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The Stress Doc’s “Top Ten Commandments” for Transforming Reorganizational Crisis: Generating the Four “R”s – Relief and Reflection, Rejuvenation and Recommitment – Part III

Part I introduced three necessary transition stress interventions for engaging an audience on “The Reorg Rag” ™, that is going through transitional crisis: 1) “Bring Your Inner Clint Eastwood” – demonstrate a readiness to empathically and assertively handle audience anger or angst, 2) “Warm Up and Cool Down the Audience” – through healing humor and sharing fun and commonality-building exercises, and 3) “Structure Stress and Conflict through the Cognitive Challenge of TLC and PANIC” – get people integrating the emotional and the analytical as a basis for future problem solving. Part II extended the transition-transformation process by outlining a variety of psychological and interpersonal issues and interventions: 4) Do a Burnout/Burn Up Assessment, 5) Letting Go and “The Four ‘R’s,” and 6) Grieving and “The Six ‘F’s for Surviving and Mastering Loss and Change.” Specifically, Part II focuses on key emotional effects of reorganization and RIF (Reduction in Force) and provides some necessary problem solving actions: a) “do more with less” exhaustion and “The Four Stages of Burnout,” b) short-circuiting the “erosive spiral” by accepting the sense of loss when bereft of “Results, Rewards, Recognition and Relief,” then stepping back and gaining a new perspective through “The Vital Lesson of the Four ‘R’s,” and c) learning to “let go,” “go with the flow” and “grow through grief” by engaging the Six “F”s – loss of the “Familiar,” the uncertain “Future,” loss of “Face,” regaining “Focus,” seeking “Feedback” and having “Faith.”

Finally, Part III highlights conflict resolution, boundary setting and trust building tools and techniques in the interpersonal arena along with tips for developing “The Four ‘C’s of Psychological Hardiness.” Here are the four remaining pieces of The Stress Doc’s “Top Ten Commandments” for Transforming Reorganizational Crisis: Generating the Four “R”s – Relief and Reflection, Rejuvenation and Recommitment:

7. Stand Up to the Bully Manager. In my years working as a consultant, the most intense source of stress (after downsizing and “do more with less”) reported by employees has been the rigidly controlling, vengeful or bullying manager, with the dysfunctional-detached manager a close second. (Conversely, for managers, the biggest thorn is usually hostile, slacker or passive-aggressive employees.) And during tumultuous times the shift from authoritative to authoritarian only gets more pronounced.
Before proceeding, let me underscore that taking on the bully can feel overwhelming and draining, especially in a dysfunctional work environment; the belief that “I don’t have it in me” or “I can’t just walk away,” may have you trapped in an unending battle zone. In somewhat analogous fashion, like for so many of our military in Iraq and Afghanistan, repeated or extended tours of war zone duty take a toll. PTSD anyone? My concern is that by clinging to the job, you may be seriously sacrificing your physical and emotional health, as well as your basic sense of worth and self-confidence. And once caught in this vicious cycle, it becomes even more daunting to perceive other options. Try not to wait till your desperate or desperately ill to take action; very few jobs are worth that price. Now, here are five tips and techniques for handling an overly aggressive authority:

1) Don’t Fight Fire with Fire. If a senior partner/manager hits you with unfair criticism, don’t follow this paralegal’s lead: “It’s not my fault…you didn’t give me the right instructions.” Alas, it’s not a fair fight. One party has the bigger flamethrower. Avoid blaming “you” messages. Try, “Obviously I wasn’t (or we weren’t) on the same page.” (Conversely, don’t hang your head and blurt out, “I guess I screwed up,” especially if that’s not the case.) “Let’s make sure I understand what’s needed and I/we do what it takes to rectify the situation,”

2) Document, Document, Document. Once a pattern of hostility or bullying has been established (two times suggests a tendency, three times a pattern) keep a written file of any offensive behavior or communication. Be ready to share it with the proper authorities. And sometimes you don’t wait for a pattern,

3) Seek Inside Support. For example, in the above scenario, with a manager who continues his verbal assault, blasting aside your tactful acknowledgement, assert the following: “I’m sorry if any of my actions contributed to this problem, but this attack is not professional or acceptable. I will only continue this discussion with Human Resources (or, in other circumstances, a union rep) present,”

4) Obtain Outside Counsel. Unfortunately, too often I’ve heard how the “Old Boys Network” prevented an impartial investigation or adjudication of in-house interpersonal problems. Or the union did not really stick up for the employee. If you can’t get legitimate internal support, consider these two options: a) set up an appointment with an Employee Assistance Program (EAP) Counselor who may be able to mediate as an “intimate outsider” or b) seek outside legal counsel. As one county employee noted, when all other attempts failed, just a strong-worded letter from her attorney to upper management led to the cessation of the formal relationship with her bullying supervisor. (Of course it isn’t fair that you have to pay for outside counsel, but that’s another thing of which we need to “let go” – that life is fair!), and

5) Be Aware of Authority Dynamics. Based on one’s family or marital history, many people have some degree of control, competition or self-esteem issues with authority or “significant family” figures at work, whether the issues-relations have parent-child overtones or are acted out in a sibling rivalry context. And again, transitional tension and uncertainty only magnifies the propensity for psychological transference, where hurt and anger from the past too easily gets projected onto emotionally provocative figures in the present. If anger or intimidation significantly colors your authority or collegial relations, speak to a psychological counselor.

