The Golden Rule Isn’t

The Golden Rule Isn’t

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In late September of 2015 I found myself in opposition to Pope Francis. Don’t get me wrong; I’m crazy about this guy, the first pope I ever really loved, let alone paid much attention to. He’s enthusiastic, warm, authentic and humble, all attributes of leadership that I espouse in my doctrine for highly-evolved leadership. Pope Francis has this engaging wink that often accompanies a thumbs-up sign, an endearing display of optimism that I find irresistible. But all of a sudden I’m at odds with the pope, because he invokes the Golden Rule, imploring leaders and lawmakers in the U.S. to follow it (in that case with regards to establishing immigration practices and laws). I, on the other hand, am not a big fan of the Golden Rule.

At first glance it sure sounds good: do unto others and you would have them do unto you. First of all, it’s GOLDEN and it just can’t get much better than that. Gold implies awesomeness, as you got the Gold Standard, the Golden Globes, the Golden State, and the place that set the bar for French fries, the Golden Arches. Even the name Golden Corral might have inspired you to try the buffet – once.

The Golden Rule has been around FOREVER, with its origins found in many ancient cultures, like Egyptian, Greek and Chinese. A variant is even found in the Bible, book of Leviticus: “You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against your kinsfolk. Love your neighbor as yourself.” Yeesh, first the Pope and now the bible! I’m probably not winning any popularity contests at the moment. But don’t start hurling your tomatoes, yet.

My position can be explained through observing the behavior of kids, including my own, whose innocence and authenticity provide wonderful insights into the human condition. More specifically, I’m referring to the oppositional behaviors and attitudes that seem so prevalent and natural in youngsters that provide a key insight into the human condition.

What does it mean when a parent says “don’t eat that ice cream off the floor”, only to have their child invoke the 10-second rule and rescue their cookies-and-cream from the fate of the kitchen sink? And what does it mean when the boss suggests that lowering a price to a prospective customer will seal the deal, and the employee decides to take another whack at articulating the value proposition?

It means that oppositional behavior is the normal state of being, and that the best ideas are people’s own. And it means that we don’t outgrow this condition as adults.

As how the desire for autonomy motivation – that delightful force that drives behavior – we want to self-govern, or be self-directed. And it’s pervasive in the human species, residing right atop the crest of the bell curve on the chart of human traits. Funny how the therapy industry has labeled a condition known as ODD, or oppositional defiance disorder, as a legitimate excuse to bill third party payers when it’s so dang natural and statistically normal!

So what does all this have to do with the Golden Rule? The Golden Rule assumes that others want for themselves what you want for yourself. Wrong. Because people are oppositional and crave autonomy, they want to be treated according to their own desires. The Even Better Than Golden Rule  is “treat others the way THEY want to be treated!” Note the exclamation point.

Of course, treating others this way necessitates actually getting to know them, asking questions and caring enough about them to listen and take them seriously. (Remember, my core tenet of life is to not take YOURSELF so seriously. Taking others seriously is entirely another matter.)

This speaks to the value of unsolicited advice, which I submit is of most often of no value. Admittedly, there are times when unsolicited advice is called for. Like, “Joe, grab the fire extinguisher!”, or “Betty, you might want somebody to look at that grapefruit-sized lump on your shoulder.” Otherwise, unsolicited advice is much more about the advice giver seeking validation in the way they see the world, rather than being of service to others. We love to be right.

If you want to really engage people in moving forward, consider ways of helping them think better and deriving solutions and ideas of their own making. And if you want to build trust, loyalty and better relationships anywhere in your life, including work, treat people the way they want to be treated.


Howie Milstein


Disengaged Employees? Blame the Consultant!

Disengaged Employees? Blame the Consultant!

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Diving into the world of organizational development, leadership and culture has been a real eye-opener for me. One might think that my past life of influencing change in surgeon clinical practice, while navigating the economic and regulatory conundrum that is the U.S. healthcare system, was challenging. Trying to show people that they’re taking themselves awfully seriously – way harder! I should have gone into the cat obedience business. (Not that I know anything about cat obedience, but not knowing stuff clearly doesn’t stop me from trying. Just ask my exasperated and, thankfully, patient wife.)

Rarely a day goes by when I don’t hear “I hate my job”, “My boss is such a jerk “(euphemism for the more typically colorful descriptors), “I can’t sleep Sunday nights”, “HELP”, or “I’m going to start driving Uber.” Seeing the scope and magnitude of the work to be done out there, I’m feeling very validated that I have identified a market in need of some help. And powerful antidepressants.

not only are the very people we’ve hired to help fix our disengagement problem not yet adequately effective, they may actually be complicit in perpetuating it!

