Category Archives: Psychology in Organizations


LOGOWPMCAfter years of advising entrepreneurial partnerships and family businesses – often working collaboratively with their financial and legal advisors – it continues to be puzzling:  why don’t they plan adequately for succession when it makes no rational sense not to?

Well, the short answer is: because it makes a-rational (and sometimes irrational) sense not to.  But only by addressing the psychological and emotional issues everyone would rather avoid can rational decision making rule the day.  What are these issues that – unresolved – spell DISASTER?  With thanks to the research and in-the-field expertise of my colleagues, present and past,  I offer my own take on the founder and family issues to consider.  A  primer:

D eath –

  • The Founder:  “I’m gonna live forever” attitude – or s/he simply doesn’t want to face her/his own demise.
  • The Family:   Taboo to talk about mom/dad’s death, not to mention life afterward?

I dentity –

  • The Founder:  “Who am I without the business?”  S/he fears loss of identity, which is bound up with the company s/he created.
  • The Family:    They worry about the Founder without the business – and the business without the Founder.

S upremacy –

  • The Founder:  “I’ve still got what it takes, they won’t know how to run this company without me.”  S/he doesn’t want to relinquish power and control.
  • The Family:    How to wrestle with the head of the family about a different vision for the firm’s future, when s/he is still the one in control.

A mbivalence –

  • The Founder:  “Of course I want my kids to take over.”  But s/he somehow undermines that process…
  • The Family:     The next generation want to take over, but feel guilty about pushing mom/dad out.  And the spouse may both want and fear retirement.

S olo  act –

  • The Founder:  “I’ll figure it out.  I’ve done fine this far, with no one helping me.” Getting professional help is seen as a sign of weakness – or a waste of money.  Or time, for someone who’s more of a doer than a planner.
  • The Family:    Having always relied on, leaned on the Founder, they don’t want to face the realization that s/he cannot just ‘take care’ of this, too.

T ime –

  • The Founder:  “Not now.  They’re not ready yet.”  It’s never a good time.  And then there’s the heart attack, or buyout offer…
  • The Family:     The next gen are dealing with the stresses related to adjusting to adulthood: becoming independent, having their own children, marriage (divorce); the spouse has his/her own concerns.

E motions –

  • The Founder:   “I can’t deal with all that emotional stuff.”  Jealousy, rivalry, quarrelling, choosing among the children: all things better (easier) ignored.
  • The Family:      Jealousy, rivalry, quarrelling, choosing sides:  all the old, unresolved issues flare up – and new ones show themselves.

R oles –

  • The Founder:  “So what would I do if I’m not running the business? Play golf all day?”  S/he does not see a future that works once s/he steps down.
  • The Family:     Change affects everyone in the family, and in different ways.   And everyone in the family copes with change differently.

What to do ?  What helps?  To be continued …


Copyright © 2013  Marlin S. Potash, Ed.D.  All rights reserved.  


Dr. P’s Pithy Adages & Epigrams

Bridges:  Tips For Knowing How to Cross Over – and When to Let ’em Burn*

A hypothesis:  What is “obvious” seldom is.   “It’s obvious that she thinks________ ” usually means “I assume – and am now convinced – that she thinks_______.” More often than not, my conviction of the obvious truth is not true at all.  In fact, the stronger my conviction that something you feel or think “obviously” means whatever I am certain it means, the more it’s likely to tell you about me, rather than you. What do you think?  Does this ring true to you?

Here’s the thing:   Inertia isn’t going to get you anywhere you want to go.

The assumption: Everyone thinks the way you do. Or, if they don’t, they should.  Nope.  They don’t.

Nodding your head in agreement as you look someone in the eye, all the while waiting your turn to speak, is not the same thing as listening.  No matter how politely you smile, how patiently you point yourself in his direction.

It’s funny how people rewrite history, isn’t it?  And it’s generally to suit not only what they wish had happened, but who they wish they had been.

Few things in life take more courage than facing the truth about oneself.

If you don’t get your point across the first time, you can say it again, louder. If that doesn’t work, louder still.  Then louder, again.                                                     Or you can try another approach that might actually work…

Who are you when no one is looking?

Before you blow off a problem, make sure it won’t come ‘round and whack you in the back of the head when you least expect or can afford to deal with it.

You might as well forget the first clause of any sentence the second clause of which begins “, but…” 

For the person listening to you, suggesting “it’s just a little ______” doesn’t minimize the attendant issue, it minimizes him.  Not good.

You don’t get to decide someone else’s “no big deal.”

