Are You Trying Too Hard? Learn the Art of Wu Wei – Effortless Action

lifting weight

Ever watch a presentation or have a conversation and come away feeling like the person was trying way too hard?

I take a lot of exercise classes at my gym. Recently, we have had a few new teachers sub or introduce new classes. Once, I took a new dance-based class with a new fitness instructor and found myself NOT enjoying it at all! I felt like I had a perpetual inner scowl and I couldn’t figure out why. I love to dance! I started blaming myself. “Am I just being pissy because the teacher I wanted to be here wasn’t here?” “Am I being ageist”(She was young and I’m not) “Am I being arrogant cause I think I’m such a hot dancer?” or ”Do I just hate and resist anything new?” All of the above could have been true, but midway through the class, the communication skills coach in me wanted to figure out what other dynamic might be playing out here. Maybe it wasn’t all me.

I reflected back on the fact that a few weeks ago, I’d taken the same class with a new teacher and loved her within two seconds. So instead of judging my feelings, I began to question where they might be coming from. As I watched the teacher smiling broadly and trying to encourage us to smile and pose and enjoy ourselves, I realized that she was trying too hard. She was trying to “make” us enjoy what we were doing instead of enjoying it herself and trusting that because she enjoys it, that enjoyment will infect us. Afterward, I spoke to a gym buddy who had also taken the class and she had concluded the same thing.

I decided to write a blog post about the difference between trying too hard and “just being” and then… low and behold, the next day, a friend of mine (I hadn’t spoken to her about this at all) happened to mention an article she’d read in the New York Times that she thought I would find interesting. It was called – A Meditation on the Art of Not Trying (John Tierney, 12/15/2014) and it specifically addresses what I had concluded! Amazing! So instead of having to write this whole post from scratch, I get to use Mr. Tierney’s article to support my ideas! Thanks, John wherever you are!

The article references the work of Dr. Edward Slingerland, a professor of Asian studies at the University of British Columbia and author of the book: Trying Not to Try: The Art and Science of Spontaneity. Dr. Slingerland talks about a concept called, wu wei, the Chinese term for “effortless action” – (Pronounced ooo-way) There are differing theories about how to attain Wu Wei. There is one theory that goes that once you work really hard at something, you will eventually get to the point where you can perform that “something” effortlessly – similar to when people talk about athletes practicing a skill so that in the throes of the game they can perform without thinking. The other theory is that our gifts are innate and we need to relax and allow them to emerge. There are actual ancient text that speak about this type of Wu Wei:

“[…] it wasn’t enough just to be a sensible, law-abiding citizen, and it wasn’t even enough to dutifully strive to be virtuous. You had to demonstrate that your virtue was so intrinsic that it came to you effortlessly. These texts tell aspiring politicians that they must have an instinctive sense of their duties to their superiors: If you try to be filial, this not true filiality; if you try to be obedient, this is not true obedience.”

You can read Mr. Tierney’s article or Dr. Slingerland’s book to find out more about these different theories on attaining Wu Wei and where they originated.

I believe that you can attain Wu Wei both ways – by practicing a skill and then learning to let it go and by relaxing, going inward and then learning to let it out. In fact, this topic has been part of my latest obsession. I wrote a blog post and spoke on the radio show, What Women Want about the Impostor Syndrome – the fact that we tend to feel like impostors once we are successful because we have forgotten or we ignore the “intrinsic qualities” we have inside us that have contributed to our success. So in essence, in our efforts to strive for “effortless action” we often negate or forget our instinctive sense of our “duties.” Whether those duties are to be virtuous as referenced in the ancient text or whether those duties are to be successful, effective leaders or successful contributive human beings as in the case of those with the Impostor Syndrome.

The New York Times article goes on to say: “You cannot try, but you also cannot not try. Chinese philosophers were genuinely on to something,says Jonathan Schooler, a psychologist at the University of California, Santa Barbara. Particularly when one has developed proficiency in an area, it is often better to simply go with the flow. Paralysis through analysis and overthinking are very real pitfalls that the art of wu wei was designed to avoid.”

