Is Too Much Stress Damaging Your Chromosomes?

Too much stress, including stress in your workplace, damages “telomeres” on the ends of your chromosomes and causes rapid aging.  Interestingly, when people connect in supportive relationships it triggers the production of enzymes called “telomerase” that heal damaged telomeres.  Check out this outstanding 58 minute National Geographic documentary entitled “Stress: Portrait of a Killer” about this and other research on the effects of stress. It includes an excellent segment on the famous Whitehall research studies in the UK that established stress and mortality were inversely related to hierarchy in organizations.

Update: I recently returned from speaking, teaching and meeting with leaders of organizations in business, higher education and government in Houston, Fort Worth, Texas and Erie, Pennsylvania.   ASTD’s The Public Manager recently published a version of a case study I wrote about CNO Admiral Vern Clark’s improving the U.S. Navy’s culture.  The article is entitled “Great Leaders Connect with the People They Lead.”




Courage, Connection and the Flow of Ideas

“Little of consequence is ever done alone.”

– David McCullough

Last week my wife and I went to see the historian David McCullough speak about his new book The Greater Journey: Americans in Paris.  I’ve seen David McCullough speak twice before and always found his talks to be thoughtful and inspiring.

On this occasion, McCullough spoke on the courage of Americans who went to France between 1830 and 1900 because they were “in love with learning and advancing their abilities.” They made the difficult trip across the Atlantic that lasted anywhere from one to three months.  They remained there despite language differences and outbreaks of disease such as cholera.  Upon their return, they applied knowledge acquired in France to improve America.  Greater competence in their chosen fields was not all they gained.  Their character had changed as well.  Exposure to new people, new ideas, exquisite art and architecture, broadened their perspective, lifted their spirits and inspired them to make a difference.

The stories McCullough told were marvelous.  His enthusiasm was contagious as he recounted the tales of Harriett Beecher Stowe, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Emma Willard and others.  James Fenimore Cooper, while writing in Paris, visited the Louvre every afternoon to speak words of encouragement that would help his friend, Samuel F.B. Morse, persevere in painting the masterpiece Gallery of the Louvre.  It was in France that Morse learned something that gave him the idea for the telegraph.  Charles Sumner, while studying at the Sorbonne, came to know black students who were his equal in their aspirations and intelligence.  He returned to America to become an influential voice for abolition despite threats against his life.  The flow of ideas and knowledge, reflected in these personal accounts, is something I’ve written about in Fired Up or Burned Out and in the article “Encouraging Knowledge Flow” that appeared in Perdido.

This summer I’ll be reading The Greater Journey and another of McCullough’s books, The Great Bridge.  If you’ve not already picked up books for summer reading, I encourage you to check out these titles.  I’ve also thoroughly enjoyed and highly recommend Brave Companions, John Adams and Mornings on Horseback, also by David McCullough.


In early May I spoke at the American Society for Training and Development (ASTD) International Conference and Exposition in Denver on the topic “Do Leaders Need to Make Employees Happy?”. Read more »

Many Ways to Connect


This last week I was in Boston for several meetings and to teach a seminar for the Institute for Management Studies (IMS).  I always teach that there are hundreds of ways to connect with others and the challenge facing leaders is to get to know the people they lead and identify ways to connect with them given who they are and the context of their work together.

Following are a few of the ways I learned that people and organizations are connecting.

  • At Bose Corporation, new employees learn “The Essence and Values of Bose,” including that “we treat others with respect.”  At Bose, these words are more than window dressing.  All new employees take a course on respect that help them bring this value to life in Bose culture.
  • At Amica Insurance, serving customers is an all-consuming passion.  Amica is a perennial winner of customer service awards.  Inside the company, when an employee is identified as having served a customer well, his or her team is recognized too.  This motivates the team to support one another’s efforts to serve customers.
  • Elizabeth Dole, when she was president of the Red Cross, took the time to learn something significant about each person she would meet so that she could affirm each individual a personal way.  In subsequent meetings, Ms. Dole was very good at remembering and mentioned the significant fact when she saw the individual.
  • David Gill, a professor at Gordon Conwell College, told me that we connect with the Divine when we “help people fulfill their dreams or overcome their nightmares.”  (We also connect with others when our organization’s mission accomplishes these ends.)

The importance of creating Connection Culture also came to my attention this week as I was doing research on Alan Mulally, Ford’s CEO.  Ford just announced its third full year of profit.  Frances Hesselbien, a friend and leader whom I much admire, has praised Mulally so I decided it’s about time that I take a closer look at his leadership of Ford.  In this splendid interview he did with The New York Times, Mulally recounts how he learned the importance of giving people autonomy, being inclusive, keeping people in the loop and connecting them to their organization’s “Inspiring Identity.”

In the coming weeks I’ll be speaking and teaching in Houston, Amsterdam, Brussels, London and Edinburgh.  As I travel, I’ll post new things I learn about connection.

