Organizational Feuds


Three-quarters of human resource managers now say that skilled workers in their industries are "scarce." The cost of hiring and training a replacement worker now averages 30% of annual salary, and it's even higher in critical occupations. Among sources of turnover, one that stands out is workplace stress. And nothing does more to create an atmosphere of stress than does an organizational feud.

Three-quarters of human resource managers now say that skilled workers in their industries are "scarce." The cost of hiring and training a replacement worker now averages 30% of annual salary, and it's even higher in critical occupations [Ackerman 2000]. Among sources of turnover, one that stands out is workplace stress. And nothing does more to create an atmosphere of stress than does an organizational feud.

Feuds damage the organization in three basic ways. They waste resources, they waste time, and they increase turnover. In turn, an organization plagued by feuds can become unable to exploit opportunities or meet critical challenges. Ending a feud is a difficult process, but failing to end a damaging feud can bring an end to the organization.

If you manage an organization that contains feuding departments or feuding teams, resolving the feuds must be your first priority. If you leave the feuds in place while you address "more immediate" problems, you could find that your attempts to address those immediate problems are undermined — subtly and otherwise — byTug o' War the warfare between the feuding parties. The temptation to address first the immediate problems might come from a perception that the feud is a giant hair ball, while the immediate problem — for example, an office move — is more contained, more mechanical, and less fraught with emotional content and controversy.

Resist that temptation. If a feud is well established, it acts like the Blob of the 1958 sci-fi film of the same name [Yeaworth 1958]. To a thriving feud, anything the organization tries to accomplish is potential nourishment. Feuds feed on everything. Even a simple rearrangement of offices can become a controversy that consumes everyone and stops all work — if you're lucky. If you're unlucky, work continues, but the work products contain undetected defects. In a workplace dominated by feuds, people cannot take pride in their work. Their health suffers, and the best workers — those who have alternatives — leave.

In this essay I'll focus on organizational (as opposed to interpersonal) feuds, examining these topics:

What is an organizational feud?

What is an organizational feud? What makes it different from other, more ordinary, organizational conflict? Organizational feuds differ from more typical conflict in three ways:

  • The feuding partners engage in intense, personal attacks, usually out of all proportion to the issue at hand.
  • Even though the issues may change, the feuding partners almost always sort out along the same dividing lines. Agreement on any issue whatsoever is rare.
  • Organizational feuds persist. Lifetimes of months or years are typical. They persist even in spite of staff turnover.

In more typical organizational conflict, people might disagree on one issue, while they agree on another. In organizational feuds, the partners are very consistent in their polarization. They simply cannot work together — on anything.

Kinds of organizational feuds

A knight's armorAny group of people can organize itself into feuding factions — all they need is a pair of differences that cover a fraction of the total population large enough to sustain the feud. Religious feuds and the feuds between family clans in Eastern Kentucky in the nineteenth century are probably the most famous feuds in the public mind. Although feuds within organizations have a lesser place in the public mind, they touch most of us.

In companies today, we see feuds between "development" and "marketing", between individuals, or between product groups. Organizational feuds are of three main types: interpersonal, inter-professional and structural. For simplicity in this essay, I'll call these last two types, collectively, impersonal feuds.

Interpersonal feuds

Interpersonal feuds — feuds between individuals — can occur at any level within an organization. Rarely are they purely personal. More often they're manifestations of impersonal feuds, or they at least have an organizational dimension. Since interpersonal feuds can be sorted out at the interpersonal level, rather than the organizational level, it's useful to examine the interpersonal feud to identify some tools for distinguishing it from impersonal feuds. Here are some tests that identify the interpersonal feud.