As a mother to a professional baseball pitcher, I know that all too well. Once my son starts to think too much about the pitch he’s about to throw he’s in trouble AND once he totally forgets his innate gifts and training he’s in trouble.

My gym buddy had said after our class with the new teacher – “I just didn’t like her.” And it was true. There was no real reason not to like her but we didn’t. That may be because as Mr. Tierney’s article explains: “However wu wei is attained, there’s no debate about the charismatic effect it creates. It conveys an authenticity that makes you attractive, whether you’re addressing a crowd or talking to one person. The way to impress someone on a first date is to not seem too desperate to impress.”

The teacher who I had liked within two seconds, had achieved Wu Wei. She authentically loved what she did and trusted that we would too. What this newer teacher had done was let her desperation to impress, or in this case, I think it was her determination to impress, get in the way of any authenticity she had.

Again from the Times article “Some people, like politicians and salespeople, can get pretty good at faking spontaneity, but we’re constantly looking for ways to expose them. We put presidential candidates through marathon campaigns looking for that one spontaneous moment that reveals their “true” character.”

The above passage also supports my latest vendetta against the phrase: “Fake it till you make it.” Nobody likes a fake and nobody wants to trust someone “faking it.” I believe in the concept behind the phrase which is that sometimes we need to adopt values we may not think we have to help us feel successful. I just don’t like the idea of using the word “fake.” I believe it’s more important to convey the concept of trusting and/or uncovering our intrinsic qualities and letting them help us feel successful. So instead, I encourage people to adopt the phrase “Own it while you hone it.”

Mr. Tierney quotes Dr. Slingerland who says: “Our culture is very good at pushing people to work hard or acquire particular technical skills, But in many domains, actual success requires the ability to transcend our training and relax completely into what we are doing, or simply forget ourselves as agents.”

I will never forget very early in my teaching career when I was teaching at a city university here in New York, one of my students wrote in an evaluation after a class that I thought had been expertly taught. “Robyn, you are a great teacher but I don’t think you need to try so hard.” I was stunned! At first, I didn’t really know what she was talking about. I was hurt and I wanted to be angry and insulted but I couldn’t be. I instinctively knew that this was a good thing. What she was actually saying was, I see your intrinsic qualities and I want you to own them and trust them. I took that comment to heart and now, many years later, I am so thrilled that the feedback I most consistently get is more along the lines of: “You are so authentic” You make me feel so comfortable” “You are engaging” “I can tell you really believe in and love what you do.” That’s when I know that I’m being an agent of my skills and practicing the art of Wu Wei.

For me, Wu Wei comes about with a combination of:

  1. Knowing that you have obtained proficiency in the area you’re talking about.
  2.  Trusting that you are connected to your deepest truest authentic self and
  3. Being committed to helping the person(s) you’re speaking with for the sole purpose of enriching their lives.

That third part, not mentioned in the article, is extremely important, in my opinion, for those of us in business and leadership positions. These three parts of finding Wu Wei; Proficiency, authenticity, and generosity, is what I strive to bring out in the clients I work with and the companies I train.

So… let’s all stop trying so hard and become conscious of practicing Effortless Action – Wu Wei. If you need help, give me a call.


Coachiing Equipment

Is everyone coachable?  I often get asked a variation of this question. So I’ve been giving it some thought. By now I’ve worked with probably over a thousand clients. I’ve only had two who I felt did not make significant changes after working with me. In one instance, it was because the person really didn’t want to change, and in the second instance, the person really did want to change but had a hard time implementing my suggestions. Maybe I was the wrong coach for them. Maybe the timing was wrong. I know through my studies in Brain Science that our brain can develop new habits so why is it easier for some people to change than others?

Recently, I’ve been working with several clients who after less than two hours have made tremendous leaps in their presentation content, engagement factor, and delivery. It might be easy to pat myself on the back and call myself a miracle worker (okay, maybe I did that for a minute). But then I sat back and analyzed the situation.

