Judith M. Bardwick: An interview by Bob Morris

Judith M. Bardwick

Bardwick is is a highly regarded speaker, consultant, researcher, and writer on psychological aspects of people at work. For more than two decades, she has combined cutting-edge psychological research with practical business applications to optimize organizational performance, change organizational views and values, and help people achieve financial and personal success. Bardwick earned a B.S. from Purdue University, an M.S. from Cornell, and a Ph.D. from the University of Michigan. Her 9 published books include One Foot Out the Door: How to Combat the Psychological Recession That’s Alienating Employees and Hurting American Business, Danger in the Comfort Zone: From Boardroom to Mailroom – How to Break the Entitlement Habit That’s Killing American Business, Seeking the Calm in the Storm: Managing Chaos in Your Business Life, and In Praise of Good Business: How Optimizing Risk Rewards Both Your Bottom Line and Your People.

Morris: In 1924, William L. McKnight, then CEO of 3M, observed, “If you put fences around people, you get sheep. Give people the room they need.” In your opinion, why do so many organizations enclose the hearts, and minds, and souls of their people within “fences”?

Bardwick: Just a couple of decades ago this question would never have arisen because virtually everyone was depression impacted. Their most important goal was to become economically secure. Most people achieved that by getting a job at a large organization where they stayed as long as they were in the labor force. In return for this loyalty, people and their families were economically safe while they worked and after retirement, disability or death because of generous pension and health care benefits. Organizations could treat everyone the same because, for the most part, people were largely alike in viewpoint and core motives.

And, essentially all organizations were structured in the model of the railroads: all decision-making power was at the top. The larger the organization, and the more traditional its culture, the more management felt it was necessary to control everyone’s behavior by imposing rules and regulations. In a natural evolution, those directly in control of subordinates, notably superintendents and middle managers came to believe their real job was to enforce the rules which they naturally applied to everyone.

Morris: Here are two separate but related questions. What is “the entitlement habit” and how is it “killing” American business?

Bardwick: My Goodness, this is an unexpected question! The answers lies in Danger in the Comfort Zone, a book I first published in 1991 and republished in an updated version in 1995. While that’s a long time ago, Danger continues to sell because unfortunately, the subject matter of Entitlement remains relevant. Entitlement is an attitude: it is the assumption, I am owed what I get. It’s a nasty attitude because people are not grateful for what they get. Instead, greed prevails and is expressed as, What have you done for me lately?

Since the organization was only really involved with the relatively few who were potential candidates for high level jobs, the company didn’t differentiate in any important way between people who were dependable and okay – and people who had ceased contributing in any important way. In other words, you worked…that was okay. You didn’t work…that was okay.

So people who didn’t work continued to be employed and receive benefits and increases in pay…Two of my favorite examples were one man who said to me, “It took me 20 years to get to a level where I don’t have to work so where the hell are you coming from Lady?!”and the other was a sign behind a clerk in San Diego’s City Hall where I stood in line for over an hour to get some forms. The line didn’t move because the clerk moved like she was under water. The sign read: “I only have two speeds. And if you don’t like the one I’m working at, I’m sure you won’t like the other.”

Regrettably, and in most dimensions of modern society, instead of becoming less important, the relevance of Entitlement keeps on growing.

Morris: What kind of leadership is required if an organization is to achieve these worthy objectives?

Bardwick: I think the characteristics of really effective leaders when people are frightened and depressed are the same qualities that leaders need when people are optimistic. The difference is when people are frightened the need for these few qualities becomes much stronger because frightened people are desperate to have someone they can trust and believe in and who seems to be able to create a better future.

Leaders need to be perceived by followers as


Nothing motivates like success. While academics, consultants and gurus are preoccupied with coming up with great insights and seminal ideas, usually they don’t realize that making things happen, achieving operational excellence, moving the organization from uncertainty to clarity, from red ink to black, is what really creates hope for a better future. Therefore, great leadership always involves great ideas and real actions that reinforce a strong belief in the excellence of the decision makers and in the viability of the organization itself.

