Dr. Christina Villarreal provides executive leadership coaching and health and wellness education for adults and organizations. Experience in working with the Bay Area’s tech community, including startup founders and their employees, executives in finance, product development, attorneys and engineers, and wide range of creative professionals. Training and expertise in working with a wide range of culturally diverse populations. Dr. Villarreal uses a problem-solving approach for coaching that is positive and strength-based, informed by cognitive neuroscience, behavioral change theory and is solution oriented.
Dr. Villarreal produces digital articles, televised and print/digital/televised interviews on current issues in health and tech culture. She offers consultation, early growth and leadership development to entrepreneurs. She has been a featured expert and consultant for a variety of international publications and television news networks including The Wall Street Journal, Techcrunch.com, The British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC), ABC News, CBS News, Fox News, The Oxygen Channel, The Lifetime Channel, Scholastic Scope Magazine, Topix Media Lab, and La Tercera, Chile’s national news publication. Her professional writing has been cited in textbooks produced by Princeton University’s Psychology department.
Dr. Villarreal has taught at various institutions of higher education in the San Francisco Bay Area at both the post-baccalaureate and doctoral level. Courses taught include Cognitive Psychology, Personality and Forensic Assessment, and Behavioral Medicine/Health Psychology.
You may contact Dr. Villarreal directly at email@example.com
When January hits, particularly in the dawn of a new decade, many of us take inventory of the changes we’d like to implement in the coming era. Others are wary of making grand proclamations in the way of ‘new year’s resolutions’ in light of well known research that proves 80% of people fail to keep their New Years’ resolutions, with most people giving up on their goals as early as January 12.Yikes!
The reason most people fail to keep up with resolutions is because they set vague goals like “make healthier choices” or try to overhaul their life too quickly with changes. Psychologistsagree that goal setting is most effective when people create concrete, small changes that build over time. Further, research has shown that people who are internally motivated are more likely to invest time in maintaining change with more success, than people who rely on external motivators to sustain change. When we expect specific outcomes as a result of our hard-earned changes that aren’t entirely in our control (such as landing a promotion or new role, improved mood, relationships or physical transformations) we can easily slide back into old habits rather than maintain change.
Many of Silicon Valley’s top leaders utilize executive coaching as a powerful resource for building and sustaining change for their professional and personal growth. One effective tactic for identifying and sustaining change I use as an executive coach draws from the toolbox of one of tech’s biggest successes- Marc Benioff, Co-founder and CEO of Salesforce. He developed the V2MOM template for setting annual goals across the organization, creating a new V2MOM and sharing it with the entire company, asking every employee to create and publish their own annual V2MOM plan. Simply put, the V2MOM is a framework for identifying the vision, values, methodology, obstacles and measures for building and sustaining any desired change. Drawing from my background in cognitive behavioral neuroscience methodology, I’ve added a supplemental list of accountability/sustainability questions that I plan to use with all of my clients in our work together this year.
(Set aside 7-10 minutes and write out your responses to the prompts below)
In 2020 I want to change:
If the opposite of this change were to be true, then I would expect:
The actions that best support the desired change are:
What hard choices/conversations will I need to face and act upon in order to make headway on this change?
All-hands meetings, sometimes referred to as town halls, have become common practice in organizations of all sizes, giving employees across teams an opportunity to meet with leadership. They also provide an opportunity to engage remote colleagues, fostering their sense of connection to their company. Marc Benioff of Salesforce stresses the importance of all-hands meetings “there is nothing more important for a growing company than constant communication and complete alignment.” Whether I’m coaching a seasoned CEO or an emerging team leader at a tech startup, one of the first areas people want to work on is their executive presence at all-hands meetings. According to Gokul Rajaram from Square, the best led all-hand meetings should drive company culture by:
celebrating people and accomplishments
drawing alignment to the organization’s mission, strategy and priorities
providing a forum to ask and answer questions.
“To be honest, I dread our all-hands meetings. I feel pressure to share updates that prove I’m effective in my role, but worry that what I’m saying is boring or meaningless to others.” (actual confession made by nearly everyone who’s ever had to give an all-hands update.)
“I end up spending my entire night preparing for the all-hands, and I don’t even know if it makes a difference- I end up feeling anxious regardless, and I could use that time to get other work off my plate.” (remorse expressed by nearly everyone who’s ever prepared to lead an all-hands.)
