John Kolm, CEO

by Amanda Biller on January 5, 2017

Four Things They Don’t Want You To Know About Leadership Retreats

Perhaps you’ve already been on a team retreat for your work, or perhaps you’re about to go on one. Either way, there’s a host of things related to such retreats that the people organizing them would often prefer you not to know about. Here are four.

One.  There’s almost always a dogma.

Retreats are hardly ever about you or your needs.  Mostly there’s a dogma – an agenda – that the organizers intended to deliver. They want to teach you their methodology, to do it their way, to subscribe to their beliefs and to their worldview; not only during the retreat itself but frequently, far into the future.  Their methodology is supposedly superior to all others, and you are pressed to accept and use it without question.  That crushing feeling in your spirits is because no room is left for the human being, for your own ingenuity, for your own needs or for recognizing all of you at the retreat as equals, rather than as a group of pupils who know nothing with one instructor who knows everything.  Your own expertise is hardly ever genuinely included in the methodology, and if you have an issue with the methodology, it’s generally glossed over.

Two.  It’s almost always a formula.

The first thing you’ll receive at the retreat, in most cases, is an agenda. There’s nothing wrong with agendas – they supply structure and give people some idea of what to expect – but retreat agendas are typically a rigid order of operations with prescribed activities. Often these also include prescribed and enforced fun. This is hardly ever going to be fun for you. We all have different ideas of what fun and enjoyment is, especially with most workplaces as culturally and personally diverse as they are. What’s fun for some is probably a drag for many. It would be better to leave people to innovate on breaks, and to let these breaks be true breaks and not further imposed activity, but retreat organizers can hardly ever bring themselves to do that.  They want you to behave in a certain way, as a group or as participants rather than as individual human beings, so your time will mostly be prescribed – often even at mealtimes – and you’ll long for that moment when the day ends and you can get back to your room. That’s if they don’t require you for the evenings as well. Sticking to a set formula and agenda is easier for retreat presenters, because they don’t have to innovate and adjust to meet the unique needs of each and every client. It’s understandable.

Three.  Same schtick, different day

Almost every retreat offered to the corporate world is represented as something unique. Perhaps the biggest secret is that most are not. If I were to say classroom sessions, PowerPoint presentations, team building sessions, group meals, a certain amount of enforced fun, and a talk from the management on the bright new future, that’s a formula which covers 99.9% of the corporate retreats you’re ever likely to experience. It’s like the famous Henry Ford in 1908, saying that you could have any color car you wanted, as long as it was black.  The truth is that the retreat you’re about to experience, or the retreat you just went on, probably had exactly the same look and feel as almost every other corporate retreat you have ever done or ever will do. The irony is that your own management actually wants your organization and your work team to be unique and different. They’ve just never seen a retreat design that can achieve that. Retreat presenters typically have a script, and they present the script, and that’s that.  The attraction for the presenters is that almost any reasonably smart person can be trained to follow the script – so it’s easy to deliver their retreats profitably and in quantity.

Four.  It’s all about the alcohol

Perhaps you’ve experienced this yourself. You’re deep into the retreat, maybe it’s night one or night two.  And that’s when someone drapes a moist and heavy arm around your shoulders at the bar and slurringly burps into your ear that really, it’s all about the alcohol.  “Thish is when the real team building happensh”, they slobber into your earlobe. “Thash the best part of the day, you make friends you have some drinksh.”  And as a young intelligence officer I used to think exactly that. I really thought that getting assets drunk was a great idea, because then they’d agree to anything.  The problem was that in the morning they didn’t remember what they’d agreed, or even that any agreements had been made. We all have some pain at work, and the attraction of alcohol is that it instantly makes the pain disappear in a way that is under our control.  But think about it. If the retreat gives you so much pain, or if it does so little for the pain you might bring with you, if PowerPoints and lectures and being told and being treated like a student and an attendee, and longingly looking out of the window in a nice location and wishing you were anywhere, everywhere except in that classroom addresses is your pain so poorly that the only cure for it is a lot of alcohol at night, then where is the value in the retreat?

So do you just give up?

In some cases, maybe. If you are considering spending a lot of time and money on yet another corporate retreat which has delivered little or no benefit to the organization in the past, in the blithe hope that perhaps this time will be different, then you might well be better off saving your money or giving staff a bonus if you can. If on the other hand if you still retain some belief in the value of a retreat, in the idea that there is valence in getting people away from the busywork and the distractions of the office, and in the hope that there might be some way to do it that does not invoke the usual barriers which prevent much value being delivered, then there are some things you can do.

The downside is that you’ll need to do something a bit unusual.  And although it’s often a dirty word in the corporate and government world, you might need to take a bit of a risk. Really effective team and leadership retreats are pretty much only run by visionary leaders willing to stick their necks out for at least a short distance.

You can run your own retreat, but the main downsides are that running your retreat does involve some specialist skills, and also that if you’re running the retreat it’s almost impossible for you to participate. That being the case, you probably do need a partner.

Look above all else for an organization with an approach that is original. You have no chance of driving innovation, creation or originality if you take a mundane approach for the retreat that is supposed to drive it. Look also for credibility.  Insist on a client list, look for relevance to your own special needs, and talk at length to at least a couple of clients. Ask those clients specifically how the organization benefited from the retreat and how it was worth the money spent.  As well, look for results. This can certainly be helped by talking to the would-be supplier’s previous clients and getting anecdotal evidence, but also look for measurable results and demonstrated reported outcomes that you think could apply to you. It is a myth that the benefit of team and leadership retreats cannot be measured simply because many of the issues dealt with are related to human beings and the behaviors of teams. If the results can’t be measured, then there are probably no results, and in any case they can’t be managed – so you have no reason to spend money.

If behavioral change is the goal, know also that the only known method of achieving behavioral change in teams is practice and rehearsal. There’s no benefit whatsoever from PowerPoints, lectures, team building games and enforced fun that translates into changed business behaviors to any useful degree. That’s why surgeons, special forces, astronauts, pilots, senior managers and critical work teams are all trained using simulation in environments where the results really matter.  Seriously consider using a professionally run simulation which includes ownership, flexibility, human energy, real behavioral change and provable results as a way to run your next retreat.

If it doesn’t work, don’t do it again.  But I’d suggest that after one trial with a really professional provider, you might be hooked.


About the author

John Kolm runs Team Results USA, a team and leadership specialist which uses simulation to obtain behavioral change with leadership and work teams. Typical programs last two days offsite and involve custom designing a problem for the client to solve, validating the unique skill sets and needs of everyone involved and treating all participants as equals.

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A Man Called Phud


“Hi”, said the stranger. “My name is Allen Owen Phud.”

“Phud”, I thought. That’s an unusual name.

We were at a corporate reception. It was the usual cast of manager types and specialists in various fields, everything from computer software to team dynamics. I was the team dynamics guy. Music was playing. There were drinks. People were eating tiny things on sticks.

That was when the penny dropped.

“Do you mean… Allen Owen, Ph.D?”, I ventured.

“That’s what I said”, replied Phud, looking a little bit miffed.

Suddenly I was miles away, thinking of some of the brilliant people in whose shadow I’ve had the privilege to stand over a very lucky and varied career. A mathematician – one of the most gifted number theorists of his generation. Another mathematician – the head of a classified Government research institute that is literally only for geniuses, the real place that recruited the fictional Will Hunting. A neuropsychologist at UCLA who is helping to rewrite the book on everything we know about team cognition. A psychiatrist and academic who specializes in insider espionage and has testified at every significant spy trial of the last decade. The head of the large Psychology department at Montgomery College, a noted expert on human sexuality. A woman who ran part of the legendary Lockheed Martin Skunk Works team, and is now Vice-Chancellor at the University of Alaska Fairbanks.

And not a single one of them introduced themselves as “Phud”.

These are some of the most modest, self-effacing, ego-free individuals I’ve met. They are the definitive folks who speak to the janitor and the President of the United States in exactly the same way. Do they have the highest qualifications from the best institutions in the land? Certainly. But they also have a shared understanding that an advanced degree is a qualification for a lifetime spent in inquiry and research, not a ticket to self-promotion and ascendancy over others. It’s a Ph.D, not a Ph.ME.

But Phud was still looking at me. And there I was, with a glass of house Chardonnay in my hand. I’m fairly sure I was supposed to be impressed.

“Well, okay, thanks, nice to meet you, Phud.” I called him Phud for the rest of the night. He seemed upset.

And what about me? Am I just bitter? Do I have any advanced degrees myself? Well, to tell you the truth, in all this excitement, I’ve clean forgotten. (Clint Eastwood. Dirty Harry. Great movie.)

But either way, my mother named me John, and that’s good enough for me.


John Kolm
Team Results USA


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When The Bottom Line Goes Through The Heart

 September 22, 2016

Like me, I’m sure you’re following the Wells Fargo story in the news right now.  In the days since the story broke on September 9th, their share price has fallen by about 10 percent, with no reason to think that won’t continue. On a year-long graph, it looks like stepping off a cliff.  That cliff represents ordinary peoples’ investments – their retirements, their college funds, their life savings.


Sometimes it can be fun to ridicule the “touchy-feely” and the “soft skills” in a workplace as something worthless that’s done only to placate people or to check a box.  And of course, we all know bosses who really believe that team ethics and group dynamics have nothing to do with the bottom line.  Sometimes, and often after a particularly worthless training session, we even agree.  But then I think of the family whose investments just tanked by ten percent in ten days, and who now can’t afford to send their daughter to college.


In the late 1960s, American sociologist Donald Cressey invented the “Fraud Triangle” as a way of explaining the erosion of personal and team ethics.  In Cressey’s model, there are three moving parts.  First, PRESSURE to commit fraud, for example unrealistic sales targets.  Second, OPPORTUNITY, for example access to somebody’s private bank account.  Third, RATIONALIZATION, the old “everybody’s doing it” argument we used to use on our parents.


Following the Enron collapse in 2001, the Sarbanes-Oxley Act of 2002 was introduced to combat the Fraud Triangle.  Looking for a way to tackle team ethics, the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) developed PCAOB Audit Standard 2 of 2004 from Sarbanes-Oxley, quoting as the only offered example of good compliance a document called the COSO Framework 2013 in which the first of 17 stated ethical principles is “Lead by Example”, defined as “the organization demonstrates a commitment to integrity and ethical values”.


And so, at last, the “touchy-feely” idea of team ethics and values became a cornerstone of the hard-nosed financial system at the heart of the legendary “bottom line”.  An idea like this is revolutionary.  Who’d have thought that the tough old SEC would step away from mechanistic systems and procedures and instead embrace the human being at the center of it all?


The truth underlying Sarbanes-Oxley and the new SEC regulations is that all systems will be gamed for as long as the proper group dynamics and common value sets are not there.  When the holes are fixed, the holes themselves will be gamed, and the giant merry-go-round will continue for as long as the calliope plays.  It’s time we stopped referring to teamwork and leadership as “soft skills” or “a matter of opinion”, because in fact there’s nothing harder – and opinion turns out to be everything.  A share price is nothing more than an opinion, which is where we came in.


