame. And as Brown writes elsewhere, “Shame is the fear of disconnection–it’s the fear that something we’ve done or failed to do, an ideal that we’ve not lived up to, or a goal that we’ve not accomplished makes us unworthy of connection.” [14]

When accountability conversations trigger shame–as they inevitably do, even with the best of intentions and skillful practice–the key to maintaining strong working relationships characterized by a sense of personal connection is empathy. And yet a challenge faced by so many leaders in these circumstances is that they believe empathy requires agreement. As I’ve written before,

We act as though empathizing with someone entails endorsing their perspective and their feelings, but this need not be the case. Understanding someone’s perspective and their emotions while suspending our judgments about both does not necessarily imply that we agree with that perspective or believe that the resulting emotions are justified. It simply means that we comprehend their perspective and emotions, and we are able to envision ourselves experiencing that perspective and those emotions under similar circumstances. Just as we can empathize with someone without sympathizing, we can empathize with someone while disagreeing with them and considering their perspective inaccurate and their emotions unwarranted. [15]

When we agree, empathizing is easy, but in many of the circumstances we’re discussing you and your employees will not agree–and you will need to empathize with them anyway. So if empathy is not agreement, what might it look like to put these ideas into practice? As with the process of emotion regulation discussed above, a more empathetic response will not arise spontaneously. It will grow out of a set of consistent behaviors:

  • Make a concerted effort to slow down when holding an important conversation in order to be more attuned to others’ emotions (and your own.)
  • Ask better questions in order to surface more information from your employees’ perspective.
  • Develop better listening skills and recognize that some of our habitual responses actually block empathy.
  • Create a safer environment (for others and yourself) by minimizing the risk of a threat response.

Historical Background: The Mouton-Blake Managerial Grid

The graphics above are my simplified versions of one of the most important images in the history of management theory, the Mouton-Blake Managerial Grid. The original version–shown below–was published in a 1964 Harvard Business Review article [16] by psychologists Robert Blake and Jane Mouton, who had recently resigned from the University of Texas to found a consulting firm, and Louis Barnes and Larry Greiner of Harvard Business School. [17] The authors were (or would go on to become) leading figures in the worlds of industrial/organizational psychology and labor relations (later known as human relations.)

Blake, Mouton and their co-authors described the conventional approach to management as “concern for production,” the X-axis on the grid below. In contrast, drawing upon ideas emerging from industrial psychology and human relations, they described an alternative approach as “concern for people,” the Y-axis below:


The original grid employs a 1-to-9 scale along each axis, as Blake, Mouton and their co-authors noted in HBR:

The lower left corner of the Grid diagram in Exhibit I shows a 1,1 style. This represents minimal concern for production and minimal concern for people. The 1,9 style in the upper left corner depicts maximal concern for people but minimal concern for production. The 9,1 style in the lower right corner portrays maximal concern for production and minimal concern for human relationships. The 9,9 style in the upper right-hand corner represents maximal concern for both human relationships and production. The 5,5 style in the center of the diagram is “middle of the road” in both areas of concern. [18]

Below is a version of the Mouton-Blake grid that I developed in 2007. I flipped the axes of the original grid in order to highlight the parallels between the Mouton-Blake framework and the Thomas-Killmann model for conflict modes, and I’ve maintained that convention in my use of this concept. [19] The labels and terminology for the various management styles in this version of the managerial grid are adapted from subsequent work by Blake and Mouton:


It’s worth noting that while Robert Blake was the senior figure in his professional partnership with Jane Mouton, and she was his former student at the University of Texas, it’s known as the Mouton-Blake Managerial Grid, presumably because the model was her idea. [20]

One Final Thought

In my simplified versions of the Mouton-Blake grid, I’ve omitted what they call “5,5 management” or the “middle-of-the-road” style. Many such companies exist, obviously–it may be the most common type of organizational culture–and it’s clearly sufficient for most of them. Not every organization is capable of reaching Paradise, but the leaders I see in my practice are aiming for something more than Business As Usual.



[1] “Work Hard or Work Smart?” Is the Wrong Question

[2] To take just one example: Forget Survival of the Fittest: It Is Kindness That Counts (Dacher Keltner interviewed by David DiSalvo, Scientific American, 2009)

[3] Collective action and the evolution of social norm internalization (Sergey Gavrilets and Peter Richerson, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 2017)

[4] The fields of industrial/organizational psychology and labor relations (later known as human relations) first emerged in the 1920s and gained momentum in the 1950s, when corporations and universities that had begun collaborating to increase production during World War II continued to work together to improve management practices. A thorough documentation of the history of these fields is beyond the scope of this post, but this (uncredited and undated) article offers a good starting point: Human Relations Movement (Psychology Research and Reference)

[5] “The Human Side of Enterprise,” page 6 in Leadership and Motivation: The Essays of Douglas McGregor (Douglas McGregor, 1966. This essay was originally published in the Management Review of the American Management Association, November 1957.)

[6] 12 Companies with the Most Luxurious Employee Perks (Paul Schrodt, Money, 2017)

[7] “The Human Side of Enterprise,” page 7 (McGregor, 1957/1966)

[8] A Lesson on Elementary, Worldly Wisdom As It Relates To Investment Management and Business (Charles Munger, USC Business School, 1994)

[9] Corn Mazes and Mental Models

[10] We’re Leaky (Emotional Signals and Cognitive Dissonance)

[11] Interpersonal Dynamics

[12] A Concept Analysis of Empathy (Theresa Wiseman, Journal of Advanced Nursing, 1996)

[13] Shame and Empathy (Brené Brown, 2007)

[14] Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead, pages 68-69 (Brené Brown, 2012)

[15] The Difficulty of Empathizing Up

[16] Breakthrough in Organization Development (Robert Blake, Jane Mouton, Louis Barnes, and Larry Greiner, Harvard Business Review, 1964)

[17] For more on Blake, Mouton, Barnes, and Greiner:

  • Robert Blake (1918-2004) was a fascinating figure. After earning his PhD at the University of Texas in 1947, he went to London on a Fulbright Scholarship where he worked with the Tavistock Clinic and, presumably, Wilfred Bion, a pioneer in the study of group dynamics. In London Blake learned about the recent formation of the National Training Laboratories Institute for Applied Behavioral Science (aka NTL), which was in the process of developing the T-group methodology for studying group dynamics, based on the work of Kurt Lewin. Blake developed a relationship with NTL, and throughout the 1950s and ’60s he facilitated T-groups there while also teaching psychology at Texas. (For more on T-groups and NTL, see my discussion, A Brief History of T-Groups.)
  • Jane Mouton (1930-1987) was a former student of Blake’s who joined him on the psychology faculty at Texas as well as among the staff of facilitators at NTL. In that era T-groups were typically composed of male managers from large corporations, and there were relatively few female facilitators. Given the many obstacles confronting young women in this field at the time, Mouton must have been a particularly formidable person, and her death at a relatively young age seems a great loss.
    • Blake and Mouton began consulting to Exxon and other companies, and their work met with such success that they resigned from their academic positions at Texas and formed a consulting firm, Scientific Methods, that lives on today as Grid International.
    • Blake and Mouton’s work on this topic culminated in The Managerial Grid: Leadership Styles for Achieving Production Through People (1966), one of the high-water marks for the application of humanistic psychology to management practices. The field changed dramatically in the late 1960s and ’70s, as inherent contradictions in humanism combined with larger cultural currents, resulting in the excesses of the “human potential movement.” At the same time, humanistic institutions can be said to have “died of success” as their ideas became so thoroughly integrated into current management practice that they were taken for granted.
  • Louis Barnes (1928-2009) taught for many years at Harvard Business School, and his work focused on small groups within an organization, interpersonal relationships, organizational change, and the dynamics of family businesses.
  • Larry Greiner did his graduate work at HBS and taught for many years at the University of Southern California’s Marshall School of Business, and it appears he died recently. Today he may be best-known for his classic 1972 HBR article, Evolution and Revolution as Organizations Grow, which was republished in 1998.

[18] Breakthrough in Organization Development (Harvard Business Review, 1964)

[19] Conflict Modes and Managerial Styles

[20] Asserted on Jane Mouton’s Wikipedia page.

For Further Reading

On mental models:

Corn Mazes and Mental Models

Open Space, Deep Work and Self-Care

How to Think (More on Open Space and Deep Work)

The Value of Journal Writing

Self-Coaching Is SOCIAL

On accountability:

Building a Feedback-Rich Culture

Make Getting Feedback Less Stressful

Brené Brown, Vulnerability, Empathy and Leadership

Vocabulary of Emotions

Hammering Eggs (Leadership and Problem-Solving)

On empathy:

Scott Ginsberg on Asking (Better) Questions

The Importance of Slowing Down

How Great Coaches Ask, Listen and Empathize

How Leaders Create Safety (and Danger)


Dedicated to my Stanford colleague Andrea Corney, who first taught me about the Thomas Killman conflict modes in 2007, which led to my initial interest in the work of Robert Blake and Jane Mouton.