Interpersonal feuds respond to personal intervention
Since the interpersonal feud is specific to a pair of individuals, interventions focused on the individuals might work. For example, changing their work responsibilities to limit their contact can end the interpersonal feud. If the feud is a manifestation of a deeper organizational feud, changes in work assignments, personal coaching, or even conflict resolution efforts are unlikely to end the feud, since the source of the problem resides elsewhere. Thinking of the impersonal feud as if it were a play, such changes are ineffective, because they might change the actors, but they don't change the script.
The feuding partners have few allies
In impersonal feuds, the factions tend to be sizable, often encompassing entire organizations. In interpersonal feuds, factions tend to narrow down to a small circle of close friends. Other co-workers maintain a safe distance. Even the inner circles tend to be insulated and secretive, to minimize risk for those who offer support to the feuders.
Interpersonal feuds can exist within a single organization
If the feud is between two members of a single organization, it's unlikely to be a manifestation of a structural feud, since only one organization is involved. It might, however, be a manifestation of an inter-professional feud.
Interpersonal feuds can exist in isolation
If two organizations are feuding, most people in one of the feuding organizations have difficulty working with members of the feuding partner organization. Thus, in an impersonal feud, tension is widespread. In an interpersonal feud, tension is focused on a pair of individuals.

Inter-professional feuds

Labor and ManagementInter-professional feuds are feuds between groups that self-identify by profession. Labor vs. Management is perhaps the best-known such feud. In project-oriented organizations, inter-professional feuds are common across the boundary between task and business results. On one side are the professions associated with the task — engineering, product development, patient care, design, creative, testing, or research. On the other side are those professions associated with financial results — sales, marketing, finance, account management, general management, purchasing, and often human resources.

When feuds are based on profession, they usually attain a personal dimension. This can mystify even the feuding partners themselves: "We used to be such good friends — I don't know what happened. How could I have been friends with such an idiot?" This puzzlement enables the feud to persist.

Structural feuds

In the structural feud, enmity is based on organizational affiliation. Think of the structural feud as an analog of sibling rivalry. The feud is more evident when the organizations are similar — two competing product lines, for example, or Corporate HR and Divisional HR. Risk of feud development is higher when the organizations have conflicting responsibility. For example, regional sales organizations can conflict with Strategic Accounts or Government Sales. Or Retail Customer Service vs. Corporate Customer Service. Or Saturn vs. Pontiac.

How feuds maintain themselves

In the midst of an especially intense feud, people sometimes ask themselves "Who started this?" or "How did we get here?" Usually this precipitates yet another argument — each side blaming the other for starting it — but the initiating events almost always seem small in comparison to the mutual assaults that followed in ever-intensifying cascades. In most cases, the initiating events are just sparks for the fire — once the feud takes hold, the initiating events are relatively unimportant and play little role in maintaining the feud.

A cartoon abstract of a strange loopHow then do organizational feuds persist? An organizational feud is an example of a strange loop. Paraphrasing Douglas Hofstadter [Hofstadter 1989], a strange loop exists in a system whenever moving through the levels of the system, we unexpectedly find ourselves right back where we started. In a feud, the levels in question are the volleys of emotional (and sometimes physical) exchanges that comprise the skirmishes of the feud:

  • Development drops from its project plan those features of the current release that were imposed on it by Marketing.
  • Marketing convenes a meeting to pillory Development for not meeting the promised release date with the promised features.
  • Development withdraws key personnel from a planned trade show appearance, citing a need for their services as engineers in order to meet the schedule.
  • And on and on.

This pattern of an action by one party leading to a response by the other constitutes a strange loop. No external support is needed — the feud maintains itself. The initiating event is irrelevant, and attempts to defuse the feud by understanding the initiating event are futile.

To understand the power of strange loops, consider a parable that has been floating around the Internet of late. It's often presented as an explanation for the origins of organizational policy, and sometimes goes by the name "Primate Thinking Committee Experiment." Although the parable is widespread, nobody seems to know its origin. (If you know the name of the author, rbrenEQuetChPjwYBDxmgner@ChacxXTxBssoFmfDfMugoCanyon.comtell me.)