Five of these clients were men working for the same company. So while working with the fifth gentleman and witnessing his quick progress, I mentioned to him how impressed I was that he and all of his colleagues made such significant changes so quickly. He told me that it was part of the company culture to be open to feedback and hungry for learning. He told me that the CEO models this and hires for that quality. I was thoroughly impressed. In the past few weeks I’d used the Chinese proverb “The Fish rots from the head down” to describe the problem with another organization I was working for. But here is proof that the opposite is also true. “The fish flourishes from the head down”

So that made me look at and categorize what goes into being coachable.

Willingness to Trust: The individuals in this organization were told that they would receive coaching on presentations skills. I do not know how much information they received about me or my company beforehand, but one day, I show up in their office with a video camera, asking them a bunch of questions about their presentations, videoing the way they are currently presenting and then, to quote one of my clients, “ripping them apart” (not completely true by the way. I gave him what I call my “compassionately frank” feedback on the engagement factor of his current presentation.)

Openness to feedback: of course, they did not all go gently into that good change. There were the usual excuses and “Yes, buts”: ‘I have an accent’, I like being informal and casual’, ‘don’t want to be a “presenter” “I like just hanging in the back and letting the slides do the work.” (???!!!) However, once I explained that an accent does not mean you have to be monotone. That there is a difference between being casual and uninteresting. And that sometimes too casual translates into not caring and arrogance. And that NO, it is not okay to hang in the back of the room while doing a presentation–they listened–really listened and did not push back.

Courage to try something new: In less than an hour, I gave these gentlemen, new ways to use their voice, new ways to sit and stand, new ways to start their presentations, new content to add to their presentations and slides, slides and habits that needed to be cut and destroyed, and new order for the information in their slides. And in each and every case, by the end of the two hours, they had implemented and tried on all of what I gave them, resulting in before and after videos the likes of which I rarely see.

So before you run out and hire a coach for yourself, make sure you exhibit these three qualities: Trust, Openness, and Courage. And if you are the head of any organization, team or company before you throw money away on coaching and training make sure you are modeling, hiring for, and valuing these qualities in your employees.

If you are ready to make your own changes, view my coaching programs here.

Dare to Share Your Story!

share your story phrase - isolated text in vintage letterpress wood type
For a long time when I talked about my business, I was reluctant to tell people my whole story. I would leave out the part about being an actress and screenwriter. I had the idea that it would make me seem “flaky” and a less serious business owner. But most times when I let it “slip,” I found that it really resonated with people. In retrospect, it seems like a no brainer to talk about how my acting and writing skills help make me a better communication skills trainer but at the time, I was clearly not in love with my whole story. I was holding on to some shame about my path. Are you doing that?
Not telling your whole story to your prospects, clients, or associates can be like asking them to start watching a movie from the middle. It feels confusing and less engaging. They may not know why it feels that way but deep down inside you do.
I’m not suggesting you “overshare” some things may be best left unsaid, but I am suggesting that you dig deep into your past experiences for what you may think is a piece of coal and figure out a way to polish it into a diamond. That’s one of the things I love doing with clients.
Recently, a client of mine was struggling with feeling authentic about delivering her “elevator pitch.” She hated doing it because it sounded so… you know, “pitchy.” She took all my developing perfect pitch advice, and she came up with perfectly clear verbiage around what she does and how she can help individuals–but it still sounded inauthentic and inconsistent with who she is. That’s when I realized that there was something in her “backstory” that she was leaving out which made her the perfect person to be doing what she is doing. Once we put that in, she sounded so much more authentic, engaging, and credible. And she was more at ease telling her story to people than she could ever be trying to sell her services.
The next week I met with two clients who had the exact same issue! We are working to get them to let their stories shine!
What’s your story? If you’re sitting on what you think is a stocking full of coal, contact me. I guarantee I can figure out a way to make that “coal” shine like a diamond.

Do you have a Signature Speech?