Why do so many people experience angst at all-hands meetings? Even people who are typically comfortable speaking in front of others can feel awkward and unsure of what to say at their all-hands, especially if they fear their update to the group will be perceived as too granular, vague, inferior- wasting people’s time. Not only does the all-hands place us squarely in the middle of social comparisons, it forces us to witness real time reactions in a group setting increasing our self-consciousness. Our human nature compels us to seek approval from others, fear social judgement and rejection, and analyze our social standing relative to others. Human social norm adherence is at the backbone of our evolutionary history. Adhering to social norms was critical to our survival for thousands of years, providing group protection from predators, nourishment through cooperative hunting and farming, and securing our genetic legacy through cooperative mating.
In today’s day and age, people’s perceptions of us continue to influence our sense of social standing, particularly in our place of work, where success or failure remains critical to our livelihood and self image. Organizational leaders feel pressure to orchestrate effective all-hands meetings, knowing that a poorly led one runs the risk of being a massive drain on productivity, dampening the collective mood across and within teams. Left unchecked, these all-hands can turn into ‘sharing for the sake of sharing’ and a lost opportunity to energize and inspire attendees.
So rather than spending the evening before an all-hands on gut-wrenching rehearsal, use this simple framework for filtering what to include and what not to include:
Share compelling information that illuminates both progress and challenges:
Focus on sharing updates and progress with an emphasis on WHO this information will be helpful to, and WHY it matters in the big picture of the organization’s mission and goals.
Provide context by drawing connections between strategy and results, comparing outcomes with expectations. Rather than framing missed outcomes as failures or alluding to blame, recognize when people’s efforts revealed compelling information, both positive and negative.
Connect with listeners through the lens of their shared experience.
When you acknowledge common frustrations and shared experiences, you increase trust by recognizing the challenges commonly felt across a team. Team shortages, sparse resources, and stalled progress are all opportunities to express empathy, normalizing people’s grievances.
Particularly when things get rough as a quarter gets underway, boost morale by talking about personal highlights of gratitude, encouraging shout-outs to team members who went the extra mile or helped the most in the past month.
Provide opportunities for people to safely share feedback about the all-hands to leadership.
Answer pre-asked questions: Provide a forum ( ideally through an online tool) for people to ask questions in advance of the all-hands, and for everyone to vote on the questions they want answered. The person who is closest to the topic responds to the top questions asked.
Use anonymous surveys to ask attendees to rate the all-hands, and provide an open-ended comment field around how it could be better. And, like with everything else, if you don’t actually address and plan to act on the comments, you shouldn’t ask for them.
This framework gives attendees an opportunity to feel acknowledged, curious, empowered and informed during their all-hands. No matter how you go about running an all-hands, stay connected to their purpose. All-hands meetings exist to reinforce what matters to everyone, all at once. Keeping that in mind can help you take all of the above and shape it to reflect fit your organization’s culture, mission and goals.
Executive coaching was developed to help people make the most of their abilities, gain deeper self-awareness, build people skills and resiliency for mastering the challenges of work life. Startup founders, senior management or leaders with significant responsibilities enlist coaches to help them bring new insights and skills to their relationships and broader life picture.
Coaching startup founders through crucial conversations isn’t just serving as a sounding board while they pitch investors, work through co-founder conflict and make hiring and firing decisions as their company scales. Founders undergo a great deal of personal transformation on this journey. They are also responsible for elevating early employees into leadership roles in which they likely have little to no experience. When founders use coaching to learn evidence-based cognitive behavioral tools for personal growth and in their management practices, they internalize a coaching mindset. This leadership style positively impacts the overall health and stability of the organization’s interpersonal climate.
This week while working with a client on communication skill building, she asked me:
Here’s a truth I’ve learned from having thousands of therapy and coaching sessions with people about their toughest crucial conversations: everyone experiences heightened, uncomfortable emotions. So unless you’re a psychopath (which is a different article!) it’s not realistic to expect to remain emotionally unchanged when facing high-stakes, crucial conversations. Humans evolved to experience this ‘Fight or Flight’ Response as a survival instinct in the face of perceived threat. When we anticipate having a high-stakes conversations, our brains can get railroaded by our emotions, mimicking the addiction response and diminishing our ability to think critically and generate effective responses. Without developing a practice to manage effectively this pattern, founders are at high risk for making poor management decisions and eventually burnout.
The premise of Cognitive Behavioral Theory is that our emotions are triggered by automatic thoughts that serve to alert us to the possibility of imminent danger. People’s perceptions occur as spontaneous thoughts, which directly influence their emotional, behavioral, and physiological reactions. Our perceptions are often magnified or distorted when they are distressed, making it difficult to see things objectively. By examining our “automatic thoughts” and identifying the factual evidence that refutes them, we are more capable of seeing a view that more closely resembles reality. With practice, our distress will decreases considerably, allowing us to make behavioral choices with higher functionality.