Photos: Blackboard by Lee Nachtigal. Bully-Free Zone by Lorie Shaull. Handshakes by Roy Luck. Yay Flickr and Creative Commons.

Three Buckets (On Transparency and Trust)

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One of the responsibilities of leadership is deciding what information to share with your employees. As I’ve written before, “Leaders must handle significant amounts of confidential information with discretion and tact while maintaining others’ trust.” [1] While current management practice favors greater openness, even Ray Dalio, the founder of Bridgewater, the world’s largest hedge fund known for the “radical transparency” of its culture, acknowledges that leaders must withhold some information:

Radical transparency isn’t the same as total transparency… We do keep some things confidential, such as private health matters or deeply personal problems, sensitive details about intellectual property or security issues, the timing of a major trade, and at least for the short term, matters that are likely to be distorted, sensationalized and harmfully misunderstood if leaked to the press. [2]

A simple way to talk about this with employees who want more transparency is to acknowledge that all information falls into one of three buckets:

1) What You Know and Can Share

(This is the easy one.)

2) What You Know and Cannot Share

It may feel risky for you to acknowledge the existence of this bucket, because it invites curiosity about what’s inside. So it’s worth asking yourself why you’re choosing not to share this information. Management consultant Peter Block offers a rationale while addressing employees concerned about insufficient transparency:

If management knows something and is not telling us, it may be because they are worried about our feelings. They have heard our plea for protection and fulfill our request by withholding information that might make us anxious… If we want protection, we will pay the price by living in the dark. The moment we give up the protection, we will get the real story. [3]

You may have a range of reasons for withholding information, but in my experience as a coach this is the most common, and on some level it’s a factor in all situations where confidentiality is an issue: leaders are worried about employees’ feelings. While Block is challenging employees to take more responsibility for their experience and be less emotionally dependent on management, you should also feel challenged as a leader.

In some cases the withholding of information is entirely justified, and there would be a high cost if it were shared, but there’s also a cost if you always err on the side of discretion. Information-sharing is a form of truth-telling, and if you never test your employees’ capacity to handle the truth, you limit their growth and their potential contributions. At the same time, withholding information is a form of self-censorship, and as I’ve written before, “censoring ourselves is stressful and generates negative feelings [and] we will inevitably blame those negative feelings on those who ‘made us’ censor ourselves.” [4]

I’m not suggesting that nothing belongs in this bucket–it exists for good reason, as Dalio points out above. But is your decision to withhold information truly necessary? Or is it merely a “defense routine,” which the late Harvard Business School professor Chris Argyris defined as “actions or policies that prevent individuals or segments of the organization from experiencing embarrassment or threat.” When defense routines govern an organizational culture, when it is insufficiently safe to discuss any issue that might trigger embarrassment or threat, then candid communication becomes impossible, and performance inevitably suffers.

3) What You Don’t Know

It may feel vulnerable for you to acknowledge the existence of this bucket, particularly if you face expectations (from your employees, your peers or yourself) that an effective leader should be more knowledgeable than anyone else in the organization. But when we’re honest with ourselves, we have to admit that this is the biggest bucket by far. Peter Block continues:

The more likely reason we do not hear the real story directly from management is that often they don’t know it. They don’t know what will happen to us, our unit, our organization. They can’t predict the future any better than we can. It is the child in us that believes that our bosses know everything. What we want from them, they just do not have. [6]

Admitting the vastness of our ignorance can be uncomfortable, but until we do we’re fooling ourselves–true wisdom lies in realizing how little we know. [7] I’m not suggesting that you disclose gaps in your knowledge that would cause employees to lose faith in your ability as a leader–but I am suggesting that you consider the cost of failing to disclose any gaps.

Employees tend to overestimate how much a leader actually knows, in part because we habitually fail to “empathize up.” [8] But as a consequence they’re less likely to volunteer information that they believe the leader already possesses, and they may assume that any information they don’t have is being actively withheld from them. When you step into the vulnerability inherent in saying, “I don’t know,” you make it more likely that people will help you to fill that gap, and you increase their faith in your trustworthiness. This also contributes to a greater sense of psychological safety, a topic studied by Harvard Business School professor Amy Edmondson:

No one wants to take the interpersonal risk of imposing ideas when the boss appears to think he or she knows everything… Humility is the simple recognition that you don’t have all the answers, and you certainly don’t have a crystal ball. Research shows that when leaders express humility, teams engage in more learning behavior. [9]

Intentions vs. Judgment

Your ability to hold a fruitful dialogue with employees about information-sharing, transparency and confidentiality will be determined by their trust in you as a leader–but note that trust is not a monolithic quality. As I’ve written before, we assess people as trustworthy (or not) on two dimensions, their intentions and their judgment:

When we trust someone’s intentions but doubt their judgment, it’s usually easier. We can provide clearer guidance, offer more support, and strive to avoid miscommunication, while also determining whether their lack of judgment is a fatal flaw, a fixable problem, or an illusion based on inaccurate data.

When we trust someone’s judgment but doubt their intentions, it’s usually harder. We can limit our engagement with them and minimize our exposure to risk, while also determining whether their bad intentions are truly malevolent, merely opportunistic, or just a misunderstanding. [10]

If employees distrust your judgment when it comes to making decisions about information-sharing, that’s certainly a challenge, but it’s possible to have a healthy debate about the respective rationales for your decisions and their preferences. You may ultimately agree to disagree, but you can still have a productive working relationship. It’s a much more serious problem when employees distrust your intentions in these matters–and this is where the metaphor of the three buckets may provide a helpful starting point for discussion.


[1] Leadership and Authenticity

[2] Principles: Life and Work, page 331 (Ray Dalio, 2017)

[3] The Answer to How Is Yes: Acting On What Matters, pages 112-113 (Peter Block, 2003)

[4] Risk Management (The Importance of Speaking Up)

[5] Overcoming Organizational Defenses, page 25 (Chris Argyris, 1990)

[6] The Answer to How Is Yes: Acting On What Matters, page 113

[7] The three stages of expertise (Simon Wardley, 2008)

[8] The Difficulty of Empathizing Up

[9] How Fearless Organizations Succeed (Amy Edmondson, stragegy+business, 2018)

[10] Two Sides of Trust

Photo by Adele Prince. Yay Flickr and Creative Commons.

Four Questions

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Graduation by Germanna CC 26708111790 EDIT Firefighters by Andrew Magill amagill 3225245640 EDIT

Someone once shared with me how they assessed people, and it’s stayed with me for years. They would simply ask four questions:

Do I like you?

Do I respect you?

Would I recommend you for a job?

Would I follow you into a fire?

The answer doesn’t need to be Yes to all four questions all the time, of course. Just the one that’s most important at the moment.

Photos: Hug by Peter Dutton. Salute by Michael Fletcher. Graduation by Germanna C.C.. Firefighters by Andrew Magill. Yay Flickr and Creative Commons.

Hammering Eggs (Leadership and Problem-Solving)

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You’re a leader at a growing company who feels a great deal of responsibility to help your employees and colleagues solve problems. You’re skilled at spotting trouble early, identifying a solution quickly, and implementing it with vigor, and this has served you well, particularly in the early stages of the business. As I’ve observed in my coaching practice, “in the first few months (and sometimes years) after launching the company…every task and issue seems important, there aren’t many other people to delegate to, and it seems perilous to ignore things.” [1] In such an environment, a leader’s bias for action can mean the difference between survival and extinction.

But as you grow more senior and your organization scales, this forceful approach to problem-solving will at times be like cracking eggs with a hammer: Something gets accomplished, but a mess is made in the process. You may see a problem where none exists, or you may misdiagnose it. Your preferred solution may not be the best option, or the process by which it’s arrived at may generate resistance among your team. And you may miss organizational factors that will prevent or delay successful implementation of a solution.

To be clear, I’m not suggesting that you should avoid acting decisively, abandon your intuitive judgment, or always delegate problem-solving to others. I am suggesting that you adapt your approach to problem-solving to fit the evolving needs of the organization around you, and this may entail doing less of what’s worked in the past. A central theme in my practice is that “a leader who continues to lead by doing more often becomes less effective and may even undermine the organization as it grows larger and more complex.” [2]

So before you jump in with a hammer, slow down and ask these questions first:

1. IS there a problem?

Your vantage point as a leader allows you to see problems that others can’t, and an ability to predict unanticipated problems may have enabled you to obtain a leadership role in the first place. At the same time, all human beings can be unduly influenced by vivid memories of past problems. Bad experiences are much more influential than good ones in shaping our impressions, and such memories are “more resistant to disconfirmation,” so we can cling tightly to any information that we interpret as evidence of a problem. [3]

And while your position affords you a broader perspective, your employees are probably closer to the issues at hand and may have more relevant or up-to-date expertise. As Peter Drucker realized long ago, “once beyond the apprentice stage, knowledge workers must know more about their job than their boss does–or else they are no good at all. In fact, that they know more about their job than anybody else in the organization is part of the definition of knowledge workers.” [4]

When you assume that a problem exists, employees may defer to your perspective and discount their own views.