It’s tempting to think that we can solve problems in systems with more and better systems, and typically that’s the response from unprepared executives in crisis mode, desperate to keep the share price up and their jobs held down.  But as anyone who has ever tried to put an unwilling two-year-old to bed can attest, for every “doing it” way of doing something, there are half a dozen “not doing it” ways.  We don’t lose these skills as we age; we just get more subtle and covert at doing the same things.


If the hard-nosed SEC recognizes an investment in team dynamics as essential to the bottom line, that should be good enough for all of us.  Invest in people, invest in team and leadership development, invest in values, or the game never ends.


Just ask Wells Fargo.



John Kolm


Team Results USA

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Up With The Downside, Down With The Upside

In defense of managers who make weak, maddening non-decisions.

Aug. 26. 2016


Other than accidentally spitting through a closed car window, there can be few things more frustrating than a manager who just won’t take a risk.


Whether it’s a boss who won’t let you take a training course (what if you’re needed while you’re away?), a head of sales who won’t let you push a new product line (what if it fails?) or a supervisor who won’t let you have a new computer (what if it costs money?), working with a risk-averse boss can be like those dreams where you’re trying to run away, but can only move in slow motion as though you were waist-deep in treacle.


So why do they do it?


Here’s a viewpoint you don’t see very often.  People keep their habits because for them, on some level, and even if the harm is very apparent to you, keeping those habits WORKS.  We love things that DEFINITELY work (like smoking) and are very reluctant to give them up for things that MIGHT work (like quitting).


Managers make frustrating, short-sighted, counter-innovative, opportunity-denying and risk-averse decisions BECAUSE  IT WORKS.  In most organizations, making these types of frustrating decisions is their best path to survival.


In this country that produced everyone from Thomas Edison to Henry Ford to Steve Jobs, you might well ask why.  Isn’t this the land of entrepreneurial spirit, risk and reward?  The answer to that, believe it or not, has to do with math and game theory.  Don’t panic, there are no equations in what’s left of this article.


Two criminal suspects are arrested, separated, and invited to turn each other in. Depending on the choices they make, somebody could get a long jail term and somebody could get a plea bargain; it depends on who double-crosses who first, and how.  Perhaps you’ve heard of this famous decision game – it’s called the Prisoner’s Dilemma.


For a manager making a decision, say whether to let you take a course, there’s always an upside (you’ll be happy and better trained) and a downside (you’ll be away and it costs money). Associated with each is a PROBABILITY of that outcome.  That probability is rarely 50/50.  We don’t have much faith in the State lottery because, while the upside is huge, the associated probability is almost nil.  On the other hand, a lottery ticket costs a buck – very little downside.


So now to you, your manager, and the corporate culture you both operate in.  In a government agency or a large company, especially if they’ve been around a long time, most often making a good and risky decision has a low upside (the big boss says “well done”) and a very large downside (you’re seen as non-promotable).  Imagine a simple table – one decision, an upside for success and a downside for failure, and an associated likelihood for each.  Even when the probability of the downside is very low, if the downside is big enough, it gives you pause.  Likewise if the upside probability is high but the actual upside is very small, who cares?


We usually think the disagreement with the boss is about the possible upside and low downside – why can’t they see it?  In fact, it’s almost always about the probabilities.  The boss doesn’t see these the way you do, and chances are, the truth is somewhere in the middle.  If that training course has an 80 percent chance of making you slightly happier and a 20 percent chance of getting the boss carpeted for your being away, that’s the decision table for that dilemma.  What would you do, as the boss?  Especially if you have 20 staff, and can only be yelled at by the big boss so many times before you’re in big trouble?


When you ask for something, be realistic about the upside, the downside, and the probability of each.  Bosses get to be bosses because they have good survival instincts, and they are resistant to B.S.  If you show that you’ve thought through the decision game for what you’re asking for, that starts the discussion from a place of honesty, and that’s your best chance of making a deal.


May you be the prisoner that gets a plea bargain!



John Kolm


Team Results USA

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Congratulations, You’re A Marine

April 16, 2016


Little Jimmy Smith joined the Marine Corps at age 19, and he was full of excitement.


Imagine his surprise when he arrived at boot camp to find not people doing pushups, crawling through mud or stripping and reassembling rifles but instead, a large and well-lit room full of computers.


“It’s the new way of training Marines!”, barked the virtual Drill Sergeant avatar on Jimmy’s screen.  “We do everything online now!” he screamed.  So Jimmy turned the volume down.


After six grueling weeks of online scenarios and tests, Jimmy got his first service-related injury.  During a particularly tough Pentagon policy questionnaire, he pulled a muscle in his mouse-clicking finger.  Recovering bravely, and even as many of his classmates dropped out or were dismissed, at thirteen weeks he finally sat for the big online test, scored a whopping 94 percent, and graduated.  “Congratulations, son!”, said the class leader, handing Jimmy his rifle.  “You’re a Marine!”


Okay, so you’re laughing.  You know perfectly well that the U.S. Marine Corps may use computers, but that they’d never train Marines solely online.  Neither would the other services, or the police, or a school for heart surgeons.  And yet, there are people out there seriously arguing that all the training for your own job can be done online, and that you don’t need to attend face-to-face training or programs with travel and a residential requirement any more.


Are you less important than a soldier?  A police officer?  Even a doctor?  Is your job so inconsequential that the things Jimmy would miss by never training hands-on don’t matter for you at all?  You may not be stripping and reassembling a rifle or re-plumbing a heart, but how about leadership?  What about handling tough situations?  Finding good team strategies?  Coping with noise and distractions and people demanding attention?  Handling the unpredictable and unexpected?  Handling angry customers? Surviving or running a performance review? Dealing with stress?


Mike Tyson, who should know, once said “Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the face.”  That’s why online training simply doesn’t work when ACTION is the needed result.  Where intellectual UNDERSTANDING is all that’s needed, online has the potential to work if done well, and you can deliver that kind of training much more cheaply than you used to.


But don’t kid yourself that online training can suffice by itself for handling real-world face-to-face challenges.  Human beings are not avatars, nor are they disembodied minds who handle everything with cool intellect in the calm of the classroom.   Rather, managers and organizations that don’t have much faith in training to begin with are attracted to entirely-online solutions because it allows them to check the box – “Trained the team” – on their training plan for a lot less money, and since it never worked anyway, what’s the difference?


The commonest published argument for all-online training has to do with the didactic imperative, but that’s a red herring.  The real driver for online training in organizations is that it saves on travel and absences and is very, very cheap.  It’s all about the money, honey.


And incidentally, elites will always train face-to-face.  Online or not, the corporate board, the top managers, the high-flyers, the selected few are not going to give up their leadership retreats anytime soon.  It’s just the rest of you for whom all-online training is good enough.  We’re in the process of creating a new class barrier between the opportunity-rich and the opportunity-poor.


Smart people know that the dynamics of a group are simply too complicated to predict in a linear, pre-programmed way.  Humans are living organisms, and in any group there are a thousand variables going in all directions all at the same time, complicated by emotions, reactions, the vital role of all senses in the way we really think, feel and act, memory that only works when the emotional context and the situation are both similar to the real-world physical environment, thinking that’s intimately connected to and inseparable from the physical world and our physical being, and above all the reality that we are whole humans who only the least-informed, most out-of-touch and most arrogant would think for a moment can be accurately programmed and mapped out in full detail on a computer screen.


Think I’m overstating it?  Okay.  Next time you need some Marines to protect you at a U.S. embassy, a few police to save you from being mugged, or a quadruple bypass done on your heart, pick the folks whose training was all done in front of a computer screen.


Online training is great, but that doesn’t make it the answer to everything – any more than the invention of cars ended the joys of walking.  The right balance is to use online training for what it does best, and hands-on training for what that does best.  The history of innovation is that mature organizations seek balance, while immature organizations lose their heads over the latest bright shiny thing.  Anybody remember flared pants, VHS videos and Beanie Babies?


What it really comes down to is whether or not your organization values you, and whether senior managers believe that real training can cause behavioral change.  If the answer to either question is “no”, then that’s the place where the pendulum will swing completely off the scale and online training will be seen as the answer to everything.


And that might also be the time for you to start looking for another job.



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Conflict Till The Last Trump

March 17, 2016


You can learn many things from watching a presidential race, not all of them political.


The combination of high stakes and detailed media coverage surrounding the Republican race to the nomination, for example, allows you to view everyday office and workplace dynamics through the lens of a high-profile struggle that everyone can identify with.


In one corner, we have a number of relatively “traditional” Republican presidential contenders.  They serve the role of the “usual players” in any organization.  These people guard the status quo and tend to traditionally staff the middle to senior management ranks.  Top ranks and C-level positions are normally selected from a competing field of these players, for good or ill.


In the opposing corner, we of course have Donald Trump.  Setting his politics entirely to one side, Trump represents the new and disruptive force of change.  When disruptive forces hit established organizational structures, there is usually very little warning, and certainly the established players almost never see the signs.  It could be a new person, as with Trump, or a change in industry practice, consumer habits, government policy or a wide range of other things. The disruptive force arrives like a miniature tornado, knocking over the furniture, upsetting well-established norms, angering some people, delighting others and throwing still others into uncertainty and doubt.


Work teams, like all living systems, react to threats in a way that is fairly predictable to people who study such things.  Those whose hope for benefit from a change in the game – or even from throwing the game board away – exceeds their perceived benefit from playing the old game are usually enthusiastic supporters of disruptive change.  There are certainly a great number of these supporting Donald Trump.  The war-cry of this tribe sounds like “Anything would be better than what we have!”


Then there are those who are doing well within the status quo.  For them, their present roles, survival and benefits are good and also very well-defined.   In the Republican presidential race, this of course is the Party itself and its established leaders and candidates.  A disruptive change may help them or hurt them – most often it will hurt – but the key point for them is not the possible benefit of change but the uncertainly it brings.  Their war-cry is something like “Whoa, bad idea, not so fast!”


Italian strategist Niccolo Machiavelli thought that the forces of conservatism would always be greater than the force for disruptive change, because those who stand to lose are certain they will lose, while those who hope to benefit are merely hoping, and therefore make lukewarm supporters.  As anyone who works in a large organization can tell you, Machiavelli is right most of the time.  But as the history of revolutions, strikes, political upsets and industrial disputation will tell you, sometimes the hope for change from chaos is so great that it overcomes the establishment’s fear of loss.  That’s when you get very surprising CEO appointments, expected candidates not getting the jobs they were expected to get, and possibly – just possibly – a history-making upset in the Republican party.


Although the candidates would like to think of themselves as independent-minded people who are choosing their own path, as do both traditional leaders and disruptors at your workplace, when seen from a sufficiently elevated perspective they are actually pieces on a game board.  Folks who study team and leadership dynamics in a scientific way play out and simulate “serious games” like this all the time.  There’s a limited number of choices available to each player, and therefore a limited number of possible choices for game play.  Each of these has its own –probably different – payoff for, say, you, as a voter or as a member somewhere in a workplace team structure.  Usually the variables are so complicated that all you can do is simulate the outcomes and make decisions based on the odds.