Billionaire investor, author and co-founder of Oaktree Capital Howard Marks discusses risk assessment and the psychology of investing on The Knowledge Project with Shane Parrish. He attributes his success with high-stakes decision-making to his ability to confront the evolutionary emotional programming that automatically drives human behavior. He shares that by adopting a mindset of ‘dispassionate observation and examination of thought‘ before acting, people can learn to accept the impossibility of predicting or controlling the future with 100% accuracy. This mindset reduces the risk of making decisions that overshoot a situation, out of instinctual enthusiasm or fear. In essence, putting cognitive behavioral tools at the helm of his investment decision-making. Founders can use this approach for their toughest, crucial conversations to stabilize their emotions, conserve mental energy and improve the odds of a successful outcome.
How to Use Cognitive Behavioral Tools in Crucial Conversations:
Practice writing out evidence-based thought records to dissect past situations that have lead to uncomfortable feelings. This simple but powerful exercise trains your brain to re-examine how your thoughts, feelings and behaviors are all interconnected.
Practice observing behaviors and listening for the ‘content versus conditions’ of a conversation as a way to spot the risk of a conversation turning into a conflict. The instant people perceive disrespect in a conversation (a hostile condition), the interaction is no longer about the original purpose (the content)- it is now about defending oneself, further escalating emotions.
Our emotional responses naturally turns into a ‘storyline’ or narrative in our head when we perceive hostility that feels like an injustice, shaping how we ‘make meaning’ of the person’s actions. Look for the factual evidence that supports your storyline and identify the emotional response tied to it.
With the understanding that rarely is any situation 100% factually true, look for the evidence that does not support your ‘story’. Practice questioning your conclusions – look for evidence that supports other possible perspectives with the goal of identifying multiple perspectives.
Keep practicing the habit of identifying your emotional response and stories, developing a more balanced point of view rather than accepting your own without question. Learn to understand and take into account multiple perspectives before engaging in crucial conversations. This mindset will translate into more effective exchanges in your relationships, and ultimately help you become a more successful, well-respected leader.
Do you know what drives your urge to compete? Your motivation influences your performance outcomes, whether you acknowledge it or not.
‘Wanting to win‘ versus ‘wanting to avoid losing‘ are two subtle yet measurably distinct differences that drive people’s sense of competition. Murayama and Elliot’s (2012) meta-analyses found the effects of competition depend on this difference in the minds of competitors. When someone wants to outperform others by winning, they tend to benefit from competition, but when they want to avoid performing worse than others, competing reduces their performance. Burnette et al’s (2013) meta-analysis found that the desire to win is positively related to goal achievement, whereas the desire to avoid losing is negatively related to goal achievement. Senko et al’s (2017) meta-analysis found that “wanting to win” improves performance only when it’s accompanied by strategies that leverage a competitor’s feelings of mastery. The take-away from these research findings is that “wanting to win” is not enough to protect people from the pitfalls of social competition that provokes fear of losing.
A primary function of executive coaching is helping people build lasting tactical strategies that motivate behavioral change for goal achievement and peak performance. My coaching practice in Silicon Valley is filled with non-stop competitive people- entrepreneurs, CEOs, venture capitalists, and creative builders leading the edge of tech innovation. Naturally, using competition to fuel new habit formation and improve performance is a no-brainer for many of my clients. But not all tools designed to foster competition will improve motivation and performance for all people, in all situations. Competition is good for sustaining motivation and achievement only when it reinforces feelings of competency or a person’s intrinsic values beyond winning alone.
Designing life goals through the lens of one’s self-determined values is vital not just for achieving a high success rate but for overall psychological well-being. As one might expect, people generally like to feel in control of their own lives. Self-Determination Theory asserts that people seek and engage activities that satisfy these Three Basic Psychological Needs:
Competence:the feeling of satisfaction achieved through completing a challenging goal. Why does this matter? You get to feel masterful and effective. You get to feel that you’re achieving hard things. (Great for people whose personal pet peeves are ineffectiveness and helplessness!)
Relatedness: the satisfaction you get when you feel understood, liked and inspired by people you care about or value. Why does this matter? You get to feel closer to the people you’re engaging with in meaningful ways. (Great for people whose personal pet peeves are feeling rejected and disconnected!)
Autonomy:the satisfaction you get when you act with a sense of personal commitment and choice. Why does this matter? You get to feel in control and the master of your own outcomes. (Great for people whose personal pet peeves are feeling coerced and micro-managed!)