Monkey with bananaStart with a cage containing five monkeys. In the cage, hang a banana on a string and put a set of stairs under it. Before long, a monkey will go to the stairs and start to climb toward the banana. As soon as he touches the stairs, spray all of the monkeys with cold water.
After a while, another monkey makes an attempt with the same result — all the monkeys are sprayed with cold water. Pretty soon, when a monkey tries to climb the stairs, the other monkeys try to prevent it.
Now, turn off the cold water. Remove one monkey from the cage and replace it with a new one. The new monkey sees the banana and wants to climb the stairs. To his horror, all of the other monkeys attack him. After another attempt and attack, he knows that if he tries to climb the stairs, he'll be assaulted.
Next, remove another of the original five monkeys and replace it with a new one. The newcomer goes to the stairs and is attacked. The previous newcomer takes part in the punishment with enthusiasm.
Again, replace a third original monkey with a new one. The new one makes it to the stairs and is attacked as well. Two of the four monkeys that beat him have no idea why they weren't permitted to climb the stairs, or why they're participating.
After replacing the fourth and fifth original monkeys, all the monkeys that have been sprayed with cold water have been replaced. Nevertheless, no monkey ever again approaches the stairs. Why not?

In this strange loop, the initiating event is the training of the original group of monkeys. This training is actually the creation of a belief system. But once the monkeys are replaced one by one, according to a careful plan, the group provides its own training events. After the group settles into a configuration that sustains itself, the initiating events aren't relevant to the persistence of the configuration — the system has no memory of the initiating events. That's one of the hallmarks of a strange loop.

Intense impersonal feuds are very damaging not only to the embedding organization but also to the people who participate in the feuds. That's why they usually lead to increased turnover. But this leads to a situation analogous to the Primate Thinking Committee Experiment — if the participants leave, how do feuds maintain themselves? Factors that determine the persistence of organizational feuds are:

Clarity of self-image

Each faction must be able to identify its own image clearly, and its members must identify with that image. Unless the people within a faction see themselves as affiliated with the faction, they're unlikely to take the personal risks necessary to participate in the feud — to respond to assaults on members of their own faction. For structural feuds, the org chart provides this clarity. Members of the feuding organizations can easily determine which faction deserves their loyalty. For inter-professional feuds, the clarity is provided by the participants' affiliations with their own professions — as, for example, in a feud between Engineering and Sales.

Sometimes a faction's self-image includes the concept that members of that faction are superior to non-members. Management sometimes creates such self-images as a means of developing esprit-de-corps or unit pride. Ironically, a self-image that defines such superiority in terms of the inferiority of others can be most divisive for the organization, because it's especially effective in maintaining a feud. See the section on Belief Systems.

Just as effective in maintaining feuds is the self-image that includes the concept that members are somehow inferior to non-members. In this instance, the faction can feel victimized. From that position, it's a small step to the notion that it has little to lose by defending itself from what it sees as attacks on its very existence. Managements that allow elements of their organizations to be defined as wholly inferior to others risk creating groups that are — out of desperation — too willing to engage in feud behavior.

Good source of new participants

A persistent impersonal feud must draw in new participants to replace those that leave the organization. To accomplish this, a feud first needs a large pool of potential participants. Defining its factions by profession or organizational affiliation meets this need.

But beyond headcount, each faction must believe that the other has harmed it or threatens to harm it. Real or perceived harm provides the energy that enables the parties to engage in further aggressive action. Unless the participants have a clear perception that the other faction is bent on harm, most will simply drop out of the feud.

Balance of power

BalanceFeuds can persist only when there's a balance of power. That balance usually is designed into the organizational structure as an organizational stabilizer, because typically it's necessary for both parties to function harmoniously. Unfortunately, that design stabilizes the feud as well, because neither side is capable of finally vanquishing the other.

In some instances, the one manager who is in a position to resolve a feud intentionally declines to take any action, in the belief that it's best "if they work it out between themselves." This approach rarely works, because it leaves the balance of power — and therefore the feud — in place.