Now I’m wondering if my fellow organizational development (OD) colleagues, consultants and dedicated organizations are getting the solutions right enough. The data show that the bar on employee engagement has barely moved in decades throughout the business world, and if you want evidence, visit the websites of organizations like Gallup and Modern Survey. I’m thinking that, not only are the very people we’ve hired to help fix our disengagement problem not yet adequately effective, they may actually be complicit in perpetuating it! GASP!

Yes, by now you are well aware that I’ve been pointing the finger directly at managers and leaders to lighten up their leadership style as a means of fostering trust and, ultimately, engagement. Now I have the OD professionals squarely in my sights. A moment of epiphany arrived while my unlucky friend Hillary was sitting opposite me at lunch. Hillary is the consummate professional in the engagement space, consulting and weighing in heavily on the need for appropriate recognition. It would have been very easy for her to take my ranting as a stinging criticism, but she took it like a champ and compassionately resisted the temptation to hurl lemon seeds at my head (from her rare herbal tea – she’s pretty classy).

Here’s my theory: as incompletely evolved beings, we are all driven by fear. Often, leaders don’t muster the courage to lead with vulnerability, warmth and compassion. Perhaps through fear of breaking certain “rules” of leadership (in fact, very old dysfunctional paradigms), being perceived as weak, or upsetting their boss or board of directors, they default to dictatorial, command-and-control, and my way or the highway styles.

To save people from embarrassment or ridicule, it is an act of humanity to point out ways that people can get through life with their dignity a bit more intact.

First, it’s downright frightening to provide brutally honest feedback to people, including friends, family, coworkers and scary members of congress. To wit, “Honey, your professed ‘famous’ chicken dish continues to be the cause of great gastric distress and probably shouldn’t be foisted on innocent guests.” While true and perhaps compassionate, the possibility of a 2-3 day silent treatment lurks. To save people from embarrassment or ridicule, it is an act of humanity to point out ways that people can get through life with their dignity a bit more intact.

It is incumbent upon OD experts to help their clients keep their businesses intact. As normal human beings, consultants and coaches have their own fears in play. Might the following be feared consequences of suggesting that managers and leaders are jerks in the eyes of their employees: upsetting the client to the point of losing them as a PAYING client? When we’re in the business of providing constructive feedback, the most honest thing we can do is manage the fear and do the right thing for the client. That is, help them attain adequate self-awareness. Granted, this takes tact, diplomacy and gobs of trust, but that’s the work that needs to be done.

How might this play out in real life?

Here’s a story I heard over coffee recently. Having left a job for sanity preservation reasons, my storyteller related a very telling moment when, after once proposing to her manager what she thought was a splendid idea, was told “I don’t care what you think.” I guess this stuff still happens, which is a positive indicator of job security for OD consultants. Apparently this was the beginning of the end for the employee, as this exchange foretold many subsequent incidents that consistently categorized this boss as nothing short of nasty, unable to listen, care and connect.

Somebody has to call the managers out on the fact that their team members probably think they’re dicks.

My coffee companion’s department had eight people (including the boss) and in a 24-month stretch had experienced 14 staff turnovers. Huh? We got problems in River City and they run deep! That manager reported to the CEO who presumably liked to amass red flags. And this CEO reported to a board of directors with a narrow purview of business, either unaware or unconcerned about leadership dynamics that were the root of cultural strife – and big time talent loss.

If this organization cared to fix this endemic environment of fear, they may choose to enlist the services of a highly-credentialed consultant or firm. Typically consultants would guide them on a strategy that could include a cultural audit, 360 reviews, formation of committees, individual coaching, inspirational workshops and other sorts of training. All of this is good stuff and potentially valuable. Here’s what’s missing:

Somebody has to call the managers out on the fact that their team members probably think they’re dicks. (This is a term people often use in real life.)

Okay, maybe I’d communicate that a bit more delicately, but not much more. The road to more innovation, passion, retention, customer loyalty and market dominance – all manifestations of high employee engagement – include the satisfaction of a number of conditions on both the client and consultant sides:

Client Side
  • An all-in commitment to lead better
  • A knowledge and acceptance of the discomfort that comes with heightening self-awareness
  • The patience to take the weeks, months and even years to make positive changes stick
Consultant Side
  • The courage to provide complete and honest feedback
  • The commitment to seize conscious control of their own fears, enabling the previous point
  • Maintaining the perspective that the client’s business supersedes our own

Of course, none of this is easy, tapping into all sorts of fears conjured by our sub-conscious brains. But it is all ENTIRELY possible, and will provide a solid basis for a culture rife with passionate engagement. If we all just stop taking ourselves so seriously, there’s no reason that this work, and many other business initiatives, can’t be at least a little –if not a lot – of fun.