Trust is perhaps the most critical single building block underlying effectiveness. Without trust leaders do not have followers. Without trust, leaders are impotent despite great rhetoric or splendid ideas. Trust rests on the belief among followers that the leader is transparent: What you see is what there is. Trust means followers believe there is no duplicity; no manipulation just to satisfy the leader’s ego. Very simply: The effective leader is transparent; that’s why that person is trusted.

Bob, The idea of inclusion is brilliantly stated in your favorite passage from Lao-Tzu’s Tao Te Ching:

“Learn from the people
Plan with the people
Begin with what they have
Build on what they know
Of the best leaders
When the task is accomplished
The people will remark
We have done it ourselves.”

Morris: In all of the major research studies of which I am aware, employees rank feeling appreciated among what is most important to them at work. How can organizations do more, specifically, to make their people feel more appreciated than many of them now do?

Bardwick: This is a question I explore at length in my most recent book, One Foot Out the Door. The best worst example of making people feel unappreciated today lies in the casualness, indeed indifference with regard to massive lay-offs even when there isn’t a financial crisis. That is a message to employees that they are expendable, interchangeable, easily dismissed and replaced, often by younger, less experienced and cheaper employees. The essential message being conveyed to people is, You are worthless. What an incredibly dumb thing that is for management to say!

The ways in which management can express appreciation for an employee’s contribution are without end; the key is to act in ways that communicate Thanks! That was a great job! We can really count on you! It’s great having you here! While some people love having plaques to hang on their personal Wall of Fame and they adore being acknowledged at a formal Recognition Banquet and some people are only interested in money, I find the most effective forms of recognition are personal and either spontaneous or very close in time to a significant accomplishment. One of the most endearing gifts I ever received was a beautiful book on the ancient Anasazi and a box of shards, pieces of ancient pottery, from people at the University of New Mexico after I had lectured there and mentioned I had a collection of pre-Columbian artifacts.

An easy and very effective sign of appreciation, for example, is a letter from someone’s boss – or that person’s boss – signaling appreciation for very specific accomplishments. In itself, that’s effective. It’s even more effective when, for example, flowers are sent to that person’s family thanking the family for their generous gift of that person’s time.

Morris: In Denial of Death, Ernest Becker acknowledges that no one can deny physical death but there is another form of death that can be denied: That occurs when we become wholly preoccupied with fulfilling others’ expectations of us. To those who do this, what is your advice?

Bardwick: This question is easy to answer only when it’s an abstraction. For most women being other-directed, focused on how other people feel and nurturing them, was (and can still be) a quality that girls were (are) heavily pressured to become. The unselfish or Self-less woman was (is) seen as ideal. The realization and articulation that the cultural ideal of the perfect woman was someone who had no sense of Self and was a key part of the angry energy that drove Feminism to its swift success.

The Feminist Revolution began from the deeply felt frustration of college educated women who found the careers they expected to have were closed to them because of widespread judgmental gender stereotypes and sexist practices. That’s why Feminism’s initial goal was to open the work place to women.

But the thread of Self – to know ones’ self; to develop one’s self; to have a self became a predominant theme in the movement. At first most women didn’t understand what having a self, being a person in one’s own right and not as part of a relationship, meant. Women’s self didn’t die; it had never been born. And when women insisted on their right to have a self, they weren’t understood even by their husbands who cried, Haven’t I given you enough? And by their parents who joined the crowd who deemed them selfish and responsible for all the problems in their marriage. I remember it all too well.

So the answer to this question is very personal. There are still many women – and their spouses and children – who view a reflected self – I’m Mrs. Smith, not Mary Smith – as psychologically healthy. Those people are not motivated to change. But it is really dangerous to live through others’. What ever your circumstances, it is not a good idea to be wholly dependent on responses from others to like, respect or love yourself. Your children will grow up and start their own families; the divorce rate has remained at 50 percent for decades…Self is a construct, a feeling, an identity that is internal and can neither be given nor taken away by others. We develop and nurture that identity by embracing inter-dependence.

Morris: Please explain the title of your latest book, One Foot Out the Door and how that relates to what you call a “Psychological Recession” in that book.