I’m honored that a colleague at a presentation of mine had these great take-aways and wanted to share them in writing. Here’s what Whitney had to say:
I went to a networking event recently where the speaker addressed an important topic, “creating your signature speech”. The event was aimed at women entrepreneurs so it made sense since many of them speak as part of their work or would like to speak more in order to build a bigger following. I fall into the category of exploring speaking as part of building my business following and would love to be paid to speak so learning about writing that signature speech is a great start.

The speaker was Robyn Hatcher, who is passionate about teaching individuals how to transform their process of communication so that they can express themselves effectively and powerfully. She is an author and communication skills expert and Founder of SpeakEtc., a boutique communication, and presentation skills training company.

Robyn walked us through what it would take to write a signature speech and I found the information clear-cut and direct. The outline was easy to follow and it made sense since everything can essentially be broken down into steps if you have a clear objective. At the end, we left with enough information about the hows and whys that I felt excited to give it a try.

The next day, I was sitting in the library and decided to take a crack using the outline to get a draft of my signature speech done. Within an hour or so, I had a rough draft and I felt pretty good. Of course, it needs to be flushed out, but it’s a start and that’s exciting. It was easy to have the steps to follow to show me how to get started.

Many of us may have much more than one signature speech in our repertoire but it felt good to use the outline and try to write that first one. One of the biggest takeaways from the talk was to have something clear to teach – you want to leave people with the idea that at the end of your talk they will walk away changed or with new information.

While I don’t have immediate plans to speak, it is a goal of mine for a number of reasons. One, I think it’s good to do something that has a teaching component. I taught for a few years in the NYC public school system and I think teaching is so important. I am often inspired by information gleaned from a talk. I feel if you have been lucky enough to receive an education, it is best to share the information not squander it.

Two, I think it’s good to challenge yourself to speak in front of groups. It helps you improve your communication skills as well as your courage. It’s not easy to be yourself with many eyeballs on you at once but it’s a very worthy goal and one I have worked on for many years. And Three, the more you speak in front of people, the more potential customers you are reaching. If done correctly, your speech will give them an understanding of who you are and what you can do for them. That’s a big win. In my case, I am a writer and entrepreneur so can see how speaking would support both of these endeavors.

So I’d like to encourage you to learn more about writing your own signature speech. It will help you think about what you have to say and teach you how to say it clearly. In my case, using Robyn’s guidelines proved easier than I had thought. So go ahead, give it a try. What do you have to say? Inquiring minds want to know.

To learn more about writing your own signature speech, click here.

It Feels Good to DO GOOD!

do goodOnce, I was walking down a busy NYC street near my house and two people at two different times stopped me and asked for directions. I knew exactly where they were trying to get to and guided them on their way. Afterward, it struck me how “high” I felt. I could literally feel the endorphins (the feel-good hormone) flooding through my brain. I smiled broadly, walked a little taller, and felt this incredible sense of pride just because I was able to tell a tourist where Union Square was!

That made me think about what it must feel like to help people on a regular basis. I guess I was particularly sensitive to “do-good” feelings because at the time the universe had been sending a lot of opportunities my way that involve non-profit organizations. I signed a contract to work for the Girls Scouts USA, had been asked to speak at a meetup group for Nonprofit Executive Directors (NED), do a keynote address for National Philanthropy Day in Hudson, NY and work with a large accounting firm that was focusing on consulting for non-profits.
There’s so much bad news being shared all the time. I want to:

  1. a) Focus on individuals and organizations who are committed to doing good.
  2. b) Stress how important it is for those who are “doing good”, to polish their presentation and communication skills so that those good deeds are heard loud and clear.

Think about it, What good would it have done the people on the street if I knew exactly where Union Square was but was unable to:

1) convey through my presence and body language that I was trustworthy
2) convey in my vocal tone and facial expression that I was confident in my answer


3) Explain and describe how to get there in a way that they could understand

Helping someone find their way around NYC is not going to change the world but some of the projects that the 10 Girls Scouts I worked with just might. And if you’re interested in helping anyone, be it in the corporate world or in the nonprofit world, please realize that sometimes it’s important to get better at speaking well so you can do even more good. Contact me for information on how to improve your skills and confidence.

