What “Really” Looks Good in an Employee?

Claire Suddath posted a quiz concerning the disadvantages of women in the workplace in the July 28-August 3, 2014 issue of Bloomberg Businesweek (p. 62). She shared these interesting tidbits:

  • Although 54% of the U.S. workforce reports to a male boss, a 2012 MIT study suggests that women cannot count on female bosses to help them advance their careers.
  • Male managers who are married to working women are more apt to recommend female employees for promotion than are men married to stay-at-home women.
  • Blondes earn 7% more than brunettes.
  • Women in organizations led by CEOs whose first children are female earn 1.1% more on average. Wages drop for all those reporting to CEOs with firstborn sons.
  • Women wearing makeup are considered more competent and professional; however, women who perceive other women as dressing “too fancy” are “put off” by their attire.
  • A woman’s weight influences her earning potential. “Even very thin women are punished when they gain a little” (p. 64). There is a correlation also between an increase in a woman’s BMI and a drop in income for both the woman and her spouse.
  • Good posture affects the level of power others perceive women to have.

Perhaps all women should dye their hair blonde, lose weight, practice balancing books on their heads for improved posture, wear makeup and khakis, and accept a position only if the boss is a male manager with a firstborn daughter, and married to a working woman. Yes, I am being facetious. What a superficial list!

The world isn’t fair. Although perception is reality, its effects are powerful. These findings reflect collective practices that are unethical and illegal. One cannot confront this behavior directly because managers have learned how to discriminate covertly in the last 50 years since the Civil Rights Movement began. A manager would never tell an employee “You are overweight so you are not getting a raise.” Rather, the manager would find other reasons that most probably could not be connected to discrimination.

Transformational leaders coach, encourage, and support employees. These are gender-blind behaviors. Through my research findings (shared in detail in my book Transformational Leadership and High-Intensity Interval Training) I suggest that transformational leaders hire employees who embrace their vision, which aligns also with the mission of the organization. Once on the team, these leaders manage to their employees’ strengths. They provide growth opportunities that are based on their skills and interests. They want their employees to shine because they realize when their employees excel, they “look” good and the organization benefits. Perhaps there is a need to redefine our notion of “good looks.” Employees who are motivated, energetic, enthusiastic, work hard and deliver results could be the new definition of attractive. A win-win for all.

Copyright © 2014 Carol R. Himelhoch. All rights reserved

“Conflict is the Beginning of Consciousness” –M. Esther Harding (1888-1971)

Recent media reports concerning the clash between Joan Rivers and her mentor, Johnny Carson, remind me of how uncomfortable I feel when conflict escalates and relationships dissolve. Apparently Rivers and Carson were close, yet never spoke again after Rivers hosted a show scheduled to run at the same time as Carson’s on a competing network. Although I have studied conflict resolution and know better, I prefer to move through life conflict-free.

Conflict is manifest in four domains: intrapersonal, interpersonal, intragroup, and intergroup. Causes may be economic, such as when resources are limited. Ideological or value differences are another source of disputes. The desire to exert influence and wield one’s power is a third cause. Five styles for managing conflict include accommodating, avoiding, collaborating, competing, and compromising (Types of Conflict.org). The style selected depends on the situation and one’s personal style. In the Rivers-Carson relationship, it seems none of the above was used successfully because their relationship ended.

The absence of conflict is a true concern. Leaders who surround themselves with “yes men/women” stifle creativity and innovation and limit their potential for making sound decisions. Employees watch leaders closely to uncover cues that signal their preferences. Organizations with tall hierarchies risk information loss as important developments are stuck as they try to move up the chain. Filtering information to protect the leader and the messenger is a natural inclination; however, withholding facts delays consequences and may prevent timely responses to trouble. Creating an environment in which it is safe to broach difficult topics is essential.

