Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Relationships at Christmas time

One of the most famous psychologists (up there with Freud, Jung, Adler, Ellis, Skinner, etc.) was Carl Rogers. During this Christmas season I think Carl Rogers could help us all to see how to lead better lives in our relationships. Rogers was known for taking a more “human” approach to helping people and had the belief that people had within them the ability to solve most of their own problems. He also believed that people are more driven toward positive actions than negative.

Rogers used the analogy of learning to ride a bicycle to explain people as they learn and grow as humans: When you help a child to learn to ride a bike, you can't just tell them how. They have to try it for themselves. And you can't hold them up the whole time either. There comes a point when you have to let them go. If they fall, they fall, but if you hang on, they never learn…and they never truly reach their potential…and perhaps that is the saddest result of all!

It's the same in life in general. If independence (autonomy, freedom with responsibility) is what you are helping someone to achieve, then they will not achieve it if they remain dependent on you. They need to try their insights on their own, in real life! An authoritarian approach to helping people may seem to work marvelously at first, but ultimately it only creates a dependent person. And dependent people, no matter what age, are not happy people.

Rogers also is known for his three famous requirements of a therapist to be able to help others change. I think that his requirements are essential for anyone who wants to help others…whether they are teachers, parents, bosses, etc. But I truly believe that these three qualities are ESSENTIAL IN ANY GOOD RELATIONSHIP…IF IT IS GOING TO SURVIVE AND THRIVE!!!

Rogers felt that a therapist, in order to be effective, must have three very special qualities:

1. Congruence
2. Empathy
3. Respect

Congruence means that the person is genuine, not phony or fake. They are honest and truly representing themselves in all interactions. They let their “real self” shine through. Think about it, isn’t that important whether you are interacting with kids, employees, spouse, or anyone else you care about? If you are truly you, things seem to go better. But if you try to be someone you aren’t, it never goes well. People see through your fa├žade.

Empathy means that you have the ability to feel what the other person feels. You don’t just mentally understand the other person, but you understand it at a feeling level. Unfortunately our politicians have overused this one (“I feel your pain,” when they really don’t!) Any parent can relate to this one when they see their kids hurt, especially emotionally…they feel the emotions their child is feeling. I really understood this one the time I saw my daughter unconscious on a ski slope after a collision with a snowboarder. But it is also essential in other relationships too…the boss must truly understand his/her workers…the spouse must feel what his/her partner is going through…and the truly good teacher feels the frustrations of the student.

Respect means that you accept the other person “as they are” and you do not try to change them as a person. That does not mean you have to agree with everything they do, but you see them as a person of worth and value. You see them as a person with potential and you accept them as another human being who deserves our compassion, respect and support. You will help to change their behavior, but not their personality.

Over the years I have come to realize that Carl Rogers’ requirements of a good therapist are really requirements in any good relationship – family, personal, work, mentor, etc.

Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we all worked harder to practice these in all of our relationships? What do you think?

More later on these traits and how they apply to society…

Sunday, December 20, 2009


Thinking of the Holidays...

Suppose that there was a bank that credited your account each morning with $86,400. It carries over no balance from day to day. Every evening it deletes whatever part of the balance you failed to use during the day.

What would you do? Spend every cent, of course!

Each of us has such a bank. Its name is TIME. Every morning, it credits you with 86,400 seconds. Every night it writes off, as lost, whatever of this you have failed to invest to good purpose. It carries over no balance. It allows no overdraft (unlike Congress and the Federal Government!) Each day it opens a new account for you. Each night it burns the remains of the day. If you fail to use the day's deposits, the loss is yours.

There is no going back. There is no drawing against the "tomorrow". You must live in the present on today's deposits. Invest it so as to get from it the utmost in health, happiness, and success! The clock is running. Make the most of it.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Humans are Driven by Consequences

I was thinking today about all the things that our government is "trying" to do in the name of helping us and something dawned on me...when are we all going to "get it?"

I know its because it is my work, but when are we all (both government and non-government alike) going to realize that people don't just function in a vacuum. Human beings are driven by consequences. I believe we all have this innate ability to quickly measure a situation and take actions that will be in our own best least we think so at the time.

Why do we as a society constantly create situations that make people less productive and less happy. This is nothing new...I first saw it in the several unionized jobs that I held where it became clear that because no one could earn a higher pay rate than anyone else, people did the next best thing...they did the minimum amount of work to get by, thereby maximizing their own personal return on investment of their time.