Howie Milstein
Provocateur and Leadership Doctor

The Inevitable: How Contemplating Mortality Can Yield Better Leadership and Higher Employee Engagement

The Inevitable: How Contemplating Mortality Can Yield Better Leadership and Higher Employee Engagement

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For years I’ve been checking the Sunday obituaries, the week’s comprehensive guide to who’s recently relinquished life, replete with occasionally entertaining and inspirational biographies. I suspect that most young—or young at heart—readers relegate this section to the bottom of the gerbil cage, but I’ve been a fairly loyal reader and, up until now, didn’t completely understand why. Some people will say that they’re just making certain their names aren’t included, but even I, at an age where I can no longer put my socks on without a cacophony of moaning and grunting, have enough presence of mind to know that I won’t find “Howard ‘Howie’ Milstein” in there. So why my interest?

Outside the consideration of some spiritually held beliefs, chances are that death represents a rather permanent state. Certainly a significant lifecycle event (for both the survivors and deceased), the empirical evidence of anything happening after the last light goes out, other than a return to basic elements, is sparse at best. Now, one might subscribe to an afterlife model such as reincarnation, but even if you do return, it could be as an earthworm on a deserted island. The point being that, if you want to have any impact on our planet and its inhabitants, it’s a really good idea to take advantage of your time prior to making the obit pages.

Focusing on how you want to be remembered will inform your behaviors today and help you lead in ways that are most beneficial to your business.

I have come to the realization that, even though I won’t be reading my own obituary, epitaph or eulogy, I do want those words to reflect that I did something good with my life, that I impacted the world and people positively, and that my surviving friends and family would consider my past existence as a model for a life worth living. In other words, I want my LEGACY to be that I’m leaving the world’s inhabitants in a little better place than when I entered it.

Reading the weekly obits is a way for me to contemplate my mortality, regularly check in with the legacy I’ll be leaving, and help inform my behavior as a father, husband, friend, brother, uncle, community advocate and BUSINESS GUY. One question is whether contemplating one’s mortality leads to good behaviors, bad behaviors or both. Thankfully the world of psychology has examined the effect of mortality salience on things like anxiety, negative effects and positive effects.

Apparently this topic has been quite compelling, as a meta-analysis (examination of many studies) titled When Death is Good for Life: Considering the Positive Trajectories of Terror Management (K.E. Vail et. al.), published in the journal Personality and Social Psychology Review in 2012, is 27 exhaustive pages long! I’ll spare you all the details, but they do come to the conclusion that mortality salience can work wonders.

Much of the research and discussion centers on something called Terror Management Theory (TMT)—yikes! Why they don’t call it Stuff That Can Happen When Thinking About Your Death (STCHWTAYD) I don’t know, but you can rest assured that this is all a THEORY. Otherwise they might have called it a principle, law or axiom, so relax.

According to the article, mortality awareness can be manifest in some pretty negative behaviors, particularly when a person may suffer from anxiety or low self-esteem. Drug abuse, risky driving or eating too many Big Macs are examples of behaviors by people who figure the inevitability of death doesn’t give them a reason to live.

On the other hand, mortality salience can result in behaviors that minimize harm to oneself and others promoting “well-being in physical, social and psychological domains.” The authors call this Positive, or Optimal Terror Management, which still sounds a little like sitting down for a nice dinner with the Addams Family. Examples of positive behaviors include volunteering, exercising and adopting children or pets.

The side effects of managing your legacy now include a business where engagement is high, innovation operates at all levels, customer experience is through the roof and you’re making more money than you ever imagined.

The positive effects of mortality contemplation, if you want your legacy to be as a trusted, respected and well-liked leader, also include treating your coworkers with dignity and respect (aha, the bottom line you were waiting for!). And the side effects of managing your legacy now include a business where engagement is high, innovation operates at all levels, customer experience is through the roof and you’re making more money than you ever imagined.

How does this work? Let’s look at a few theoretical scenarios and consider responses that incorporate how we’d like to be remembered:

Scenario: By definition, your salesforce has one representative who is at the bottom of the performance ladder, perhaps as defined by revenue growth over the same period last year.

Option 1: If you didn’t consider your legacy, you might just take this sales rep to task, admonishing him for lacking sales skill, being complacent, not working hard enough or not caring—all rather personal attacks that would probably instill great fear of you, losing his job and looking like a loser.

Option 2: However, if being remembered as a great, trusted, caring leader is important to you, you might decide to approach this situation with the understanding that the sales rep is ALREADY AFRAID, since they know how they rank. You decide to first acknowledge how that rep might be feeling, take some time to understand whether the territory has mitigating circumstances that might be the cause of low revenue generation, and take some time to brainstorm ways to improve sales.

Option 2 leaves the rep’s dignity intact, maintains his respect for you and retains his motivation to get up the next day, try hard and nurture relationships with customers. Option 1 inspires the rep to update his resume and scour the job boards and have you indelibly etched in his mind as bully.

Scenario: Your employee in charge of researching and selecting a mobile phone contract failed to notice an early exit clause that would be economically painful. Needing to change providers owing to coverage issues, the company gets slapped with a surprise multi-thousand dollar penalty, one that wasn’t taken into consideration prior to making the change.

