Category Archives: Ruth W. Crocker

The Heroine’s Journey: Women and Leadership

By Ruth W. CrockerRuth W Crocker

It appears that more women than ever are stepping up to positions of leadership, but the path is still not as clear and unobstructed as we might think.

When Ella Fitzgerald, the queen of jazz, was asked the secret of her success, she said: “It’s simple, I owe it all to one woman, Marilyn Monroe. She stood up for me. She went to the owner of the Mocambo Club in 1955 and told him that, if he gave me a gig for one week, she’d be there every night at the front table. And she was. The press went wild. I never had to play a small club again.”

There is no question that women can be leaders across all professions but access to opportunity to lead is a crucial step before considering individual leadership style and goals. In the sixty years since Marilyn’s generosity catapulted Ella into fame, more and more women have helped to discard the myth that women can only have success at the expense of another woman. More women today (and men) are realizing that they have power that loses no energy by being shared and are paving the way for women to assume leadership roles.

Alison Levine, who not only was the team captain of the first American Women’s Everest Expedition, as well as served on the faculty at West Point, and had a career on Wall Street, said that finding those people, both men and women, who will help you gain access is crucial. Alison feels that our responsibility is to show people what’s important by your actions and demonstrating your leadership philosophy on a daily basis. In her case, her mantra is: Be the person that others can count on.

If it sounds like we’re making a connection between heroism and leadership – you’re right. Heroism is a trait that is rarely associated with being female, but the acknowledgement that women leaders often behave heroically could move us closer to recognizing that women are natural leaders. In a survey of people’s beliefs about heroes and what heroism represents, eight traits were identified as predominant: smart, strong, resilient, selfless, caring, charismatic, reliable, and inspiring.

Interestingly, when female executives were asked what qualities were present in women who have risen to the highest ranks in their organizations, many qualities echoed those heroic traits. They listed: confidence, grace, diplomacy, tact, insight, listening with good eye contact, moral integrity, global intelligence, warmth, compassion, understanding, transparency, authenticity, passion for their work, competence, good communication skills, self-assurance, being welcoming, and seekers of the best outcome for all parties.

Personal behavior, emanating from these qualities, is the most important source of motivation for managers especially in a fluid system where groups of workers are brought together to manage a specific project over a certain time period. Management of anxiety among staff is a crucial part of a manager’s role and women seem to understand this intuitively. The heroic aspect to this is the atmosphere of safety that is generated and the message that, “this is a workplace where you will be asked to bring your best, and I will support you however I can so that you can do that.”

Historically, definitions and views of heroes and leaders have been associated with masculine pursuits such as military battles and physical valor – activities traditionally seen as inappropriate for women.

But, times are changing. Women are entering the ranks of leadership in increasing numbers and demonstrating that those qualities attributed to the female gender actually enhance productivity. Perhaps the “Heroine’s Quest” is in the making. In the meantime, if you are a woman who has gained access to a leadership position, hold on to those qualities that are the secret to your success:

  • Keep your eyes open for other talented people who may need a foot in the door. They may become an asset in your organization.
  • Motivate others by showing personal appreciation and approval rather than neglect or disapproval.
  • Continue to be sensitive to other people’s feelings and be willing to provide interpersonal support. This can be as simple as a sympathetic look or a message of support.
  • Communicate with staff so that they know you are aware of what kind of stress they are experiencing on the job.
  • Clarify your ultimate goals and allow people on the day-to-day operational level the autonomy to work within that goal without micromanaging them. A good example of this was the administrator of a nursing home who said her goal was that residents would feel as if they were “at home.” Department heads were charged with figuring out how that would best be expressed in nursing, dietary, laundry – even maintenance and bookkeeping. They ended up being one of the top rated facilities in the region.
  • Monitor your staff as to their assignments and abilities. Match job assignments with workers allowing them to work at the top of their competency.

All of these qualities are attributes in which women leaders have excelled. As Joseph Campbell said, “follow your bliss.” You will find your supporters and your place.

Ruth W. Crocker, Ph.D. is an author, writing consultant and expert on recovery from trauma and personal tragedy. Her book, Those Who Remain: Remembrance and Reunion After War describes her experience following her husband’s death in Vietnam and how she found resources for healing. An excerpt has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize in 2014. She is Writer-In-Residence at Riverlight Wellness Center in Stonington, CT where she teaches the art of writing memoir and personal stories. She is available for workshops, readings and public speaking. Contact her at ruthcrocker.com.