2. WHAT is the problem?

Your experience allows you to pick up patterns that others miss and interpret data that others find opaque. Your holistic view across functions also enables you to see inter-dependencies that employees may not be able to observe. This can allow you to quickly diagnose the source of the issue–and yet a danger of early diagnosis is rooted in how our brains work, particularly when we’re under stress.

In every new situation, we construct an explanatory narrative that enables us to interpret what’s happening, and we can do so almost immediately based on only a tiny fraction of the potentially available information. Our brains are operating on the principle that it’s safer to have a story to help us make sense of our circumstances–any story at all–than to wait for additional information that will allow us to be absolutely sure our version of events is correct. We’re usually right–this is how we navigate the world successfully–but when we’re wrong it’s extraordinarily difficult to let go of our initial explanation, leading to overconfidence in our beliefs. As Nobel Prize-winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman has written,

The confidence that individuals have in their beliefs depends mostly on the quality of the story they can tell about what they see, even if they see little. We often fail to allow for the possibility that evidence that should be critical to our judgment is missing–what we see is all there is. Furthermore, [our brain] suppresses doubt and ambiguity. [5]

When you leap to a diagnosis, it’s easy to be “confidently wrong,” so bear in mind how much you don’t know and challenge your interpretation of events. [6]

3. What MIGHT be the solution?

The same skills that allow you to diagnose a problem rapidly may also you them to adopt a solution just as quickly–and, of course, the same cognitive biases noted above can hinder your ability to choose the best solution. Further, the difficulty of creative problem-solving is exacerbated when we’re under stress, which reduces our ability to process information and collaborate effectively, as executive coach David Rock has noted:

When threatened, the increased overall activation in the brain inhibits people from perceiving the more subtle signals required for solving non-linear problems, involved in the insight or ‘aha!’ experience (Subramaniam et al, 2007). [And] with the amygdala activated, the tendency is to generalize more, which increases the likelihood of accidental connections. There is a tendency to err on the safe side, shrinking from opportunities, as they are perceived to be more dangerous. People become more likely to react defensively to stimuli. Small stressors become more likely to be perceived as large stressors (Phelps, 2006). [7]

The key is keeping stress levels sufficiently low–your own and those of your employees–in order to allow for more expansive thinking and intuitive insights. A leader’s emotions are contagious, so your behavior and demeanor will have a significant impact on the surrounding atmosphere and the team’s ability to generate options.

4. How are WE contributing to the problem?

The term “iatrogenic illness” refers to health care problems caused by the health care system. Philosopher Ivan Illich noted that “iatrogenesis can be direct, when pain, sickness, and death result from medical care; or it can be indirect, when health policies reinforce an industrial Organisation which generates ill-health.” [8] There are analogous factors in business–we can think of them as “iatrogenic management.” In our haste to solve problems we often fail to consider ways in which our own behavior is contributing to the issue. Further, our efforts to solve the problem may actually make it worse.

It can be extremely difficult to assess the potential negative impact of our actions–we assume that our good intentions translate into positive results. Your perspective as a leader may allow you to observe how others are contributing to the problem, but sharing such observations can readily evoke defensiveness. This results from what Columbia Business School professor Adam Galinsky calls the “power amplification effect”–feedback from a leader often has a stronger impact than was intended, and ambiguous comments by those with more power tend to be interpreted negatively by those with less. [9] So it’s essential to use clear language and to work on making feedback less stressful. [10]

At the same time, you face the same challenge in assessing your own potential contributions to the problem, and others may be reluctant to give you this feedback. Power distorts what others choose to tell us and what we choose to hear, and the more power we have relative to someone else, the more distortion there is in the dialogue. You can and should seek to heighten your self-awareness by cultivating the practice of what Kennedy School professor Ron Heifetz calls “getting off the dance floor and going to the balcony” [11] to observe your own behavior, but you should also explicitly ask for direct feedback from others and make it safe for employees to point out how you may be making things worse.

5. WHO owns the decision?

This question was easier to answer early in the development of your company or team: You do. This offers advantages of simplicity and clarity, but when decision-making authority remains centralized as a business grows, the leader becomes a bottleneck, and decisions are made too far away from vital information. Employees need more agency and independence to move quickly and make full use of their expertise.

Management thinker Jurgen Appelo has identified “7 Levels of Delegation” to help leaders and their teams clarify how a decision will be made in any given situation:

1) TELL: Leader decides, no discussion

2) SELL: Leader decides and convinces

3) CONSULT: Leader seeks input and decides

4) AGREE: Leader and group decide together

5) ADVISE: Leader suggests and others decide

6) INQUIRE: Others decide and inform leader

7) DELEGATE: Others decide with no further discussion [13,14]

(Here’s an illustration.)

While it’s clearly useful to give some consideration to which level is best suited to a given issue, simply being aware of the options and agreeing on the process in advance may be the most important step.

6. What’s our collective readiness to CHANGE?

Successful implementation of a solution will likely require organizational change–and that process is almost certainly more complex than it was when the company was smaller and you were working on issues that cut across fewer functions. This is where even talented leaders can struggle to adapt–they grow frustrated with the longer timelines and the wider range of stakeholders that senior roles and larger organizations must accommodate. After laboring to surmount the issues discussed above, when resistance to change is encountered during implementation a leader may revert to past practice and break out the hammer.

Leaders in growing companies shouldn’t simply give in to bureaucracy, but they also need to keep their hammers safely stowed for real emergencies. As London Business School professor Rob Goffee and INSEAD professor Gareth Jones have written,

Leaders must conform enough [to the surrounding culture] if they are to make the connections necessary to deliver change. Leaders who succeed in changing organizations challenge the norms–but rarely all of them, all at once. They do not seek out instant head-on confrontation without understanding the organizational context. Indeed, survival (particularly in the early days) requires measured adaptation to an ongoing, established set of social relationships and organizational networks. [15, emphasis original]

This advice obviously applies to leaders who join long-established organizations as change agents from outside, but it also applies to leaders within growing companies where the culture is continuously evolving. Using Reid Hoffman’s metaphor, early-stage startups are like pirate ships–they “lack formal processes and are willing to question and even break rules.” [16] However, Hoffman continues, successful startups transition from a “pirate culture” to a “Navy culture” that’s more “sober and responsible.” The leader whose piratical ways saved the company in its early stages may find themselves out of step in a culture that now finds value in a more thoughtful, measured approach. [17]

When a leader is able to “conform to the culture just enough,” they can promote change in a complex environment by challenging established ways of operating without triggering undue resistance. A key step in this process is creating a sense of psychological safety. Harvard Business School professor Amy Edmondson has been studying the concept of safety in organizations for decades. [18,19] Leaders can take three specific steps to enhance safety, Edmondson notes:

First, set the stage. Create a shared understanding of the nature of the work we do and why everyone’s input matters… This is not about calling out potential incompetence. It means acknowledging out loud that by their nature our systems can compound mistakes, and unless we do everything with interpersonal awareness and focus, things can go wrong.

Having set the stage, it’s also important to proactively invite input. Asking is the simplest and best way to get people to offer their ideas. Even if a leader has explained how error-prone the work is, people still have a threshold to overcome in speaking up with concerns or mistakes. To help them, simply ask questions…like: “What do you see in this situation?”…

Third, respond appreciatively. Having explained the nature of the work and asked for input, if you bite someone’s head off the first time they bring bad news, that will kill the psychological safety pretty quickly… Responding appreciatively does not mean that you’re thrilled with everything that was said; it means that you recognize the courage it takes to come forward with bad news, or to ask a question when you’re unsure about something. [20]

In the absence of psychological safety, we resist change because of what longtime MIT Sloan professor Edgar Schein called “learning anxiety,” which is “the feeling that if we allow ourselves to enter a learning or change process, if we admit to ourselves and others that something is wrong or imperfect, we will lose our effectiveness, our self-esteem and maybe even our identity… It is the dealing with learning anxiety, then, that is the key to producing change… This process can be conceptualized in its own right as creating for the learner some degree of ‘psychological safety.'” [21]

So note that psychological safety in an organization is a resource, not a destination. The point is not to create safety for the mere sake of doing so, but to make it easier for people to experiment, take risks, learn and grow–in short, to change. [22]


[1] Early-Stage Survival and Later-Stage Success

[2] How to Scale: Do Less, Lead More

[3] Bad Is Stronger Than Good (Roy Baumeister, Ellen Bratslavsky, Catrin Finkenauer and Kathleen Vohs, Review of General Psychology, 2001)

[4] Management Challenges for the 21st Century, Chapter 1: “Management’s New Paradigms,” page 18 (Peter Drucker, 2001)