Build in meaningful ‘whys’ or reaching the end goal of a competition won’t matter. Self-Determination Theory tells us many goals fail to motivate because they aren’t personally relevant, or they provide incentives that help people avoid losing rather than winning for personally rewarding reasons. Helping people craft goals that reflect their unique values reinforces their sense of autonomy.
Behavioral Change Technique: Feedback Crafting.
Build in useful feedback or making progress in the competition won’t matter. Self-Determination Theory tells us well crafted feedback promotes feelings of competence and mastery. As people monitor their progress through feedback they have the chance to use well-timed feedback for making improvements. Crafting feedback that provides a practical roadmap for making improvements helps people achieve feelings of competency. Encourage how feedback is incorporated to reinforce the person’s sense of autonomy.
Build a group size that factor’s in a person’s proximity to the top performance to optimize a person’s effort. There’s a reason why Junior Varsity and Varsity teams are still a thing! If you want to get the most benefit from a competition creating small, ability-based groups may be the best way to go. A 2009 study by Stephen Garcia and Avishalom shows competition is most motivating when there are fewer competitors in the comparison pool.
Whether in a work environment or in one’s personal life, people who measure their growth against those with comparable values and abilities experience boosts in motivation and performance. “When we see someone else just like us being able to complete a task and gain the recognition we seek, we up our game to achieve these outcomes for ourselves” according to Jillene Grover Seiver, PhD, professor of psychology, who’s research findings demonstrate the positive influence of rivalry on competition outcomes.
These are just a few of the techniques I use to inspire meaningful motivation through executive leadership coaching. By considering how our innate psychological needs factor into what’s driving our sense of competition, we can achieve greater outcomes with longer lasting results.
Everyone’s talking about the newly released documentaries taking viewers behind the scenes of the disastrous 2017 Fyre Festival. Hulu’s Fyre Fraudand Netflix’s Fyre: The Greatest Party That Never Happened. Both cover the social-media hyped event gone horribly wrong: festival founder and entrepreneur Billy McFarland duped thousands into purchasing tickets upwards of $3,000 each for a tropical island VIP get-away laden with models, celebrities, and A-list music acts. Instead, festival-goers were stranded, fighting over survival essentials like water and food in a squalid tent city. Worse yet, Fyre festival proved financially deleterious to the island’s local inhabitants who were deprived of wages, some of whom depleted their life savings attempting to bring the grandiose festival to fruition. The documentaries bring viewers up to date with Billy McFarland, the 27-year-old founder of the company behind the festival, being sentenced to six years in prison in October of 2018 , and facing a $26 million forfeiture order. In a Vox interview with Maria Konnikova, the psychologist featured in the Hulu documentary, she discusses the “Dark Triad,” a set of three socially aversive personality traits: narcissism, Machiavellianism, and psychopathy, all wrapped up in one person. “I think [McFarland] definitely has narcissism and Machiavellianism,” Dr. Konnikova told Vox. “He might also have psychopathy, but it’s hard to know without talking to him further.” While McFarland’s actions have been captured by these documentaries and other media accounts of his company Fyre Media, it’s hard not to be intrigued by what sets him apart from other vision-driven, charismatic entrepreneurs.
Can you overcome FOMO and spot dangerous narcissism before getting burned?
No one wants to think of themselves as unable to spot a scam when they see one, or that they might fall prey to the type of person who is capable of blinding our rational judgement, swindling innocent people of their savings, or endangering people’s physical safety and professional livelihoods. Fear of Missing Out (FOMO) can exacerbate our risk of being taken advantage of by diminishing the tell-tale signs of a threatening situation. In comparison, the threat of ‘missing out’ on something that has the potential to inflate our social status, evoke envy in others or afford us the chance to come into rare financial gain can seem like the bigger risk.
People commonly wonder “Isn’t some degree of narcissism typical and necessary for people to become high-achievers?” While healthy self-confidence is necessary to form resilience in the face of adversity, and sustains perseverance through trying times, this is different than true narcissism. Healthy self-confidence stems from hard-earned accomplishments, proven mastery, the fortitude to own ones’ mistakes, and a respect for those committed to learning, growing, and working. Narcissism is actually a psychological defense against underlying inadequacy and shortcomings (which is why it’s referred to as “malignant self-love”. Low self-awareness, high entitlement, habitual belittling of others, inflated sense of abilities, and need for constant admiration are other key features. Combined with psychopathy and Machiavellianism, narcissism emboldens people to take advantage of others regardless of the potential for harming them, in order to create opportunities for personal gain at others’ expense.