Rethink Employee Retention: 7 Guidelines for Engaging and Accommodating Your Older Staff

By Ruth W. CrockerRuth W Crocker

Mary loved her job as a recreational therapist in a skilled nursing facility. Her co-workers marveled at her ability to assess the needs of residents and propose exactly the right activity for a patient recovering from a brain injury, stroke or other trauma. Her thirty plus years of experience in all manner of expressive arts therapies helped her serve her patients well. She worked efficiently and effectively with quiet compassion.

And then came the inevitable hours of paperwork. For Mary, writing long detailed notes in medical charts was a normal part of her day. But, she wasn’t as speedy as she had been in the past and documentation requirements were increasing. While a physicians’ notes are usually transcribed from a dictated recording, medical support staff still struggle through pages of writing by hand in many facilities. Her immediate supervisor, fifteen years her junior, pushed her to speed up. Mary felt stressed and unable to cope with the continuing pressure. After starting to dread her job and feeling like she was getting worse instead of better, she applied for and received a medical leave of absence. Was this the best solution for Mary and her employer? Probably not.

Mary is one of many valuable older workers who could have stayed productive on the job with some modifications in her work environment. Employers today are facing the fact that we need to keep our older workforce in place longer and we need to help them stay healthy. Baby boomers make up about one-third of the U.S. workforce and for the first time in several generations, there are not enough younger workers to replace them. Key industries, especially those that rely on workers with proven performance, knowledge, skills and self-confidence, will be forced by labor shortages to rethink employee retention and how best to ensure health and safety by adjusting equipment and the work environment.

There are many fears and myths about “getting old” in our culture, but the reality is that people are living longer and healthier and can remain robust contributors to the workforce much longer than any previous generation. While age does not determine fitness, there are predictable changes that occur with age and can be accommodated. The following are guidelines for employers who want to maximize the working environment for their most valuable asset: the reliable, responsible, loyal, conscientious, co-operative, collaborative, wise older worker.

  • Maintaining an unmoving position for a long time is very tiring, especially standing which puts pressure on blood vessels. Repeated and prolonged static work can be harder on the body than dynamic work. Provide opportunities to change posture or position during the workday. Adjust work surfaces to encourage position changes.
  • Sitting is generally good if chairs are well designed and adjustable. To avoid the dangers of prolonged sitting (weakened abdominal muscles, digestion and breathing problems and damage to spinal discs), provide training and information on sitting properly and permit opportunities to walk about and stretch.
  • Provide appropriate equipment for assisting in any type of lifting. Workers of all ages are vulnerable to injury by improper lifting technique and lifting objects that are too heavy. Teach them to decrease the need to twist the trunk of the body during lifting, using leg strength rather than leaning over and placing the load as close to the body as possible.
  • Because hand grip strength gradually decreases as we get older, the right grip or handle becomes important. Smaller handles become more difficult to use. Provide tools and controls with user friendly handles.
  • Light reaching the retina of the eye declines by as much as 75 percent from age 20 to 50. Improved lighting helps all workers. Problems with adjusting to lighting contrasts can be improved by ensuring that the level of lighting in the room is similar to the light level on computer screens in the environment. Reduce glare by using low or non-glare computer screens.
  • Gradual, age-related hearing loss and decreased ability to hear high-pitched sounds can be addressed by installing sound-absorbing material (to neutralize sound) and minimizing air-conditioning noise.
  • Offer incentives to encourage people to take part in fitness classes and quit-smoking campaigns. Older workers are more vulnerable to the possibility of sudden-onset and lasting health problems especially if they are unfit and overweight.

The previous tradition of older supervisors and younger workers has changed especially where workers are opting to stay on the job longer. It is important that younger supervisors be aware of different generational values and attitudes and avoid adopting a “child to parent” attitude towards an older worker. At the same time, treat older workers with the same requirements for performance and safety issues. Whether older or younger, each individual is different. In Mary’s case, her facility eventually adopted a voice-activated recording system which helped staff at all levels of the organization to get their notes written in a timely manner.