We see it in government programs that encourage people to not work. We see it in health insurance policies that give us the impression that we can go to the doctor for "free" so we go more often than we really need to, which in turn drives up health insurance costs. We see it in the endless late night television advertisements by lawyers telling me that I am "entitled" to some sort of settlement for something someone else did to me. I see it when I actually have students tell me they deserve an A in a course because they paid tuition.

I guess the final straw today was when I read the Wall Street Journal assessment of the House Health Care Bill, in which I learned that our elected representatives want to spend a trillion dollars on something that the Congressional Budget Office estimates will help 2 percent of the population. It also didn't help to read that in the Cash For Clunkers program the government (because of its wonderfully efficient systems) spent something like $24,000 on each clunker it took off the road!

So, the bottom line is...people do things because they either pay off, or appear to pay off. Wait, maybe I just answered my own question....our elected officials do get it...what they are doing pays off for them! Not for the rest of us! But then why would any elected official really care about those who elected him/her anyway? I guess they are smarter than I gave them credit for being.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Attention Deficit Society

I'm convinced that everyone's really just looking for a shortcut. Over my many years of working with people privately and in groups, the clearer it is that many people just want an easier way out. Well, not because we're lazy (well, some are); it's more that we're completely overwhelmed.

Half the time, we all feel like we're drinking from an information fire hose. If you're anything like me, you're bombarded, and I literally mean bombarded by information, all day long. There's unwanted information (ads and pop-ups) and also WANTED information, stuff you asked for or paid for, and actually do want to get (like something you're trying to learn to improve yourself or how you do things). Not to mention the hundreds of emails we all get each day that we can't always respond to.

It almost seems like we're turning into an "attention deficit" society. Blame it on whatever you want (the media, the Internet, too many TV stations, spam, satellite radio channels, TiVO, etc.), we all don't have enough attention to spread out to do everything we want, including the stuff we don't. So we sometimes go into inaction mode and don't do ANYTHING. It's getting harder to keep focused, harder to make decisions, and mental concentration on just ONE thing seems to be getting more and more rare.

I'm noticing the people I work with also have WAY TOO MUCH to pay attention to. In addition to their work, they've got families, responsibilities, email, bills, and personal and professional development they need to focus on. In an age when we all have instant access to a ridiculous amount of information, making sense of it all and putting it all into place seems to be the hardest thing. And then we beat ourselves up about it.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

More About Entitlement

I have thought more about this whole area that I called the entitlement attitude and have come to the conclusion that it is much larger than I wrote about last time.

It goes far beyond students expecting an A for mediocre is pervasive in our society...

--- It is the belief by our politicians that they are "entitled" because of their job to have better benefits than the rest of us.

---It is the belief by people that they are "entitled" to keep driving their car even after they have proven they should not be allowed to because of drunk driving convictions.

---It is the belief by people that they are "entitled" to have a high paying job and that they are "entitled" to not have to work very had at that job.

---It is the belief that we are all "entitled" to free health care no matter whether we have paid into any system or not.

---It is the belief that we are "entitled" to keep earning more money no matter how hard we work as long as i just "put in my time."

---It is the belief that because I am the CEO of a company that I am "entitled" a multi-million dollar bonus each year, even if the company I run does poorly.

---It is the belief by many of us that we are "entitled" to get whatever we want whenever we want it.

And I could go on and on...

But the real question is how did it get this way? Now that is something to ponder...

Dr. Larry Pfaff

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Entitlement Attitudes

As I prepare to begin teaching college classes this fall, I have begun thinking about the apparent change that has occurred since the time I began teaching. I have noticed it in my classrooms in particular. When I began teaching "a long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away" most of the students came to school to learn. Those who were not interested in learning, did not expect to get an A or didn't show up all together. In fact they were happy to merely pass the class. Grades were actually an indicator of performance.

Well, in recent years that has changed. Most students now come to class expecting to get an A in every class. And many of those expecting an A, believe they should receive an A without even doing any work. They believe that just attending the class somehow qualifies them to receive a top grade. When they are reminded of the "requirements" in the syllabus they act as though I am speaking a foreign language.