Resistance to interventions

If the organization does attempt to intervene in an organizational feud, the feuding parties might resist the intervention. If they don't, the feud cannot persist. Resistance can take many forms:

  • Refusing to participate in negotiations
  • Setting impossible preconditions for negotiations
  • Walking out of negotiations, usually in dramatic ways
  • Intentionally escalating issues immediately prior to negotiations
  • Attacking the character or humanity of members of the feuding partner group
  • Attacking the mediators

For feud participants, deterring interventions is one mode of successfully resisting interventions. For example, when hearing about a proposed intervention, one party to a feud might threaten to resign.

One-sided belief system

The worldAll of us have belief systems — beliefs that we use to interpret the world. In a feud, the participants within each faction share beliefs that affect how they interpret the actions and intentions of the other. Because the feud tends to intensify emotions, these beliefs can be irrational, inconsistent, and one-sided. Using the terms we and they to indicate the factions in the feud, here are some sample beliefs:

  • They place their own interests above the interests of the organization.
  • We have the moral high ground.
  • We're better people than they are.
  • We're the offended party, and any response we choose is justifiable.
  • They consistently and knowingly misrepresent the facts.
  • They don't care who they hurt.
  • There's no point in trying to work things out with them, because they won't honor any agreement.
  • We will ultimately prevail over them, if only we can make our case clearly enough.

Since these beliefs can act to insulate the participants from the effects of interventions, designs of interventions intended to end the feud must take these beliefs into account.

Living within an organizational feud

Suppose that you work in an organization that's engaged in a feud. What can you do? You have some options, but none are very appealing. You can:

Participate in the feud

If you find yourself in the midst of an organizational feud, and you're a member of one of the feuding factions, you probably have participated to some degree. Perhaps you participated unwittingly, or unwillingly — you felt as if you had little choice. Perhaps you were enthusiastic about your participation. However you feel about your participation now, realize that no good can come of the feud. Even if the faction you belong to should prevail, another feud will surely follow, because the organizational culture permits feuds and rewards the "winners." A choice to participate in a feud is a choice to adopt the feuding way of life at work. As you now know, that life isn't a pleasant one.

The option to participate might seem tolerable for the short term, but how do you feel about it as a career choice? Participation might or might not be the best option, but it comes with a high cost.

Stand aside from the feud

Perhaps you find yourself in the midst of an organizational feud, and you've managed to stand aside so far. You aren't involved directly. People around you are consumed and angry, but you've maintained your perspective. You might have noticed some changes around you:

  • Feud participants try to recruit you. They want you to help frame a memo, or they ask you to find out some information about their feuding partners, or they invite you to conspire with them in some way.
  • You feel uncomfortable about being seen with members of one faction or the other. Your choice of lunch partners has become an exercise in needle threading.
  • You've had to deny that you knew something that you did know, or let someone believe that you felt something you didn't feel.
  • You've been put on the spot in a meeting, asked to give your opinion about an issue that has become a battlefield for the feuders. You diplomatically found a way out.

Readers of my essay "Organizational Procrastination" might recognize that each of these experiences represents a curtailing of one or more of the Five Freedoms. It's no wonder that those who try to maintain a neutral stance relative to an organizational feud can feel "boxed in."

Consider a simple example. Let's suppose that you're the Director of Customer Service, and suppose that Marketing and Development are feuding. You've taken a neutral position with respect to the question of whether Marketing is saying that it requires the presence of top developers at an upcoming trade show. Development is opposed — they say that they need their people to work on an upcoming product release, which is late (of course — see my essay "Why Complex Technology Projects Are Usually Late"). Marketing has asked you to weigh in supporting their position, and they've even crafted your position for you — you are to put together a presentation for existing customers, which would give attendees access to the company's top developers.

A chess positionIf you decline, you're fairly certain that Marketing will be displeased, and might even consider you an ally of Development. Since you want their help with the marketing of service contracts, you're wary of such consequences. If you agree, you know that Development will be displeased, and you need their support to get the most troublesome defects repaired, especially for your better customers. The situation is similar to a fork maneuver in chess. Either way, you lose.