When a Psychopath Inhabits the C-Suite

This post is a continuance of my prior post on evil in organizational cultures.

The “dark triad” — psychopaths, narcissists and machiavellians — represents a small part of the population. What unties this group of destructive personalities is that they lack empathy for other human beings and care only about themselves. Some end up in correctional institutions while others end up in leadership positions where they create dog-eat-dog cultures or cultures that are indifferent to human beings (this is opposed to Servant Leaders who create “Connection Cultures”).

For some interesting thoughts on psychopaths in the C-suite, see this post by Larry Kahaner of the McGowan Fund and the link in his post to an article entitled “The Corporate Psychopaths Theory of the Global Financial Crisis” that appeared in the Journal of Business Ethics.  The book and movie entitled The Corporation make the argument that organizations that care only about profit have effectively become psychopathic.

The way to keep members of the dark triad out of positions of leadership and out of organizations is to educate everyone so that they understand what a healthy culture is, how it’s based on character strengths and virtues, and how organizations develop people with both character and competence.  One project we are working on with Scotiabank is creating a monthly piece for leaders entitled Leading with Character. Each month’s piece highlights a particular character strength, explains how it’s relevant to the organization and how to strengthen one’s leadership in ways that reflect the character strength.  If you are interested in learning more, please email me at or call me at 203-422-6511.

Best Practice: Stories to Encourage Good, Avoid Evil

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In the workshops we teach, we use stories of great leaders in business, government, the social sector and sports who inspired people to do what’s right.  This is a best practice to strengthen the positive effects of an organization’s identity (i.e. mission, values and reputation).

Check out this outstanding TED video of Stanford psychology professor Philip Zimbardo speaking on the topic of how culture encourages or discourages evil.  In the video, he recommends heroic stories that encourage people to do what’s right and shares a couple inspiring stories of his own.

What heroic stories have inspired you?  Please share below or feel free to email me at  I’m going to write about some of my favorite stories in a forthcoming series of posts.

Do Leaders Need to Make Employees Happy?

For the second year in a row, 84 percent of American workers intend to actively look for a new job, according to new research by Right Management. Workplace incivility is also on the rise.  According to research presented at the 2011 American Psychological Association annual meeting, up to 80 percent of workers have experienced incivility.   Workers are struggling and have been for some time.  In 2009, The Conference Board published a report with the subtitle “America’s Unhappy Workers.”   The report concluded that employee satisfaction was at its lowest point since The Conference Board began surveying it more that 20 years ago.

The good news is that it doesn’t have to be this way. Leaders can develop workplace cultures that engage people. Engaging people makes them happy because they benefit from the positive emotions that come from being productive, learning and growing and working together with others to accomplish something of value.  This is what the Greek’s described as eudaimonia, the joy that we experience when we do good work.  The other type of happiness is hedonia.  It comes from pleasurable experiences such as when we see a beautiful sunset or enjoying a great meal. Leaders need to create work cultures where people experience eudiamonia. That’s the type of happiness that affects employee engagement, productivity and innovation.

Here’s another way to think it it.  There are three types of workplace cultures: Dog-Eat-Dog Cultures, Indifferent Cultures (cultures that are indifferent to people and treat them as human doings), and “Connection Cultures” where people experience eudiamonia because they feel connected to their organization’s identity (i.e. mission, values and reputation), they feel connected to their colleagues and supervisor, and they feel connected to their role in the organization (because it fits their strengths and provides the right degree of challenge).

Connection is the force that transforms a dog-eat-dog culture into a sled dog team that pulls together. Without going too far into the psychology of connection, let me just summarize by saying simply that we are humans, not machines. We have emotions. We have hopes and dreams. We have a conscience. We have deeply felt human needs to be respected, to be recognized for our talents, to belong, to have autonomy or control over our work, to experience personal growth, and to do work that we feel is worthwhile in a way that we feel is ethical. When we work in an environment that recognizes these realities of our human nature, we thrive. We feel more energetic, more optimistic, and more fully alive. When we work in an environment that fails to recognize this, it is damaging to our mental and physical health.

And when you think about it, that makes sense. Let’s consider how this plays out in the workplace. When we first meet people, we expect them to respect us. If they look down on us, if they are uncivil or condescending, we get upset. In time, as our colleagues get to know us, we expect them to appreciate or recognize us for our talents and contributions. That really makes us feel good. Later on, we begin to expect that we will be treated and thought of as an integral part of the community. Our connection to the group is further strengthened when we feel we have control over our work. Connection is diminished when we feel we are being micro-managed or over-controlled by others. If we are over-controlled, it sends the message that we are being treated like children or incompetents, and it’s a sign that we are not trusted or respected. Connection is also enhanced when we experience personal growth. In other words: when our role, our work in the group, is a good fit with our skills, providing enough challenge to make us feel good when we rise to meet that challenge (but not so much challenge that we become totally stressed out). Finally, it motivates us to know our work is worthwhile in some way and to be around other people who share our belief that our work is important. To the extent that these human needs of respect, recognition, belonging, autonomy, personal growth and meaning are met, we feel connected to the group. When they are not met, we feel less connected, or even disconnected.