As a voter or as a person in a workplace team watching the titans battle far above you, you, too, have only a limited number of choices.  You can engage and choose a winner, engage and try a more nuanced support strategy, or disengage.  Most people in a team will select the first or last of these choices.


If you bet on an uncertain winner and win, then you can start waiting for the expected benefits – and you may be right or wrong in that expectation.  If you disengage, you increase your certainty of safety from bad personal consequences but still have the uncertainly of being affected by the eventual outcome.  And if you try to stay engaged but balanced, not committing until and unless you have to, you’re trading certainty against payoff.  Increasing one reduces the other, to the extent that the real outcome affects you.


For the individual Republican candidates, none of this helps much, because they are probably only going to get one shot at playing the game – one “round”, as we team simulators say.  For them, that makes it a crapshoot.


But for the Republican Party, and for you at work, you will play many rounds of this “game”.  You and the Party are in it for the long haul.  Because of that, you CAN use gaming and simulation to maximize your odds of a good result, just as the Republican powerbrokers are doing right now in a war room.


What’s your own situation at work?  Is it changes in the senior management?  A new supervisor?  A change in your industry?  Budget cuts?  A new project you want to be on?  Whatever it is, game out the decisions in a simple diagram.  Be sure to consider not just the payoff to you for each consequence but the likelihood of that consequence.  It’s that second step that people usually miss, unless they really game it out and then simulate a few rounds of possible outcomes.


For most of us at work, someone else designs the game, just as the candidates don’t choose the debate formats or the primary voting rules – much to their frustration.  For most of us, the game pieces are also decided by others, and the player we get to be – and the rules we must follow – are also assigned to us.  With these things set outside our control, it’s easy to feel powerless, to give up, or to make impulsive choices in hopes of a random stab at good outcomes.


But in fact the quality of game you play, and the strategies you research, simulate and choose, are entirely up to you.


John Kolm


Team Results USA


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Rejection Man                         

 January 21, 2016


Meet Rejection Man.


Superman can fly.  Batman has money.  Spiderman can climb skyscrapers.  These are their superpowers.  But what, you ask, is the superpower for Rejection Man?




You’ll meet him – or her – in some workplaces. It’s the person who refuses to engage in any optional interaction.  The one who walks out when the consultants come, and won’t co-operate at all.  The one who says “I’m not going” when there’s training.  Often, it’s said with great conviction, with implacable opposition even when there’s no compulsion, and with an angry smile.


Sometimes people at work get so beaten up by life and by real or perceived injustices that they give up on themselves.  They cease to believe that they can have any effect on the world.  As soon as that happens, they lose all affinity for the world.  Affinity is the “glue” that makes us want to stick to things.  No affinity, no glue – we peel away from the world and give up.  Kids take to drugs.  Adults at work take to an equally simple, one-size-fits-all solution which, at the time, can seem like a real epiphany.




It’s our one guaranteed superpower.  It’s the one thing we can always do.  When the world doesn’t go our way, when we feel treated badly, when no-one listens or cares, when we have no influence or power, we can always still reject the world.  When a person is beaten down as badly as that, rejection is the only superpower that’s left.  It’s the one power that can never be taken away, the one they control completely.


People who feel punished and powerless in the face of indifference and rejection from the world will punish the world back with equal or greater indifference and rejection.  It’s the worst punishment they can think of.  That explains the retribution with angry silence, the implacable refusals, the triumphant grin that has a huge tear behind it.  These people are drowning.  They are using the one strategy they trust.  Take away that crutch, and they feel as if you are asking them to live without oxygen.  It’s exactly the same fear an addict has of losing access to their drug.


Rejection Man is found most often in workplaces where rejection is possible, or permissible.  In a workplace where non-cooperators get fired, Rejection Man can’t find a place to hide; you will find different pathologies (like not telling truth to power) in these workplaces.  Rejection Man thrives in workplaces where they can’t get fired and can’t be separated.  It’s a very stable unholy trinity, with Rejection Man as the victim, the workplace as the oppressor, and the single-minded strategy of rejection as the savior.  It’s called a “victim triangle” and it can last for a whole career.


It is not reasonable to expect Rejection Man or Rejection Woman to “just co-operate”, to throw away the one crutch they still own.  First, slowly, gently, they need something else to lean on; usually something they have learned to fear and hate through repeated negative conditioning, repeated electric shocks.  The only bridge back is to find some human affinity, somewhere, by de-conditioning the aversive reactions they have to most inputs.  With patience and time, sometimes good leadership at the workplace can help Rejection Man find affinity for something positive, for alternative strategies to constant rejection.  Sometimes it’s impossible – it is more than a workplace boss can or should do, and it crosses the boundary into amateur psychotherapy, which you should never do.  Sometimes you will have to put the team first, and walk away, and feel bad.  That’s part of leadership, too.



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A Brief Explanation of MBTI Type

December 21, 2015

ISTJ: These letters in no way define you. They are based on bad science and charlatanism. Your fate is not written down anywhere. Do what excites you, and pursue the dreams you really want.

ISFJ: These letters in no way define you. They are based on bad science and charlatanism. Your fate is not written down anywhere. Do what excites you, and pursue the dreams you really want.

INFJ: These letters in no way define you. They are based on bad science and charlatanism. Your fate is not written down anywhere. Do what excites you, and pursue the dreams you really want.

INTJ: These letters in no way define you. They are based on bad science and charlatanism. Your fate is not written down anywhere. Do what excites you, and pursue the dreams you really want.

ISTP: These letters in no way define you. They are based on bad science and charlatanism. Your fate is not written down anywhere. Do what excites you, and pursue the dreams you really want.

ISFP: These letters in no way define you. They are based on bad science and charlatanism. Your fate is not written down anywhere. Do what excites you, and pursue the dreams you really want.

INFP: These letters in no way define you. They are based on bad science and charlatanism. Your fate is not written down anywhere. Do what excites you, and pursue the dreams you really want.

INTP: These letters in no way define you. They are based on bad science and charlatanism. Your fate is not written down anywhere. Do what excites you, and pursue the dreams you really want.


If you let others define you, you have no-one to blame but yourself.

Team Results USA's photo.


A Thought Experiment

November 19, 2015


“Imagination is more important than knowledge”.

– Albert Einstein


Let’s imagine that you take a staff climate survey of your organization, and discover that 80 percent of your people are unhappy.  Unless you work in an industry where it literally makes no difference how unhappy or disconnected your staff is, you’d more than likely assume that an 80 percent dissatisfaction rate means trouble.  Absenteeism, inefficiency, staff turnover and even low-level crimes like stealing are all quite likely in such an obviously unhappy workplace.


Now let’s, in our imagination, dial that staff dissatisfaction figure down to 50 percent.  Still a problem?  How about 20 percent?  Or five percent?


For decades, leaders and managers have been taught that the magic number is around 20 percent.  That figure is loosely based on the work of the 19th century Italian economist Vilfredo Pareto.  In the leadership world of our parents, grandparents and anyone over 30, we were taught to assume that any staff problems under 20 percent are more or less okay, and any staff problems over 20 percent are more or less not.  That’s based on Pareto’s view that around 80 percent of your leadership problems will come from the unhappy 20 percent – something you can more or less live with.


Pareto lived at the height of the industrial age.  In that time, it was natural to think of people and organizations as machines, governed by much the same general principles.  If 20 percent of the weaving machines in your factory were out of action, you could probably still (barely) operate.  Therefore, the figures and considerations would be much the same for your workforce.


In the post-industrial age, we’ve rediscovered complexity, nonlinearity and chaos.  In the process, we’ve also rediscovered that organizations, teams, groups, economies and nations function much more like living things than they do like machines.  They grow and die; they rely on feedback to survive and adapt; both large and small things can make them sick; and their driving imperative is always survival.


Enron, the giant energy and commodities company, was brought down in 2001 by a handful of employees.  The Tiananmen Square (1989) and Arab Spring (2010) democracy movements both began with a few hundred protesters.  Barings Bank, the Queen of England’s bank founded in 1762, was brought down over a 24-hour period in 1995 by one employee.  None of these events was foreseen.  After all, a manager using the Pareto rule would be compelled to dismiss the signs in every case.


It’s important to note that this has always been true.  Aside from the accelerating social effects of technology, human beings have not changed at all.  All that’s really changed are our models and understandings of how we work in groups.  Many great changes in human and business history have had tiny beginnings, just as they do in living things.  All life begins with a single cell, as do all cancers.  World War One began with a single assassination.


The implications for modern business and government can seem a little bit frightening.  At first blush, it now looks as though you have to panic if even ten people in your 2,000-person organization – less than half a percent – are dissatisfied.  How on earth do you manage that?


Let’s return to the thought experiment, plugging in a five percent dissatisfaction rate.  And now let’s add something Pareto didn’t really address  – a feedback loop.  That’s the secret of all living things.  Cut the feedback loop and living things die very quickly.  In this new experiment, we don’t know if a five percent dissatisfaction rate is a problem or not; but we monitor it with constant feedback.  That way, if the problem grows, we’ll experience early warning signs and can take fast action.  Living things don’t seek feedback every twelve months and then dismiss it in the way that most organizations do.  Rather, feedback is a 24-hour, seven-day thing and is built into their physiology and design.


That’s where the modern, globalized world of leadership is going.  The good news for traditionalists is that an understanding of this is not compulsory.


But then, as a former president of Harvard once said, neither is survival.


John Kolm


Team Results USA

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Team Blood Pressure

 November 3, 2015


High blood pressure has no symptoms.  For many people, the first symptom of undiagnosed high blood pressure is a stroke or a heart attack.


Work teams are no different.  Sudden crises in a work team – an erupting conflict, say, or a nasty accusation that throws the group into chaos – are very often the first symptoms of pressure that has been building for some time.  Unobserved and often with few or no warning signs, the pressure slowly rises until something blows or pops like an artery.  The resulting crisis can seem as though it fell out of a clear blue sky, but in the great majority of cases, it didn’t.  Like the slow train in the song, it’s been coming around the curve for some time – if only we could have seen.  Looking around that curve is one of your most important jobs as a leader or a responsible team member.


Detecting and monitoring team blood pressure requires regular checkups.   Every time you have a periodic visit with your team, no matter what the reason, begin by checking blood pressure – just as your doctor does.  Weekly meetings are ideal.  Get them to vote anonymously on how they balance across four quadrants – Task pressure (Task), Mental stress (Intellect), Team spirit (Spirit) and their own spirits (Emotion).  Stick a piece of paper with four labeled quadrants on top of a cheap dart board and have them stick in one map pin per person to register where they are today on this circular map.


Too many pins in the Task and Intellect quadrant represents dangerously high blood pressure – something in the team is at risk of blowing.  Too many pins in the Spirit and Emotion quadrant represents dangerously low blood pressure –the team may be about to coast to a stop.  Look for balance around the center and you’ll soon develop good instincts for diagnosing “The Circle”.