Groupthink, identified by Irving Janis in 1972, is a dynamic that results in flawed decisions because team members are insulated from critical information. Symptoms of groupthink include:

  1. Illusion of invulnerability –Creates excessive optimism that encourages taking extreme risks.
  2. Collective rationalization – Members discount warnings and do not reconsider their assumptions.
  3. Belief in inherent morality – Members believe in the rightness of their cause and therefore ignore the ethical or moral consequences of their decisions.
  4. Stereotyped views of out-groups – Negative views of “enemy” make effective responses to conflict seem unnecessary.
  5. Direct pressure on dissenters – Members are under pressure not to express arguments against any of the group’s views.
  6. Self-censorship – Doubts and deviations from the perceived group consensus are not expressed.
  7. Illusion of unanimity – The majority view and judgments are assumed to be unanimous.
  8. Self-appointed ‘mindguards’ – Members protect the group and the leader from information that is problematic or contradictory to the group’s cohesiveness, view, and/or decisions (PsySR).

Leaders can thwart groupthink by abstaining from sharing their predispositions at the beginning of a meeting, assignment, or project. Norm-setting is critical also. Each member of the team should be encouraged to offer dissenting views and to evaluate ideas of everyone on the team critically. Asking team members to share deliberations with others they trust, then reporting back the reactions of their trusted-others promotes creative idea generation. Inviting outside experts to meetings to challenge thoughts, requesting members to play “devil’s advocate” to challenge the team’s assumptions, and examining closely the actions of competitors to anticipate possible scenarios are other strategies that prevent groupthink (PsySR).

If managed poorly, the consequences of conflict are negative and include reduced productivity, low morale, unprofessional conduct, and more frequent and persistent clashes. Constructive conflict leads to a heightened awareness of important business challenges, an improved focus on organizational priorities, a broader recruitment of employee talents, and an appreciation of the benefits derived from people’s differences (Managementhelp.org).

The adage “There are three sides to every story. Yours, theirs, and the truth” applies to conflict. Although we cannot control others, we do have the choice to examine ourselves with a critical eye and to listen to the concerns of others with an open mind. If conflict resolution were easy, we wouldn’t have wars, divorces, lawsuits, mediation, arbitration, or dissolved partnerships and friendships. Making a concerted effort to engage productively in constructive conflict seems a worthy goal. I can’t help but ponder what the world of comedy would have been like had Rivers and Carson worked through their differences.

Copyright © 2014 Carol R. Himelhoch. All rights reserved

Karma versus Control and the Element of Choice

Private thoughts are powerful. Contrast “Things are outside of my control, and “Life is a game of chance,” with “If you work hard you will achieve your goals,” and Edison’s quote “Genius is 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration.” Personal agency, often referred to as locus of control (LOC), is an important leadership concept. I offer herein my reflections on the power of choice in shaping the extent to which we maximize the outcomes we achieve in life. Even if one’s present thought patterns are fatalistic, I argue that people can change their LOC if they wish.

Julian Rotter proposed the construct of LOC in 1954. Still influential and studied in most leadership courses today, LOC refers to the source(s) to which one attributes outcomes. Those with an external LOC believe what happens to them is caused by external stimuli, albeit another person’s actions, fate, chance, or events. Those at the other end of the continuum, with an internal LOC, believe their own actions cause their circumstances. Feeling in control of one’s destiny is empowering and positive. Feeling unable to influence what happens is disconfirming. Even when achieving something great, a person with an external LOC may believe the triumph was lucky, thereby missing the connection between behavior and results and perpetuating a negative thought cycle. Most managers find supervising an employee who does not take responsibility for her or his mistakes frustrating.

An internal LOC is preferred in leadership. Those with an internal LOC tend to be proactive, goal-oriented, hardworking, introspective, and employ a participative management style. There are some downsides, however. Some can be driven and task-oriented to a fault (e.g., Type As). Their achievement-orientation, when taken to an extreme, may leave others feeling dominated and controlled. Those to whom they report may perceive they do not take direction well (MindTools.com).

Many in leadership classes or training programs debate the question “Are leaders born or made.” Although some leaders are charismatics and their charm reinforced through social interaction, I would not teach leadership if I believed one’s potential stopped at birth. Ernst & Young identify successful entrepreneurial leaders who developed skills throughout their careers, and many other examples are available on the web. I wonder if believing that good leaders are born reflects an external LOC because the assumption suggests destiny is something over which one has no control.

Most of us know intuitively where we fit on the LOC continuum. Most of us are not purely oriented at one end of the spectrum. If interested in taking one of many assessments available on the web, click here: Locus of Control Questionnaire.