The bottom line is that connection plays a critical part in improving individual performance. People who are more connected with others fare better in life than those who are less connected. Connection, because it meets our human needs, makes people more trusting, more cooperative, more empathetic, more enthusiastic, more optimistic, more energetic, more creative and better problem solvers. It creates the type of environment in which people want to help their colleagues.They are more open to share information that helps decision makers become better-informed. The openness that emerges in a trusting and cooperative environment creates a robust marketplace of ideas that stimulates innovation. Connection among people improves performance in an organization and creates a new source of competitive advantage.



To learn more about connection cultures and employee engagement, listen to this podcast interview Jason Pankau and I did before we spoke at the M.D. Anderson Cancer Center. You can hear the interview at this link.

Update: In May, I’ll be speaking on the topic “Do Leaders Need to make Employee Happy?” in Denver at the annual conference of the American Society for Training and Development (ASTD). In addition, I’ve contributed a chapter to the soon to be published ASTD Handbook on Management edited by Lisa Haneberg who writes the Management Craft blog.

Top Leadership Blog Posts

Dan McCarthy posted a collection of top blog posts on leadership that included a post I wrote. Here’s Dan’s commentary and links to the posts: Read more »

Recent Media Appearances

Here is a link to the article I wrote about Starbucks. The article is entitled “Have a Heart.”  It was published in Outlook Business for Decision Makers, a leading business magazine in India. In addition, below are links to three segments of a radio interview I did yesterday morning with Jim Blasingame, host of the nationally syndicated Small Business Advocate program.

Steve Jobs’ Announcement: Reminder of Need to Make Cancer History

Steve Jobs

Apple’s announcement yesterday that Steve Jobs is stepping down as its CEO, is a poignant reminder of just how important it is to make cancer history. I learned of Jobs’ announcement yesterday while in Houston to share our work with leaders at M.D. Anderson Cancer Center.

The combination of learning the news about Jobs and being at M.D. Anderson triggered a some emotions. I’ve followed Jobs closely over the years and written about him.  I’ve also written about the challenges facing cancer patients and their families from my wife Katie’s battles with breast cancer in 2003 and advanced ovarian cancer in 2004 (today, Kate is cancer free).

MD Anderson LogoBeing at M.D. Anderson Cancer Center was inspiring and humbling. MDACC is the top-rated cancer center according to U.S. News and World Report. The people there think of themselves first and foremost as healers. Being with people who serve a cause greater than themselves always moves me.  Yes, they have to keep an eye on econonomic matters, too, in order to make their work sustainable, but money is not what motivates them.  This is an important distinction that makes a difference to affordable delivery of healthcare, as Atul Gawande noted in an excellent New Yorker article he wrote entitled “The Cost Conundrum.”

During our presentations at M.D. Anderson, we shared  the research and ideas in our book, Fired Up or Burned Out. We firmly believe that creating a culture that is intentional about developing both task excellence and relationship excellence is the only way organizations can achieve sustainable superior performance.  In the context of healthcare, research is showing that culture and relationships affect patient outcomes.  A recent article that appeared in the  Annuls of Internal Medicine, entitled “What Distinguishes Top-Performing Hospitals in Acute Myocardial Infarction Mortality Rates? A Qualitative Study,” supports our view.

Hospital cultures should be life-giving but the irony is that most are not.  We are human beings, not machines, and recent research shows that workplace cultures that are hostile or indifferent to human needs shave years off our lives.   We hope that more hospitals will get this important message and do something about it, like our friends at M.D. Anderson Cancer Center are doing in their pursuit to make cancer history.

The Heart of Starbucks’ CEO

A leader I know and much admire is Howard Behar, the former president of Starbucks North America and Starbucks International. Howard tells about the time 14 years ago this month when he received a call in the middle of the night at his home in Seattle alerting him that three Starbucks employees at the Georgetown store in Washington, D.C. had been shot and killed, including an 18-year who had just recently begun at Starbucks, his first job.   Behar immediately called Howard Schultz, Starbucks’ CEO, who was in New York on vacation at the time.

What Schultz didn’t do, says a lot about his character.  He didn’t call Starbucks’ public relations people or lawyers.  Instead, Schultz chartered a plane and headed straight to Washington, D.C.  When he arrived, he spoke with the police then proceeded to the store to get the addresses of the three murdered Starbucks employees. He went to each of their homes, told their families he was sorry and shared in their tears.

Howard Schultz’s heart was broken.   He showed courage by expressing the grief he felt. Doing so contributed to helping the victims’ families, friends and colleagues. As awful as grieving the loss of a loved one or friend is, it’s far worse to grieve alone. Read more »

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