Businesses can improve their employee practices by having supervisors attend workshops on aging and the workforce. Talk to other employers who have successful experiences with hiring older employees and encourage employee feedback on aging issues by surveying your employees and listening to their concerns and suggestions. Hiring and retaining older workers can help your business grow.

Ruth W. Crocker, Ph.D. is an author, writing consultant and expert on recovery from trauma and personal tragedy. Her book, Those Who Remain: Remembrance and Reunion After War describes her experience following her husband’s death in Vietnam and how she found resources for healing. An excerpt has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize in 2014. She is Writer-In-Residence at Riverlight Wellness Center in Stonington, CT where she teaches the art of writing memoir and personal stories. She is available for workshops, readings and public speaking. Contact her at www.ruthwcrocker.com.

Public Speaking in Business: Fear and Fact

By Ruth W. CrockerRuth W Crocker

Larry’s boss was so pleased with his work performance that he asked Larry to give a fifteen-minute presentation to the entire department of twenty-five people. Larry felt confident about his work, but not about standing up and talking about it. In fact, it was the last thing he wanted to do. “Everyone will be laughing at me when they see me up there,” thought Larry, flashing back to the nightmare he had in junior high when he dreamed he gave a science report to his entire class and forgot to wear clothes.

Even Jerry Seinfeld quipped that public speaking is the number one fear for most people. “If you go to a funeral, you’re better off in the casket than doing the eulogy,” he joked. Unfortunately, this is the sentiment of many, including Larry.

It doesn’t seem to matter if a job is on the line or if it’s the low-stakes company picnic and you’re introducing the entertainment, most people feel a strike of fear in the chest when they know they have to stand up in front of a crowd and speak. The knees weaken, the palms sweat and palpitations rise, especially as the podium looms closer. Like the experience of many, the little gremlins (those creatures we invent to terrorize ourselves) in Larry’s head were chanting a worst case scenario: “You’ll look silly and sound stupid.” Suddenly, he felt weak and defensive rather than like the expert he was on his subject. Physiologically, his body kicked into flight or fight mode; his adrenaline rose, quickening his pulse and urging him to run out the door rather than to meet that vague, smirking aggressor: the audience.

The good news is that we are what we think we are, and, therefore, the possibility of turning down the volume on those convincing gremlins with their nagging voices, and at least appearing to be strong, comfortable and relaxed, is obtainable.

The following are some suggestions gleaned from public speakers at all levels of fear and experience. The goal is to learn the tricks of the trade that will enable you to take control of stage fright, rather than letting it control you – whether speaking at an industry conference or to a group of coworkers.

  • Prepare yourself in whatever time you have. Larry had to present at the next weekly department head meeting in two days, but, if it is an impromptu speech, don’t start with an apology. Try a dash of humor to break the ice like, “Thank you very much for the warm reception – which I so richly deserve and so seldom get.” The best one-liners make fun of the deliverer, not the listeners.
  • Imagine in advance how you might look in front of people and practice so that your eyes are not continually cast down. You can’t practice too much. In fact, it is the best way to drown out the gremlins. When you rehearse with your notes, practice breathing. Take in a comfortable breath, speak, pause, and breathe again. Check your posture. Are your shoulders hunched forward into a protective position? Breathing is easier when the chest is lifted because it allows the diaphragm (the horizontal muscle above the stomach) to expand freely. If you have been given time to prepare and make notes, be sure your notes are in large print and a handy format. Poor lighting at the podium when you finally arrive up front with notes in hand is one of the least expected but most frequent situations encountered by speakers. Fortunately, Larry took time to type up the highlights of what he wanted to say and enlarged the font. Finally, he cut the pages in half and pasted them on numbered index cards.
  • Take your time and speak clearly. Ask the audience if they can hear you before you launch into your speech. Don’t rush. It takes one or two sentences for people to get used to the sound of your voice and understand your diction.
  • Take a moment to scan the audience and thank them for the opportunity to speak. While you’re scanning, think about who they are and what might be interesting for them. Identify one important point you wish to make that will relate to this particular audience. They need to see the value in what you are going to say, and the simpler it is, the more convincing you will be. Believe that they are interested and want to hear your message. Start with a smile. Smiling disarms people and makes them think you know what you’re doing. As you take your place from which you will speak, take to make a sweeping gaze of the entire room. Look at the tops of people’s heads and people will actually feel that you are looking at them. You’ll avoid the distraction of eye-contact
  • Inspire your listeners by understanding who they are and where their interests lie. If your message is based strictly on your own needs, it will be much more difficult to connect with the audience. Some speakers start with an observation about the group or ask a question, like: “How many people spent more than an hour on the freeway to get here tonight?” Quickly, people will begin to feel that you are interested in them more than yourself. If your message is aimed at convincing an audience to buy or to consider a product, try to distill the message into its smallest size, the key point, in less than one minute. For example, if you’re selling time-shares to busy people, perhaps a key point might be: “What’s the easiest way to take a vacation?” Then elaborate and practice delivering the message in longer and longer forms. This will help you zero in on what you really want to say.
  • Show the audience that you are composed and passionate about your subject. Tell them that you are happy to be there even if you feel nervous. It’s normal to experience the “jitters” when you know you have to speak in front of others. Larry even became nervous when he had to say his name and introduce himself around a meeting table. He had to remind himself that many people feel the same way when the spotlight is suddenly turned on them.
  • Finally, don’t raise an alarm that you might faint or somehow not survive the speech. The audience will not hear a word you say. They will be waiting for something to happen – to you. For Larry, the solution might be to find a way to laugh at himself right at the beginning. Something like, “This reminds me of the guy who was asked how he controlled a man-eating lion by whispering in the lion’s ear as he was about to devour him. His answer: ‘I just told him, as soon as you’ve finished your dinner you’ll be asked to say a few words.’”