Like leadership skills, one’s LOC is shaped through life experiences. One can move away from an external LOC with effort. Some tips shared by MindTools.com to develop an internal LOC are as follows:

Recognize the basic fact that you always have a choice. Making no choice is actually a choice in and of itself, and it’s your choice to allow other people or events decide for you.

Set goals for yourself, and note how, by working towards and achieving these, you are controlling what happens in your life. As you do this, you’ll find that your self-confidence  quickly builds.

Develop your decision-making and problem-solving skills so that you can feel more confident, and in control of what happens. With these tools, you’ll find that you can understand and navigate through situations that would otherwise damage you.

Pay no attention to self talk. When you hear yourself saying things like, “I have no choice,” or There’s nothing I can do,” step back and remind yourself that you do, in fact, have some degree of control. It’s your choice whether you exercise it or not.

The very act of implementing a plan to alter one’s LOC suggests the change happened already. Mindful practice should reinforce this orientation. Those with an internal LOC are more apt to examine their failures and successes with an eagerness to learn from them. They are just as quick to take blame and criticism (the subject of an upcoming blog post) as they are to accept and share accolades with those who help them prosper. Management is defined as getting things done through other people. One person cannot perform all the work of an organization. Such an unrealistic attribution could suggest an external LOC.

The leaders I interviewed for my book Transformational Leadership and High-Intensity Interval Training project an internal LOC. The optimism expressed in the following quote is encouraging to anyone interested in changing.

If you don’t try you’re never going to succeed. You know it is okay to fail but it is not okay to give up. And that if you give up then you know, then you give up. But you can always — You can fail and you can pick yourself up and try again. And I think that’s probably one of the big things that I would take away and I would say to other people, “It is okay that you can’t do this today.” But you can sit here and you can cry and you can whine about it and say that you can’t do this and you can’t do this. And you can say you can’t do this, and the minute you say you can’t, you’re right; you can’t. And so maybe you can’t do it today, or you weren’t successful today in doing something but you can come back tomorrow and you can try again and you may be successful that day and you may not. And then you may be successful one day and the very next day be not successful at doing something. I think it’s not giving up and not giving up on yourself; that you keep coming back and you keep trying. You keep putting forth the effort and if you do, eventually you’re going to succeed and you’re going to be successful in no matter what it is.

The empowered perspective shared above inspires me to monitor my thoughts so that I extinguish negative thought patterns that limit my growth. It is better to fail than do nothing, especially because a person with an internal LOC will review root causes and learn valuable lessons from mistakes. So many limits are self-imposed. Thoughts are powerful, and we can choose to take control of our actions. We always have choices.


Rotter, J. B. (1954). Social learning theory and clinical psychology. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall.

Copyright © 2014 Carol R. Himelhoch. All rights reserved.

Depression Disentanglement

The tragic death of Robin Williams kindled a global conversation about depression. TED just released yesterday a playlist of talks on depression. Depression afflicts 121 million people worldwide (Discovery’s Curiosity.com). The horrible consequences of depression include diminished vitality at a minimum as well as suffering so intense that 100 million people commit suicide annually (Medical News Today). In the organizational setting, researchers suggest that depressed leaders are less likely to feel optimistic, resilient, self-confident, as well as less likely to adopt a transformational leadership style (Byrne, Dionisi, Barling, Akers, Robertson, Lys, & Dupré , 2014). To say depression is complex is a great understatement. Stunned and saddened by Williams’ death, I felt compelled to begin understanding what role exercise may or may not have in alleviating symptoms of depression. I share now the highlights of my search and its unexpected turn to a connection between exercise and stress.

Cooney, Dwan, Greig, Lawlor, Rimer, Waugh, McMurdo, & Mead (2013) conducted a meta-analysis of 39 studies with 2,326 total participants on depressive adults age 18 and older that were published up until March, 2013, to determine if exercise is an effective treatment. They mentioned NHS guidelines that recommend exercise as a treatment, and aimed to verify the reliability of this guideline. They specifically asked the following research questions:

  • Is exercise more effective than no therapy for reducing symptoms of depression?
  • Is exercise more effective than antidepressant medication for reducing symptoms of depression?
  • Is exercise more effective than psychological therapies or other non-medical treatments for depression?
  • How acceptable to patients is exercise as a treatment for depression?