[5] Thinking, Fast and Slow, pages 87-88 (Daniel Kahneman, 2011)

[6] Seeing What’s Not There (The Importance of Missing Data)

[7] SCARF: A brain-based model for collaborating with and influencing others, page 3 (David Rock, NeuroLeadership Journal, 2008)

[8] Medical nemesis (Ivan Illich, The Lancet, 1974. Reprinted in the BMJ: Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health, 2003)

[9] When You’re In Charge, Your Whisper May Feel Like a Shout (Adam Galinsky, The New York Times, 2015)

[10] Make Feedback Less Stressful

[11] A Survival Guide for Leaders (Ron Heifetz and Marty Linsky, Harvard Business Review, 2002)

[12] How to Scale: Do Less, Lead More

[13] Leadership, Decision-Making and Emotion Management

[14] The 7 Levels of Delegation (Jurgen Appelo, 2015)

[15] Why Should Anyone Be Led By You?, pages 109-110 (Rob Goffee and Gareth Jones, 2006)

[16] Why Uber Needs to Transition from “Pirate” to “Navy” (Reid Hoffman, LinkedIn, 2017)

[17] Pirates In the Navy

[18] Psychological safety and learning behavior in work teams (Amy Edmondson, Administrative Science Quarterly, 1999)

[19] The Fearless Organization: Creating Psychological Safety in the Workplace (Amy Edmondson, 2018)

[20] Make Your Employees Feel Psychologically Safe (Amy Edmondson interviewed by Martha Lagace, Harvard Business School Working Knowledge, 2018)

[21] Kurt Lewin’s Change Theory in the Field and in the Classroom: Notes Toward a Model of Managed Learning, page 5 (Edgar Schein, 1995)

[22] Safety, Trust Intimacy

For Further Reading

The Importance of Slowing Down

Taking the Leap (Dealing with Risk and Uncertainty)

How Leaders Create Safety (and Danger)

Photo by Matthew. Yay Flickr and Creative Commons.

Not Every End Is a Goal (On Midlife Malaise)

Highway by Neil McCrae ndmccrae 5839861972 EDIT

Not every end is a goal. The end of a melody is not its goal. But nonetheless, had the melody not reached its end it would not have reached its goal either.

~Nietzsche, Human, All Too Human [1]

You’re a senior leader in the prime of your career who’s attained a degree of professional and personal success. You’re keenly aware of the advantages you enjoy and feel grateful for the opportunity to do meaningful work that’s well-compensated. You still have financial goals and would enjoy earning more, but that’s no longer a primary driver. And yet despite these accomplishments it’s not uncommon for you to feel a sense of restlessness or disenchantment. If so, you’re similar to a number of my clients.

This is rarely the issue that leads my clients to seek coaching–they’re typically in roles that they expect to occupy for the foreseeable future, and they view coaching as a means of becoming a more effective leader. But clients generally engage me as a coach for long periods of time–the average tenure in my practice is over two years–so a wide range of issues may emerge during the process, and their perspective may evolve in a number of ways during our work together.

Your feelings may be arising in response to achievements or changes in your professional life: a certain number of years in your role, a measure of financial security, the new faces and cultural norms that have come with sustained growth, turnover on the executive team or among early employees, a shift in the product or strategy, or even the sale of the company. Or they may be emerging as you reach certain personal milestones: turning 30 or 40 or 50, getting married (or divorced), having a child (or a child leaving home), the death of a parent or loved one, a serious illness, or even a major college or grad school reunion.

You’re probably facing at least one of these issues–and possibly several at once. You don’t feel driven to make an immediate move as a result–and you’re not really sure if you want to make a move at all. You adapt well to change; you’ve worked hard to reach your current role; and you feel a great deal of responsibility toward your organization and your colleagues. And yet the cumulative impact of these issues sometimes leads you to wonder when it will be time for something different.

A midlife crisis?

You wouldn’t call what you’re experiencing a “midlife crisis”–that sounds melodramatic–but it’s worth understanding that term more fully. Elliott Jacques was a innovative Canadian psychoanalyst and management thinker; he originated the idea of “corporate culture” in his 1951 book The Changing Culture of a Factory, and he coined another memorable phrase in a 1965 essay, “Death and the Mid-Life Crisis”:

In the course of the development of the individual, there are critical phases which have the character of change points, or periods of rapid transition. Less familiar perhaps, are the crises which occur around the age of 35–which I shall term the mid-life crisis. [2]

The individual has stopped growing up, and has begun to grow old. A new set of external circumstances has to be met. The first phase of adult live has been lived. Family and occupation have become established… Youth and childhood are past and gone, and demand to be mourned. The achievement of mature and independent adulthood presents itself as the main psychological task. [3]

It is at this stage, Jacques notes, that the individual who “has stopped growing up” and “has begun to grow old” begins to experience a heightened awareness of mortality, which becomes a powerful influence in midlife. He cites the observations of an patient of Freud’s at age 36:

“Up till now,” he said, “life has seemed an endless upward slope, with nothing but the distant horizon in view. Now suddenly I seem to have reached the crest of the hill, and there stretching ahead is the downward slope with the end of the road in sight–far enough away, it’s true–but there is death observably present at the end.”

From that point on, this patient’s plans and ambitions took on a different hue. For the first time in his life he saw his future as circumscribed. He began his adjustment to the fact that he would not be able to accomplish in the span of a single lifetime everything he had desired to do. He could achieve only a finite amount. Much would have to remain unfinished and unrealized. [4]

This is the root of the midlife crisis, and while it’s rare for one of my clients to report a feeling of “crisis,” it’s common for successful people at this stage of life to begin to question their current commitments and contemplate alternative paths. This need not involve the drama or dysfunction that we associate with a stereotypical midlife crisis–rash decisions to quit a job or abandon a relationship, ill-considered purchases, frantic efforts to hold on to fading youth.

What I see in my practice, and what you may be experiencing, is a more functional and less urgent version of this dynamic–let’s call it “midlife malaise.” You may feel a renewed desire to get somewhere–a feeling at odds with the knowledge that you’re actually in a very good place right now. Or you may feel that your restlessness and disenchantment will be relieved only by going further–without knowing what that would look like. What can be done? Three suggestions:

Embrace mortality.

Cultivate gratitude.

Go nowhere.

Embrace mortality.

Marcus Aurelius by David Jones cloudsoup 4210954992 EDIT

Soon you will be nobody and nowhere, nor will anything you now behold exist, nor anyone who is now alive.

~Marcus Aurelius, Meditations [5]

Embracing mortality feels deeply counter-intuitive–even unnatural–and for good reason. As the anthropologist and philosopher Ernest Becker has noted, our fear of death is “an expression of the instinct of self-preservation, which functions as a constant drive to maintain life and to master the dangers that threaten life.” [6] And yet in order to prevent being paralyzed by our fear, we must keep it at a distance. Becker quotes the psychoanalyst and historian Gregory Zilboorg:

If this fear were as constantly conscious, we should be unable to function normally. It must be properly repressed to keep us living with any modicum of comfort… Therefore in normal times we move about actually without ever believing in our own death, as if we fully believed in our own corporeal immortality… A man will say, of course, that he knows he will die some day, but he does not really care. He is having a good time with living, and he does not think about death and does not care to bother about it.” [7]

So while a fear of death is necessary to sustain life, we must maintain it just outside of consciousness in order to live–and this tenuous balance ultimately breaks down. The ability to effectively repress our awareness of mortality becomes increasingly difficult in midlife, not only as we experience it literally (the loss of a parent or other loved ones, a significant birthday, the evidence of our own aging), but also as we encounter the milestones noted above, which highlight the passage of time.

These unavoidable reminders of mortality are among the primary sources of midlife malaise, and yet our intrinsic fear of death makes it difficult to see them for what they are. As a result you may misdiagnose the cause of your malaise, prolonging and intensifying your restlessness and disenchantment. Successful efforts to address these feelings will entail fully acknowledging and even embracing mortality. What does this look like in practice?

  • Read about it, particularly from the perspective of people who are in the process of dying, their caregivers, and their loved ones. People approaching death who are able to report on their experience have a unique ability to remind us that we’re following in their footsteps. [8] I’ve also found the work of Marcus Aurelius, Seneca and other Stoic writers highly valuable. [9,10]
  • Talk about it, particularly with people at different stages of life. A benefit of talking with older people who are willing to have this conversation is that they’ve already done much of this work–and a benefit of talking with younger people is that it may demonstrate how much progress you’ve already made.
  • Participate in experiences associated with death. Decades ago investor Joel Peterson advised me and my MBA classmates to go to a funeral every year. [11] More frequently, I try to read an ordinary person’s obituary every day.