Option 1: If a positive legacy isn’t important to you, you angrily admonish her—even publicly—for making this mistake and costing the company thousands of dollars. You take away her responsibility for phone contracts and make it clear that you don’t trust her with key projects. Even before you “spoke” with her, the employee freaked out the instant she knew the business got dinged by the phone company and was quite concerned about job security, being embarrassed in front of her peers and was nursing major head and stomach aches.

Option 2: Acknowledging to yourself that it’s no fun to lose money to mistakes, and recognizing that this isn’t the first and won’t be the last time mistakes cost money, you decide that you are a highly-evolved leader and opt for a cool-headed approach. You speak privately with the employee, letting her know how afraid you’d be if you made that mistake and that even you make mistakes to this day. You make certain she understands the mechanisms behind the mistake, she knows how to avoid them in the future and then you select her as the phone contract manager for life.

Option 2 leaves the employee feeling engaged, part of the same human race that you’re a part of and grateful for your trust and confidence. She becomes a much more astute analyzer of contracts, loyal to you and the company and committed to self-improvement. Option 1 leaves you as the favorite topic of hushed water-cooler talks, with your employees unwilling to share innovative ideas, emotionally checked-out and physically out of the building before 5:01 p.m.

Focusing on how you want to be remembered will inform your behaviors today and help you lead in ways that are most beneficial to your business. As Victor Frankl, psychologist and author of Man’s Search for Meaning, writes “without suffering and death, human life cannot be complete.” And as Vail et. al. conclude, ‘the conscious awareness of mortality can motivate people to enhance their physical health, reprioritize intrinsically meaningful goals and values, and build positive relationships with friends, family and loved ones.” I’d like to specifically add employees and co-workers to that list, giving you what you ultimately want—a vital business!

Howie Milstein
Provocateur and Leadership Doctor

Incompletely Evolved

Incompletely Evolved

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I can’t stand it when essays, defined as “short literary compositions”, start off with definitions. If the issues are so complex that understanding them requires an unusual vocabulary, then we’re taking ourselves too seriously. And you are, by now, keenly aware of where I stand on THAT issue.

We humans (even with disproportionately long arms and hairy shoulders, I count myself among you) have a tendency to give ourselves a lot of credit. From learning the ABCs and knowing that flying F-bombs in front of your parents isn’t really cool, to making your first car payment and being named as boss, we develop skills and amass achievements that give us the confidence to survive and thrive in a complicated world. Congratulations, but everyone else might not be so impressed.

When we give ourselves too much credit a lot of bad things happen, mostly pertaining to our relationships with others. Confidence is one thing, but arrogance and super-inflated egos are another. I think we work awfully hard to differentiate ourselves from our primate brethren residing on the other side of the cage walls at the local zoo. From the time we awake to the time we drift off into La La Land, we are predominantly driven to seek safety, be entertained and have sex. Beyond those motivators our differences are incremental, such as understanding words like “mellifluous” and “perspicacity.” Aha, you had to look those up, didn’t you?!

Our species is hugely driven by fears and parts of our brains of which we have very little awareness. Overcoming fears and pre-programmed behaviors takes a lot of practice, self-awareness and usually help from the outside – it’s that difficult. How these fears and behaviors play out in the workplace is profound, and not typically supportive of a thriving culture and business.


Without trusting relationships, a culture of fear predominates and the things that underlie a thriving business…cannot happen.

Leaders’ own fears might cause them to believe they are now in positions where they need to have all the answers, thinking that appearing fallible will cause employees to lose confidence or trust. Simply giving employees their tasks to support a top-down strategy and vision, whether or not they buy in, is a moot point. All they have to do is follow orders and everybody will be happy. Wrong. When leaders lead from what looks like strength, power, a know-it-all attitude and even a my-way-or-the-highway philosophy, it is impossible to nurture trusting relationships with those they lead. Without trusting relationships, a culture of fear predominates and the things that underlie a thriving business—like innovation, passion, purpose, talent retention, happiness, customer experience and optimal profitability—cannot happen.

I suppose it’s possible that a power-based leadership style might originate from a genuine belief and predilection in one’s superiority, without the basis of fear described above, but let’s give those egotists a face-saving exit from making other people’s lives miserable. No doubt some people are just jerks, and I say that they’re rarely worth working for, preferring to address my efforts at those for whom dysfunctional leadership styles are more a matter of SELF AWARENESS. Those people we can help.

When you come to realize that you’re not as evolved as you originally thought, and that you have a propensity for bananas and scratching your armpits, you may realize that YOU’RE NOT THAT BIG OF A DEAL. Let’s call this epiphany HUMILITY. FYI, I did check a couple definitions of humility, and neither referenced bananas and armpits, so this might be my very first original thought, ever.