Fyre is testimony to how today’s ubiquitous FOMO culture fuels irrational decision-making, group-think akin to cult culture, creating opportunity for those with The Dark Triad to prey on unsuspecting others. Even if Billy McFarland was ultimately found guilty of fraud, countless people were willingly invest their money, power and influence which together, drove forward Fyre Festival to it’s spectacularly disastrous end. McFarland’s story is just the latest buzz in a growing pile of internet-fueled schemes where people forgo judgement for opportunity, and it certainly won’t be the last.
The holidays are coming, or as people in the tech industry like say ‘seasonality‘ is approaching. During this time of year most of us will face a series of negotiations and decisions with people across our professional and personal lives. Conversations will unfold with co-workers and loved ones as we work to sync calendars, discuss budgets for spending, solidify holiday plans, and account for the differing needs of others during the busiest time of year. When differences of opinions arise, the urge to ‘be right’ is an irresistible response that heightens our emotions and can fuel conflict with others. (To every family member of mine reading this bear with me as I illuminate the small yet significant insights you’ve inspired over the years. Thank you for being my experimental group! Signed, Dr. Know-It-All.)
‘Assuming positive intent‘ can help us move past our need to ‘be right’ and ‘win the debate’ and instead, cultivate a conversation where both parties are invested in finding effective solutions. While the following tips won’t necessarily ‘feel right’ or reinforce your hard-won identity as a debate champion, it will help you avoid the emotional drain of gridlocking with others committed to their point of view.
How to ‘assume positive intent’
The act of trying something new with a lightness of heart can be referred to as a ‘lark’. How to assume positive intent when conflict arises with others using my L.A.R.K. approach:
Listen for their story. When we hear an opinion from someone that contradicts our understanding of a situation, we tend to stop listening because we become preoccupied with changing their mind until they agree with us. When we stop listening, we not only signal to the other person we aren’t interested in understanding them, we literally cut ourselves off from hearing critical information that could help lead to a mutually agreeable solution.
Acknowledge their point of view. Our tendency is to jump to conclusions when someone does something differently than we would, and assume the worst. Because humans are hardwired to perceive threat in instances of conflict, we focus on finding ulterior motives in those who disagree with us. Make a genuine effort to understand the premise of their opinion based on the information they have, and acknowledge their right to see things differently than you do.
Respect their difference. When we assume another person is misinformed, wrong or has malicious intentions, our tone of voice and non-verbal micro-expressions can turn negative. This can be read by others as an unwillingness to respect differences of opinion. Guard against communicating unintentional disrespect by modeling the response you would like to receive from others when it’s your turn to share your opinion.
Kindness cultivates generosity. Now when you feel yourself gunning to ‘prove your rightness’, take a step back and remember that when you preoccupy yourself with changing someone’s mind, you are reducing the likelihood of them responding with generosity, and increasing the likelihood of them responding with animosity when it’s time to generate possible solutions. Your job is to listen, acknowledge, respect, and convey kindness before moving on to explore possible solutions that could be mutually agreed upon.
My father was an absolutely wonderful human being. From him I learned to always assume positive intent. Whatever anybody says or does, assume positive intent. You will be amazed at how your whole approach to a person or problem becomes very different. When you assume negative intent, you’re angry. If you take away that anger and assume positive intent, you will be amazed. Your emotional quotient goes up because you are no longer almost random in your response. You don’t get defensive. You don’t scream. You are trying to understand and listen because at your basic core you are saying, “Maybe they are saying something to me that I’m not hearing.” So “assume positive intent” has been a huge piece of advice for me.
Recognizing a different opinion doesn’t mean you are admitting fault, that your point of view is inferior, or that your opinion should have less value than others. Rather, assuming positive intent gives the other person the benefit of the doubt in order to set the best possible tone for generating solutions. It doesn’t mean you agree with their opinion, but it does allow you to see with more clarity where bridges could exist.
So when your co-founder, team mate or significant other holds an opinion that is entirely different than yours, aim to identify their operating system before trying to change it!
Give yourself the command “Tools > Clear History” to rid your mind of cutter that obstructs your ability to listen with less judgement. While we may never truly ‘know’ another person’s underlying motivation behind their point of view, we can aim to convey a willingness to respect their difference. Our mutual bandwidth for problem-solving is increased when we assume positive intent, so all parties gain more data points to generate viable solutions.
To stay ahead of the competition these days, high performing leaders are going beyond daily wellness habits in exercise, diet and preventative behavioral health. Mindfulness meditation has become the gold standard for fueling the uppermost skills that leaders depend upon in moments critical to their success. David Gelles’ book Mindful Work discusses the rising utility of mindfulness in the workplace, with leading companies like Google, General Mills, Disney and Patagonia using mindfulness training for measurable gains across all levels of employment.
