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strategy and business
 / Spring 2011 / Issue 62(originally published by Booz & Company)


“That’s the Way We (Used to) Do Things Around Here”

Financial advisors at moments of economic crisis have experienced this phenomenon firsthand. When they field calls from panicked clients, they routinely open the call by saying, “It is going to be OK. Let’s not forget the big picture. Don’t forget that we have prepared for uncertainties like this crisis. Let’s stay focused on your values and what really matters.” After reflecting on the fact that it is possible to navigate the storm, clients are more prepared to make the necessary counterintuitive moves, and advisors are more prepared to suggest them.

Similarly, during the economic crisis in late 2008, the Cargill leadership encouraged employees to manage for the future by “hunkering down wisely” — cutting expenses with confidence that it would make life better for them. This phrase helped calm anxiety about Cargill’s ability to weather the crisis, and it empowered people to come up with creative ways to save money for the company. Reflection led to a far greater sense of ownership and effectiveness than would have been produced by across-the-board budget cuts or other top-down directives.

In the reflection stage, you may find yourself rethinking the purpose of your business. Is it making money by any means necessary? Or are you seeking to make some other contribution — through what you create, what you protect, or the wealth you hope to engender around you? For example, you might decide that in your current cultural and economic environment, enhancing the stability of society and the free enterprise system is particularly important.

In the spring of 2009, Ken Chenault, the chairman and CEO of American Express, set a pattern for that type of reflection at his company. The company’s first-quarter earnings had not yet been posted, but the 2008 results, like those for most other companies, were dismal. It was late on a rainy afternoon, and as Chenault looked out from his 51st-floor office in the World Financial Center in lower Manhattan, he could see much of New York harbor. “There has not been a compelling articulation of the importance of capitalism to a well-functioning society since Adam Smith,” he said. “What’s the role of business in society? We need some renewed thinking, and we need to update our view of capitalism.”

Statements like this might seem cause for anxiety themselves — business is difficult enough without setting out grandiose new purposes — but the act of reflection calms people down and improves access to more rational thought. It reduces the chances of either amygdala hijack or habitual, basal ganglia–style response to the need for change. The real-world results are evident, particularly when CEOs and other leaders channel reflection into a recurring gesture, reminding employees, day after day, of their goals and aspirations. This repetition helps people create new neural patterns and sets the tone for the all-important next step.

Step 4: Refocus Your Behavior

In this stage, you bring your habits in line with your goals. You identify the practices you need to follow and begin to set them in motion. For example, Cargill executives have been trained to refocus (although they don’t call it that) by classifying difficult situations as problems, predicaments (impasses), and polarities (situations with conflicting goals). “If it’s a problem, we work on solving it,” explains a Cargill executive. “If it’s a polarity, it’s not an ‘either-or’ situation but an ‘and’ issue that requires management. And if it’s a predicament, you have nothing to solve or manage; you can only accept and endure.”

In companies navigating traumatic situations (such as an economic crisis), refocusing may mean pursuing deliberate practices for triggering people’s impartial spectators. If you’re a leader in such a situation, you can start by talking openly about how you feel, ask others to talk about how they feel, and then help others take a broader perspective: They are still OK, they still have jobs, their families are intact. Next, try to engender an emotional state that is calmer, and that draws people back to more effective frames of mind and more deliberate thinking. At American Express, Chenault did exactly this after one of the most shocking moments of his professional life: the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. He called the company together at Madison Square Garden, told people how he felt, acknowledged how they must feel, and then drew the conversation to the things that they might think about as they moved forward.

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  1. Douglas Lennick, Financial Intelligence: How to Make Smart, Values-Based Decisions with Your Money and Your Life (FPA Press, 2010): Similar reframing principles applied to personal finance.
  2. Jeffrey Schwartz and Sharon Begley, The Mind and the Brain:Neuroplasticity and the Power of Mental Force (Regan Books/HarperCollins, 2002): Explains how human thinking and behavior changes through processes like this one.
  3. Jeffrey Schwartz and David Rock, “The Neuroscience of Leadership,” s+b, Summer 2006: How to develop far more effective leadership practices by taking the nature of the human brain into account.
  4. Adam Smith, The Theory of Moral Sentiments (1759): Smith’s masterwork (as he considered it) explicates the development of morality through the “impartial spectator”; people building awareness of themselves in the context of a larger community.
  5. For more thought leadership on this subject, visit the s+b website at:
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