Bardwick: How do you think people feel in today’s workplace and, based on that, how would you expect people to act? How should people feel when they can summarily be laid off when no red ink is flowing, when they don’t see any sense of a meritocracy in which their continued excellent performance gains them some contingent security, when profits are based on cutting costs, especially those related to people and not on growing the business? How should people feel when executive’ salaries and bonuses soar while subordinate’ bonuses, salaries and benefits are cut? How should people feel when insecurity replaces security in life as well as work, and neither one’s organization nor governments seem to care?

On average with a sample size of 4 and ½ million replies to Gallup’s 12Q Questionnaire, 80 percent of employees were not involved with the work they did or the organization in which they worked. Within that 80 percent, 20 percent were motivated to harm the company if they could. In other words, when employees don’t really care about the work they do and they take no pride in being in the specific organization where they work, they bring no enthusiasm, energy or passion to what they’re doing. If, in addition, they feel abused, resentful, insignificant, betrayed, or taken advantage of…they want out. Naturally.

And while most of the really able and resentful employees do their work well enough to keep their job, they are continuously scanning the universe for better opportunities elsewhere…anywhere. This latter group has one foot in, and the other foot out the door of the organization in which they work.

How do people feel? Even more than anger, the majority are frightened and depressed; some people have felt this way for more than a decade. While despairing, unengaged employees are found around the world as the old anchors of security disappear for everyone in a borderless economy, for Americans this can be expressed as the opposite of the optimistic, widespread upward mobility that is The American Dream.

The Psychological Recession is the cluster of feelings that the present is really scary and the future will likely be worse. It comes from the sense you have no control over what’s happening to you and you don’t see a way to get your life back under control. It’s the feeling that life is unfair; you paid your dues, you worked hard, and you ended up naked and vulnerable.

There is no comfort to be found in the dismissal of the Psychological Recession as being just an idea; it is a real phenomenon with real consequences, all of them bad. When people are scared and depressed for a long time, despair and fear replace confidence and optimism. Imagine trying to run a company with employees who feel like that.

In the larger economic picture, it is really dangerous that a Psychological Recession characterizes most people’s views and moods when two-thirds of our gross domestic product is based on consumer spending, which is profoundly affected by consumer confidence. In the fall of 2009 pundits and the market are saying the recession is probably over but the recovery will be shallow and slow. Why is that the case? Widespread fear and pessimism – the Psychological Recession creates caution. People save instead of spend and organizations defer hiring “until later”.

Morris: Opinions vary as to how to recover from an economic depression. In your opinion, how to recover from a psychological depression?

Bardwick: First we have to pull out the separate threads in the fabric that is the psychological recession. What seems especially important? The sense of loss of control over what happens to you at work (and thus in your life is vital). This further involves a sense of fairness as in, I did my part and look where it got me! “The deal,” the contract between employee and employer has eroded and been replaced with unilateral power by the organization over the employee.

Remedy: A new contract of “Conditional Commitment.” The organization agrees not to use mass layoffs as the first and the only means of cutting costs in the absence of a crisis. The organization also agrees that:

If an employee’s performance is routinely excellent, and
the organization needs that employees knowledge and skills, and
the employee keeps his or her skills cutting edge, and
the organization can afford to pay that employee,
that employee has a job.

Thus, both the organization and the employee each have responsibilities for the continuation of, or the end of their mutual, inter-dependent relationship.

Nationally, regaining a sense of control over what happens to you will also require new forms of a safety net to meet the increasing unpredictability and rate of change in an electronically wired world. In addition to mobile health insurance and pensions, this will involve greater emphasis on education and training.

Morris: I do not envy the challenges that my three sons, one daughter, and their spouses (spice?) face as parents. Is it my imagination or is it really much more difficult to raise children now than it was only a few years ago?

Bardwick: Funny you should ask. About four years ago I started collecting material in preparation for writing a book I called, “Competitive Childrearing.” I was appalled at how children had become the focus and gravitational center of the nuclear family around which parents orbited instead of the traditional arrangement in which children orbited around their parents. This is a huge change because a critical job in early childhood is to get children weaned away from the total narcissism normal to infancy. With the children as the center of the family’s actions and decisions, narcissism is, at a minimum prolonged and may never significantly decline.

This is a very big deal: an unhealthy level of narcissism prevents people from being able to identify with and feel empathy for others. Prolonged narcissism prevents the development of cooperation, collaboration, admiration, trust, respect and love for other people.