The ability to focus and stabilize our emotional responses to internal and external stimuli cannot be understated. Even for individuals who thrive under pressure, operating under chronic fast-paced, demanding conditions taxes our brain’s acuity over time. Brain training through mindfulness meditation works to restore our mental agility, improving our ability to effectively respond to stressors.
What is mindfulness meditation?
Mindfulness, put simply, is paying attention in the present moment and choosing to respond purposefully and without judgement rather than automatically. Using mindfulness allows us to respond from a place of clarity and compassion, rather than becoming overwhelmed by the physiological changes we experience in moments of stress. This ‘freeze, fight or flight’ response evolved in humans as a survival mechanism, enabling us to react quickly to life-threatening situations and is responsible for instinctual emotional reactions like greed, fear or anger meant to protect us from harm. Chronic activation of this survival mechanism not only impedes our ability to think clearly and perform optimally, it’s proven to be deleterious to our overall health.
Stabilizes communicate skills under pressure. Instead of avoiding or exacerbating conflict with emotional reactions, mindfulness allows you to navigate clashes with the cool-headedness needed to facilitate successful conflict resolution. A Massachusetts General Hospital study showed that meditation reduced the size of the amygdala (the area of the brain responsible for emotions, particularly fear-based survival instincts) after just 8 weeks. Mindfulness practitioners were less likely to overreact and had fewer angry outbursts. Gains in “emotional regulation” increased by meditation endured in some cases for up to four years of follow-up.
Builds resilience in the face of setbacks. Highly successful leaders use mindfulness to bounce back from failures, smarter and stronger. Fast-paced, demanding roles require a high stress tolerance, the ability to weather unpredictable outcomes and preserve a solution-focused mindset.
Enhances peak performance. Taking a mindful moment (think seconds not minutes) primes and stabilizes the mind and body for optimal performance outcomes. SEALFIT Founder and CEO Mark Divine puts it beautifully, saying mindfulness is “a progressive process of integration: refining the physical, mental, emotional, intuitional, and spiritual until they emerge as one.” Michael Gervais, a high performance psychologist for the Seattle Seahawks and other world class athletes and co-creator of USC’s Peak Performance Institute shares that every morning, he practices the following routine: first thing, (even while lying in bed) take one breath to reconnect your brain and body and remind yourself that 1. everything is ok, 2. followed by setting one clear intention for the day, and 3. one thought of gratitude.
Is “mindfulness” at risk of becoming just another buzzword?
With science-backed evidence that mindfulness improves many vital areas of human functioning, the mindfulness meditation movement faces the threat of dilution by detractors hoping to capitalize on its potential, without generating real value for the consumer.
“By slapping the word mindfulness on new products and services simply to make them fashionable, these corporations are making the word itself somewhat impotent.” David Gelles, author of Mindful Work
As a result, people will need to be discerning about the quality of different mindfulness products and services, as the market floods with new apps, programs, and brands that tout mindful solutions.
How should I decide what mindfulness services and products to try? Where to begin?
Whenever exploring a behavioral change for health-intended purposes, it’s important to clarify your goals and expected outcomes, and consider ‘why now’ is a good time to commit to a new activity like mindfulness meditation. Make sure to share this intention with your personal support system, and check in with professionals anytime you encounter challenges in the process. As the holiday season approaches, consider how mindfulness training could be positively impactful for you and/or your organization.
Many years ago I had the privilege of completing coursework taught by renowned forensic psychologist Dr. Margaret Singer, a world expert on brainwashing, cults and psychopathy. In her long career, she investigated and testified about techniques used by North Koreans against American soldiers in wartime, the Symbionese Liberation Army‘s influence over the kidnapped heiress Patricia Hearst, David Koresh in Waco with Branch Davidians, and countless other criminal cases examining psychopathy, cults, and serial killers. Dr. Singer helped several people leave the San Francisco-based religious group Peoples Temple before 900 of the members committed mass suicide in Jonestown in 1978 by drinking kool-aid flavored cyanide. Even in her late 70’s, Dr. Singer remained a formidable speaker and made a deep, long-lasting impression on me about the irresistible charisma of cult leaders, and the lure they had over their members. I’ve outlined the key principles she taught as fundamental to a cult’s ability to successfully wield power over others.
Read through the following 15 tactics and ask yourself, can you tell the difference between a cult and your startup?
Complete, nearly unquestioned trust is bestowed to the leadership. Doubt and dissent are highly discouraged and may be met with uniquely tailored forms of punishment.