VIP (Very Important Presentation) Day!

SIgnature Speech brainstorm

A couple of weeks ago I met for four hours with a client to help her put together a presentation she’s been struggling with. She had tons of great stuff in her head (and in MANY various PowerPoint iterations) Been there?

The first hour was spent getting everything out of her head and onto flip charts (see photo) Then we reorder the information until we had a cohesive outline: Attention Getter, Introduction, 3 sections of the body and conclusion.

From there we fleshed out bits and pieces of what more could go into each section and added that to the flip charts. We also pasted up parts from the PowerPoint she’d already had. By the end of our four hours, I had typed up a rough draft of her speech on PowerPoint slides so that she can work on them on her own – fleshing out more and adding design elements. As part of her VIP package, we will have one more hour together to walk through the presentation and polish any non-verbal skills (body language and vocal tone) and anything else that needs work.
It was a fun day and the time flew by. My client was grateful to have feedback and insight to help her create a complete, cohesive presentation out of all her great ideas and information.
An athlete or musician may have all the raw material to excel in their field but a talented coach knows how to bring out the best in them and help them shine and succeed. I love doing a similar thing for my clients.
Contact me to learn more about my one-on-one coaching.

A Whiz Kid and a Villain…Communication Styles of our Last Presidential Candidates

“To effectively communicate we must realize that we are all different in the way we perceive the world and use this understanding as a guide to our communication with others.” Anthony Robbins

When preparing to write my book on presentation skills, I developed my own communication style assessment tool called ActorTypes. In 2016, it struck me that this was the first presidential battle in my lifetime that had such diametrically opposed ActorTypes running against each other. This race is a battle between a dyed in the wool Whiz Kid, and an unmitigated Villain. But for those of you who haven’t attended one of my workshops or presentations or read my book, Standing Ovation Presentations, let me explain what ActorTypes are.

Having spent over 20 years as a professional actor and 10 years as a professional writer for TV and film, I realized that there are certain “types” that actors and their characters fall into – thus the term typecasting. As I began teaching public speaking and communication skills, I noticed that those types also appear in “real” people. After considering the characters I saw in both the scripts I auditioned for and the Daytime Drama shows I wrote for, I came up with nine common ActorTypes. They are based on 9 character types you see every day in movies and on TV; the Hero, Villain, Super Hero, Ingenue, Super Model, Comic, Whiz Kid, Buddy and Curmudgeon)

There are certain strengths each type possesses and of course certain weaknesses which I call Fatal Flaws. Here’s a brief description of the positive qualities associated with our current presidential candidates.

Whiz Kid: Believes Knowledge is power!

  • Has a failsafe memory for facts
  • Loves doing research
  • Is dependable and responsible
  • Is organized and exacting (who else would date notes left for a child)


Villain: Loves to be hated

  • Has a quick wit and a sharp tongue
  • Has an answer for everything; likes to have the last word
  • Has own type of charisma that can make people uncomfortable
  • Compels an audience to pay attention


Now let’s look at the Fatal Flaws of these two types.

  Whiz Kid:

  • Can come off as cold and unemotional
  • Doesn’t pick up social cues easily
  • Stresses facts over feelings
  • Can be dismissed as being boring



  • Can be alienating and hurt people’s feeling
  • Won’t admit when wrong or doesn’t know something
  • Arrogance can turn people off
  • Can be all bravado and no substance


The victor in a matchup between the two depends on how successful they are at mitigating or covering up some of their fatal flaws.

During her first presidential run, Hillary’s Whiz Kid ran against Obama’s Buddy/Hero. That’s an almost impossible matchup for a Whiz Kid to win. During that election, she tried to mask her Whiz Kid qualities by taking on the qualities of a Super Hero. That backfired because turns out Americans don’t really like female Super Heroes. Surprise! So we turned her into a Villain.