And what might you hope to gain? Journalist Oliver Burkeman offers a perspective drawn from the work of psychotherapist Irving Yalom:

[Yalom] points out that many of us live with the dim fear that on our deathbeds we’ll come to regret how we spent our lives. Remembering our mortality moves us closer to the deathbed mindset from which such a judgment might be made–thus enabling us to spend our lives in ways that we’re much less likely to come to regret…

Start thinking this way, Yalom points out, and it becomes a virtuous circle. Living more meaningfully will reduce your anxiety about the possibility of future regret at not having lived meaningfully–which will, in turn, keep sapping death of its power to induce anxiety. [12]

And Elliot Jacques offers another:

The last half of life can be lived with conscious knowledge of eventual death, and acceptance of this knowledge, as an integral part of living. Mourning for the dead self can begin… The gain is in the deepening of awareness, understanding and self-realization. Genuine values can be cultivated–of wisdom, fortitude and courage, deeper capacity for love and affection and human insight, and hopefulness and enjoyment. [13]

Finally, note that I’m not suggesting we ignore or suppress the grief, sadness and other emotions that will likely be evoked by embracing mortality. I’m not under the illusion that this process will enable us to avoid these feelings as we near death ourselves, nor is that even a goal of mine. I do believe that embracing mortality allows us to experience these emotions with greater equanimity and thus accurately diagnose and come to terms with midlife malaise. But I also view the feelings evoked by mortality as valuable reminders of the finite nature of this existence–and thus an important source of gratitude.

Cultivate gratitude.

Mountain Lake by James Wheeler james_wheeler 7960461442 EDIT

As I gazed upon the impressive scene, all the so-called ruin of the storm was forgotten, and never before did these noble woods appear so fresh, so joyous, so immortal.

~John Muir, Wind-storm in the Forests of the Yuba [14]

Gratitude often results from a heightened sense of mortality. When we truly understand that our time in this existence is finite, we tend to feel grateful for existence itself, and our frustrations and disappointments can seem petty and irrelevant. In April 2017 I had to have an emergency appendectomy, and before my condition was diagnosed there was a moment in the hospital when I’d been in pain for 16 hours, medication wasn’t helping, and the staff seemed unable to determine what was wrong. I was frantic and desperate–when suddenly the results of a scan revealed my appendicitis, and I knew I wasn’t going to die that night. The experience left me grateful for each breath and every moment that I wasn’t in pain. [15]

But the profound sense of gratitude evoked by such experiences tends not to last, as the danger recedes and life returns to normal. Embracing mortality may help us access a version of this state of mind more readily, but it’s not sufficient to hold us there. We inevitably adapt to our new circumstances and take existence for granted again, and our frustrations and disappointments reappear.

While you still have a sense of gratitude and appreciation for the professional and personal accomplishments that you’ve experienced in recent years, the visceral feelings of happiness, pride, and triumph that initially accompanied these achievements have probably faded. This is the result of a process known to psychologists as “hedonic adaptation.” Building on earlier work by Harry Helson [16] and Philip Brickman [17], among others, UC Riverside psychologist Sonja Lyubomirsky notes that emotionally significant events change our expectations by shifting our reference point, and that we habitually adapt to our new circumstances, thus diminishing their impact over time:

Human beings have the remarkable capacity to grow habituated or inured to most life changes… What is particularly fascinating about this phenomenon, however, is that it is most pronounced with respect to positive experiences. Indeed, it turns out that we are prone to take for granted pretty much everything positive that happens to us… We obtain an immediate boost of happiness from the improved situation, but the thrill only lasts a short time. Over the coming days, weeks, and months, we find our expectations ramping upward and we begin taking our new improved circumstances for granted. [18]

Just as our fear of death serves an important purpose in keeping us alive, hedonic adaptation plays an essential role in humanity’s continued growth and development. Lyubomirsky reminds us that hedonic adaptation, “is not a bad thing. A ceaseless striving for more is surely evolutionarily adaptive; if realizing our goals left us all feeling entirely complacent and content, our society wouldn’t witness much progress. If we were always content with the status quo, we’d never strive to accomplish more.” [19]

But what’s beneficial for the species as a whole over time may be quite troublesome for us as individuals at any given moment. Like many aspects of our psychology, hedonic adaptation is a feature that occasionally acts like a bug. And this is likely what you’re experiencing in the midst of your midlife malaise. You may recognize yourself in Lyubomirsky’s image of the successful professional:

When we commence working in an enviable new position, we get a big boost of well-being, even euphoria. We think about the new job (and what we love about it) often, and we experience lot of positive emotions as a result of the chain of positive events set into motion by the job… However, in the words of one of my graduate students, those puddles of pleasure slowly dry up and eventually evaporate completely… The excitement, happiness, and pride we used to feel happens less and less, as we focus less and less on the novelty of the job and turn our minds toward the countless daily hassles, uplifts, and distractions of life…

At the same time as we obtain less and less pleasure from our new position, another critical thing happens–our expectations rise… So the job that use to be special now becomes our right and privilege. Whether it’s the boost in our compensation, authority, flexibility, or control over our time, we begin to feel that we deserve no less. We begin to feel that our novel and stimulating work experiences have simply become part of our new life–our “new normal”–and we come to expect the happiness we now have. This new (and extremely common) development has the unfortunate consequence not just of dampening our happiness…but pushes us to up the ante, to want more and more, so that we are almost never content with what we have, even when we are fortunate to have plenty. [20]

And thus another primary source of midlife malaise: hedonic adaptation continuously fuels the restlessness and disenchantment that so many successful people eventually feel despite their evident accomplishments. The sense of gratitude that surges up in response to experiences that heighten our sense of mortality will inevitably erode unless we repeatedly cultivate it. What does this look like in practice?

  • Explicitly acknowledge what you have to be grateful for and regularly remind yourself of these elements in your life. A few months after my appendectomy I wrote up a “Gratitude Checklist” that begins, “I’m alive. I’m not in pain. I can think clearly. I can see, hear and walk…” and I’m keenly aware that those statements won’t always be true. [21]
  • Be mindful of the dangers of social comparison. Hedonic adaptation can accelerate dramatically when we compare ourselves to others–a particular challenge for successful people who invariably have friends, classmates and colleagues who are even more successful in one way or another. We’ve evolved to be acutely sensitive to our relative status, so there’s no simple solution here, but a starting point is simply being aware of this dynamic and its corrosive effect on feelings of gratitude. [22]
  • Gain clarity on your values and where you derive meaning and purpose in life. In the absence of this understanding, you’re more likely to rely on subjective measures of success–and be more prone to social comparison. (I find the “VIA Survey of Character Strengths” to be a useful tool in this effort. [23])
  • Seek out experiences that evoke a sense of wonder and awe, emotions that can restore our sense of gratitude for existence. John Muir wrote the lines above after spending the night tied to the top of a 100-foot tall tree while a windstorm roared around him. We need not go to such extremes, but, as journalist Richard Louv notes, “the natural world is one of our most reliable windows into wonder.” [24]

While cultivating gratitude can help slow the advance of hedonic adaptation and diminish its impact, we can’t turn the process off–it’s a fundamental aspect of our psychology. This is one reason why midlife malaise is so often characterized by an urge to get somewhere or go further. Rather than follow that impulse, I encourage you to consider doing just the opposite–to go nowhere.

Go nowhere.

Beach by Ian D Keating ian-arlett 36628996860 EDIT

Whatever occurs is neither the beginning nor the end. It is just the same kind of normal human experience that’s been happening to everyday people from the beginning of time.

~Pema Chödrön, It’s Never Too Late [25]

To be clear, go nowhere does not mean stay put. Your restlessness and disenchantment may well lead you to make changes in your current life circumstances. The resolution to your midlife malaise may lie elsewhere, and you may have to travel to find it. But in addition to embracing mortality and cultivating gratitude, I recommend taking a new approach to the process of pursuing your goals and to life in general. I’m not proposing stasis, but I am suggesting that you view the concept of movement from a different perspective.

As a successful person, you’ve been highly skillful in the process of identifying, pursuing and achieving goals, and for much of your life this has been an important source of fulfillment. This emphasis on goal-achievement isn’t problematic in earlier stages of life, when we operate under two illusions: The abstract nature of mortality leads us to imagine that we have an infinite amount of time to pursue our goals, and our lack of experience with hedonic adaptation leads us to imagine that achieving our most important goals will surely bring permanent fulfillment.

But by midlife our perspective begins to change. We haven’t accomplished certain goals, and it dawns on us that we will not have enough time to do so. Like Freud’s 36-year-old patient, we realize how much will remain “unfinished and unrealized.” And we have accomplished other goals, and we’ve been shocked to see how quickly the sense of fulfillment they provide wears off and how insistently our expectations continue to rise.