I have even had students miss classes and not turn in assignments, and at the end of the semester come to me and ask if they can do an "extra credit" project so as to receive an A in the class. I used to try to help them understand the error of their ways only to be frustrated (the foreign language response!) Last year a colleague told me what she says and now I say the same thing. When a student comes to me asking for extra credit after not doing required assignments I now say, "I am sorry, but I don't think that would be fair to you. You see, since you have not be able to handle the regular class assignments, it would unfair to have you do extra work at this time." And I believe that is exactly true.

I have a feeling that my experience with the "entitlement attitude" is merely a snapshot of what is happening throughout our society. I am not sure why it is happening, but I do not believe it is biologically caused. I think that people are learning it. I believe that they learn it in two ways: first, from the larger society; and, second from their own personal experience.

Dr. Larry Pfaff

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Hiring a President

A few years back I wrote an article called “Hiring the Best and Avoiding the Rest.”

Recently I have been thinking about how we “hire” a new president (or any public office holder for that matter.) So, I am going to make an attempt to apply good Psychological principles to the process of hiring a president. Please note that throughout this rambling I will use “hiring” and “electing” to mean the same thing.

As citizens today we are faced with the difficult problem of electing qualified people to serve in public office. We have a real problem because unlike hiring an employee, we cannot place “help wanted” signs everywhere and just pick the best qualified candidate. We cannot post a job description on and wait for the best to apply. Unfortunately most of the time, we just wait until election time and vote for one of the people on the ballot, a ballot determined for us by the political parties. But given that we don’t have much say in the “pre-screening” process (or do we?), what could we all do to improve what we end up with in our elected officials?

Elections are always a gamble. We can never know the outcome of our decision until after the election and actual on-the-job performance occurs. However, we can increase our probability of electing (hiring) more qualified people by improving the process we use. I will discuss some of the steps and techniques to help us do that, improve our process. Elections are a high stakes game of chance. We as citizens need to be prepared to make sure we have the odds on our side. Think of it this way:

An election is a game of chance.

Smart citizens (electors) know how to play the game

by using a systematic process to

maximize the potential for success.

Most of us do not take the election (hiring) process as seriously as we should. Smart voting (hiring) not only gets a good person on the job, but it helps avoid problems down the road. Hiring the wrong person is a costly mistake for a company, but it can be even more costly for an entire nation! Look at the cost to the states who have had governors resign recently. The question is, could some of those mistakes been avoided by not having elected those people? Smart hiring (electing) won’t avoid all mistakes, but it will improve our odds.

We have a lot at stake, which is why good elections (hiring) are vital to our success as a society. Electing (hiring) leaders is perhaps one of the most important and least attended to tasks of all citizens. The traditional hiring process has three steps: 1) Defining the job; 2) Recruiting candidates; and, 3) Selecting an employee. This isn’t quite the same in the election process. Usually we think we only can act at the third step (election). But I think the general public, the media, and the political parties can have an incredibly powerful impact on the first two steps. I would think of the three steps for hiring an elected official as: 1) Developing a Success Profile; 2) Narrowing the field; and, 3) Electing a leader.

Developing a Success Profile

This is the step where the media can have a huge impact, aided by the input of political scientists and Psychologists. What are the characteristics and skills necessary for a person to be an effective president? What skills and experience does a president need to get things done in Washington D.C? I would think that we could easily develop a list of 8-12 critical characteristics and skills a person would need to be an effective president. A different, but similar list could be developed for any elected position. The media needs to objectively report what makes for an effective president, not just what they would like to see.

By analyzing and defining the job this way we can focus our efforts on looking at candidates who have these specific, job-related skills. This job definition process (actually it is a success definition) would also be extremely valuable for the political parties in the primary process. I believe that it would not be difficult to develop this skill list. For example, one could look at the presidents of the past century and evaluate their performance. Then an analysis can be done to compare performance on the job to their skills and work experience. In no time at all we would have a profile of the skills, knowledge, and abilities of a successful president.

Unfortunately, the political parties and the media are not focused on the skills necessary for success. Rather, they tend to focus on the personal appeal, attractiveness and speaking ability of candidates. It also appears that political parties sometimes focus on things such as party loyalty and connects. I would maintain that these are of minimal value as a president. I am not saying they are not important, but they are a small part of a good president. In other words we need as a society to be asking the question, "What does a person need to be successful in this elected position?" We may find, for example, that being an effective senator requires a very different set of skills and experience than those of an effective president.

Defining the job is the critical first step in finding an effective person in any position, including elected positions. If done poorly, it will negatively affect the rest of the process. In the area of elections it is not only done poorly, it is not done at all! Without a clear skill profile the rest of the process is left to chance…which is exactly what has happened in recent years.