8. Learn to Say “No.” For survival in a “do more with less” work climate it’s vital to practice a Stress Doc mantra: Do know your limits and don’t limit your “Nos. Of course, you have to learn to say “No” assertively and tactfully. Consider these two limit setting scenarios:

a. With Colleagues. In response to a colleague’s request, don’t give a one-sided response. First, listen for details and acknowledge the importance of the request. Then, in a concise and straightforward manner, say, “Based on my schedule I can’t do ABC, however, I believe I can help you with DEF.” You’re not slamming the door on anyone. In fact, you’re offering realistic assistance, affirming your own integrity yet also declaring your status as a team player.

Now let your colleague disagree for a reasonable period of time. Remember, usually we don’t fight over facts and figures, but over the status of the relationship. That is, the other wants to know they are entitled to say, “I’m right and you’re wrong.” Naturally, acknowledgement doesn’t necessarily mean agreement. Mostly, people want to feel they have been heard. And once feeling acknowledged, research indicates the other party is more open to considering your initial position. Finally, in a concise and to the point manner, reaffirm you’re original position. (Over talking undermines your own conviction and authority.)

b. With Bosses. As your interaction moves up the authority chain, you likely will need to forego the above-mentioned ABC approach. Now the key is affirming boundaries. Let me explain. Especially in a TnT (Time- ‘n Task-Driven) environment, too often higher ups approach subordinates with anxious intensity: The sky is falling down. Drop everything! (Though, of course, all projects still remain on your “To Do” list.) The critical first step is not to let another’s false sense of “urgency or emergency” become your anxiety. Remember, an emergency is basically a “life and death” matter; everything else can be prioritized. Try these two steps:

1) Reaffirm Importance. Reaffirm with the authority that you understand that the request-demand is very important. With this reframe from “urgent” to “very important” not only are you injecting some rationality into the discussion, but you’re taking some control both of the individual projection (“you must become as anxious as I am”) and the interpersonal process, i.e., you’re not willing to be a mindless puppet, and

2) Reprioritize and Focus. Having reaffirmed the importance of the request-demand now set some boundaries on the implementation process, by adding: “Because the project is so important, let’s take five minutes to reprioritize my project list so I can give this new, (or vital, emergent, etc.) project the time and energy it deserves…so we can be successful.” The implicit message: “Let’s detail workable tactics and not just jump in over our heads and then flounder.” Once again, while available as a team player-partner you are also preserving integrity while protecting yourself from burnout.

9. Disarm Power Struggles While Building Trust. Let’s flip the focus: what if a surly employee challenges an authority figure (literally or in so many words) with, “You can’t make me!” And the manager takes the bait: “Oh, yes I can!” Unless it is a truly critical situation, fighting fire with fire is frequently not the best way to deescalate tensions and develop partners. Consider these conflict resolving steps:

1) Be Vital and Vulnerable. Try this response: “I don’t know if I can make you or I can’t make you. That’s not where I’m coming from.” [You’re resisting the provocative bait. Not immediately playing the authority trump card, you are confidently tentative without giving up your power potential.],

2) Be Humble and Open. “If we have a problem – if I’m bugging you or our situation is a pain – can we talk about it?” [Can we assume that if there is a serious power struggle someone is pained or upset about something? I think so. Also, I believe the fastest way of reducing status differences between antagonists while generating adult-to-adult dialogue is by “asking a good question,” as illustrated above. For me, there are two essential pillars of “a good question”: a) Be Humble – the question says, “I don’t have all the answers,” and b) Be Open – the question invites the other party to share his or her point of view, with the implicit message, “Maybe I can learn something new.”

Also, you are being courageous: inviting criticism often elicits real and raw feedback; you can handle another’s anger. And, when others perceive you as handling criticism without becoming defensive or quickly having to prove who’s right or wrong, you help build trust, which is invaluable. (As mentioned before, I accept anger and even some attitude, but I don’t tolerate abuse.)