To help us address this challenge, MIT philosophy professor Kieran Setiya points out a fundamental distinction between two different types of life experiences:

Borrowing jargon from linguistics, we can say that some activities are “telic”: they aim at terminal states, at which they are finished and thus exhausted. (“Telic” comes from the Greek telos or end, the root of teleology.) Driving home is telic: it is done when you get home. So are projects like getting married or writing a book. These are things you can complete. Other activities are “atelic”: they do not aim at a point of termination or exhaustion, a final state in which they have been achieved. As well as walking from A to B, you can go for a walk with no particular destination. That is an atelic activity. So is listening to music [or] hanging out with friends… You can stop doing these things, and you eventually will. But you cannot complete them. They have no limit, no outcome whose achievement exhausts them and therefore brings them to an end. [26]

Up until midlife we generally have a telic mindset. In our personal and professional lives we identify, pursue and achieve goals that have clearly defined end states–we are going somewhere and this is how we get ahead. But the clarity achieved as we let go of our illusions in midlife renders the telic mindset problematic in several ways. As Setiya notes, a telic approach to life requires an endless stream of new goals and new projects:

If what you care about is achievement–earning a promotion, having a child, writing a book, saving a life–the completion of your project may be of value, but it means that the project can no longer be your guide. Sure, you have other goals, and you can formulate new ones. The problem is not the risk of running out… It is that your engagement with value is self-destructive. The way in which you relate to the activities that matter most to you is by trying to complete them and so expel them from your life. Your days are devoted to ending, one by one, the activities that give them meaning. [27]

So the successful achievement of a telic activity necessarily entails a loss of meaning and purpose, which can give rise to feelings of restlessness and disenchantment. At the same time, Setiya warns, such feelings can lead us to question the validity of our current pursuits: “Sensing a flaw in your projects, you blame their particular goals, not the fact that you are goal-fixated, and attempt to start over.” [28] Whether we’re successfully completing our projects or abandoning them to pursue new ones, we can find ourselves trapped in an endless cycle, in which our efforts to alleviate midlife malaise only perpetuate the condition.

The path out is to adopt an atelic view of life–to reconsider the goal-oriented approach that has served you so well, and, rather than substitute a new set of goals in order to get somewhere or go further in midlife, try going nowhere. What does this look like in practice?

  • Develop your capacity for mindfulness, defined simply as “nonjudgmental awareness and acceptance of experience.” [29] The most straightforward way to accomplish this is through meditation, but practices such as exercise, time in nature, and journaling can also be helpful. [30] The purpose here is to allow yourself to slow down, be present in the moment, and get more comfortable with stillness (which can feel like stagnation if we’re constantly in motion.)
  • Heighten your awareness of the telic mindset–the need to experience meaning by completing an activity and moving forward to begin the next one. This orientation will continue to serve you well in many circumstances, of course, but in the midst of midlife malaise it may lead you to mistake motion for progress.
  • Integrate more atelic activities into your life, pursuits that are fully realized sources of meaning in each moment, not upon their completion: Walk with no destination in mind. Visit the beach or a forest or a mountaintop. Take a road trip. Go nowhere.

Note that I’m not suggesting you stop pursuing clearly-defined projects. Goal-achievement can remain a source of meaning and fulfillment throughout our lives–but we need to be mindful of the limitations of this approach. And even in these efforts we can adopt a different mindset, as Setiya advises:

Atelic activities correspond to each of the projects that structure your life… If my problem is an excessive investment in telic activities, the solution is to love their atelic counterparts, to find meaning in the process, not the project… Atelic activities do not occupy some rarefied peak to which we seldom ascend. If you look for them, you can find them, and find meaning in them, all around. Neglect of this can lend a false allure to early retirement, quitting work in middle age to take up gardening or golf. [31]

This is the mirage of midlife malaise: the idea that your restlessness and disenchantment are a function of the inadequacy of your current projects and will be relieved only by completing them and achieving your goals, or abandoning them and adopting new ones. The telic mindset can lead us to view life itself as a project with a goal, an experience that is fully realized only upon its completion, but this is a grave mistake. This existence has a terminal point, of course–life ends–but if we experience life by constantly moving forward toward its conclusion, by going somewhere, then we miss the potential for value and meaning that exists in every single moment.

Not every end is a goal.


Setiya’s concept of telic and atelic activities can help us relax our compulsive need for goal-achievement and to find value and meaning in experiences that do not “aim at a point of termination or exhaustion,” but offer fulfillment in the process. And yet even these experiences will end, as they must.

We have a reflexive aversion to endings because they tend to evoke sadness and loss. This is understandable–every ending is, in a sense, a symbolic death, and as noted above, fear of death is a deeply human impulse that helps to keep us alive. But when we allow this fear to cause us to turn away from endings or rush through them, we miss out on unique opportunities to learn about ourselves–and to prepare for the most important ending we will inevitably face. [32]

Nietzsche invites us to take another view of endings and, as a consequence, to appreciate them rather than resist them. In atelic activities the ending is not the goal, and yet even an atelic activity must end in order for the experience to be realized. The song must end. The road trip must end. The beautiful sunset, the delicious meal, the engrossing conversation, the passionate embrace. All must end.

And this is true of life itself–the point of life is not to reach the end, but our life must reach an end in order for it to have a point. Our fear of death leads us to yearn for immortality–and yet if this existence were truly infinite it would be meaningless.

As you explore the practices suggested above–embracing mortality, cultivating gratitude, going nowhere–acknowledge your midlife malaise fully at every step of the process. The intent isn’t to willfully suppress your feelings of restlessness and disenchantment, but to consider whether these practices exert some influence over them. Your feelings may subside, and you may choose to remain in your current life circumstances. Or they may persist, and you may choose to make a change.

Whatever your path, I hope you’ll bear these lines from Nietzsche in mind–in my own life I’ve found them a source of acceptance and peace. And those qualities are essential in the process in navigating the shoals of midlife, as Elliot Jacques reminds us in his description of a successful resolution to a “crisis of middle life”:

There is further strengthening of the capacity to accept and tolerate conflict and ambivalence. One’s work need no longer be experienced as perfect… There is no need for obsessional attempts at perfection, because inevitable imperfection is no longer felt as bitter persecuting failure. Out of this mature resignation comes the serenity in the work of genius, true serenity, serenity which transcends imperfection by accepting it….

It is this spirit…which overcomes the crisis of middle life and lives through to the enjoyment of mature creativeness and work in full awareness of death which lies beyond–resigned but not defeated. [33]

Dedicated to Oliver Burkeman, Sonja Lyubomirsky and Kieran Setiya–journalist, psychologist and philosopher–each of whom has had an immense impact on my work, my thinking and my approach to life. Thank you.


[1] Human, All Too Human: Part II, 204 (Friedrich Nietzsche, 1878)

[2] “Death and the Mid-Life Crisis,” page 140 (Elliott Jacques, 1965, in Death: Interpretations, Hendrik Ruitenbeek, editor, 1969)

[3] “Death and the Mid-Life Crisis,” page 149

[4] “Death and the Mid-Life Crisis,” page 150

[5] Meditations, Book XII, Section 23 (Marcus Aurelius)

[6] The Denial of Death, page 16 (Ernest Becker, 1973)

[7] “Fear of Death” (Gregory Zilboorg, Psychoanalytic Quarterly, 1943, cited in The Denial of Death, page 17)

[8] A list of books and poems on mortality

[9] How I Read Stoicism

[10] On the Shortness of Life

[11] Joel Peterson’s Last Lecture, 15 Years Later

[12] The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking, pages 192-193 (Oliver Burkeman, 2013. The Antidote is an extraordinary book that’s had a significant influence on my thinking and further study, and I highly recommend it. Two chapters are included in the syllabus for my class on Unhappiness at Stanford, and I’m deeply grateful to Oliver Burkeman for his insights and generosity.)

[13] “Death and the Mid-Life Crisis,” pages 162-163

[14] The Wild Muir, page 116 (John Muir, 2013. Originally published in Muir’s The Mountains of California in 1894.)

[15] What I Learned in the Hospital This Weekend

[16] “Current trends and issues in adaptation-level theory” (Harry Helson, American Psychologist, 1964. Helson’s work emphasized the importance of the relative nature of experience in determining how we feel in response: “Judgments are relative to prevailing norms or adaptation levels. Thus a 4-ounce fountain pen is heavy, but a baseball bat to be heavy must weigh over 40 ounces.” [page 26])

[17] “Lottery Winners and Accident Victims: Is Happiness Relative?” (Philip Brickman, Dan Coates, and Ronnie Janoff-Bulman, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 1978: “[After winning the lottery] many ordinary events may seem less pleasurable, since they now compare less favorably with past experience. Thus, while winning $1 million can make new pleasures available, it may also make old pleasures seem less enjoyable… [In addition] eventually, the thrill of winning the lottery will itself wear off… Thus, as lottery winners become accustomed to the additional pleasures made possible by their new wealth, these pleasures should be experienced as less intense and should no longer contribute very much to their general level of happiness. In sum, the effects of an extreme stroke of good fortune should be weakened in the short run by a contrast effect that lessens the pleasure found in mundane events and in the long run by a process of habituation that erodes the impact of the good fortune itself.”)