Your partner knows that your “I understand” sometimes really means “I’ve had enough.”

Haste may make waste, but beware of lingering too long at the fair…

It doesn’t cost extra to be kind.  And patience isn’t a waste of time.

Sometimes the only thing you know is what doesn’t work.  It’s a good idea then to try just about anything else…

Anything real and alive is flawed in some way.  Perfect is Disneyland: beautiful surface, but there’s no there there.

There’s power that derives from position.  There’s the power that derives from influence.  There’s power that derives from instilling fear.  There’s power that derives from controlling resources.  There’s power that derives from force.  There’s power that derives from expertise.  There’s power that derives from personality.  There’s power that derives from coalitions.  There’s power that derives from respect.  There’s power that derives from moral authority…

When you push down the bad feelings, lots of the good ones get pushed down, too.

If you have to tell someone “it’s obvious,” it isn’t.

Resolve it, don’t dissolve it.

You can be right or you can be a working team…

~ Copyright © 2011 Marlin S. Potash. All rights reserved.

*~ Paro


The Psychologist as Business Consultant

“Being a psychologist” in a business setting too often translates as “You are analyzing (read: assuming you know and judging) me,” “You think I need therapy,” “You’re wasting time we could use accomplishing something,” or “You really think psychobabble talk and bearing my soul isn’t a waste of time?” Psychologist, therapist, counselor, and now, goodness knows, executive coach: professional know-it-all’s who give business advice without understanding how, when, why businesses really work.

So what could a psychologist potentially bring to the privately-held business table?

Psychologist as social scientist: frames hypotheses and conducts research in the areas of human behavior, personality development and change.

Psychologist as clinician: observes and analyzes how people think, feel, and behave.

Psychologist as health service provider: applies behavioral science research to alleviating emotional and mental distress for individuals, couples, families.

Psychologist as organizational consultant: utilizes knowledge of human behavior and interpersonal dynamics to optimize group, team and leadership functioning.

Most psychologists specialize in one of the above. A psychologist who’s useful in a family business context is ideally expert in all four. S/he should understand how individual personalities, styles and psychological needs impact this particular organization, and how the organization and its processes impact individual behavior. S/he should understand how business works, how this particular business works: the nature of the business, the market, the competitive landscape, the financial structure, external factors that impact success.

And – most uniquely – s/he should creatively utilize psychological thought processes to achieve tangible financial results. Because in this context, the goal is not to understand, not to feel better, not to share touchy-feely ‘kumbaya’ moments, but to optimize the organizational processes that will sustain growth and make more money.

Questions to ask to get at all that?

“In the following business scenario, what are the issues that need to be addressed – and why? What is unique about your ability to help us solve the problem?” – You want someone who offers a different, insightful, useful!, perspective on the problems the business needs solved.

“What do you need to know to be of use to us?” – You want someone who knows what s/he needs to know and learn about how the business runs, who can read a spreadsheet and speak the language.

And then there are the old standbys:

“Your experience with privately-held businesses? Successful outcomes? Failures?”

“How can you help us increase profitability?”

“Got any references?”

Copyright © 2011 Marlin S. Potash.  All rights reserved.

Doing Well and Doing Good: The Soul Hits the Big Time

Who’d have thought?  This morning, Maria Bartiroma of the Wall Street Journal interviewing Deepak Chopra, “a spiritual leader” on the practical application of the spiritual to leadership in politics and business.   How?

He says leaders can learn spiritual leadership skills.  “You learn to ask the right questions.  Where are we now?  Where would we like to be?  How do we get there?” Chopra says.

So what is Chopra’s definition of what a good leader does?

His acronym for effective lead-from-the-soul leaders:

  • Look and listen
  • Emotional bonding
  • Awareness
  • Doing
  • Empowerment
  • Responsibility
  • Synchronicity

Bartiroma questioned – on her mainstream Sunday morning business talk show – how he keeps the focus on his “core values, the integrity of the brand that has (his) name on it.”   Seems like any lingering stigma connected to the application of growth psychology, psychotherapy, emotional intelligence and questions of meaning and values to Wall Street companies has all but disappeared.  The words “spiritual” “soul” “psychological” “emotional” can now be found in the same sentences as “business growth” “practical” “successful company” “the economy” “the stock market” – and those sentences can be spoken out loud!

Copyright © 2011 Marlin S. Potash.  All rights reserved.