Treatment is a different matter and may require qualified help.  Avoid herbal remedies, chanting, sacrificing chickens, and charlatans of all kinds.  Look for properly qualified specialists who GET YOU RESULTS, not lecturers who want to sell you magic talking and Powerpoint training.  Hearing somebody’s well-touted theory on what causes high blood pressure will not help you in any way.  Also, beware of “theories” – all different – from people who are trying to sell you something.  The only thing that counts is RESULTS – unbiased reports you get from other teams who have used the same approach and got good and lasting outcomes.  Referrals are everything, and are how you tell the difference between a physician and a fake psychic.


And now of course it’s back to measurement.  If you don’t get a sustained and measured return to a healthy team blood pressure, then the treatment was a failure, and that’s that.  It makes no difference how beautiful the theory sounded.   Move on without regret.  Do not give up.


The great majority of teams never check their blood pressure.  That’s why so many workplaces are  characterized by sudden crises and blowups that demoralize everybody.  Just a little bit of science and common sense – measure, treat, measure again – can make all the difference.


Try it and the results may well amaze you.


John Kolm


Team Results USA


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Select Yourself

July 2, 2015

It’s probably a fair assumption that most of us want to be successful at work.  We want to do well.  If there’s a preferred group or favored clique that gets special things, we’d like to be in it.  If there’s a little “club” of people who get all the best opportunities, we’d like to be part of it.  And if there’s gold-plated career development offered to the “worthy ones”, we’d like to be one of the “worthy ones”.


Traditionally, you had to rely on your employer for that honor.  Even as you look around most workplaces today, you’ll still see people and groups who get special or privileged treatment from management – for reasons varying from excellent to very bad.  Almost all workplaces have islands of opportunity; favored and disfavored people; resourced and non-resourced areas; selected and non-selected tribes. And for many, this already-excluding system seems to be getting worse.


But like the eight-ninths of the iceberg that hides beneath the surface, there’s more going on.


What’s actually happening is that, as people spend less and less time in one organization, employers simply can’t afford to develop most peoples’ careers in the way that they used to.  There has never been less resource for organization-wide career development.  Those gold-plated, “favored” career resources are being offered to fewer and fewer people in more and more specialized areas.  All in all, you can easily end up feeling like the last penguin left behind on an ever-shrinking iceberg.


Some overwhelmed employers today (remember, the changing environment can be as frustrating for them as it is for you) would much rather classify people into streams using completely scientifically-discredited “personality tests” – they might as well read tea-leaves – and then distribute the limited and decreasing development resources on that basis.  If that’s your workplace, you might want to leave.


But most people will put up with that silliness, hope for the best, and cross their fingers that opportunity will knock on their door regardless.  They’ll let themselves be classified by personality type and the work they happen to be doing now, by background and social standing, and by anything else that occurs to the higher-ups.  They will allow their employer to define them completely.  And then they’ll be quietly resentful when they are treated according to that definition.


It is absolutely vital in the new workplace that you do not others define you.  Never give up that right.


The good news is that you no longer need to be selected or anointed or defined in the right way by some high-up manager before you can get the opportunity you deserve.  In the modern workplace, you can simply select yourself.  And you deserve to be selected.


It is up to you to find the special opportunity you need, and then to make it happen.  Finding the right kind of development that gets you where you want to be has never been easier, the choices have never been better, the need has never been greater, and the cavalry isn’t coming.


Start with research.  Look for professional development – on the web and through networks – that is properly run by qualified people, that has a good name, that has excellent references which you can confirm through your own checking, and which has already provably helped people like you get to the kinds of places in your working life that you would dearly love to be.  Don’t believe the hype from providers.  Start with that by all means, but then do your own rigorous and diligent checking.


Also look for professional development that includes fabulous networking with the type of people who can help you get where you want to go.  Education in itself is nowhere near enough.  You will do much better with networks and contacts than you will with qualifications alone.  There are plenty of unhappy, under-promoted, under-resourced people out there with advanced degrees.


After that, go and see your leadership and try to do a deal.  Maybe they’ll pay for it.  Maybe you have to pay for it, but they’ll adjust your hours or duties to fit.  Maybe they’ll help with resources like books or the use of a car.  Maybe they’ll laugh at you.  But you have to try.


If you can’t make any kind of deal with your employer, see if there’s some professional development you can do that has no impact on your paying job.  And if you can’t do that, adjust your settings and try again soon.  Sometimes the time just isn’t right, and employers are not in a position to help you.


But what if your workplace consistently blocks you from opportunity that you need in order to get where you want to go in life and work?  Well, that’s when you keep your current position for now, but start aggressively networking in off-hours to get a job somewhere more friendly to your needs.


The alternative in today’s workplace is to become an accidental tourist, going nowhere you want to go.  One day soon you’ll look at your 55-year-old face in the bathroom mirror and think “Oh no”.


A lot of professional development providers are still on the old model, dealing direct with big companies or agencies and hoping to land big deals.  But many providers have woken up, offering development in small, digestible, affordable chunks to people who want to take charge of their own careers.  Look for these providers, and look for people who really want to help you.


Never let others define you.  Select yourself.  Take charge today.




On the one hand, marketing is cheesy.  On the other, I do run a training company for a living, and I’d be a bit of a hypocrite if I gave this advice while doing nothing about it myself.  So for what it’s worth, yes, we do offer a professional leadership development program that is specifically designed for individual people who want to take charge of their future.  It’s cheap, fast, local, and yet is the same world-class training offered to fast-track groups at places like Pfizer and the State Department.  If you want somewhere to start on your search, take a look here.

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Making Bad Training Investments                           

or MBTI For Short                                      

July 2, 2015


Are you an ENTJ? Good for you! That’s the best MBTI personality type to have. You have leadership potential. You’re bound for the fast track. And those INTJ people? Well, they may have bad personalities, but they’re great on detail. They’ll make good clerical staff.

If you know what I’m talking about, then you, too, will have been subjected to a personality typing instrument known as the MBTI. It’s immensely popular, and if you have done the MBTI, it was probably run at your workplace by a “consultant”. And if you had a queasy feeling before, during and afterward, you are not alone.

The MBTI is a questionnaire written in 1942 by a mother-and-daughter team with no background in psychology at all. The mother was an agriculturalist and the daughter was a political scientist. It’s based on a misinterpretation of the work of Swiss psychologist Carl Gustav Jung published in 1923, kinda like you or me attempting open heart surgery with zero qualifications and the “how-to” book in one hand.

Not that you’d know it from the hype, but the MBTI is not a scientific methodology or an established professional technique at all. It’s a commercial for-sale product like Coke or a Big Mac – but unlike Coke or a Big Mac, the MBTI has been scientifically discredited since its inception 60-plus years ago. Organizations which have rejected the MBTI as measuring nothing of value include the nonprofit Educational Testing Service – way back in the sixties – and the U.S. Army Research Institute. Yet it continues to hang around, like a maiden aunt with halitosis.

The scientific objections to the MBTI are too numerous to list here – see the references at the end. Just a few of these objections include published research showing that there is no statistical basis for the “personality types” claimed by the MBTI, that about half the test-takers will end up with a different “personality type” when two MBTIs are taken five weeks apart, that over 80% of the differences in people’s MBTI scores are not accounted for by the MBTI model, and that – get this – there is no evidence at all of any connection between MBTI “type” and success or happiness within an occupation. Some great salesmen are EFTPs, others are INTJs. The same goes for computer programmers, military generals and chicken sexers. All the “MBTI type” does in these areas is foster existing prejudice, mislead managers and deny career opportunities to you.

If you just want to have fun with the MBTI, go to it. The results are cleverly written in complimentary language that’s vague enough and easy enough to agree with – “You are innovative and a clever problem solver, good with people, but don’t care for details”. If this sounds like a horoscope, a fortune cookie or a psychic reading, that’s no accident. This phenomenon is known as the “Barnum Effect”, named after the “great entertainer”, PT Barnum. It’s also known to every salesman and politician in the country.

Your staff could obtain more fun and benefit from completing the “Are You a Great Lover?” questionnaire in Cosmo, painting each others’ toenails or staging a pillow fight. And it’s cheaper, too. Even if you use silk pillows.

Or if you prefer, you can become an MBTI “consultant” yourself, as can your local plumber or garbage collection professional. It’s about 1500 bucks for the course. There are no prerequisities. Have a terrific career when you get branded as an Introvert by a consultant “expert” like Bob the (former) trash man.

Ironically, I can’t think of any great intellectual leader in modern psychology who would be more affronted, more viscerally offended, by the idea of the MBTI than Carl Gustav Jung himself. Jung’s life was dedicated to the idea that the human psyche is by nature religious, and even if you don’t agree with him, there is no great genius in the history of psychology who was more human, more engaged in the human spirit and more dedicated to the uniqueness of each individual than Jung.

Since Jung isn’t alive to say it, I’ll say it for him. The idea of labeling people as though they were different kinds of breakfast cereal in a supermarket aisle is more than just silly or scientifically wrong.

It’s simply immoral.


1. Pittenger, P. D. (1993). Measuring the MBTI and Coming Up Short. Journal of Career Planning and Placement , Fall.

2. Zemke. (1992). Second Thoughts About The MBTI. Training , April v29 n4 p43.

John Kolm
Team Results USA


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April 26, 2015



You’re in a meeting.  Maybe it’s useful, maybe it isn’t.  But presumably, if you all could just focus for half an hour, you might reach some conclusions.


That’s when the first cellphone rings.  Someone stands up sheepishly, gives the universal “What are you gonna do?” gesture, and steps away from the meeting table.  Not so far, mind, that you can’t hear their conversation – oh no.  In an attempt to show that they are kinda still at the meeting, they stay yakking while in the doorway.  Now everyone’s listening to a thrilling one-sided conversation about stock levels.


That gives two other people a chance to check their Iphones.  They’re scrolling messages, checking the Weather Channel, but still keeping half an eyeball on the meeting, looking up now and again.  Just to show that they’re fully participating.


What were we talking about?  Oh, yeah.  Someone picks up the thread.  Suddenly you’re all making progress again – communication is happening.


That’s when Bill walks in.  “Sorry I’m late.  Something came up.”  Pause while Bill finds a chair, sits down, opens his backpack, gets back up, pours a coffee, says hi to Jolene, sits down again.


Cellphone Guy comes back, but now Cellphone Gal’s phone buzzes.  Amazing how “silent” mode is even more annoying than a ringtone.  Cellphone Gal is one of those special people who doesn’t even get up.  Nope, she stays seated and takes the call right there.  But she speaks softly, you know.  So as not to disrupt the meeting.  Everyone is straining to overhear.


Back to the agenda.  Where were we?  Who was the last person speaking?  Oh yeah.  Had you finished?


Iphone Checker One sees people glaring and puts away his Iphone.  Iphone Checker Two hasn’t even looked up yet.  Now two more folks see a chance to stare at their Iphones – Checkers Three and Four.


Did we reach an agreement on that last agenda point?  Better wait till Phil gets back in the room.  It’s his baby.  Let’s move on.  Sarah, the floor’s yours.


“Yeah well”, says Sarah.  “I told you I’d have to leave early.  Nothing I can do.  And,” (Sarah checks her watch), “there’s not enough time – four minutes – to cover this properly.”  Sarah starts packing her things.