Humility coexists beautifully with self-esteem, authority, creativity, strategic-thinking, intelligence and hard work. In other words, you can be a leader and humble at the same time. The question is, can one be a leader when an unhealthy appreciation for oneself doesn’t inspire people to follow? A leader without followers is something else, like lucky and overpaid.

Daniel Goleman, my favorite guru on emotional intelligence who coined the term EQ, does real research and writing on the topic. I subscribe to many of his findings and beliefs, occasionally repackaging and reporting them in more annoying ways. Daniel proposes a model of the mind as a three-tiered building with the first tier being the brain and the top being leadership competency. The middle, or second, tier contains four realms of emotional intelligence: self-awareness, self-regulation, empathy and social skill. With so many elements to emotional intelligence, I believe he’s wonderfully-covered most of the bases with these realms.

However, I believe that humility deserves its own realm, or even tier—it’s THAT IMPORTANT. Until we come to realize that collective wisdom is ALWAYS better than our own, that people will always be smarter, faster and better-looking, we risk thinking a bit too much of ourselves and alienating others. It’s very difficult, if not impossible, to develop the trusting relationships necessary to build an optimally-thriving enterprise without checking our egos at the door. And, by extension, our businesses are compromised with leaders who are disconnected from their fallible, imperfect human natures.

So LIGHTEN UP out there and know that none of us is that big of a deal. Oh, and bananas are 19 cents apiece today at Trader Joe’s.

Howie Milstein
Provocateur and Leadership Doctor

A little soap wouldn’t kill ya

A little soap wouldn’t kill ya

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“I can’t deny the fact that you like me, right now, you like me!” Sally Field loves to be liked, made clear by this exclamation for winning an Oscar in 1985 for her role in Places in the Heart. Social psychologists claim that most of us derive great emotional pleasure from being accepted and liked. This pleasure is profound to the degree that our brains don’t substantially differentiate emotional from physical pleasure.

As evidence, in a study from the University of California (“Shared neural mechanism underlying social warmth and physical warmth,” Inagaki, T.K. and Eisenberger, N.I.), subjects were put into MRI scanners to see the difference in brain pleasure center activation when they were read letters from other people expressing their deep affection for the participant (emotional pleasure), versus the response when doing something physically nurturing, like holding a warm pack or ball. Brain tissue was activated similarly under both conditions, meaning that being loved and validated are as pleasurable as a warm hug.

In his book Social: Why Our Brains Are Wired to Connect, University of California psychology professor Matthew Lieberman suggests that the warm pack and ball are physical surrogates for eating your favorite ice cream, which I personally relate to better. (I worked in sales for Häagen Dazs after graduating with my undergraduate degree in biochemistry—made perfect sense to me). We don’t see many storefronts offering up warm bags and balls.

So, if we are wired to feel pleasure when being loved or liked, why do leaders sometimes behave in unlikable ways? Have they over-subscribed to the notion that you can’t be liked by everyone, so they don’t bother trying? Did we learn in business school that it’s not important to be liked, or even, it’s better if you’re not liked (feared)? Did we, as leaders, forget how we felt about our own bosses when we didn’t like them?

I’m not certain who started the whole “you can’t be liked by everyone” thing, but I’m wondering if it was a guy named Atilla back in the fifth century. (Yes, I checked Wikipedia for this famous Hun’s bio, lest you accuse me of making everything up. And, by the way, he wasn’t credited for propagating dysfunctional paradigms—that I did make up.) Keeping a cool distance from employees, not worrying about being liked was advice that had been passed to me by leadership peers, advice that I thankfully did not heed.

In actuality, you probably CAN’T be liked by everyone. I remember losing a sale back in the day, and getting feedback afterward from a confidant at the account. It turns out that the primary decision-maker didn’t like me, apparently because I was occasionally funny. It still stings to this day, decades later, not only because she didn’t like me, but because she didn’t think I was ALWAYS funny.

I submit that, while there’s value in being liked, there’s even more value in TRYING to be liked. The effort is an exercise in self-awareness which is so vital for building the trusting relationships with employees that precede strong engagement. As I always assert, relationships within the context of work are no different than those in the rest of our lives. They’re built on trust that results from a warm, compassionate, vulnerable leadership style; as opposed to the fear mongering that comes with command-and-control, strength and power leadership stances.

Trying to be likable means that you’re focusing on the needs and desires of others and you’re taking into consideration how you might be coming off to them. It’s an attempt to see yourself as objectively as possible, through someone else’s eyes, and acting in ways that they like, trust, respect, admire and maybe even enjoy. It’s a way of saying, albeit subtly, “I care enough about you to make you feel comfortable, safe and happy.”

It turns out that this likability objective of The Institute is stuff I’m pulling from my own beliefs and learnings. I visited the U.S. National Library of Medicine and National Institutes of Health website PubMed for any research, entered “leadership and likability” and got “Sensory and nutritional attributes of pomegranate juices extracted from separated arils and pressed whole fruits.” Apparently there’s opportunity for research in this area.