Leaders are given prophet-like power within the group, and embraced as special, visionary, ‘highly gifted’ individuals with unusual connections to a critical higher purpose or higher power.
Increased submission to the leadership is rewarded with additional responsibilities and/or roles, and/or praises, increasing the importance of the person within the group.
The group is the only ‘true’ belief system, and members are encouraged to think of themselves as elite and enlightened for their involvement in the group’s membership
‘Us against them’ mentality is encouraged as a means to unify the group, and reinforce the group’s mission against outside thought or influence. Extreme efforts to protect and shield the group from outside threats are manifested by expecting members to devote inordinate amounts of time to group-related activities, including recruiting.
Keep members unaware of what is going on and how they are being changed a step at a time. Potential new members are led, step by step, through a behavioral-change program without being aware of the final agenda or full content of the group. The goal may be to make them deployable agents for the leadership, to get them to ‘invest’ in the group, or make a deeper commitment, depending on the leader’s aim and desires.
Total control of members’ thoughts, feelings and actions through repeated indoctrination and/or threats of loss of affiliation with the group’s special purpose. Members are rewarded for their expressions of loyalty, and are made to fear negative consequences for expressing autonomy of thought.
Members are encouraged to believe that they will experience deep loss (of love, financial opportunity, respect from a revered community) or danger should they lose their group affiliation.
Systematically create a sense of powerlessness in group members. This is accomplished by getting members away from the normal social support group for a period of time and into an environment where the majority of people are already group members. The members serve as models of the attitudes and behaviors of the group and speak an in-group language.
This facilitates further control over the thinking and practices of the members by the leadership.
Showering great attention, , gifts of affirmation and love to a person in the group (especially newcomers) by others in the group, to help transfer emotional dependence to the group.
Threats of loss of love and severing of meaningful in-group relationships are used to maintain loyalty.
Special knowledge and instructions comes from the empowered leader who is thought to have rare gift for predicting the future. This leader then instructs the members how to carry out plans according to this vision.
The special knowledge may be received through visions, dreams, or new interpretations of revered content from past adored thought leaders and their teachings.
Control of a person’s social and/or physical environment; especially control the person’s time. Through various methods, newer members are kept busy and led to think about the group and its content during as much of their waking time as possible.
Manipulating a system of rewards, punishments and experiences in such a way as to inhibit behavior that reflects the person’s former social identity. Manipulation of experiences can be accomplished through various methods of trance induction, including leaders using such techniques as paced speaking patterns, guided imagery, chanting, long prayer sessions or lectures, induced states of physical taxation through sweat lodge sessions, fasting, hard labor.
The teachings of the group are repeatedly drilled into the members, but the indoctrination usually occurs around a system of ‘special knowledge’.
Salvation from the judgment of a higher power is maintained through association and/or submission with the group, its authority, and/or its special knowledge.
The group’s coherence is maintained by the observance to policies handed down from those in authority.
There is an internal enforcement of policies by members who reward “proper” behavior, and those who perform properly are rewarded with further inclusion, increased power and acceptance by the group.
If one expresses a question, he or she is made to feel that there is something inherently wrong with them to be questioning.
Avoidance of critical thinking and/or maintaining logically impossible beliefs and/or beliefs that are inconsistent with other beliefs held by the group.
Avoidance of and/or denial of any facts that might contradict the group’s belief system.
Those who do not tightly align with group policies are shunned and/or expelled, and remaining members are encouraged to see their exit as a personal failure and/or irreversible damnation.
Control of gender roles and definitions are maintained by the group’s power hierarchy to maintain rank and order.
Gender differences may be used for sexual exploitation of those with less power within the group by those with higher group rank.
Sexual favors may be encouraged to display group loyalty or affiliation with group leadership.
A common appearance that signifies group membership is strongly encouraged or required. There may be appearance differences that draw attention to group rank to reinforce the group’s hierarchy.
Differences in appearance among group members are created to convey special achievements in upholding the group’s tenets or purpose.
Lack of Accountability:
Group leaders are not held accountable for any mistakes or wrongdoings because of their special status within the group.
Group leaders are often protected from negative evaluation by other group members through systematic secrecy, and are treated according to special rules that free the leaders from accountability.
A closed system of logic and an authoritarian structure is used, permitting no feedback and refuses to be modified except by leadership approval or executive order. The group has a top-down, pyramid structure. The leaders must have verbal ways of never losing.
Crazy Rich Asians’ myriad of honest storylines capture women fighting to defy oppressive gender stereotypes, using brilliant strategy to seize control of their future, as well women complicit in their own oppression, scorning others for not having ‘corrective’ plastic surgery, wielding power against women for not being born into wealth and class, and hurling misogynistic insults like ‘gold digger’ to provoke conflict and pain.