When the Family Business Owner Needs a Psychologist. (Or his kids, partners, attorney think he does)…

As a psychologist working in this space for over 25 years, I’ve learned how difficult it often is for a family advisor – attorney, banker, accountant – to introduce a psychologist into a family business. It’s a delicate matter, one requiring tact, diplomacy, impeccable timing, a real understanding of the business’ needs and a strong belief that the understanding of oneself and one’s relationships with others is central to success in business.

Part of the problem is the commonly held assumption that behavioral consulting requires the family business owner to admit he has a problem, something that’s tough for anyone to do, let alone the person who’s been leading – and has often created – a successful business enterprise. So I don’t even go there: the business owner need not “admit” emotional weakness, nor be forced to face what he prefers to avoid. Because even if one could overcome such resistance, it sets up an initial relationship based on taking sides: right/wrong, argue/defend, consultant/business owner.

Far better, in my experience, to engage a psychologist who understands business in general, the business in question in particular. One who is able to admit what s/he doesn’t understand, to ask questions, to learn. Far better to focus not on fixing emotional problems but on helping the business owner increase organizational effectiveness, by utilizing state of the art behavioral psychology research and methods. Far better to focus on problem solving, ridding the organization of obstacles to profitability, considering new approaches and ways of looking at longstanding unresolved concerns the owner brings to the attention of the advisor. When the focus is on the business problem, rather than the business owner’s problem, when the psychologist views herself as a resource rather than the expert, and when she can translate psychological insight into real business terms,  well, then you’ve got a fighting chance of helping a family firm transition profitably into the next generation – and still want to see one another at the Thanksgiving table!


Copyright © 2011 Marlin S. Potash.  All rights reserved.

How to Get Him to Listen: A Primer

Ever get the sense the person you are talking to may hear you, but is not listening?

Want to be heard, really heard, before you lose your cool?

Before you begin

(by – and for – yourself):

  1. Determine clear, specific objective for the conversation.
  2. Have your facts available, preferably in bullet-point form.
  3. Note alternatives if your objectives are not met (end the conversation, rethink your assumptions, time-out to cool down, enlist others, etc.).
  4. Your goal: to reach similar conclusion, redefining the problem as a common problem to be solved together.  (Assume you are on the same team, simply with different information, points of view, which when shared lead to mutually satisfying conclusion.  Your job: to get you there).
  5. Take a breath, collect yourself.

During the conversation:

  1. State your (joint) objective.  Make sure you have buy-in from listener.
  2. Ask listener to explain his point of view while you listen without reacting.(Repeat what you hear:  ensures you understand his position – and that he knows you take him seriously, are listening).
  3. Ask if he’s done and will now listen to your point of view.
  4. Keep it short.
  5. Stick to the subject.Spell out (new) points of agreement, next steps.

Always Remember:

  1. Respect.
  2. Your tone of voice: patient explaining, interested listening, patient explaining. No attitude, yelling, condescension, bullying, insulting.
  3. Facts, not personalities.  Contingencies, not threats. Best outcome for all, not who’s right and who’s wrong.
  4. Breathe.  Remember your objective and goal.
  5. If he stops listening, you stop talking (and start listening until he’s ready to listen again).
Copyright © 2011 Marlin S. Potash. All rights reserved.

Empathy or Brains? Is it Really a Zero Sum Game?

Twice in the last two days I’ve read about the necessity to choose between heart and head when it comes to putting one’s best foot forward in public life. And the head doesn’t seem to be winning…
As Bob Stein put it on his blog: “Rahm’s Charm Offensive: In an interview on the PBS News Hour, the President’s Chief of Staff demonstrates the difference between being brainy and empathic–a problem that is becoming crucial to the White House.” Connecting the Dots: (

And then Judith Warner writes in Sunday The New York Times Magazine about the coaching Elena Kagan supposedly received for her Senate Judiciary Committee confirmation hearings. But just when she appears to lead us to the inevitable conclusion that dumbing down intelligence is the only way to let the empathic heart show, Warner writes, “Kagan triumphed — and she did it by beating the popular crowd at its own game. She made the senators laugh. That Chinese restaurant quip, her reflection that televising Supreme Court deliberations would require her to get her hair done more often — nothing could have been more folksy. Nor could there have been a surer sign of her true intellect”.

Once upon a time, I was accused of being an intellectual snob. As if this were a bad thing. As if preferring smart to dumb were somehow the mark of arrogance, inconsistent with empathy and goodness. As if the bigger the brain the smaller the heart.

Any hope for this radical thought: we needn’t choose head over heart – or heart over head?
I, for one, prefer a leader with 2 high IQs: BOTH Intellectual and Emotional Intelligence.

Copyright © 2010 Marlin S. Potash. All rights reserved.