How does one intentionally strive to be likable? Starting with a good shower, where a little soap wouldn’t kill you, here are some other ways to mindfully improve your good standing (relationship) with others:

Be curious
If you want to know what others like, the best way is to ASK THEM. Be genuinely interested in others, finding out what makes them tick, what their interests are and what you might do for them.

Watch body language
SMILE, make eye contact and manage personal space. You’ve probably encountered a “close talker” at some point in your life, where you can hardly concentrate on the words coming from them due to their nose nearly smacking you in the forehead. Unless you have really short arms, arm’s distance is a pretty good rule.

Call people by name
Or better yet, call them by their nickname. It is endearing when people hear their own names.

Be vulnerable, own up to mistakes
Fallibility is the human condition and admitting your mistakes makes people feel safer when they make their own. If innovation is part of the job description and business’s mission, stretching the status quo is important and people ought not fear making a mistake.

People love to be heard and there’s nothing better than a good ear.

Put away distractions
In other words, THE CELL PHONE! People love it when their audience is present, and it’s impossible to be there when engaged with your phone. It’s such an addictive attraction and people will really appreciate it when you prioritize them over the phone.

So, what if you aren’t liked? Is it the end of the world? In short, no.

A fear of not being liked can take too much control over your life. Sometimes decisions need to be made which can be inherently polarizing, and not everyone will agree or like them (or you). Not making the occasional difficult decision may be detrimental to the organization, and sometimes you will just be the bad guy. In a best-case scenario, you’ve had the chance to build trust with the organization, and these occasional unlikable moments will be forgiven.

Ultimately we’re striving for balance, where trusting and meaningful relationships lead to greater retention, innovation, productivity and customer experience. TRYING to be liked will go a long way toward building those relationships and, you never know, you could actually be that well-loved, EFFECTIVE leader who we’ve wondered is even possible.

Howie Milstein
Provocateur and Leadership Doctor

Why The Institute?

Why The Institute?

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After more than 30 years experiencing the world of business and organizational function (dysfunction), I recently awoke with something like the opposite of an existential crisis. Maybe I should call it finally coming to my senses, but after witnessing so much command-and-control, take-it-or-leave it and my-way-or-the-highway leadership, and the aftermath of worker unhappiness and dis-engagement, I realized I have a purpose.

Call me soft, naïve or just plain idealistic, but I believe in people’s fundamental right to be treated with respect, dignity and the occasional tangible reward. Tootsie Pops and animal crackers are some of my favorites. I’m a big fan of the value of a healthy – physically and emotionally – community, and an enterprise full of workers, during the workday, constitute a community. But when leaders show up with their egos on full display, leading primarily with strength and power, normal human beings get afraid and retreat into positions of safety. If your business relies on innovation, whether in your products, services or operating procedures, FORGET IT!

As it turns out, my belief that quality relationships between leaders and workers result in higher engagement has been validated time-and-again in real research by really smart people with their names on books and articles. Ultimately, the right leadership style yields wonderful benefits to business, things that all businesses want like passion, innovation, retention, customer experience, shareholder value and BOTTOM LINE RETURNS.

There is a lot of effort and resource out there to help with organizational development, yet the bar on employee engagement has hardly moved over the past ten, maybe twenty years. So, do we keep doing what we’ve been doing, hoping that magically we’ll get some traction? I’m thinking that we try something different.

It’s my strong belief that the only thing that may need changing is for leaders and managers to STOP TAKING THEMSELVES SO SERIOUSLY, in other words, LIGHTEN UP and lead from positions of warmth, compassion and vulnerability which will build TRUST. And guess what, trust is the basis of all great relationships and great relationships, within the context of work, lead to engagement and a more VITAL BUSINESS. Seems simple, eh?

Well, it’s not. Self-awareness requires a ton of mindfulness, intent and commitment, none of which come easily to the mere primates we are. The first step is to understand what taking yourself so seriously looks like, then working on a strategy and process to bring mindfulness to your organization in a scalable way. This isn’t formulaic, but something to create in a way that considers the personalities, structure and culture of your business.

When you’re ready for a more vital business, reach out to The Institute to put yourself on the right path. And, stop taking yourself so seriously!


Howie Milstein
Provocateur and Leadership Doctor



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Once upon a time (I won’t say how long ago, lest some people get exposed) I was in a meeting of company leaders: CEO, CFO, Director of Sales, Director of Manufacturing, Director of Engineering, and myself. There was a lot of collective wisdom around that table and the discussion centered on strategy.