[18] The Myths of Happiness: What Should Make You Happy, but Doesn’t, What Shouldn’t Make You Happy, but Does, pages 18-19 (Sonja Lyubomirsky, 2014)

[19] The Myths of Happiness, page 118

[20] The Myths of Happiness, page 119

[21] Gratitude Checklist

[22] The Trap of Competition

[23] VIA Survey of Character Strengths

[24] The Nature Principle: Reconnecting with Life in a Virtual Age, page 243 (Richard Louv, 2012. Another valuable resource on the important role of nature in our lives is the work of Florence Williams: The Nature Fix: Why Nature Makes Us Happier, Healthier, and More Creative, 2018.)

[25] When Things Fall Apart: Heart Advice for Difficult Times , page 27 (Pema Chödrön, 2000)

[26] Midlife: A Philosophical Guide, pages 133-134 (Kieran Setiya, 2017. This volume expands considerably on the topics Setiya explores in his 2014 paper, “The Midlife Crisis.”)

[27] Midlife: A Philosophical Guide, pages 132-133

[28] Midlife: A Philosophical Guide, pages 138

[29] Bouncing Back: Rewiring Your Brain for Maximum Resilience and Well-Being, page 51 (Linda Graham, 2013)

[30] Don’t Just Do Something, Sit There! (Mindfulness for Busy People)

[31] Midlife: A Philosophical Guide, pages 140-143

[32] William Bridges on Transitions

[33] “Death and the Mid-Life Crisis,” pages 163-164

For Further Reading

The Existential Necessity of Midlife Change (Carlo Strenger and Arie Ruttenberg, Harvard Business Review, 2008)

Marcus Aurelius, 3,000 Years, and the Present Moment

Gualala (On Mortality and Gratitude)

Time Horizons

The Death Clock (Life expectancy predictor)

We Croak (“Inspired by a Bhutanese folk saying: To be a happy person, one must contemplate death five times a day.”)

Alain de Botton on Status Anxiety

Photos: Highway by Neil McCrae. Marcus Aurelius by David Jones. Moraine Lake by James Wheeler. Beach by Ian D. Keating.

Yay Flickr and Creative Commons.

Building Blocks (A Tactical Approach to Change)

Building Blocks by Raúl Hernández González rahego 6479063181 EDIT

We tend to think about change in broad, sweeping terms. We grow dissatisfied with some aspect of our lives or ourselves and we proclaim that THINGS WILL BE DIFFERENT FROM NOW ON. But having coached hundreds of senior leaders and MBA students at Stanford since 2006, I’ve observed that broad, sweeping change is rare–and this way of thinking about change is at odds with the practices that make successful change efforts more likely.

Our preference for familiar patterns of behavior typically renders dramatic change unsustainable, and we readily revert back to the previous state. And the fantasy of the grand gesture obscures the boring reality that the path toward any desired change, no matter how lofty or ambitious, will be paved with innumerable small steps. Change generally involves making different choices, but we rarely resolve an important issue by making a single choice in isolation; successful change entails making the right choice over and over again.

The difficulty of sustaining change over time, and the stark contrast between what we imagine change will be like and what it actually involves can leave us feeling demoralized and incapable–and so we give up. But if our conventional model of change hurts our chances of success, an alternative model can help. Instead of thinking of change as something grandiose, we can break it down into some simple building blocks:

1: Turn goals into activities.

2: Start small.

3: Cultivate habitual routines.

4: Identify assumptions and beliefs.

5. Celebrate little wins.

1: Turn goals into activities.


Our vision of change as a broad, sweeping process is often connected to an ambitious goal that we find inspiring. But a big goal can be a form of shorthand–an overarching label that encompasses a range of related activities. And when we’re seeking to act upon our intentions, the label can get in the way by making it harder to define progress or navigate around obstacles.

As I entered my 40s I realized that I needed to take better care of myself and decided to “be healthier.” But what did this mean in practice? How would I actually pursue this goal? I was highly motivated, but “being healthy” was too abstract to translate into action, and I eventually identified a set of specific activities that contributed to my well-being: regular exercise, a meditation practice, sufficient sleep, eating and drinking in moderation, and reflective study.

Breaking down “health” into a set of related activities allowed me to see much more clearly where I was making progress and where I was falling short. I could also observe relationships among these activities and adjust accordingly, e.g. sleep and study were often inversely correlated, so I changed my calendar to make time for study earlier in the day.

Further, meaningful change efforts often meet with resistance–we struggle to get started, our initial efforts are halting, the temptation to give up is constant. When we hit these barriers in the pursuit of one large goal, it can feel like all progress comes to a halt. But if we’ve identified a set of related activities that contribute toward our goal, we can continue to move forward in one area when we’re stuck in others. Pursuing the goal of “being healthier” along multiple paths allowed me to make progress on at least one every day. (Over a decade later I still track my efforts in these areas, and while it’s rare to engage in all of them on a given day, I usually accomplish most of them.)

  • What are your big, ambitious goals?
  • What specific, concrete activities would enable you to move toward them?

2: Start small.


While it’s useful to pursue a limited set of activities in parallel, at the same time we have to manage our aspirations to insure that our appetite for change doesn’t undermine our efforts. This sounds easy, but it can be hard to put into practice. My clients and students are ambitious people who hold themselves to high standards, so when they believe that it’s time for change in their lives they typically want to START BIG and address multiple issues simultaneously. It can feel insufficiently challenging or even meaningless to define the scope of the process too narrowly.

But when we try to implement too much change at once, we can set ourselves up for failure, and not only in the short run, but over the long term as well. If we seek to make change in multiple areas and fall short of our goals, we may come to think of ourselves as incapable of change. And the beliefs that we hold about our capacity for change have a significant impact on the outcomes of these efforts. Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck has identified two distinct “mindsets” from which these beliefs stem:

In a fixed mindset, people believe their basic qualities, like their intelligence or talent, are simply fixed traits… In a growth mindset, people believe that their most basic abilities can be developed through dedication and hard work—brains and talent are just the starting point. [1]

Concentrating our efforts in specific areas and scaling up over time allows us to feel a sense of efficacy and accomplishment, which can reinforce our belief in our capacity to change and heighten our identification with a growth mindset. Conversely, spreading ourselves too thin at the outset of the process can lead us to flounder and backslide and can have the opposite effect.

Experimenting at a small scale also helps us gather data that can prove useful if it ever becomes necessary to pursue larger, more comprehensive changes in our lives. Efforts to change can help us better understand our underlying assumptions and beliefs (discussed below), how we respond to setbacks, and what support we find most helpful. We learn best when we’re slightly stressed but not overwhelmed, and changing at a smaller scale first allows us to be more thoughtful and intentional when the stakes are higher. [2]

Finally, successful small changes may reduce the need for large-scale change. Our desire for change is often driven by unhappiness or a lack of fulfillment, and yet research suggests that a consistent commitment to small, intentional activities may have a bigger impact on those feelings than large, dramatic changes in life circumstances. [3,4]

  • Where could you focus your current efforts to change?
  • Where would it be easiest to start?
  • Where do you anticipate the highest returns on your initial investments of effort and attention?

3: Cultivate habitual routines.


Much of the change that we seek to bring about in our lives entails making different choices regarding activities that we want to engage in (or refrain from) more consistently, and the key to success in these efforts lies in developing and maintaining habitual routines. In William James’ 19th-century master-work Psychology: Briefer Course, the founder of modern psychology discusses the “practical effects of habit”:

First, habit simplifies our movements, makes them accurate, and diminishes fatigue… Second, habit diminishes the conscious attention with which our acts are performed. [5]

These dynamics are rooted in what Princeton psychologist Daniel Kahneman describes as “the law of least effort,” which compels us to “gravitate to the least demanding course of action” in order to preserve our limited capacity for deliberation and active decision-making. [6] Journalist Charles Duhigg explores this concept further in The Power of Habit:

Habits, scientists say, emerge because the brain is constantly looking to save effort. Left to its own devices, the brain will try to make almost any routine into a habit, because habits allow our minds to ramp down more often. This effort-saving instinct is a huge advantage. An efficient brain…allows us to stop thinking constantly about basic behaviors… [7]

As a consequence, one of the most significant factors in whether we’ll follow through on a desired change and engage in (or refrain from) a given activity now is whether we’ve done so before. It’s easier to stick with an ongoing commitment and maintain momentum than it is to start a new process from scratch, because once a routine has been established fewer decisions are required to repeat the process and less mental effort is expended (and humans evolved to be “cognitive misers,” in Kahneman’s apt phrase.)

There are a number of “habit trackers” that can help with this–there’s a list at the bottom of this post–and these tools operate on the same basic principle: Create a calendar to track your progress on a desired activity, and mark off each day you follow through on your commitment. The first such tool of this type that I learned about, Don’t Break the Chain, was named after advice that Jerry Seinfeld is reported to have given to developer and former stand-up comic Brad Isaac:

[Seinfeld] revealed a unique calendar system he uses to pressure himself to write. Here’s how it works.