Their findings suggest that exercise is modestly more effective than no therapy, but no more effective than antidepressants or psychological therapies for reducing depressive symptoms. The caveat is that the results regarding the effect of exercise compared to the use of antidepressants or psychological therapies were based on a small number of studies. The authors noted also that conclusions were inconclusive concerning a modest effect of exercise as better than no therapy when isolating the higher-quality studies. They recommend future research to examine what types of exercise may help people suffering from depression.

Wegner, Helmich, Machado, Nardi, Arias-Carrion, & Budde, (2014) also conducted a meta-analysis of 37 studies of 48,207 participants, and found the overall effects of exercise on anxiety were small. However, the effect of exercising on depression was significantly higher. They posit a neurobiological connection between exercise and depression.

My initial inquiry on the role of exercise to fight depression yielded inconclusive data. I was hoping to find stronger evidence in support of such a simple solution.

Although stress differs substantially from depression, it “can lead to depression in susceptible people” (Web MD). Evidence of a connection between exercise and stress reduction has been confirmed through research (Edenfield & Blumenthal, 2011). I agree with Lombardo’s view: “As a society, we do a pretty lousy job at managing stress effectively: over-eating, alcohol and drug abuse, excessive spending, hours in front of screens… these are all attempts at reducing stress to feel better. Unfortunately, they tend to add to stress rather than deter it” (Dr. Elizabeth Lombardo’s Blog). I suppose most of us are vulnerable to resorting to unhealthy behaviors, despite our knowing better. Many also understand the futility of self-destructive coping mechanisms. According to Edenfield and Blumenthal’s The Handbook of Stress Science: Biology, Psychology, and Health (2011), exercise does combat many stress-related problems, including phobias, anxiety bouts, and panic disorders, and with minimal risk of adverse consequences. Obviously, exercise is preferred over unhelpful stress-management strategies.

One participant I interviewed in my study is a manager of pharmaceutical researchers. As mentioned in my book Transformational Leadership and High-Intensity Interval Training, she uses exercise to deal effectively with stress. The following quote conveys the strength of her perceived benefits:

You know sometimes I do not want to go to the gym. I had a hard day and my brain is hurting; my body is aching. It is so much stress. But I know I have to go because I know after I’m done, I’ll feel so much better. I’ll feel this great sense of relief. I’ll feel this tension being tucked away and the only way I found to get rid of this heaviness and this excessive amount of stress that I’m under. Because what I do is very stressful, it is wonderful; it is helping mankind. It is developing wonderful medicines to cure people of diseases but there is a heavy burden with it. There are people dying out there that so you’ve got this heaviness with you, and the stress. And if you don’t get it out by exercise you’re not going to have enough energy to keep on doing what you need. So when I go and exercise, I feel this tremendous sense of wellbeing afterwards.

Her comments are consistent Edenfield and Blumenthal’s (2011) research. I wish I could advocate exercise as a simple solution for depression. I can, however, endorse the many benefits of exercise, including stress reduction. Perhaps exercise could be an effective early intervention to prevent depression among some people struggling to cope with stress. I hope the loss of Robin Williams will spur important research to advance the stock of knowledge of depression. I feel for the 121 million people who live with this debilitating condition.


Byrne, A., Dionisi, A. M., Barling, J., Akers, A., Robertson, J., Lys, R., … & Dupré, K. (2014). The depleted leader: The influence of leaders’ diminished psychological resources on leadership behaviors. The Leadership Quarterly, 25(2), 344-357.

Cooney GM, Dwan K, Greig CA, Lawlor DA, Rimer J, Waugh FR, McMurdo M, Mead GE. Exercise for depression. Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews 2013, Issue 9. Art. No.: CD004366. DOI: 10.1002/14651858.CD004366.pub6.

Edenfield, T. M., & Blumenthal, J. A. (2011). Exercise and stress reduction. The handbook of stress science: Biology, psychology, and health, 301-319.

Wegner, M., Helmich, I., Machado, S., Nardi, A. E., Arias-Carrion, O., & Budde, H. (2014). Effects of Exercise on Anxiety and Depression Disorders: Review of Meta-Analyses and Neurobiological Mechanisms. CNS & neurological disorders drug targets.