Even the greatest orators and speech makers all started in the same place, learning how to put one foot after the other as they made their way down the aisle, behind the curtain, up to the stage and utter the first line. Turning such a formidable fear into something convincing and manageable that can help your career is a great accomplishment.

As Larry worked on his presentation and remembered his angst in junior high, he thought about his “gremlins” and how he might make them work for him rather than against him. He imagined grabbing them off his shoulder and stuffing them under his arm as he walked to the podium, saying, “C’mon you guys. You’re going with me!”

Ruth W. Crocker, Ph.D. is an author, writing consultant and expert on recovery from trauma and personal tragedy. Her book, Those Who Remain: Remembrance and Reunion After War describes her experience following her husband’s death in Vietnam and how she found resources for healing. An excerpt has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize in 2014. She is Writer-In-Residence at Riverlight Wellness Center in Stonington, CT where she teaches the art of writing memoir and personal stories. She is available for workshops, readings and public speaking. Contact her at ruthcrocker.com.

Mindful Compassion in the Workplace: Improving Quality Of Life in Your Business

By Ruth W. CrockerRuth W Crocker

If you find yourself listening to co-workers complain at work, you’re not alone. Jane, a registered nurse, often eats her lunch sitting on a curb in the parking lot next to the clinic where she works. She’s looking for just a few minutes of peace and quiet from the chaos and complaints that echo off the walls in the employee break room where people wolf down their meal amid a chorus of gripes about work and working conditions.

A recent Harris poll found that 80 percent of workers feel stressed about one or more things in the workplace. Feelings of persistent high stress among workers have been shown to be related to negative outcomes including personal and professional burnout, absenteeism, lower productivity and lower job satisfaction. Besides the “normal” sources of stress like employment uncertainty due to globalization and increased job flux, nurses like Jane must deal with meeting the needs of sick and dying patients and coordinating and documenting care across different health care systems. The sources of stress for workers at all levels and in all settings seem to be growing.

Is there a panacea or secret potion that can be applied in a variety of work situations? Employers can help by offering wellness programs aimed at boosting mental and physical health. One highly recommended approach is the use of mindfulness training. Mindfulness is a method of learning how, and to what, we pay attention, in a particular way, on purpose, in the present moment, and without judgment. It is the process of learning a calm awareness of one’s body, feelings and thoughts. Basically it demonstrates that we are what we think and reminds us of the impermanence of everything that we think is extremely important. Without becoming more mindful, we can focus continually on the same problems over and over again without resolving them.

Managers who practice mindfulness have discovered that it improves their ability to encourage calm and stability in the workplace. They actually increase productivity when they model “mindful manager” qualities, like listening before acting and leading people by focusing less on hierarchical relationships: “Do this because I told you to,” becomes, “let’s talk about how and why we do things this way.”