Let’s start on the next item.  Oh, wait, Phil’s back.  Five minute delay while we all reprise the discussion Phil missed, trying to remember what we each said.


Faith notices that you look annoyed.  She turns to you pityingly, and in her best patronizing tone, says “That’s just how it is in the workplace today.  Millenials have no problem with it – they multi-task.  It’s only us older people who expect to have attention focused on one thing.  Millenials are a new species of human being.  They are not like us.”


The meeting ends raggedly as people wander out, checking their Iphones.  Just you and Millenial Mary are left.  Mary is 22 years old.


“So, did it make some kind of sense to you?”, you ask Mary hopefully.


“Nope”, she replies.  “You guys have lousy discipline.  If you ask me, your meetings are a waste of time.”


Now the room is empty.  All that’s left, lying on the floor, is one sad copy of the Agenda.


It says “Mindfulness – Being In the Moment.  Our New Corporate Commitment”.


The lights turn out automatically.



John Kolm


Team Results USA


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Dec. 10, 2014



Don’t shout it from the rooftops, but most managers and most employees in a workplace have good intentions.  Really.  And one of the commonest good intentions of bosses is to do what they can for employee wellbeing.


So why does it so often go wrong? Why do good intentions end up as eye-rolling “teambuilding” sessions, semi-compulsory golf days, and reward schemes that completely miss the mark?  With good intentions going in, how can it be that workers are cynical and managers are frustrated so much of the time?  Why do employee wellbeing initiatives so often end up looking like an episode of The Office?


The answer is remarkably simple.  If I offered you a choice of refreshing drinks that included carrot juice, beetroot juice and prune juice, you probably wouldn’t want any of them.  The fault doesn’t lie with your willingness to be my guest or my desire to be hospitable; rather it lies with the fact that all my choices are bad.


In the workplace, most of the choices organizations make for wellbeing are bad choices, selected from a worn and hackneyed list of alternatives that don’t work particularly well.


The problem with making better choices is that you only know what you know.  That’s especially true when you have a thousand other priorities to handle, no time to spend on extended investigations of alternative ways to help wellbeing, and no willingness to risk something “weird” that might fail.  It’s not that we lack imagination, more that the pressures of the everyday force us into familiar choices.


The great irony is that wellbeing is so trendy now.  Good leaders have always known that wellbeing is at the heart of any decent work team, but now we have a situation where everyone wants to get on the bandwagon – and the bandwagon has a broken axle.


While still Chairman of the Federal reserve a couple of years ago, Ben Bernanke appealed for a measure of human welfare as a key economic indicator, to sit alongside more traditional indicators of economic health.  Rather than appealing to old and tired methods of promoting welfare in the workplace, Bernanke was appealing for fresh ideas and new thinking.


Here are five hints for avoiding hackneyed, mundane, quiet-groan-inducing non-solutions for employee wellbeing that make staff long for retirement or death.  Or if you are not the boss, here are five things to suggest to the boss if she or he is taking inputs.


1.            Don’t feel that, as the boss, it’s up to you to come up with a solution.  Include your team, ask for thoughts, and give them some power and creation.  Developing a good strategy to help people be really creative at work (when it’s appropriate) is a much better use of your time and “boss” expertise than calling six laser tag companies.


2.            Don’t intrude on peoples’ private time.  Even in the best job, we need to get away and to decompress.  For the majority of your workforce – whatever they may say to your face – a “golf day” on a Saturday is a day at work, not a day off.


3.            Do encourage people to take charge of their own welfare.  Your role is to get expert advice (for yourself as a boss, and for your staff if they ask), to make resources available (yes, that means spending money), and to demonstrate by your actions that you take staff welfare seriously.


4.            Do make sure that all personal styles are catered for.  Not everyone enjoys raucous team-based activities for extroverts, and unless you run a company of game show hosts, not everyone needs to.  Leave some personal space.  Avoid activities where everyone has to have the same personality type in order for it to be fun or beneficial.


5.            Do make it an all-the-time thing.  You’ll get far better results from a small monthly or weekly investment in wellbeing than you will from an annual convulsive effort to “validate” people in a cheesy way.  Learn from the truly happy workplaces, where it’s an everyday thing, not a once-a-year rubber chicken thing.


If your wellbeing program is well done, funnily enough your team will probably get more benefit, creation and power from taking charge of their wellbeing development activities than they will from the activities themselves.  And that’s fine.  In fact, that’s how you’ll know you’ve won.


And start by reaching for all those old choices, those compulsory sports days, the teambuilders teaching juggling, and the consultants lecturing your beaten-down team.  Reach for these options, take firm hold, and throw them over your shoulder with great force.



John Kolm


Team Results USA


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November 13, 2014


Perhaps it was easy to have a strong opinion if you were Ben Bradlee.

The late, legendary journalist and seventies-era Washington Post editor was known for his muscular views on such things as journalistic independence, but by then he was already a legend – especially after the Watergate scandal broke in 1972. Some would say that it’s easier to express strong views when you’re the Managing Editor than when you work in a cubicle as a mid- to junior-level journalist.

The irony is that I work with CEOs every day, and they are the ones who want to hear strong views and dissenting opinions. There is nothing that annoys most CEOs more than being surrounded by managers and advisors who will only tell them good news. One of the Medici popes, on being crowned, is supposed to have said “I have heard the truth for the last time”.

The people in most organizations who punish truth-tellers and holders of contrary opinions are the middle managers. That’s because middle managers almost always have more to lose from truth-tellers and strong views than they have to gain. The CEO – or Managing Editor – is in the corner office because they have demonstrated exceptional judgment and are at the top of their profession. The middle managers haven’t yet, and aren’t. Good CEOs think about the future of the organization and want to hear new ideas and views. Even good middle managers have to think about their careers and themselves. The CEO and the “crazy ideas” person on the bottom rung of the organization often have a great deal in common. They are free to dream.

Bradlee’s genius was not just in being a great journalist, but in encouraging greatness in others. To do that, he had to bring each middle manager along with him, to demonstrate that they would not be considered dull or a squeaky wheel if strong views came from members of their department. He more than once responded to nervous queries from staffers about publishing controversial stories with “If it’s the truth, I don’t give a ****”. Crude perhaps, but Bradlee was doing more than giving the OK to a line of journalism; he was also demonstrating to his middle managers that having courage and standing out would be rewarded.

It’s easy to decry middle managers, but they have the hardest job in any organization. They get pressure from both above and below, are in competition for promotion in a field where most don’t succeed, and depend heavily on peer popularity and support for the success of the projects on which they are judged. With daily demands from staff, constant evaluation by senior leaders and the need to please rather than to confide in peers, many middle managers feel very alone and unsupported. The organization pays the price. Staff feel ignored and suppressed, and CEOs get worthless assurances that all is well.

From the leadership of Ben Bradlee, we can take away three important messages for supporting truth and real, useful communication and involvement in organizations.

* Lesson One : If you are the boss, your job is not done when you demonstrate that you’re open to honesty, criticism and new ideas. That’s the easy part. Your real job is to make sure that your middle managers have the same openness, even though it’s much harder for them. Start today on a strategy for overcoming all the personal survival barriers that make middle managers suppress originality.

* Lesson Two : If you are a worker, NETWORK. Know that very few middle managers are truly open to strong viewpoints, originality, criticism or new ideas. So, you have to reach out. Only by having good networks within (and beyond) the organization will you have much chance of finding a middle manager who has overcome the fear barrier and really wants to champion you.

* Lesson Three: Now to the put-upon middle manager. Stop reacting and start acting. If you don’t know what the senior manager or CEO really values, ask. You may be surprised. If you can’t live with the answer, leave. If you can live with the answer, develop some skills for telling truth to power.

Remember that Bradlee succeeded only because he demonstrated unstinting support for strong feedback and courageous action. He led the Post successfully through the pressures of the Watergate scandal in 1972 by supporting – and insisting that his managers supported – two young journalists named Woodward and Bernstein. And in 1974, they brought down Richard Nixon’s presidency.

John Kolm is President and CEO of organizational development company Team Results USA. He worked as a Contributing Editor and cartoonist for 16 years for the Packer news organization.


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When the Stick Has no Carrot

October 16, 2014


It’s time we got real about the Carrot and the Stick.

All the management books tell us about “motivation”, as though it’s a transitive verb, as though it’s something I can “do” to you – or you to me.  The only thing worse is “incentivization”, the idea that we can predicate the vision and dedication of a whole group of people solely on the basis of stuff we give them – in the face of all the evidence from the entirety of human history.

The truth is that the “carrot” is not evident for many American workers, and if we include the whole of the world’s population, then the notion of the “carrot” has hardly any reality at all – unless we’re talking about a real carrot, that is, which is more than many people get to eat in a day.  Millions of people work hard at jobs with no prospects, no promotion, no salary bump, no fancy benefits – and yet they clock on and clock off, day after day, and many still care about the quality of the work they do.


Beyond all the hoopla about “motivating” people and putting a juicy carrot on the stick to keep them going, there seems to be an innate human desire to work.  In fact, it’s known that the single best thing you can do for your mental health is to have a job, any job – to be employed.  It’s not a subject that is often discussed, and most of us fantasize about how terrific it would be if we didn’t have to work.  Yet the people who really don’t work also don’t tend to do well psychologically, and poverty is only part of the reason.  Work engages the deep part of ourselves that is programmed to live in tribes.

Some people work without a carrot simply to keep their families.  For others, it’s about dreams of the future.  For others still, it’s a sense of affection for those we work with, or service to country, or favors owed, or a laundry list of other good reasons that require no carrot.  Others labor angrily in chains forged from prejudice or lack of opportunity, but where there’s anger, there’s always hope. If you’re a leader, that’s worth remembering.

And if you look at the real reasons people work even when the stick has no carrot, if you scan across the reasons of family, duty, service, the American dream, tribe, a place where we feel we belong, a substitute for opportunity unfairly denied, it all comes back to one thing, if we’re honest.

It could only be love.

John Kolm


Team Results USA

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“If you don’t go fire-walking, you’re not a team player.”

August 11, 2014


So came the edict from the management of a large company, a brand known to everyone in America. And the luckless managers involved – well, they felt they had little choice. What are you gonna do – say no to the CEO and be branded as a wuss forever?

The only people who were keen that night on the beach were the CEO, who had read somewhere that fire-walking was good for team-building, and an overly eager “facilitator” from the fire-walking company who radiated the type of enthusiasm normally only found in small dogs and methamphetamine users.

“Okay!” chirped the “facilitator”. “Now walk across the hot coals and FEEL! THE POWER! OF! PERSONAL! PASSION! YOU! CAN DO IT!” And under the eye of the CEO – perhaps deciding who would get promoted and who wouldn’t – really, what else could you do?

Twenty apprehensive senior managers from the company stepped, as one, toward the short runway of hot coals and began to walk briskly across the fire pit as they’d been taught moments earlier. And seconds later, twenty screaming managers with feet ablaze were rolling on the sand and trying to crawl to the water’s edge.

One small problem – the facilitator had let them attempt the crossing while wearing rubber sneakers.