The company was forever at a crossroads, given a lack of funds and a long line of vendors needing to satisfy their own selfish desires, like making mortgage payments and feeding their children. At one point during the discussion, a strategic investment was deemed irresponsible, untenable and pretty much a joke by all but one participant, whereupon the CEO (the “one participant”) declared “apparently you all think we’re running a democracy around here” and said we’ll be running another initiative off the backs of some unwitting vendors. End of discussion, end of meeting and the end of any vestige of leadership presence the CEO may still have had.

Consider “not taking yourself so seriously” as a euphemism for all the terms we’ve had in mind—and maybe even voiced

Afterward, I’m sitting in my office fretting over the difficulty I’d be having trying to wash that incident off when the CEO traipses in with a satisfied grin and asked “so, how do you think that went”? At that instant I was amazingly aware of my desire to channel Mel Blanc, the voice of Daffy Duck, and spit out “YOU’RE DETHPICABLE!” I can’t remember exactly what I said, but it was something around the lines of ‘well, we’re certainly clear on where we stand’. My sense of humor was nowhere to be found, and it was all I could do to not call him the myriad names I had in mind, none of which conferred adulation.

Consider “not taking yourself so seriously” as a euphemism for all the terms we’ve had in mind—and maybe even voiced—for how we’ve felt about bosses we’ve disliked. Hopefully you’ve resisted the temptation to call the boss a jerk to his or her face, as it might feel good for only one (or less) second. In fact, if job preservation is somewhere on the list of priorities, I suggest doing EVERYTHING POSSIBLE to SHUT THE HELL UP. This is where invoking more highly-developed emotional intelligence comes in handy. One trick is to immediately consider your mortgage payment or food for your kids. Crisis averted.

If you’re the boss, it might be helpful to know just some of the things you might say, imply or do that can inspire some name-calling by employees:

  1. If you’ve ever pulled the job title card to win a disagreement.
  2. If you’ve ever said, in so many words “it’s my way or the highway.”
  3. If you’ve conveyed “I didn’t get to this position by being stupid.”
  4. If you clearly aren’t taking other people seriously.
  5. If you have a moratorium on playing Led Zeppelin in the office.

Celebrating the fact that we’re all human, occasionally EVERYONE loses any connection to their most evolved selves and takes ourselves too seriously. Do you think this is merely an intellectual construct for me?! If you’re the boss and have transgressed, you have a good chance of gaining forgiveness, assuming that you’ve built solid relationships based on trust. Damage control is also in order if you’re the employee who’s absolutely lost it and unleashed on the boss (which happens to be very entertaining for everybody else). Whichever side of the relationship you’re on, you owe it to yourself to regain a modicum of dignity. This requires a healthy dose of self-awareness, knowing how you’ve just appeared to others and how they probably feel about it.

Once your blood pressure has returned to near normal, and your bulging carotid arteries are no longer an annoyance to others, it’s time to make a choice. One would be to do or say nothing, hoping that nobody will remember and that your image won’t take a hit. This is a bad assumption and the wrong choice. Rather, a better choice that will optimize your good name and likability (a key component in the quest for self-awareness) is to look up “contrite” in the dictionary and start acting that way. For those of you without a taste for delayed gratification, it means to be filled with feelings of guilt, sincere remorse and a desire for atonement. In other words, apologize and MEAN IT.

To put all this in perspective, think about your legacy and how you’d like to be remembered at the end of “the day”, which means, “your life.” Know that people won’t remember much about what you’ve said or done, but HOW YOU MADE THEM FEEL. Lightening up, treating people with respect and dignity, and a healthy dose of humor regardless of most situations, go a long way to being likable and remembered as being a great guy. They also go a long way to building a vital business where stakeholder engagement is high as are bottom line returns, but that’s a discussion for other chapters.

By the way, if you think you want to start a business in the arena of corporate culture and leadership, don’t try to buy the domain “” because I already own it.

Howie Milstein
Provocateur and Leadership Doctor

My Boss Was Killing Me…Literally

My Boss Was Killing Me…Literally

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Okay, so I have, like, this master’s degree in physiology. But I don’t have much patience in scouring the literature and filing reports – it feels so academic. I just want to have fun.

So, imagine my joy when I stumbled across this post from Melissa Hughes, Ph.D., on precisely the stuff The Institute’s fans of science might want. Below Melissa courageously tells her story about a rotten work situation, and then dives deeply into the physiology of fear and stress. As incompletely-evolved as we are, we can’t help but secrete stress hormones, helpful at times but rather ookie (reference the Addams Family) when released prodigiously. 

THANK YOU, Melissa, for saving me from having to educate The Institute’s minions on the physiological response to dysfunctional leadership. I was ready to beg, but you saved me the dignity by graciously allowing me to exploit your fine work!

You can check out Melissa’s other contributions on her LinkedIn page.


It’s not a “ripped from the headlines” story, but I'm not exaggerating. My boss was literally killing me. It was years ago, and the fact that I'm writing this now indicates that I survived. However, it's a story worth telling because it's more common than you might think.