Managers report seeing themselves differently when they can introduce workers to a culture of mindfulness that supports the notion that making occasional mistakes is part of learning and can ask questions that require people to think about where they are in a work situation and how they got there.

Most people are more familiar with “mindlessness” during which we feel forgetful, separate from ourselves, and as if we are living mechanically, like a puppet, controlled by others. Exercises that focus on mindfulness restore a sense of comfort with our decisions and ourselves. We feel “whole” rather than fragmented.

Formalized programs conducting mindfulness training at worksites have shown that employee stress levels decreased by 35 to 40 percent with an average of one hour of mindfulness practice per week. Exercises include meditation (a form of quiet thought without the goal of thinking), breathing in a focused, mindful way, gentle physical exercises, and conversations with a trained workshop leader. Jon Kabat-Zinn launched one of the original Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction programs at the University of Massachusetts Medical School in 1979. Since then, many companies have used mindfulness-based programs to reduce stress in the workplace.

Here are some benefits of becoming more mindful:

  • Mindfulness practice brings the mind into the present and alleviates the stress of thinking about the past and the future. Relaxation can occur because obsession about problems is at least temporarily paused. Research has linked greater mindfulness with lowering blood pressure, decreasing anxiety and reducing depression.
  • Mindfulness increases openness not only to new information but also to different points of view thus increasing tolerance and decreasing prejudice.
  • Mindfulness enhances the consideration of ethics and wisdom in decision-making.
  • Mindfulness encourages flexibility, productivity, innovation, leadership ability and satisfaction and decreases worry. If only three people show up for a job that normally requires four people, a more mindful manager will have greater ability to reassess the job and figure out how to get it done without adding new stress.
  • Mindfulness circumvents fatigue by encouraging people to change the context of a situation before reaching the point where they expect to be tired. Staggering different kinds of paperwork, moving to a different work setting or getting up to take a short walk are mindful ways to tap latent energy and change the mindset leading to exhaustion. Some people describe this as finding a “second wind,” but it is, in fact, a great example of mindfulness at work. Changing context before reaching exhaustion does prevent fatigue.

The advantage of focusing on becoming more mindful is that it is a quality that everyone already possesses, but we don’t often use. Mindfulness relates directly to paying attention to whatever is happening, presently, in your life, without blaming or judging. It’s a way of taking charge that enhances a sense of having control over your life rather than feeling like a victim of circumstances. It involves consciously working with your own stress, pain and illnesses.

Hopefully, Jane S. has had time enough on the curb outside her clinic to empty her mind of the sights and sounds of the clinic and pay attention only to how she breathes and notice which thoughts occur again and again when she is quietly alone. These are the first steps towards paying full attention to oneself, and discovering how to survive healthfully in a noisy, busy world with the mindful skills that we already possess. Her coworkers and her patients will probably notice when she returns that she is calmer, more smiling and seems to have discovered a happy secret.

Ruth W. Crocker, Ph.D. is an author, writing consultant and expert on recovery from trauma and personal tragedy. Her book, Those Who Remain: Remembrance and Reunion After War, describes her experience following her husband’s death in Vietnam and how she found resources for healing. An excerpt has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize in 2014. She is Writer-In-Residence at Riverlight Wellness Center in Stonington, CT where she teaches the art of writing memoir and personal stories. She is available for workshops, readings and public speaking. Contact her at ruthwcrocker.com.

When Co-Workers and Employees Have Experienced Tragedy: How to Listen and Respond

By Ruth W. CrockerRuth W Crocker

How best can we meet the challenge of being helpful/supportive to friends, co-workers and employees who may have experienced deep and lasting wounds from traumatic experiences?

In fact, old emotional wounds can cause numbness, rage and anxiety and may be invisible to the rest of the world. For example, when 1st Sergeant Louis McShane received his honorable discharge from the U.S. Army in 1947 after World War II, he remembers throwing his duffel bag over his shoulder, walking out into the sunshine, receiving a handshake and hearing the words: “Go home and get a job.”

Fifty years later, after his wife’s death, Louis broke down. He began to speak about the horrors he had heard and seen on the beaches of Normandy where he witnessed comrades impaled by bayonets and others drowning as they tried to swim to shore wearing ninety pounds of gear during the Allied Landing.