Narrowing the Field

Once we have a Success Profile the candidate recruitment process can begin. This ought to the primary responsibility of the political party! Start with the Success Profile. The party should then be actively finding people who match that success profile and match the beliefs of the party. This would be a systematic process. But once we get to the primary process the media and the general public can have a significant role. The media should be looking at and reporting about primary candidates in terms of their match to the Success Profile, not just what they say in written speeches in front of supportive audiences. As we move through the primary process candidates can be questioned on their performance. We can also see how they hold up under the pressure of the campaign process.

Electing a Leader

Perhaps the most important thing that Psychology tells us about human performance is that:

The best predictor of future performance is recent past performance, especially performance in the same skill areas.

In other words, I would not hire a quarterback for my professional football who has never played quarterback, even though he was a very successful blocker. And I would never hire someone to fill an accounting position who had never done accounting, even though she was a very successful salesperson. Nor would I hire as the new CEO for a company someone who had only run a machine on the assembly line, even though has was the best machine operator. So, why would we hire someone who does not fit our Success Profile to lead the most powerful nation in the world? Am I being too harsh? I don’t believe so. That’s why the success of our presidents (and all political leaders for that matter) is so unpredictable…the process is done so poorly! I am not blaming the candidates; I am blaming the system that brings us those candidates.

But the best way would be to first have the Success Profile I mentioned and we would really take the guesswork out of the process. If the political parties and the media have done their jobs, then electing a leader is easy. In fact, I believe that if the parties and the media did what I describe above we would for the first time in a long time have two qualified candidates from which to choose. But even given that, the citizens would need to look at the Success Profile and compare that to each candidate’s:

1) Past work history, especially recent history

2) Compare how that history compares to the Success Profile

3) Performance during the campaign, especially on areas in the Success Profile.

4) Yes, add in a little likability too.

There you have it. Pretty simple. Will this happen? Probably not. Why? Because the political parties and the media are too invested in the current (purely based on luck) system and will be resistant to change.

I welcome your comments.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Thinking of Politics, the US, and Europe

I recently returned from a trip to Europe (vacation) and it really started me thinking about the U.S. political system. I noticed a couple things that were quite ironic.

First, Germany (where I spent the largest amount of time) is actively in the process of privatizing all kinds of government services. This at a time when the U.S. federal government is attempting to take over more and more private sector functions.

Second, the parliamentary system was a real eye-opener for me. I know it is not new, but I had never looked at the parliamentary system before. Talking with European residents help me see it in a different light. Having been born and raised in the U.S. I thought that our system was obviously the best. But I noticed something during this trip to Europe which made me envious of the European parliamentary system (at least the one in Germany!) Let me try to explain why.

In the U.S. we elect politicians based on the "person." We elect the person that we "like" the best. That is why if you look at the last 100 years of U.S. Presidential elections you will notice that it is almost always the more "personally appealing" candidate who is elected. The voters do not pay attention to the work history or the past actions of the candidate. OK, now for the Psychological part of this...Industrial Psychologists know that the best predictor of a person's performance on the job is that person's "past performance," especially their most recent past performance in similar jobs. In the U.S. the electorate never looks at a candidate's past performance, but only at the current promises he/she is making...Big Mistake! (I will make another entry on this topic in the near future.)

How is it different in Germany? Well, in Germany people go to the polls and they vote for a "party" and the party policies, not a candidate. That way they are voting for the ideas and actions of a party, not the personality of the candidate. The party then places the person in the job and the person is more likely to carry out the policies of the party. Of course the policies are what the people voted on. It makes a lot more sense, don't you think?

In the U.S. we don't look at the candidate's past performance but mostly on his/her personal appeal. The media doesn't help either. They tend to focus on all kinds of superficial information also. And both the candidates and the media tend to want it all in 30 second sound what we get is bad information. Think about it this would never hire an employee the way our president is chosen, so why would we pick the person for the most powerful position in the world that way. It just doesn't make sense!

The start of something

Well, I have always wanted a place to post my thoughts and get reactions from others. Please follow proper net etiquette and do not use offensive language, or your comments will be deleted.

I have started this blog as a way to look at things from a Psychological perspective...because I really believe that Psychology allows us to exam our own actions and those around us through a lens of understanding.

I hope you enjoy sharing this journey with me.

Dr. Larry Pfaff