Crazy Rich Asians brings thoughtful attention to the intersectionality of Asian culture and gender identity in light of major life milestones women aspire towards, including professional, marital and family developments.
These days, people are increasingly using executive coaching for the purpose of ‘figuring out what to do with my life’ (and ideally still be able to afford living in the Bay Area!) From high-ranking executives at globally successful companies, to startup founders who’ve sold their company and are now free to roam, to Bay Area transplants who’ve grown disenchanted with the tech scene- all have entered my practice ready to decode their personal truth, find their greater purpose, and build a personally meaningful roadmap toward their version of success.
“A man should look for what is, and not for what he thinks should be.” Albert Einstein
Our personal truth serves as our unique roadmap, helping us navigate toward a future created with purpose. Every day we make choices that steer us on our personal path- our inner beliefs, preferences, sense of right and wrong all come together to drive the direction we take in life. In his book Unapologetically You, behavioral science academic and author Steve Maraboli advises us of the importance of this position: “Live your truth. Express your love. Share your enthusiasm. Take action towards your dreams. Walk your talk. Dance and sing to your music. Embrace your blessings. Make today worth remembering.”
But what if we aren’t sure of what we are meant to do, and our greater purpose seems unclear? How do we ‘know’ what’s right for us?
How can we be sure of ‘what’s best’ when we make choices for our future? Some people feel a deep sense of conviction about their life’s purpose- “I was born to make music. I was born to build. I was born to heal.” Other people don’t feel this depth of clarity, and take aim for their future by solving tangible problems first- they develop a range of practices, skills and resources to prevent commonly avoided hardships like sickness, injury, poverty, social isolation. Others feel satisfied knowing they’ve contributed to offsetting the needs of their family, community, or are embodying their religious tenets faithfully. Even with recognizable success, some people may still wonder if they they’ve adequately challenged themselves to fulfill their personal destiny or greater purpose in life. How can we ‘know’ if we’ve made the right choices for ourselves? At some point, a person’s experience of happiness and purpose comes back to personal taste, or preference for achievement.
Cultural expectations, opinions of people we admire, and social influences related to the times further shape our notions of what an ideal, purpose-driven, meaningful life looks like. How have outside influences shaped your assumptions about what you should do with your life? Without awareness of what’s driving your thoughts, feelings and behaviors it’s easy to get stuck in the habit of chasing goals without fully understanding if it’s personally important to do so. We can distract ourselves by measuring outcomes in size, volume, impact, or accumulation as a marker to indicate the degree of our success. We may even learn to rely on these outcomes to tell us how satisfied we should feel.
Three Exercises for discovering personal truth- how do you ‘know’ yourself?
Cognitive psychology is the scientific study of the mind as an information processor- cognitive psychologists seek to understand human perception- the process of how we experience our emotions, how we develop mental representations, and derive genuine fulfillment from our experiences.
Bring to mind some of your favorite moments in your past. When you think about places, recreations, or experiences that you enjoy for the sake of the pleasure they gives you- try to uncover the why behind the attraction, or the feeling they’ve given you. Identify your preferences in the following areas, simply based on your experience of them: how do you ‘know’ you like them?
areas in nature (cliffs, beaches, snowy mountains, open fields, woods, etc)
Sounds of specific musical instruments, musical genres, or eras of music
Social activities at a party (group games, exploratory dinner conversations, group cooking, dancing, people watching, etc)
2. Can you identify how external influences or mental representations play a role in how you developed these preferences?
Consider how your family, social circles, workplace or local communities have shaped your understanding of how to best spend your time.
How does the narrative you’ve adopted about your personality style (e.g. loner, leader, helper) shape your predictions of trying new experiences and how you’ll feel about them?
3. Imagine moving to a society where areas of achievement, compensation for work and the social status of various roles were completely different than what we know them to be now.
Can you imagine choosing a role/occupation (a collection of responsibilities and activities) without knowing how this society thought of it?
What would you be doing? (Starting an original project? Building a team after evaluating competencies in people? Leading growth?)
How much of your attraction to these elements are because you’re familiar and/or been successful in doing these things in the past?
If you found out there was one additional responsibility within this role/occupation that you were apprehensive to take on, what would that be?
These exercises are meant to help you uncover and tap into your personal truth, creating a guiding force for making choices in the big picture of your life path. Be patient with yourself, track the evolution of your thoughts, feelings and insights throughout the process. You’re on your way to ‘knowing’ yourself better than ever before.