He told me to get a big wall calendar that has a whole year on one page and hang it on a prominent wall. The next step was to get a big red magic marker.

He said for each day that I do my task of writing, I get to put a big red X over that day. “After a few days you’ll have a chain. Just keep at it and the chain will grow longer every day. You’ll like seeing that chain, especially when you get a few weeks under your belt. Your only job next is to not break the chain.”

“Don’t break the chain,” he said again for emphasis. [8,9]

Despite Seinfeld’s belief in the necessity of keeping a chain going, there are potential downsides that I’ve observed in a number of clients and students (and in my own life). While a growing chain can be motivating, if we feel that success is defined by maintaining a perfect record indefinitely, we may eventually view the activity as an onerous duty and come to resent it.

And when a lengthy streak is broken, we may feel so demoralized that we’re actually less likely to start a new one. Resilient and failure-tolerant processes that accommodate our shortcomings are often preferable to demanding-but-fragile ones that don’t. As Voltaire reminds us, “The perfect is the enemy of the good.” [10]

  • What different choices are you trying to make?
  • What habitual routines would be helpful in this process?
  • What tools could you use to track your progress?

4: Identify assumptions and beliefs.


We embark upon change efforts with the intention of altering our goals and strategies in order to obtain better results. But a limitation of this approach is that our goals and strategies are rooted in underlying ideas that go untested because we take them for granted, view them as universal truths or are unaware of their influence on our thinking.

It’s important to step back and identify the assumptions and beliefs that give rise to our goals and strategies in the first place. This process of “double-loop learning” was first articulated by Harvard Business School professor Chris Argyris, who illustrates the concept with a common household device:

Single loop learning can be compared with a thermostat that learns when it is too hot or too cold and then turns the heat on or off. The thermostat is able to perform this task because it can receive information (the temperature of the room) and therefore take corrective action.

If the thermostat could question itself about whether it should be set at 68 degrees, it would be capable not only of detecting error but of questioning the underlying policies and goals as well as its own program. That is a second and more comprehensive inquiry; hence it might be called double loop learning. [11]

Most of our learning is “single-loop”–we make improvements within an existing system that rests on assumptions and beliefs that are implicit and unchallenged. In a “double-loop” process we expand the analytical frame to explicitly identify and question those assumptions and beliefs, and then modify our goals and strategies accordingly. This is easy to understand, but Argyris explains why it can be difficult to execute:

Put simply, because many professionals are almost always successful at what they do, they rarely experience failure. And because they have rarely failed, they have never learned how to learn from failure. So whenever their single-loop learning strategies go wrong, they become defensive, screen out criticism, and put the “blame” on anyone and everyone but themselves. In short, their ability to learn shuts down precisely at the moment they need it the most. [12]

Note the need for emotion regulation in this process. Meaningful change generally involves not only acknowledging the failure of our “single-loop” efforts in the past, but also admitting that some of our most closely-held ideas are wrong or outdated. In order to be able to revise and update these ideas, we must manage the defensiveness that arises when they’re challenged. As Stanford professor David Bradford notes, “Failure is inevitable, and what matters is how you handle it, not how you avoid it.” [13]

Ten years after I began my initial efforts to be more physically active again, I was fitter and stronger than I’d been since I was a competitive athlete in high school–and then I began suffering a series of painful injuries. The pattern had to repeat itself several times before I finally realized that a powerful assumption of mine was that vigorous exercise would forestall the aging process indefinitely. It’s been hard to admit that in my 50s I need to accept limits on my physical capabilities, and I’ve resisted it strenuously. Coming to terms with aging has stirred up a host of complex feelings, and the ongoing process of working through them has been essential in allowing me to adjust my goals and strategies related to health and wellness.

  • What underlying assumptions and beliefs are shaping your goals and strategies?
  • How might you make these ideas more explicit?
  • What experiments might you run to test the accuracy or continued relevance of these ideas?
  • What support will help you work through feelings that may be evoked as a result?
  • Note the value of journaling and coaching conversations in this process. [14,15]

5: Celebrate little wins.


A final benefit of this approach is that it creates many opportunities to experience little wins, which can have a surprisingly large and positive effect on our state of mind. But this won’t happen by accident–it requires a willingness to celebrate and a degree of mindfulness. Returning to Duhigg’s The Power of Habit:

This process [of habit formation] within our brains is a three-step loop. First, there is a cue, a trigger that tells your brain to go into automatic mode and which habit to use. Then there is the routine, which can be physical, mental or emotional. Finally, there is a reward, which helps your brain figure out if this particular loop is worth remembering for the future.

Over time, this loop–cue, routine, reward; cue, routine, reward–becomes more and more automatic. The cue and reward become intertwined until a powerful sense of anticipation and craving emerges. [16]

While much of the literature on change stresses cues and routines, it’s just as important to highlight the rewards–and yet we can be reluctant to do so. In my experience high-performing people often merely “check the box” when they’ve completed a task without allowing themselves to feel victorious or celebrate the milestone. This may spring from a fear that acknowledging the accomplishment will dampen their drive, but Harvard Business School professor Teresa Amabile and productivity researcher Steven Kramer note that the experience of making progress can serve as a stimulus:

Of all the things that can boost emotions, motivation, and perceptions during a workday, the single most important is making progress in meaningful work. And the more frequently people experience that sense of progress, the more likely they are to be creatively productive in the long run. [17]

Elsewhere Amabile and Kramer explain that a sense of progress can spur us on to reach new heights:

When people make progress toward, or actually meet, personally meaningful goals, the good match between their expectations and their reading of reality allows them to feel good, grow their positive self-efficacy, get even more revved up to tackle the next job, and mentally move on to something else. Progress motivates people to accept difficult challenges more readily and to persist longer. [18]

One of the reasons bad habits are so hard to break is because the reward is built in at a neurological level–consider the effects of nicotine and alcohol–and social media. [19] In contrast, the habits that we’re striving to cultivate as a part of our change efforts are unlikely to have such a visceral impact on the brain. So we need to deliberately create positive experiences that generate a feeling of reward and a sense of progress.

These experiences don’t need to be elaborate or time-consuming, but we do have to remember to pause and take in the moment. This is one reason why habit trackers can be so useful: We can feel a small surge of pride each time we “add a link” to one of our chains–as long as the activity hasn’t become an onerous obligation. And we can celebrate milestones on these calendars that make our progress visible and feel rewarded for our diligence–as long as we’re not anxious about maintaining a perfect streak forever.

  • What little wins are you experiencing?
  • How will you track your progress toward these milestones?
  • What would it be like to celebrate them more fully?


[1] What Is Mindset (Carol Dweck, 2010)

[2] Neuroscience, Joyful Learning, and the SCARF Model (2010)

[3] Understanding “The Pie Chart” in The How of Happiness (2017)

[4] Lyubomirsky’s Person-Activity Fit Diagnostic (2014)

[5] Psychology: Briefer Course, Chapter X: Habit (William James, 1892)

[6] Thinking, Fast and Slow, page 35 (Daniel Kahneman, 2011)

[7] The Power of Habit, page 17 (Charles Duhigg, 2012, 2014)

[8] Don’t Break The Chain / What

[9] Jerry Seinfeld’s Productivity Secret (Gina Trapani, 2007)

[10] Voltaire and Patton on Perfection (2009)

[11] Double Loop Learning in Organizations (Chris Argyris, Harvard Business Review, 1977)

[12] Teaching Smart People How to Learn (Chris Argyris, Harvard Business Review, 1991)

[13] On Failing and Trying Again (2006)

[14] The Value of Journal Writing (2008, revised 2018)

[15] Coaching Tools for Leaders

[16] The Power of Habit, page 19 (Charles Duhigg, 2012, 2014)

[17] The Power of Small Wins (Teresa Amabile and Steven Kramer, Harvard Business Review, 2011)

[18] The Progress Principle, page 91 (Teresa Amabile and Steven Kramer, 2011)

[19] Nir Eyal: The psychology of building addictive products (Sylvia Li Sam, 2016)

Habit Trackers

Don’t Break the Chain, Don’t Break the Chain for iOS, Chains for web and iOS, Day by Day for Android, and Productive for iOS, among a host of others.

For Further Reading

Why Change is Hard 

Babies, Bathwater and Goal-Setting

Think Small (The Value of Micro-Goals)

William James on Habit

Double-Loop Learning

The Art of Self-Coaching, Class 2: CHANGE

  • Slides, readings and related materials from my course at the Stanford Graduate School of Business.

The Art of Self-Coaching, Chapter 2: CHANGE

  • A set of related of posts that will ultimately be compiled in a single volume.

This is an extensively revised version of a post first published in January 2012.

Photo by Raúl Hernández González. Yay Flickr and Creative Commons.