Copyright © 2014 Carol R. Himelhoch. All rights reserved.

GPA and the Gym

On July 10, 2014, MSU posted a press release concerning the research of James Pivarnic and Samantha Danbert, which found that MSU freshman and sophomore students who belonged to the university’s recreational sports and fitness center earned higher GPAs than non-participating students. The two-year retention rate, which measures students who persist in their studies, was higher for the athletic participants as well, by 3.5%. Put in another light, that retention rate on a population of 49,000 students suggests that 1,575 more students would progress from their sophomore to their junior year in college because they participate in exercise at the university’s athletic facility (http://msutoday.msu.edu/news/2014/want-a-higher-gpa-in-college-join-a-gym/).

The findings are consistent with higher-education research conducted over three decades by Ernest Pascarella and Patrick Terenzini (2005), who are famous for their work on how students are affected by their college experiences. Their research uncovered an association between academic success and connectedness to the college or university. In other words, the more involved students are in activities at the college or university, the greater is their academic success. The recent MSU study explores physical activity in a campus community, which is provided through the institution’s athletic center.

Two dimensions caught my attention. First is the notion that academic success is enhanced by physical exercise. The study did not explore whether or not there was a mind-body relationship. Rather, it looked at summative (end-results) data. Those who exercised persisted in college and earned higher GPAs than students who did not exercise at the athletic center. I see a possible research project here. As a layperson, I always believed that the mind is part of the body. Like any muscle, oxygen, the blood and all its helpful nutrients will circulate to the mind when the individual exercises. As all of the body’s systems and components improve with exercise, it is logical that the mind grows stronger as well. A fit mind has the stamina to focus on learning. Moreover, the discipline required to complete a workout transfers over to one’s studies. The student’s brain is better prepared for mental exercise; the student’s dedication to a disciplined study routine is trained indirectly through the physical workout regimen. At least, that is how I perceived my body to work when I exercised while attending college.

The second dimension is the role of community. Pascarella and Terenzini’s research demonstrates the power that belonging to a community has in affecting student retention. “Community” can take many forms. It can be a student club or organization, working collaboratively with other students on projects, interacting with and developing relationships with faculty, belonging to a fraternity or sorority, holding a job on campus, and so forth. The source of the community is not as important as the effect. Regardless of the source, student retention tends to improve when belonging to a community. Pivarnic and Danbert’s research shows the positive effects of belonging to a student athletic community in particular.

The community dimension is something I experienced firsthand when I started working out in a CrossFit® gym in 2005. The high-intensity workouts were (and still are) intensively grueling. The fact that I was not alone in pushing myself to my limit kept and is what keeps me going. When I’m working out in an instructor-led class with others, the instructor pushes us; the fact that others persist in the workout also pushes us to keep going. It is almost as if we are in a battle together; however, that battle is within ourselves. When working out, we are so focused on what we are doing that we tend to “zone out” everything around us. However, when we’re done, we feel proud of what we accomplished, and share a bond in knowing we shared the challenge of completing such an intense experience together. I often feel that if I can complete a HIIT workout, I can complete almost anything to which I set my mind. I feel proud of myself and happy for the accomplishments of those who “suffer” with me. I also have a better understanding of my limitations. Knowing those, I have developed confidence that I can overcome my limitations with practice and self-discipline.

My book Transformational Leadership and High-Intensity Interval Training explored this sense of accomplishment within community among a population of CrossFit® athletes who are organizational leaders. I was gratified to see certain hunches validated through my exploratory study. These leaders found mind-body connections between their high-intensity athletic training and their approaches to leadership. Achievement within a community was motivating and inspirational to them. Their love of community spills over to their leadership style. They consider their employees teammates. The leaders who participated in my study are successful in their careers. I can’t help but wonder if there is a parallel between the research of Pivarnic and Danbert among college freshmen and sophomores and organizational leaders. Both groups are athletes who belong to a community, and both are successful in their respective contexts. Perhaps this is a question I will add to the many other suggestions for future research that I proposed in my book.

Copyright © 2014 Carol R. Himelhoch. All rights reserved.