After reading and listening to stories by people who know or have met her, I believe Hillary actually has quite a bit of the Buddy ActorType in her (Most of us are more than one type) but her strong Whiz Kid qualities somehow make her feel that it’s “illogical” (to quote the quintessential Whiz Kid, Mr. Spock.) to show her Buddy qualities during such an important job interview. But I’m really hoping that she sees the light.

I’ve worked with many Whiz Kid clients helping them prepare for job interviews. They often withhold valuable information about themselves because they assume it’s obvious. After all, it’s on their resumes. Why do they need to talk about it? Or they think, why do I need to show my personality, I’m applying for a serious job.

One of my favorite quotes is one I recently came across by Dale Carnegie. He said. “When dealing with people, remember you are not dealing with creatures of logic but creatures of emotion.” Something all Whiz Kids need to remember.

In order for us to trust, like and know a person, that person must touch our emotions. Villains are very good at touching and triggering emotions. Whiz Kids not so much. My advice to Whiz Kids like Hillary – talk to us in stories. Use metaphors, analogies and vivid language to help us see what you see.

I once heard Chelsea speak about her grandmother at a fundraising event. It was heartfelt and moving and touched everyone present. She painted a very vivid picture of a strong resilient woman who’d triumphed under tremendous hardships. When Hillary referenced her mother in a speech during the race, it was one sentence spoken fairly quickly. When she mentioned her own bad times, she flew over the words, with a smile no less. She didn’t “experience” them. I wanted her to let us know how she felt. Contrary to some popular beliefs, there is a place for feelings in the workplace and in presidential elections. I know it could be opening a can of worms but I’d even love for her to bring in how she felt during all the Bill/Monica et al. scandals. I don’t need to be all up in her personal business but I would like to hear her once just acknowledge that pain.

Having a Villain ActorType is normally not a bad thing. It can be very powerful. I coach my clients who embody those qualities to use them wisely and judiciously. I work with them to polish and mitigate any fatal flaws that may hinder their effectiveness.

There are people who love to brandish the words “real” and “authentic” when it comes to politicians and personalities. But as I wrote in another post, what’s the point of being “authentic” if your “authentic” is ultimately not effective? As Trump showed during the race, a Villain candidate can do very little to mitigate his fatal flaws and still be hailed for being real and authentic. Will the blatant flaunting of his fatal flaws continue to be effective? We’ll have to wait and see.

If you’d like to know your ActorType, you can take my quick ActorType quiz here.

Digging for Communication Gold

gold medal not background

I’m captivated every 2 years when the Olympics roll around. Winter or Summer, I’m hooked.  It’s such a testament to the human spirit and to our incredible potential.

One year, I was struck by footage of Michael Phelps studying video of a previous race. It was amazing to me (and to the announcers) that someone who had already accrued 21 gold medals was still striving to study and improve themselves. How many of us can say the same?

That same year, an Olympic commercial for Dick’s Sporting Goods had this as its tagline:

“Gold… it’s in all of us. But only some have the strength to dig it out.” 

I guess you could call me a gold digger because one of the things I love about my work is the thrill I get helping to uncover the gold buried in others. How much of your gold have you unearthed?

3 ways to dig for the gold in you:

  •  Go Prospecting:

-Set aside some quiet time for yourself and think back on your eight-year-old self. What did he/she dream about? What seemed vitally important to you then? Often, the raw material for your gold medal self was forged around that time.

  • Start Mining:

-Make a list of all the positive things anyone has ever said about you. Really give yourself time to think and reflect. We are always so quick to remember the negative things people say (Don’t beat yourself up about that. Our brains are actually wired that way.) but keep digging until you can unearth as many positive things as you can remember. Write them down.

-Also make a list of feedback you’ve gotten that was not that positive.

-Then do some above-ground research. Become hyper-vigilant in looking for feedback you get on a daily basis. Including your own internal feedback. How comfortable are you in a particular situation? With a particular type of person? Delivering a particular type of communication?