3) Win/Win Posture and “Drop the Rope.” The last part of your power struggle-reducing intervention: “I need your contribution to meet our goals. I believe I’m in a position to help you. For us to succeed, we have to be pulling together not be pulling apart.” [I use the image and metaphor of learning to “Drop the Rope” when people are caught up in a “tug of words.” Under duress, this option neither pulls harder nor vacates the arena of conflict. Dropping the rope basically says, “Pulling back and forth, trying to overpower, outsmart or out shout one another isn’t working for me. Can we figure out another way of approaching the problem?” So, in addition to “letting go,” you also need to step up to the plate, that is, to be present and invite problem solving discussion. These are vital steps in both trust and partnership building.]

10. Develop Psychological Hardiness. Psychological hardiness is a concept developed by Dr. Suzanne Kobasa and her research team while studying the health of AT&T executives during the late 20th century stressful breakup of “Ma Bell.” Some execs were having a hard time physically and emotionally, while others were coping effectively with the transitional storm. The hardiest executives demonstrated what I call “The Four C’s of Psychological Hardiness”:

1) Commitment. While not happy about the major restructuring and resulting turbulence, the hardiest executives did not give up; they were determined to do quality work. They also had a life outside the office and received support from family, friends, colleagues and spiritual activities, as well as from hobbies. Hobbies allow you to take time out and to stimulate and nurture yourself. These folks were committed to finding some work-life balance,

2) Control. The hardy execs also had a realistic sense of control and less rigid need to wield it. They understood the necessity of giving up some turf positions and status posturing. Letting go of your cherished territory often provides a new vantage point for strategically surveying the emergent big picture,

3) Change. The hardy individuals had a realistic attitude toward change. For them, change was a natural part of life, not something to be resisted. Even when facing unpleasant or unhappy changes, they quickly grappled with their emotions. They grieved the loss of their familiar world, and then prepared themselves for the new or unknown. With this resilient and enlightened perspective, change was more a stepping-stone than a stumbling block, and

4) Conditioning. Finally, the hardiest of the execs engaged in regular aerobic exercise or physical conditioning. Why is it so critical? As we’ve seen, not only does exercise help you stay fit, manage your weight and improve your cardiovascular health, but it also releases mood-lifting endorphins, a good antidote to mild feelings of agitation and/or depression. Also, when everything’s up in the air – you can’t seem to close any projects, reports or sales or meet elusive deadlines – structured exercise provides a self-defined beginning and endpoint for a tangible sense of accomplishment and control…a “success ritual!”

Closing Summary

Based on work with a variety of organizational and corporate clients, this three part series has outlined The Stress Doc’s “Top Ten Commandments” for Transforming Reorganizational Crisis: Generating the Four “R”s – Relief and Reflection, Rejuvenation and Recommitment. The “Top Ten” are:

1) Bring Your Inner Clint Eastwood

2) Warm Up and Cool Down the Audience

3) Structure Stress and Conflict through the Cognitive Challenge of TLC and PANIC

4) Do a Burnout/Burn Up Assessment

5) Letting Go and “The Four ‘R’s”

6) Grieving and “The Six ‘F’s for Surviving and Mastering Loss and Change”

7) Stand Up to the Bully Manager

8) Learn to Say “No”

9) Disarm Power Struggles While Building Trust

10) Develop Psychological Hardiness

Commandments 1-3 are foundational tools for breaking down mistrust and engaging an audience in the throes of reorganization. Commandments 4-6 identify signs and stages of burnout and also provide a psychosocial skillset for letting go, grieving and surviving major loss and change. Commandments 7-10 provide workplace conflict resolution, power struggle defusing and trust building tools and skills; the last commandment provides concepts and steps for developing resilience or “psychological hardiness” especially during times of change and crisis.

Finally, by practicing these commandments, not only will you have a transitional stress tool kit, but you will generate a work world and a lifestyle that is more balanced, has boundaries and also is charged with enhanced esteem and expanded energy. You have an awareness and action plan that prevents stress smoke signals and interpersonal conflict from smoldering and erupting into that burnout fire. You will have truly learned how to…“Practice Safe Stress!”

Mark Gorkin, MSW, LICSW, “The Stress Doc” ™, a Licensed Clinical Social Worker, is an acclaimed keynote and kickoff speaker as well as “Motivational Humorist & Team Communication Catalyst” known for his interactive, inspiring and FUN programs for both government agencies and major corporations. In addition, the “Doc” is a team building and organizational development consultant. He is providing “Stress and Communication, Leadership and Team Building” programs for the 1st Cavalry Division and 13th Expeditionary Support Command, Ft. Hood, Texas and for Army community Services at Ft. Meade, MD and Ft. Belvoir, VA. The Stress Doc is the author of Practice Safe Stress and of The Four Faces of Anger. See his award-winning, USA Today Online “HotSite” — www.stressdoc.com — called a “workplace resource” by National Public Radio (NPR). For more info on the Doc’s programs or to receive his free e-newsletter, email [email protected]

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