This is a true story, taken straight from the AP News Wire, and it required a fleet of 13 ambulances to get them all to hospital. Foot burns with melted rubber are especially nasty – how do you not walk on your feet? – and it took the entire senior management team offline for weeks.

Oh, and the best part? I forgot to tell you the name of the company. It was a famous chain specializing in fried food. No word on whether the ER doctors added any secret herbs and spices.

When charlatanistic garbage like this passes for team training, it’s no wonder that anything to do with group learning has such a bad reputation. That’s what people think of when they are sent on team development – firewalking, scary and dangerous things like high ropes and trust falls, and being patronized. Or, playing silly games that have no relevance to anything while being encouraged in a new-age, hippy-dippy way to hold hands and sing kumbaya while chanting hackneyed aphorisms like “there’s no ‘I’ in TEAM” in a way that they know full well does not apply to their own reality .

But there is a better way. There’s not much evidence to believe that getting a work team to do little puzzles and games will “teach them” how to operate better at work. If on the other hand a more sophisticated and modern view is taken, in which we use scientific evidence for action-learning based models that actually do allow the right kind of rehearsal to improve team dynamics, it is possible to get real workplace benefits by allowing teams to rehearse good and work-relevant strategies. For example, how do we share information at the beginning of a job to make sure that we all understand the goal?

Like researching a good surgeon, it’s all a matter of finding someone who is properly qualified and has the modern, scientifically-verified and practically-proven evidence that they can do what they claim.

But if you must go firewalking, know this. It’s nothing but a trick of physics – the same as running your finger quickly through a candle flame – and has nothing at all to do with teamwork or attitude whatsoever. But, it does depend on human skin (covered in ash) taking a few seconds to heat up before you burn.

So leave the rubber sneakers on the beach.

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John Kolm


Team Results USA



The Government Did Something Good

August 11, 2014

In these days of criticizing our civil servants, we forget when they do something really terrific.


Imagine, for a moment, the gargantuan size of our U.S. Government.  Consider all the departments, agencies, divisions, sections and subsections – each trying to fulfill their own mission and all looking to buy just about every product and service under the sun.  Now imagine the size and staggering cost of managing the tens of thousands of contracts involved, each one of them unique.  If you picture the complexity as a truckload of warm spaghetti spilled all over the freeway, you’re not even close.


A while back, someone in the much-maligned GSA had the brilliant idea of bringing all these contracts and suppliers together.  The plan was to come up with categories that could fit all the suppliers, centralize the supplies like a giant Sears catalog, and make them all bid competitively ONCE.  Instead of giant seething morass of a half a million constantly-competed and constantly-evaluated, dismally duplicated bidding wars, the GSA would end up with a big book of the best suppliers and best value in the nation – saving the taxpayer billions.  It was dazzling.


How do I know this?  Because after two years of hard work (and wasting business time and taxpayer dollars competing for and winning a grab-bag of random contracts, all much the same) our company, Team Results USA, has finally won a place on the GSA Schedule.  For us, it means more time doing what we love and less time typing the same old proposals.  For the taxpayer, it means that you only pay for us to be rigorously evaluated ONCE, and then centrally checked and rated every year.


More government should be like this.  GSA chief Dan Tangherlini – who didn’t invent the GSA Schedule but is its strongest advocate in years – is an example of a public servant who deserves applause.  The same applies to the men and women of the GSA Schedule, working hard to save us taxpayers time and money every day.


Want to see what a GSA record looks like?  Click here.

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The End of HR

July 14, 2014


Not so long ago, the HR department was all-powerful.


They were the deciders on hiring and firing, the people who had the ear of the CEO, and the final arbiters on what development activities you could and couldn’t do for your staff.


That picture is changing quickly today, as the business line takes back control of its own agenda and social networking makes it easier than ever to find the best programs and suppliers.  And the truth is, the purpose of the HR department has always been misunderstood.  HR was never really there to be the arbiter of who does what training, but instead was the company’s insurance policy to keep managers out of trouble.  The real value of HR was to interpret the rules – how to legally and defensibly performance-manage staff, what not to say in a recruitment interview, what the requirements are for pay and conditions, and so on.  The rest came as a result of centralization and the consolidation of power.


The people who know best what the business (or government department) needs have always been the managers in the business line.  Tailored solutions, like tailored suits, work much better than off-the-rack; and very different solutions might be best for different parts of the business.  Who would know that better than the manager who is responsible for the business unit every day?


When good information was hard to get, centralization was the result.  Now that we can all easily find solutions that are right for us in the information age, centralization is ending.  Since legal advisors can supply the don’t-get-sued part of the equation for the company – and are much cheaper than full-time HR staff – many large and modern organizations are doing away with HR completely.  Other companies are making HR specialists organic to their own business units, getting the benefits of advice on the rules without giving up their power to make training and people decisions.


It’s a work in progress, and there are ups and downs, but the day social networking and open information changed the world was also the day when centralized and insular structures in the workplace began to age visibly.  The modern, fast-changing, niche-adapted and highly agile workplace of today is making its own people decisions, rather than ceding control to a shining HR city on the hill.


If you are a manager, and are being held personally responsible for the quality of your decisions and the results achieved by your business unit, you need the power to make all those decisions.  In the modern workplace, there’s just no need let centralized bottlenecks take large chunks of your power away.


What do you think?  Tell us on our Facebook page at .



John Kolm

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Why the VA Will Never Get It

June 13, 2014


“If a lion could talk, we could not understand him”.

– Ludwig Wittgenstein


We all know that the VA is in trouble for gaming the system to hide long wait times for medical care while – in some cases – veterans may have died.  Meanwhile, some people who gamed the system received performance bonuses.


Outgoing VA Secretary Eric Shinseki said in his 30 May resignation speech that “Leadership and integrity problems can and must be fixed”.  He’s right.  And yet a senior bureaucrat in the VA responded to this call to leadership with a 17-point plan, included in the Inspector-General’s report, to fix the problem by creating a raft of new administrative procedures.




There’s a fundamental disconnect between the values of the military and the values of the VA.  In the military, integrity is expected; it’s like turning on a faucet.  In the VA, integrity is negotiable.  Definitions of integrity vary outside the military, and in many cases, personal survival is directly threatened by other pressures – reputation, getting along, security, promotion – which become much more important.  What defeated Shinseki, a distinguished soldier and leader, is that on entering the VA he simply assumed that integrity was a given and a core value.  Too late, he found out that he was building on sand.


When values are so far apart, language loses its meaning.  Shinseki may as well have been speaking in Kurdish.  His audience, on the other side of the yawning gulf in values, simply did not understand him.  Like Wittgenstein’s lion, our worlds are so far apart that a common language doesn’t help.


Military leaders are taught that people matter more than systems, and that leadership sets behaviors in an organization.  The cost of failure is high, but there are also rewards for success, and risk is not seen as an automatically bad thing.  In government environments like the VA, risk is never good.  The penalties for failure are much bigger than the rewards for success, so leadership is seen as a bad choice.  Rules and regulations diffuse responsibility, require no personal commitment, and transfer problems into the safe domain of the intellect.  They suit the VA environment much better than leadership values based on the doubtful and risky principle of integrity.  Rule-following minimizes conflict; integrity has conflict built in.


Changing values is tough.  It’s slow, expensive, and can’t be done online.  It requires courage and skin in the game, and can come at a personal cost.  Many people in the VA see values-based leadership as silly, unrealistic and naïve.  And yet military leaders know that values are the only way to keep organizations from capsizing and becoming a liability the moment people are left to operate on their own.


But as long as we persist in shouting incomprehensible instructions in unknown languages across the great, yawning gap of leadership values, even the best lion is going to stay in the wilderness.


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A Losing Battle at the VA

June 1, 2014


Embattled VA Secretary Eric Shinseki resigned this Friday, May 30, in the wake of a growing scandal over some VA managers publishing misleading statistics about veterans’ wait times for medical care.


“I can’t explain the lack of integrity among some of the leaders of our health care facilities,” said Shinseki in a CNN interview.


Coming from a distinguished veteran and senior soldier, that statement is remarkable.  Shinseki went on to add that “Leadership and integrity problems can and must be fixed”, but what could go so wrong in the VA that it leaves one of our nation’s most distinguished soldiers baffled and angry?


VA bureaucrats have responded with a list of 17 systemic fixes, and these may all be good ideas, but they will never fix the “lack of integrity” that Shinseki correctly identified as the cause.  Systemic fixes for inappropriate scheduling practices will not work on their own because the problem is deeply cultural.  In the short term, the new Secretary will see a lot of vocal compliance, hiding and lip-service.  In the medium to long term, people will continue to behave according to their own view of “how it really is around here”, rather than anything they see written down from management.


The new Secretary will be besieged by subordinates and consultants offering systemic fixes, because systemic fixes are well within the cultural comfort zone, require no commitment beyond passive compliance and the intellect, and typically justify large budgets.  None of these will have the slightest long-term effect on integrity problems at the VA.


The only remedy that will persist six months and more from today is to do the hard work of cultural change.  This cannot be done in the intellect alone, because the intellect does not motivate real action or real integrity – good or bad.  Actions come from the heart and are motivated by values and personal strategies, and imposed courses, lectures and systems have very little effect on the real behaviors.  Moreover, as a veteran intelligence officer, this blogger can say with some authority that there is no system or procedure, however well-designed, that cannot be gamed if the culture permits it.


The VA has an opportunity here to ignore the usual solutions and instead to do something that works.  People are whole humans, not disembodied intellects, and only a practical approach to values-based leadership on the part of the new Secretary can result in successful, lasting change  As well, the VA will want to avoid almost all the conventional approaches which lack originality, credibility, results and measurement.


Our veterans deserve it.


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May 22, 2014


Teleconferencing, virtual meetings, and online learning – what’s not to love?

As it turns out, plenty.


There are many good reasons to want to believe that online meetings and online training are just as valuable as face-to-face sessions. For one thing, online options are usually much cheaper and faster – no travel time, no meals, no hotel rooms. For another, many projects and subjects are either short-term or unimportant – and for these, doing it as cheaply as possible makes good sense.


But for major undertakings, the company or organization that invests in face-to-face team unity – even if much of the actual business is done online – has a major competitive advantage. It’s well-known that most of the useful human communication, the kind that gets action and results instead of just talk, involves much more than simply words. As well, it’s easy for people to take views and make commitments and decisions in the intellect, but quite another for them to really commit to a group endeavor that might require them to have some skin in the game.


A series of teleconferences between virtual strangers, versus a real team get-together, may look the same if oversight is sufficiently bad and people are just focused on box-checking – but the actual outcomes will differ like night and day. And if your competitor wins the $40M contract because of their team unity, and you lose, then saving airfares, hotels and training costs just got really expensive.


The smartest organizations make sure that critical teams and critical projects get together, face-to-face, at least once a year for teams – and at least at the beginning for an important project. The costs of not doing that are often hideous, with the Obamacare website debacle being a good example.


The truth is that online environments are good for the things that online environments do best, and face-to-face environments are good for the things that face-to-face environments do best. Anything that involves team unity, team commitment, organizational change or important projects is in the latter category. The key, as always, is to take the middle way and to choose a balanced approach.