Maintaining neutrality becomes increasingly difficult as the feud matures. More and more "neutrals" give up, and join one side or the other, or become irrelevant. Neutrality works for a time, but eventually, you'll have to find another path.

Try to end the feud

Attempting to end the feud seems like a constructive approach, but unless you have organizational responsibility for all the feuding participants, your chances of success are slim. Since feuders tend to interpret all actions by all parties through the prism of the feud, your attempts to end the feud will appear to them to be attempts to aid the other side.

Even so, the immediately responsible manager is in a different position. Since typical feud strategy is to maneuver so as to gain the support of the responsible manager, almost anything the responsible manager wants is taken seriously by both parties.

That's why attempting to end the feud is probably a futile act unless you're the immediately responsible manager.

Report the feud to management

Reporting the feud is one of the most dangerous tactics you can try. You could instantly become a target of both feuding parties, because you might be seen by each as having joined the other side. Perhaps you should risk that anyway? Probably not. If the responsible manager is so out of touch that the feud is news, reporting it probably won't help much. And if the responsible manager already knows about the feud, and has allowed it to persist anyway, you risk being seen as critical, and might even insult the manager. Reporting a feud yourself is a very risky approach.

But you can have a consultant do it, which limits the risk to you, and might even bring in the necessary expertise for dealing with the feud. The trick is to bring the consultant into the organization through the responsible manager, and to do it in such a way that the consultant has a charter broad enough to include reporting the feud. Not easy — but doable. This is the best option for the organization.

Leave the organization

Moving vanYour best option, assuming that you can leave and that you can find somewhere else to go. After you leave, the feud becomes irrelevant to you, and you're out of reach of the feuding parties. Actually, many of them will likely envy your move, wishing they too could leave. They might even follow you.

If you can't leave, what can you do? Of the other options, neutrality is probably safest for you personally. It's not appealing, and it might not work, but try it. If it fails, you can revisit the option to leave.

Ending feuds

To end a feud, first recognize that you can't do it alone. If you're one of the feuding partners, you need the cooperation of the other feuding partner if you want to end it. If you try to withdraw unilaterally, your partner in the feud is likely to escalate the attack in the hope of finally finishing you off. Unilateral withdrawal thus intensifies the feud. In general, the participants in a feud have few options — intervention from outside the feud system is much more likely to be successful.

Even if you aren't one of the feuding partners, you still cannot end the feud alone. If two departments in your organization are feuding, they're the ones who will have to stop. You cannot simply declare a feud ended. You cannot order it ended. You cannot end a feud with a memo or a meeting. The only way a feud ever ends is when all the people involved agree to end it. The question of ending then becomes:

How can we get everyone to agree to end the feud?

Any successful intervention must break the feud's strange loop. Approaches that break the loop include:

As with most issues involving wonderful human beings, there's no one best way. All of these techniques "work" — and don't — to varying degrees.


Reorganization can help, especially when you're dealing with structural feuds. If you can reorganize along lines that break the organizational affiliations of the feuders, you deprive the factions of clarity of self-image. You accomplish this by mixing the factions, which formerly defined themselves along organizational lines, into new organizations in which former affiliates of the factions must work side-by-side. The thoroughness of the mix determines how thoroughly you erase the former self-images.

Be prepared, however, for an especially difficult time at first, mostly due to surviving enmities. You can mitigate these difficulties by throwing former neutrals into the mix in the new organizations.

Cross-linking employee compensation

Linking the compensation of one faction to the high performance of the other is a two-edged sword. On paper, it looks like a good idea — by cross-linking compensation, you introduce some negative feedback — and perhaps it does work in some instances. Here's how it works. Suppose that Development and Sales are feuding. In its efforts to make the quarterly numbers, Sales has repeatedly promised capabilities and features without checking first with Development, which has resulted in disruption of Development's product plans. And Development has refused consistently to provide support for key clients, citing its need to avoid such disruptions and to adhere to a project schedule.