“I don’t know how I made it back alive,” he repeated. “I always carried a kind of guilt.”

For years, Louis kept the burden of what he had seen to himself. His employers, family and even his close friends knew only that he had been in the army and that he was a workaholic when he returned. No one except Louis knew that he woke most nights in a cold sweat. Working long hours was his way of coping with obsessive thoughts and nightmares.

Direct experience with traumatizing events has the potential to evoke a lasting stress reaction. Besides war – motor vehicle accidents, plane crashes, nuclear meltdowns, child and spousal abuse, being a victim of rape, can all shatter a sense of security and make the world feel like a hostile environment. Witnessing a death through murder, combat or disaster seems to permeate personal stability and have the most lingering emotional and physical effects that may be accompanied by a prolonged silence, even guilt, about the event.

Unrecognized and untreated post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is known to disturb physical health, emotional status and relationships with friends, family members and co-workers. Symptoms include flashbacks, nightmares, or constant fear. Some sufferers say they feel “crazy” and worry that they will end up homeless. They describe being awakened night after night by dreams about exploding mortars and barking dogs.

If a friend or co-worker appears fearful, fatigued, depressed, easily provoked and/or prone to negative or reactive behavior over a prolonged period of time, they may be suffering from an unrecognized and untreated reaction to a traumatic event. They may choose to remain silent about their experience, or they may suddenly decide to speak. If you happen to be the person they open up to, here are some appropriate ways to respond:

  • Recognize that people react differently to disasters and traumatic events. It may be challenging for you to hear about the events that terrified another person, but remember that this is their story and you cannot gage another’s reaction by how you might have behaved. Avoid telling someone what they should be thinking, feeling or doing by responding with statements such as: “You shouldn’t feel like that.” If you are lost for words, it’s better to say something like: “It sounds like you did the best that you possibly could.” If you can’t think of something to say, just offer eye contact and a squeeze of the hand if it’s appropriate.
  • Listen with unconditional regard if someone begins to share a past experience. Many people are fearful of how they might be judged by others. You can’t harm someone with kindness, but criticism at a vulnerable moment can be devastating and unproductive.
  •  Remind them that talking may be difficult, but it’s okay – especially if you are sure that you’re ready to listen.
  • Reassure them that you respect their privacy and will not share their personal information with others. (The exception to this is when the individual shares suicidal thoughts or ideas about committing violent acts. In these cases, you may be obligated to report what you’ve learned to a higher authority.)
  • Avoid patronizing and distracting behavior such as such as recounting your own experience of traumatic events as if you understand exactly what they are feeling. If you have gone through a similar experience, it is appropriate to share but don’t claim to “know” what the person is experiencing.
  • Acquaint yourself with grief counselors and professionals who deal with PTSD. Be prepared to make a recommendation or referral, especially if thoughts of suicide are mentioned or alluded to. If possible, have names and contact information available. Treatment today of war-related PTSD includes group sessions, art therapy and combat-stress counseling. Participants say that being with people who have been through the same experience makes them feel more “normal.”
  • Believe in the power of listening and the importance of simple connection between people. Offer comfort and reassurance without minimizing the experience.

We are not so far away from a time when people were reluctant to seek help because of the stigma attached to psychological treatment and the fear that it could have a damaging impact on a career.

When Louis McShane finally began to speak about what he had seen and experienced fifty years earlier, he discovered an echo. Others had been there, too, and he began to sleep at night. In spite of the many ways we have to communicate in today’s world, it is still possible for people to feel that they hold on to difficult emotions in isolation. When people exhibit the signs of invisible emotional scars, there may be a story that needs to be told to a compassionate and concerned listener.

Ruth W. Crocker, Ph.D. is an author, writing consultant and expert on recovery from trauma and personal tragedy. Her book, Those Who Remain: Remembrance and Reunion After War describes her experience following her husband’s death in Vietnam and how she found resources for healing. An excerpt has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize in 2014. She is Writer-In-Residence at Riverlight Wellness Center in Stonington, CT where she teaches the art of writing memoir and personal stories. She is available for workshops, readings and public speaking. Contact her at ruthcrocker.com.