To quote Esther Dyson, famous philanthropist and daughter of Nobel laureate Freeman Dyson, “When everyone has good systems, the last competitive advantage left is the human being.” And it’s no coincidence that Esther was also one of the pioneers of the information age.


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Holding Hands and Singing Kumbaya

April 23, 2014

We’ve all been there.  The team trainer says “Together Everyone Achieves More”, or “There’s no ‘I’ in Team”.  Eyes roll, people sigh, everyone settles in and looks at their cellphones.

Why do we feel this way?  Is it just the mundane, hackneyed, clichéd aphorisms that turn us off?  Is the trainer right that this is, in fact, the way we should really work in teams?  If so, why doesn’t it feel that way?  Are we wrong?  Is there something wrong with our work team?

Actually, the trainers are wrong, and your instincts are dead right.

Modern studies of team EEG brain signals done by our company, partnered with UCLA, have shown that the famed “kumbaya” state for a work team – that “everyone-has-the-same-high-engagement-and-focus-and-we-all-work-as-one” state – is very rare, even in healthy teams.  Nuclear submarine command teams we worked with, some of the best-trained and best-operating teams in the history of the world, are in that “kumbaya” or “Collegiate” state less than five percent of the time.

These results were announced in a paper at a major conference last June, and they change everything we thought we knew about work teams.  That sense most of us have that our team is a bit chaotic, that people dip in and out with their attention, that individuals still matter and that the team is hardly ever in that kumbaya, nirvana-like state is absolutely right.  It turns out that we don’t have to worry when we see that kind of behavior in our work team.  The consultants are wrong.

It’s only very recently that it has been possible to look directly at the “team brain” and to see what’s really going on.  The intellectual giants of yesteryear – Freud, Jung, Maslow, Tuckman – were brilliant people, but they didn’t have the technology we have now.  Being able to look directly at the “team brain”, rather than just making guesses from behavior, is like the difference between being able to look under the hood of a car and trying to figure out what’s wrong just by listening to the engine noise.

The new science is called “Team Neurodynamics”, and it’s going to change everything about training and teams.  The American Psychiatric Association has already decided that neurodynamics will be the future of all psychological diagnosis, and has announced this in the DSM-5 – the master reference for diagnosis of human thought, feeling and action.

Those old-style team trainers are headed for the same place as yesterday’s snake oil salesmen.  Stay tuned for a new generation of team and leadership development that is based on facts and real science.

Oh, and there’s no need to sing “kumbaya”, either.

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Teamwork and the New Science

March 26, 2014

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What’s the worst “team building” event you’ve ever been on?

If you’re thinking about the time you had to play a lame roleplaying game a la “The Office”, or the time a facilitator made you write your “values” on an egg, count yourself lucky. A large fast-food chain sent its leadership team on a “firewalking” course – which helps productivity not at all – and they ended up going to hospital with burned feet in a fleet of 13 ambulances.  Secret herbs and spices, anyone?

One reason there is so much rubbish out there in the name of team development is that there is no way to measure the results.  And if results can’t be measured, then you might as well just hire the company that looks prettiest, charges the least, sounds the most plausible, or has friends in the organization.  After all, it’s just “teambuilding”.

There is a revolution coming in the world of team and leadership training, and it’s called “Team Neurodynamics”.  It’s no fad or fashion, but a genuine revolution which has been embraced by the American Psychiatric Association and institutions like UCLA, the U.S. Nuclear Navy and Sandia Labs.  The innovation is that we can now, with EEG and other technology, look at the brain’s inner workings directly – and thus we can create good models of what works and what does not work for the very first time.

Team Results USA and UCLA have been doing research together in team neurodynamics for the last 18 months, and the results are astonishing.  We’ve seen that teams innovate, adapt and change much faster than anyone thought; and that most of the old models for teamwork are wrong.  For example, healthy teams – even expert nuclear submarine teams – don’t operate in that everybody-holds-hands, collegiate, “kumbaya” mode for most of the time.  The collegiate mode is necessary, but is seen less than 4% of the time – so it’s wrong to beat yourself up when you don’t see it much at work.

The new science of neurodynamics is the biggest change in our understanding of people since the pioneering work of Sigmund Freud.  It means a complete, 180-degree shift from observing behavior and guessing what it means – and your guess is often as good as anyone else’s – to observing the brain directly and seeing what’s really going on.  It’s like the difference between trying to diagnose a car from the engine noise, and being allowed to lift the hood and actually look at the engine.

To read more about the latest discoveries in teamwork and the new science – and thus get ahead of the curve yourself – click here for an update and some pictures of experiments being done right now.

Team Results’ contact for these modern methods and ideas is John Kolm.  He can be reached at .

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Organizational Narcissism – Never Mind You, Let’s Talk About Me

March 5, 2014

In Greek mythology, Narcissus was a hunter who saw his own reflection in a pool of water and became so obsessed with his looks that he sat and stared at himself until he died.  We all know people like that – people who have a grandiose sense of self-importance, fantasize about their own unlimited brilliance, believe that others are beneath them, require admiration all the time, feel “entitled”, exploit relationships, lack empathy, act out of jealousy and are arrogant.  Anyone who has at least five of those nine traits can be considered narcissistic.

Unfortunately, organizations can be narcissistic too. All it takes is a few narcissistic personalities at the top, or even just a culture of denial and blame.  These are the places that are tiring and unrewarding to work at, where the organization or its decisions are never at fault, where there is no need to self-examine because everything is perfect, where alternative views are not needed because everything is already known.  In very competitive environments they generally become extinct and are usually the last to realize, but in less competitive environments, they can limp along in a permanent state of unhappiness, oblivion and compromised productivity.

What can you do if you work for a narcissistic organization?  Firstly, understand that this frustrating behavior is always the result of fragile organizational self-esteem, making workplace climate-setters feel vulnerable to the slightest criticism.  Therefore, you will need to be the adult in the relationship.  Don’t be offended when you are dismissed as not senior enough or qualified enough to have an opinion – dismissal of this type is typical of narcissistic organizations, in which only the most senior people are spared rejection and derision.

Do acknowledge your organization’s grandiose sense of self-importance, but do not accept the role of a lesser being – that simply perpetuates the denial.  Don’t start with any direct confrontation of the issue/s, because fear will overwhelm any possible progress.  Rather, create empathy, try not to be authoritative (even if you are an authority), and reinforce a realistic (note the realistic) acknowledgement of all that is good and right in the work area concerned.  If you can avoid heartlessly exposing reality to the point where you encounter flat rejection, you have a chance of good local interactions where everyone’s limitations – yours, theirs – are acknowledged and accepted.

Let me not make this sound easy.  Narcissistic organizations are among the hardest to deal with – even for seasoned professionals – and the keys are kindness, steadfastness and patience.

John Kolm is CEO of Team Results USA, a business specializing in organizational dynamics.


John Kolm


Team Results USA




Trust, Face and Tribe – The Telework Dilemma


January 30, 2014

Telework would seem to have everything going for it.  It takes advantage of technology, saves time and the environment, and cuts down on office space.  So why isn’t it more popular?

On the opposing side, bosses often still struggle with trusting people to work when they can’t be seen.  There’s also the matter of “face” – as a boss, do I look as important if half my office cubicles are empty and other bosses complain that my staff can’t be found?  And finally, as a good leader, I might reasonably ask if team “feel” and productivity is harmed when people seldom see each other.

Ask about Telework in any social forum and you’ll soon be overwhelmed with viewpoints.  You’ll also encounter some very strong feelings.  We’re emotionally invested in the Telework debate because it speaks to our innermost selves and our need for validation and recognition.

The most testing environments for Telework are ones in which there is a mix of Telework and regular commuting.  In these environments, and without careful management, we risk creating a whole new generation of opportunity-rich and opportunity-poor workers.  Humans are physiologically wired to live in tribes, and the tendency to have higher affinity for people we see and touch – even if we disagree with them – has been validated again and again in research studies.  Depending on what you want out of work, and on what the boss needs the team to do, mixed Telework and commuting environments can carry a significant price tag in equal opportunity and team productivity.

Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer and Best Buy CEO Hubert Joly ended Telework for largely this reason, and both – Mayer especially – have taken heavy fire because of it.  Yet both are turning around large organizations, and both are presumably looking for the best solutions.

One of the biggest problems in the Telework debate is that the metrics are very rubbery, even when focused on personal benefit and obvious savings.  When it comes to tribal benefits and team productivity, there are no useful metrics at all.  In workplaces where a mix of Telework and commuting potentially makes sense, we need much better ways of tracking the team results – and we also need to be careful that we don’t accidentally undo decades of striving for equal opportunity in the workplace.

John Kolm is the CEO of Team Results USA, a team development company that specializes in team productivity and operational readiness.  Everyone at Team Results telecommutes.


John Kolm


Team Results USA


Blowup at Nuclear Command

January 16, 2014

This week’s news contains a report that dozens of Air Force officers entrusted with maintaining U.S. nuclear missiles are accused of cheating, or turning a blind eye to cheating, on a competency test.  Because it’s nuclear-related, this story is likely to stay in the news cycle for several days.

Whatever the truth turns out to be, it’s a testament to the slow drift away from values that can happen in any organization.  It’s interesting because there’s no doubt that at the nuclear base in question, as for most government and corporate offices in America, there will be a poster on a wall somewhere that says “Our Values”.  These values are invariably excellent, usually including things like honesty, transparency, trust, integrity and customer service.

What actually happens, of course, it that we soon find out “how it really is” when we join an organization.  One of the old hands will brief us, or just as often, the ethic of “how it really is” is palpable and very obvious – we can feel it in the air.  Occasional blast emails and lectures from leadership do nothing to change this; in fact, they serve as reminders that leadership is out of touch, wants to stay out of touch, and doesn’t know or care “how it really is”.

Often, organizations don’t realize how far they’ve strayed until something very bad happens and they discover just how much they have drifted from their values.  That’s when you get an Enron collapse, a investment banking crisis or a scandal at a nuclear command center.  The time to make the investment in people was before the crisis – now it’s too late.

After the inevitable political finger-pointing and villain-finding from the nuclear competency test scandal settles down, hopefully the real challenge will be addressed at a higher conceptual level.  The problem is not bad people, but bad leadership and lack of investment in reality.  Every team needs to get away at least once a year, with their leaders, in order to look at “how it really is” and to practically rehearse and demonstrate their real values.  Without that sanity check, and under the pressures of work and the everyday, a slow drift toward danger is inevitable – and the edge of the cliff is unpredictable.

Far from being hocus-pocus or “touchy-feely”, and if done in the right way, practical team development focused on productivity and operational readiness is a matter of simple survival.

If you are wondering how to keep work teams aligned with organizational values, give me a call on 202 257 5593.  We aren’t consultants, so all advice is free.


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Why Do I Do This?

A New Year’s Reflection

January 1, 2014

Sometimes we feel a sense of unease at the motivations of others.  Often, that sense is justified.  Our instincts kick in, and we know something is a little bit “off”, even if we can’t identify what.