I wasn't always caught in the homicidal crosshairs. For almost 10 years, I loved my company, I loved my job, and worked with wildly dedicated, passionate, talented people. I was fortunate to have amazing mentors who gave me opportunities to contribute and who valued my contributions. I was proud of the work I did, I learned a lot, and I looked forward to every new challenge.

That was until the changing of the guards, or musical chairs at the grown-up table. New faces occupied the C-suites, and nervous feelings of trepidation swept over the troops waiting to see how these changes would impact each of us.

My new boss—let’s call him “John”—seemed okay at first, and I was determined to keep an open mind.  Positioned precariously beneath him on the org chart, my first order of business was to bring him up to speed on company history and industry knowledge. John knew very little about our company and even less about the industry. Quickly, I discovered that he had even less interest in learning— anything.  After all, he was the chief; he had people for that.

Not too far into his reign of terror, John made it very clear that he wouldn't hesitate to throw me or anyone else under the bus to elevate his standing with the CEO. He leaned across his desk, pointed his finger in my face, and communicated his expectations:

“Your job is to make me look good and take the bullet for me when I don't. Is that clear?”


Remember, I loved my job. When it comes to work, I'm a bit of a bulldog.  I'll dig in and work longer and harder than just about anyone.  I take great pride in anything that has my name on it, and I thrive on exceeding expectations. So, I started pedaling harder and faster.

But, this... this was different.  John's pompous insecurities, emotional immaturity, and nonexistent leadership skills created a fearful, “duck and take cover” CYA environment and trumped any chance for creativity, innovation, team success or individual satisfaction. The only thing he actually created was stress.

What I didn't know then was that the stress was killing me... literally... one cell at a time.

The Science of Stress
We all know that stress feels bad. It makes us irritable and grumpy, distracted and tense. Eliminating stress completely is unrealistic partially because we're human and partially because of biology. There are two main kinds of stress—acute stress and chronic stress - and acute stress can actually prime the brain for peak performance. It's the fight or flight response that allows us to react to an immediate threat. Some degree of acute stress is a good thing as it keeps the brain active and sharp. It's also what enables you to survive a life-threatening situation. While it can help you survive a lion attack, that's not terribly practical on a typical day.

Chronic stress, on the other hand, is the kind of stress that many experience on a daily basis. This is the kind of stress that literally kills you at the cellular level. More than 90% of doctors’ visits are for stress-related illnesses. Chronic stress changes your brain function and the structure of the brain right down to the DNA. When your brain senses danger, it signals the hypothalamus, pituitary gland and the adrenal glands by your kidneys. Within minutes, the hormones cortisol, adrenaline, and epinephrine are released into your blood stream. An overproduction of these hormones makes you more vulnerable to everything from headaches, colds, and disease to impaired cognitive function.

10 Ways Stress Impacts the Brain and Body

  1. Cortisol narrows the arteries while the epinephrine increases heart rate, both of which force blood to pump harder and faster. The overproduction of cortisol can cause high blood pressure and heart attacks.
  2. Cortisol induces the production of the neurotransmitter glutamate. Glutamate creates free radicals that actually pierce the brain cell walls and cause them to rupture and die.
  3. Too much cortisol decreases the production of BDNF (brain-derived neurotrophic factor) which is like a natural fertilizer that keeps existing brain cells healthy and stimulates new brain cell growth.
  4. Cortisol kills, shrinks, and inhibits neural generation in the hippocampus which is responsible for episodic memory, learning, and emotional regulation.
  5. Too much cortisol creates architectural changes in the prefrontal cortex impairing executive decision-making and impulsivity control.
  6. Stress has been called the #1 public enemy because it leads to a host of other health issues including weight gain, heart disease, diabetes, digestive problems, sleeping disorders, and even cancer.
  7. Stress builds up in your "fear center," or amygdala, and increases the neural connections in this part of the brain. This perpetuates a vicious cycle of more fear and more anxiety which creates more cortisol.
  8. Stress weakens your immune system making you more vulnerable to infectious and autoimmune diseases.
  9. Stress reduces the production of the “feel good” chemicals, serotonin and dopamine, which causes depression and is linked to addictive behaviors.
  10. Stress actually kills cells and shrinks the brain.

The Bottom Line
As an educator, I always knew that kids performed better academically in a stress-free environment; I just never knew the science behind it. Recent brain-based research now proves that stress actually impedes our ability to learn. Beyond making us unhappy, stress shrinks the brain making it more difficult to solve problems, think critically, remember things, and make decisions. Stress makes us less creative, less innovative, and less productive.

Think about the people responsible for product development, customer service, quality control, sales, human resources, marketing... pick a department. If you want these people to be smart, creative, innovative, positive, and engaged, it might be worth taking an honest look at the stress level in your culture. Who—or what—is your "John" and how is it impacting the collective brain cells of your organization?