Under cross-linked compensation plans, the sales force is compensated — in part — on the basis of Development's schedule performance. The theory is that this will cause sales people to think twice before they place demands on developers' time. In turn, Development is compensated — in part — on how well Sales meets its quarterly goals. The theory is that this will motivate developers to assist sales people when they're asked to do so, and to provide new capabilities that meet customer needs.

It looks like a scheme that could work, and it has worked in some cases.

Cross-linked compensation does have a downside, one explored thoroughly by Alfie Kohn [Kohn 1993]. The underlying model that suggests that cross-linked compensation would work to end a feud is that people are motivated by extrinsic factors — namely, money — factors unrelated to internal motives to achieve. That is, the model assumes that we can modulate behavior by targeting compensation. Kohn presents strong arguments that such an approach only worsens the situation.

The essence of the argument is that extrinsic motivational factors can never achieve what can be achieved only by intrinsic factors. And for knowledge workers, we need the kind of internal motivation and drive that can only come from intrinsic factors.

Perhaps cross-linked compensation structures might be one of the moves you make to end feuds, but relying solely on cross-linked compensation structures would be foolhardy.

Altering the balance of power

By altering the balance of power, you end the feud, though you might not get the result you want. Since the balance of power ensures that neither faction can dominate the other, each volley in the exchange is guaranteed to leave the other standing. By altering the balance of power, you remove the guarantee. Eventually, one side or the other prevails, and the feud ends.

However, if what you really want is for the two factions to work in harmony, dominance of one faction by the other is undesirable. For example, in our example of Sales vs. Development, a Sales-dominated company fails just as surely as a Development-dominated one. The two must work together harmoniously to ensure a balanced approach to the needs of the market. Thus, the "solution" of hiring a Sales-oriented CEO and creating a sales-oriented development culture might be no solution at all, especially in a marketplace that values innovation. Use this approach with caution.

Altering belief systems: "moccasin" workshops

Arapaho moccasins
Arapaho moccasins

Altering the belief systems of the two sides can be an effective method of breaking the strange loops of a feud. Since most of us want to see ourselves as humane and reasonable, dehumanizing our feud opponents makes it much easier for us to execute acts that harm them. Using "moccasin" workshops, you work to show the two opponents to each other as human beings, worthy of respect, doing the best that they know how to do.

In a moccasin workshop, you give members of each faction an opportunity to look at the world from the point of view of their feuding partners. The term comes from the Cheyenne proverb: Don't judge your neighbor until you walk two moons in his moccasins. Because its goal is achieving a shift in people's perceptions of other people, a moccasin workshop must be carefully planned, tailored to your specific situation, and skillfully executed.

Working with each faction separately, you create metaphorical experiences that show feud participants how easy it is to fall into the behavior patterns of the opposing faction. Once the members of each faction experience the feelings of the members of the other, they can no longer dehumanize them so easily, because dehumanization of the other is now seen as dehumanization of the self. For multiple examples of this process at work, rent Twelve Angry Men, a film about the deliberations of a jury [Lumet 1957].

Once the belief system is seen to be faulty, the feud's strange loop is broken. Thereafter, its dynamics are different, and the feud might even end.   Go to top  Top


Ackerman 2000
Ackerman, Jerry. "Firms Wage War Against Turnover." The Boston Globe, November 26, 2000, p. G1. The source of the figures quoted is the American Management Association.
Hofstadter 1989
Hofstadter, Douglas R. Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid. New York: Vintage Books, 1989. Order from
Kohn 1993
Kohn, Alfie. Punished by Rewards: The Trouble with Gold Stars, Incentive Plans, A's, Praise, and Other Bribes. New York: Houghton-Mifflin, 1993. Order from
Lumet 1957
Lumet, Sydney. Twelve Angry Men. Henry Fonda, Lee J. Cobb. Written by Reginald Rose. 1957. Order from
Yeaworth 1958
Yeaworth, Irvin S., Jr. The Blob. Steve McQueen, Anita Corsault. Written by Kay Linaker (as Kate Phillips), Irving H. Millgate (story), Theodore Simonson. 1958. Order from

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