Why am I the CEO of Team Results USA, why do I write books and articles, why do I love running leadership programs, why do I appear on radio and TV?  Is it to make myself important, to make me “correct” and others “incorrect”, to gain status or recognition, to promote my unimportant ego, to put attention on myself and away from others?  Or is there a more genuine purpose?  Perhaps I really care about the workplace, maybe it really bothers me that so many people at work have a tear in their heart, perhaps I’ve just found a job I’m good at and really enjoy.  Perhaps not.  Your own situation will be different, but there’s always that subtext of intention, that purity of spirit and purpose, that battle between inward focus and outward focus that we think is a deep secret but in fact can be very apparent.  That inner tension is one of the greatest things we have in common as human beings.

The best way I have found to decode this is to ask whether people are focused on themselves or on others.  The more I am focused on myself and my own importance, the worse I do.  The less “me” I allow to get in the way, the more I focus on others and the needs of others, the better I do, the better I feel, and the cheekier I can be in my own life’s ambitions.  People who are focused on others are a joy to be with, and I leave with a spring in my step.  People who are focused on themselves wear me out.

If that’s true for me, I figure it’s possibly true for you, too.  So my ambition this year will be to make myself smaller, you larger, and to make sure I’m in tune with the big world every day.

Happy holidays!

John Kolm  🙂

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Trouble Ahead – Three Strategies for the 2014 Crunch

Dec 16,  2013

Ever since the ancient philosophers, people have complained about tough modern times. It always seems as if the time we live in is the toughest, the future the most uncertain, the past a better place. The truth is that times are almost always quite good, but only for those who keep up with change.

The coming year is a perfect example. Everyone expects 2014 to be a miserable year economically, in part because of bad governance by Congress, but 2014 will also be the year in which some people thrive. These will be the people who understand that great pressures cause great changes, and who are able to see ahead and surf the waves of change rather than being drowned by them.

Our company is lucky to work with some of the best change leaders in the world – people like Toyota. Pfizer, NOAA and the FDA. Here, in three dot points, is their distilled wisdom on how to shape the coming economic changes of 2014 into success and abundance for you and your workplace.

1. Whether you are in business or government, if you are affected by sequestration, remember that at worst, 90% of the Government’s work will continue. Sharpen, align and adjust your brand message to ensure that you are in the 90% that continues and not in the 10% that is seen as dispensable.

2. Be brutally honest about what you do better than anyone else, and strive to excel at just that. There will be much less room for mediocrity in 2014, but there is always room at the top.

3. Look for new opportunity. Bad storms bring good fishing. The very pressures and changes in the 2014 economy that most see as disastrous will generate whole new business sectors and industries. Surround yourself with bright young people and a few wise old heads and look for brand new, hitherto unseen, emerging change and opportunity every day.

If you are wondering how to maximize teaming opportunity, give me a call on 202 257 5593. We aren’t consultants, so all advice is free.



Rewarding Staff when there is No Money

Dec 10, 2013

“Reward your Staff”.  That’s what all the books say. All very well in theory, but how do you do it when you have no budget for awards or bonuses, and no ability to give valuable gifts?

Increasingly, that’s the new reality.  And even if you do still have some budget, it’s worth taking a good look at what people really consider “reward” and validation to be.

While most of the research studies do indeed show that money is in the top three to five reasons why people feel valued (or not) at work, it’s almost never the number one reward people want.  And yet we focus on money, often ignoring the things people desire even more.

Cheesy and corny as it may sound, all the research – some of it done by our company over 20 years, some by universities – shows that the number one reward wanted by workers in all industries is VALIDATION.  Human beings are evolved to live in tribes, and the most valuable commodity in a tribe is a sense of community.  We are programmed from birth to feel good when we are truly valued.

Don’t think that rewarding your people with true validation is an option that “costs nothing”.  Done right, it costs a great deal – time, effort, care, truly finding out about the people in your team and their values, self-control, maturity, and more than a few sleepless nights.  But the best leaders in this world know that genuine care and letting people know how they are valued is the single best reward strategy there is.  They also know that humans are programmed to detect insincerity in a heartbeat.

Interestingly, rewarding people with large amounts of money is not a good strategy to keep them in any case.  Making money your principal method of communication leaves you open to poaching from anyone with more money, even in the short term.  On the other hand, personality loyalty and fair treatment that comes from truly validating staff is much harder to duplicate by competitors.

All it takes is a “nice work”, or “I trust you”, or “I love working with you”, or however you normally express validation and approval, delivered at the RIGHT MOMENT and with the RIGHT ATTITUDE.  By all means use your ingenuity, too.  It does not matter at all if this feels uncomfortable at first.  Keep at it, keep it genuine and unforced, and the results will amaze you.  No budget required.

If you are wondering how to use this advice practically, give me a call on 202 257 5593.  We aren’t consultants, so all advice is free.


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Surviving the End-of-Year Silliness

Dec 4, 2013

Thanksgiving is over, Christmas is coming – and with it, the annual round of office parties and invitations. For some, this is simply a time to enjoy being together outside work. But for many, end- of-year functions are fraught with traps and contradictions. How do you socialize in a human way with people who may be senior to you and who may make decisions about your career? How do you deal with people you may have had some conflict with? And what if you just hate workplace parties and enforced fun, but feel that you have to put in an appearance anyway?

Remember that the intention of a boss who holds a Christmas function is almost always genuine. Even if your boss is clueless, and even if this is the only time of year when the management seems to offer you any validation at all, the bosses who organize the functions want them to be successful, and therefore want people to have a good time. All it takes for you is three simple rules.

1. Remember that you are AT WORK. Even if you are in a bar or a function center, and even if you are on personal time, if it’s a work function, you are still socially AT WORK. Don’t share confidences or make comments you would not make at work, and don’t engage in behaviors that are not acceptable at work.

2. This is not the time to settle scores, lobby senior people or try to advance your cause. That kind of pressure at a work function is the last thing people want. Just being yourself and being positive causes people to associate positive emotions with you, and is the best advertising you could hope for.

3. Do be yourself. All anybody wants at end-of-year functions is to laugh and have a good time, and if there are speeches, even then people are just trying to show you their good intentions. After you’ve respected rules 1 and 2, relax, act naturally, and let it be what it is.

You never know, you might enjoy yourself more than you think.

If you are wondering how to handle end-of-year issues, give me a call on 202 257 5593. We aren’t consultants, so all advice is free.


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Rightsizing, Downsizing, Capsizing

October 28, 2013


After the bloodletting – now what?


Business shrinking?  Contracts diminishing? If you’re rightsizing or downsizing your company in this economy, make sure you don’t stop with the job half done.


You obviously have to do what the finance person or the Excel spreadsheet tells you.  Nobody can run a business at a loss, and if it’s time to cut, you have to cut.  But the team you’re left with afterwards will be a different team, containing all your best and least-losable people, on who you are now totally dependent for your livelihood.  Yet this team will have just sustained one of the most difficult things that can happen to people at work, and if you aren’t careful, they will be easy pickings for competitors.


It’s absolutely essential that your cuts save enough budget to spend on re-forming and recovery for the team of people you are keeping after the changes.  Set aside about $1500 a head for a team of ten or more.  Then, once the changes are made, get help from someone you trust to re-form new team strategies and spirit.  It’s not enough, by the way, just to do a class, go teambuilding, hire a consultant or have a party.  Strategy is key.


In this economy, competitors will be on the lookout for your most talented people who feel alienated or unsettled after a change and are willing to look at a new job.  Smart business who downsize and rightsize will know that the task is not finished – not nearly finished – until they have made a real investment in re-forming and re-aligning what is, in fact, a brand new work team. Anything else is like putting chum in the water.


If you are downsizing or rightsizing your company, give me a call on 202 257 5593.  We aren’t consultants, so all advice is free.




People Shut Down Too

 October 2013

How do you get people enthusiastic again after the shutdown?

Any psychologist will tell you that work – having a job and getting paid for that job – is one of the best things you can do for your mental health. It follows that being thrown out of work, especially when it’s done unfairly and you have no control at all, is one of the most morale-sapping things that can happen to a person.  You’ve been treated as though your efforts were worth little or nothing, you’ve been made to worry instead of being thanked for your service, and nobody in power is apologizing to you.

If you are a person to who others look for leadership – regardless of your rank or job title – then you not only have your own morale to contend with, but also the morale of others when work resumes.  Expect to see some very justified anger, some acting-out, some position-taking and some boundary-testing.  Also expect to see some symptoms of depression in some people.  The good news is that for most people, these feelings pass quickly, but here are some tips to get you through the first days.

•             Let people vent.  If someone says “I’m never going to care about this job again”, don’t argue.  Allow much more room for extreme viewpoints than you normally would.

•             Talk about the shutdown in personal terms (never lecture) and about how it made you feel.  If you have the courage to do this, others feel permitted.  Expressed feelings are very healthy, but pent-up emotions and viewpoints in a team are like time bombs.

•             Look out for people who may need extra help.  If you see peoplewho have no sense of their own value, who feel powerless over events and who tell you that they feel as if something terrible is about to happen, encourage them to see a mental health professional urgently.

•             Set a time limit.  If you don’t see a big recovery in morale in two to four weeks (by all means do things to raise morale, such as small rewards and social events) then talk to your manager about getting some help for the team as a whole.  It’s possible for teams to get “stuck”.

If you are worried about the welfare of your work team, give me a call on 202 257 5593.  We aren’t consultants, so all advice is free.


Lean Forward and Strap In

December 2012


The next few months will see some of the biggest changes in staff and people development for the last 20 years.
A combination of global fiscal tightening and a series of scandals in which unqualified “trainertainers” were hired – at great cost – in preference to real trainers at various conferences and meetings have changed the landscape for senior managers in government and industry. After a temporary chilling effect and a recalibration of assumptions and standards, people development is set to re-emerge in a new and reinvented form, like the phoenix of legend.
Underlying the fiscal pressures and the scandals is a bigger picture. The two toughest problems in people development globally are overwhelm and measurement. There’s a baffling range of choice assailing the senior manager – all shrilly promoted by special interests – and almost no way of measuring the results. In an environment where every option seems different only in trivial and selffocused ways, and where the argument for any option is based on guesswork and assertion, it’s no surprise that training is often treated with the same respect as snake oil sales. People development is using 60-year-old models, even when it’s packaged as something new, and the industry as a whole is in the same place medicine was about 200 years ago, before reliable science and good diagnostics.
The new people development which emerges after all this change will be based more on science, on provable productivity outcomes and on practical benefit than on arguments over political or academic correctness, focus on inputs, and good old-fashioned crony relationships and snake-oil salesmanship.
Our own team is doing everything we can to bring in a new level of rigor. In July we’ll announce a new model for team dynamics at a major conference (see News Room), based on joint research we’ve done on the working brain with UCLA. The new model will replace ideas that date back to the late sixties. As well, we’ve always measured practical productivity outcomes with our Team Dashboard™ instrument, and that’s something clients now demand on every engagement. And finally, we’ll resist the urge to fall back on the hand-waving, jargon-laced, look-at-me arguments of yesteryear; what matters instead is good science, a very practical focus on workplace results above all else, and a matching focus on YOU – where our attention should be.
Get ready for a summer of change!
John Kolm

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