  • Start Polishing:

-Take the positive raw material you’ve unearthed about yourself – your purpose that you discovered from your core 8-year-old self and the positive qualities you’ve mined from positive feedback you’ve gotten. And with it…

-Create an Avatar of yourself. Think of you standing atop the gold medal podium. What are you looking like? What are you sounding like? What are you feeling? Make it as detailed as possible.

-Look at your other qualities. The ones your Avatar DOESN’T have. Is it your vocal tone? Your word choices? Your attitude? Your posture, gestures, facial expressions? Your lack of confidence? Whatever it is, create a game plan – an Olympic training regimen.

-Be like Phelps and video yourself and watch it back. Or just audio record some conversations. Ask yourself, ‘Would my Avatar look or sound like that?’ Sometimes just bringing the issue to the forefront is enough to start you on the road to change. If you need to hire a coach? Do your research and find one that will help you bring home the gold.

I’m constantly digging for my own gold and the gold in others. I’m here if you need me.

Women’s eNews Annual ’21 Leaders for the 21st Century’

I’m so excited to announce that I’m being honored by Women’s eNews as one of their annual ’21 Leaders for the 21st Century.’ I never thought when I embarked on my journey to transform the communication of others that I would find myself in such prestigious company. Past recipients have included such people as former President of Ireland Mary Robinson and Nobel Prize Recipient Leymah Gbowee.

For a press release about the award, as well as how to get details on the Gala it will be presented at, please click here.

And thanks so much to everyone who has supported me along the way.



Communication Rx – The Case of the Employee Caught in a Foolish Lie

Improve Communication.png

I love the ongoing relationships I have with organizations who bring me in whenever an issue involving communication threatens to impact morale, productivity, or effectiveness. I get to be like a superhero called in to save the day or in some cases, pronounce the situation terminal. In this instance, I was able to diagnose the problem and prescribe a treatment plan that may have saved a person his job, the organization the expense of having to hire additional staff and/or replace a valuable employee AND created a vibrant more efficient department.

The call came from Nancy, a director of an organization I’ve been working with for five plus years. (names have been changed) Nancy told me she wanted me to work with one of her IT staff members, let’s call him Carl. Carl had a long history at this particular organization and Nancy felt some loyalty to him but that was wearing thin. She was entertaining the possibility of letting him go. 


Nancy had heard from some of her staff that Carl was rude or dismissive. In addition, Carl’s immediate boss, George, felt that Carl didn’t do things the way he wanted them to be done which made him think Carl was taking shortcuts and did not respect his authority. Carl was asked to contact me over the summer but did not do so. In October, Carl was late for work one day and lied to George about it. That was the last straw. Nancy told him he MUST contact me or else.


I spoke with Carl by phone and met with him for a coaching session. He was soft spoken and easy going. For those of you familiar with my ActorType communication styles, Carl would be a Whiz Kid with a bit of Curmudgeon. On the phone, he revealed that he felt that he was being expected to conform in ways that he didn’t think entirely fair. Carl is a minority and a large majority of the staff and customers are not. I also discovered that Carl had been at his job for several years before George was brought in from the outside to oversee his work and run the department.

I shared some of David Rock’s NeuroLeadership work with Carl during our first session. Rock’s work involves something he calls the SCARF model that identifies 5 areas of human social behavior or human needs. – Status, Certainty, Autonomy, Relatedness, & Fairness. When these needs aren’t being met, people exhibit a threat response, when they are being met people experience a reward response.

Carl immediately saw that he is very much triggered by threats to his autonomy –  and feelings of uncertainty. In fact, we could see how this particular situation at work threatened Carl in all five of the domains.

However, communication is always a two – way street and since Fairness is one of Carl’s triggers and it’s something that I feel strongly about as well, I didn’t think my work could be effective without being able to meet with Carl’s boss, George. Nancy agreed and I set up a meeting with George.