Along with the focus on children, simultaneously competition grew between parents for their child to always be the best. Normal levels of competition in which children learned confidence and resilience as a result of experiencing both success and setbacks gave way to “helicopter parents” who descended upon teachers or coaches and other adults to insist their child’s grades be raised, or their failures be erased, or their kid make the team.

This high level of parental “protection” increased grade inflation and required ever-higher levels of achievement for any kid to be considered a winner. And, while increasing performance pressures, excessive parental involvement deprived children of the opportunities to handle real risk and develop genuine confidence and resilience. Instead, the values of the Self-Esteem Movement that declared everything you do is worthy of praise plus the parental mantra of You can do anything you set your heart on, set kids up to assume they’re wonderful and wonderful things will happen to them.

But these kids tend to crumble, to give up right away when they don’t master things without effort. Their pseudo confidence gives way to fear and then to fleeing from a real challenge. They haven’t learned that no one is outstanding in everything and it is okay not to be number one in all things. Worse, these kids feel entitled to succeed and haven’t learned hard work and self-discipline are the real keys to success

Morris: In your opinion, is it possible to balance what is most important in one’s career with what is most important in one’s personal life? If so, what to do? What not to do?

Bardwick: In my own experience, it is not possible to balance work and one’s personal life except for relatively brief periods. Different phases in childrearing and work normally require greater effort in one part far more than in another. When that happens, and it inevitably does, less attention is paid to other sectors.

Most people think of a balanced life in terms of how much time is given to the various sectors of a life. While time is one measure of involvement, I think the critical variable is passion. How energized, fascinated and absorbed are you in each sphere in which you are engaged? They are rarely, and usually only briefly, equal

When relationships are pretty new, and before there are children, it is usual for people who have careers – in contrast to jobs – to commit enormous energy and time to both the relationship and their career. The demands, pressures and insecurity in the beginning of careers and relationships result in a rough balance between the two commitments. That normally changes with the arrival of the first child.

When children are very young there is no end to the attention they require and demand. And infants come equipped with an irritating cry that few parents can ignore. That’s why, beginning with the first child, unless people have full-time help, or a delighted grandparent next door, one partner typically cuts back on work, either leaving the labor force or working part time in a less demanding role. Child rearing is demanding, fulfilling, frustrating and absorbing. It is also exhausting. There goes balance! (Briefly noted: children bring great joy but adult play and fun often become faint memories).

Before Competitive Childrearing became the norm and parental preoccupation with children became the hallmark of excellent childrearing, the hands-on care of children declined as children grew older and were expected to become more responsible for them selves. For many women, the time when children were old enough to go to school marked the beginning of their opportunity to devote less time to childcare and more time and focus on work. For some women that became an opportunity to return to their careers or school. It was, and for some this may still be the beginning of a better balance between us and me, and work and domestic responsibilities.

But with today’s prolonged criteria of hands-on child-rearing excellence, and the school’s and after-school pressure for high levels of parental involvement, childcare can easily become and remain the over-ridding commitment.

That was historically true largely for women but now more men are impacted either because of the high unemployment rate in this deep recession or because divorce has resulted in two single-parent households. The unbalanced demands of childcare, usually result in less commitment to career and often, to the relationship as well. In this sense childcare can now create the same kind of danger to a relationship as when one or both partners have a disproportionate focus on their career.

Right now, childcare and work command the greatest focus, awareness, and effort. Commitment to, and time for the adult relationship, today, has become the tail of the dog. And making everything harder, the criteria of excellent performance at work, in childrearing, and as a spouse or partner keep rising. There is more than enough stress to go around.

This is a catch 22. While there is enormous pressure to perform excellently in everything, a disproportionate focus on any one sector of life inevitably reduces the attention paid to the other spheres. It is possible to balance commitments in the short-term when the sun, moon and earth are briefly in synch and no part of life is clamoring more loudly than any other. But, for successful people, it doesn’t last. In addition to external pressures to achieve, successful people in work or childcare, find competition exciting, satisfying, and occasionally thrilling. There goes the old balance…again.

The balanced life is a goal, but for us it is mostly a myth.




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