George initially came into the meeting thinking he would just tell me his version of what it was like to work with Carl, however, I shared the SCARF model with him as a way to explain how certain behaviors from Carl may be a result of some of these domains being threatened. George immediately saw the domains that he himself were triggered by. We uncovered many things the two had in common. George was also very much a Whiz Kid but since taking on a leadership role has been working very hard to bring out some Hero/Buddy qualities.


Carl:  Having been on the job for 9 years before George came, Carl felt his Status was threatened. He thought that George was constantly monitoring and micromanaging him and thought George didn’t respect his ideas and opinions but just wanted it his way or the highway. This feeling of being micromanaged and having his Status and Autonomy threatened triggered him so strongly that when George asked him if he was late, he admitted that he instantly and stupidly reverted to a childish lie. As David Rock points out, sometimes we experience domain threats as strongly as we experience threats to our lives.  I also discovered that Carl values creativity. He was not doing things a different way to be stubborn. One of the joys he gets in his work is finding alternative ways of doing things. Feeling like that part of the job was being taken away, he no longer felt engaged.

George:  Knowing his Whiz Kid weakness of being overly regimented and detail oriented, George was trying to mitigate those qualities to be more of a Buddy, which resulted in his not giving Carl any defined systems or clear responsibilities. This resulted in a lack of certainty for Carl which led to his lack of focus and accountability. And not having systems and certainty in place made George anxious and resulted in his micromanaging. I believe Carl’s shortness with the staff was also a result of the lack of certainty. He was expected always be on call to fix things but there was no clear system for how they were supposed to be fixed which led to frustration and feelings of inadequacy which he took out on the staff.


First, I worked on mindset. I had Carl identify the feelings that come up for him when he is feeling threatened by any of the SCARF domains and taught him ways to label and re-frame his emotions at the moment so that they dissipate more quickly. I also acknowledged Carl’s feeling that there may indeed be some unconscious bias involved and pointed out that unconscious bias goes both ways. What bias might he be using to read into some of the behavior he is experiencing as bias? I encouraged him to have conversations with both Nancy and George that expressed how he was feeling. I gave him some of my very specific Chemistry of Communication formulas to use and we role-played and videoed how he might deliver those conversations effectively.

For George, I explained how the lack of systems and clear responsibilities was affecting Carl and the whole department and suggested he do a SWOT analysis (a method to evaluate Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, and Threats) of the department at their next meeting and that he set up a whiteboard that clearly laid out the tasks and responsibilities for each of them (Certainty). I also encouraged him to give Carl some ownership of establishing the systems (rewarding his Status and Fairness need) even though George would have the final say.


The SWOT analysis was an overwhelming success. Setting up a way for the department to openly express their strengths and weakness was powerful. In talking about the department’s strengths, diversity of backgrounds came up, Carl was able to point out that if that is a strength, they need to also allow for different ways of doing things. For the first time, Carl felt comfortable expressing his opinions. George expressed how grateful he was to hear what Carl was thinking. It took them two meeting to complete the SWOT but at my last session with Carl, I saw a completely different person.

He was engaged again, excited about his job and he and George had been getting along brilliantly. Based on what was uncovered in the SWOT, they were working on a detailed systems document which George put Carl in charge of. As Carl works on different sections, he checks in with George for his input. George said that it finally feels like they are working as a real department. George also followed through on the whiteboard which Carl loves. He gets to see exactly what they need to get done and gets to feel the excitement of being able to check things off. The rest of the staff has benefited as well because due to George and Carl’s clarity and order, they now have more time to proactively assist the staff with their needs.


One of the tasks that George had on his hands was to assess the needs of the company to see if they needed to hire a new person on the team. This was another reason for Carl to feel insecure. However, after the SWOT Analysis and Carl stepping up, George feels they may not need a new hire after all – saving the whole organization stress and money.

I encouraged Carl to share these positive results with Nancy. It’s important for her to know that progress is being made so that she can gradually begin to shift her lowered opinion of Carl.

This might sound like a fairytale ending and just like the disclaimers on medical commercials, these results may not be typical, but they are POSSIBLE. Is there a communication-based issue infecting your workplace? Maybe it can be cured with some Communication Rx.