Cramer, Kathryn

Kathryn CramerKathryn D. Cramer, Ph.D., is a practicing psychologist, sought-after corporate consultant and speaker, and author of four books on personal effectiveness and professional development. She founded and directed The Stress Center at St. Louis University from 1979–1989. She founded and became Managing Partner of The Cramer Institute, an internationally recognized coaching and consulting firm, in 1990. She lives in St. Louis, Missouri.

Book Cover, Asset-based Thinking asks …

Kathryn, you’ve co-authored a book with Hank Wasiak called Change the Way You See Everything Through Asset-Based Thinking. What is asset-based thinking?

KC: Asset-based thinking is looking at yourself and the world through the eyes of what’s working, what strengths are present, what the potentials are. Deficit-based thinking is looking at yourself and the world through what’s not working, what’s wrong, the gaps.

I think we’re all generally in the deficit-based thinking mode most of the time, aren’t we?

KC: Most of our research, corroborated by others, tells us that people have a bias towards deficit-based thinking that follows the old 80/20 rule. Eighty percent of the time, we’re on the alert for what’s not working, what the mistakes are, what course corrections are needed. Maybe if we’re lucky, twenty percent of the time we’re really focused on the upside and how we can leverage that.

Why do you think asset-based thinking is better?

KC: In this particular age and phase of society, with globalization and the very chaotic nature of change, as Tom Peters writes about, when we focus primarily on the deficits, it holds us back. We may be able to correct the mistake, but we’ve lost the opportunity. There are many people who are capable of asset-based thinking. They just have to be introduced to it. It becomes an intentional way for you to navigate through your day.

How do I become an asset-based thinker?

KC: Asset-based thinking is a choice. Some people think optimists are born, not made. But it’s not a personality trait. If you want to be an asset-based thinker, get to know your strengths and capabilities. Oftentimes we know our gaps and our shortcomings a lot better than we know our strengths and our capabilities. I call getting to know your strengths “reducing the blind spot.” We do need feedback from others to take an inventory of our talents. When we hear the word “feedback,” we all sort of duck and hope it doesn’t hit too hard.

But the truth is, asset-based thinkers spend five times more effort and energy knowing what their strengths are and what they have to leverage than they do their gaps. It’s a complete reversal of the way we’ve all been trained through school, when we used to get a grade based on how many items we got wrong. Teachers, coaches, and parents all thought they were doing us a big favor by showing us how we could improve.

The actual research shows that if you want to learn something, anything that is complex or interactional with other human beings, focusing on what’s been done well is the ticket to accelerating your progress and to reducing that cycle time that we all hate when we’re trying to learn something new.

I was talking with Aubrey Daniels about leadership. He was all about positive reinforcement; letting people know, letting yourself know what you’re doing right.

KC: Yes. Actually, Aubrey Daniels and I spoke at the same event maybe ten or fifteen years ago. I remember Aubrey saying that his research showed the most reinforcing question you can ask somebody is, “How did you do that?”

It’s reinforcing because it helps the person who just did something right pause and reflect. If you ask yourself or someone else that question, almost always people will pause and say, “Well, I don’t know exactly. I just did it.”

It prompts you to think it through, step by step. That is a great asset-based technique to help the integration process, where we really have a deeper knowing of what we did. We get confidence as a bonus.

What is the difference between “How did you do that?” and “Why did you do that?”

KC: Great question. “Why did you do that?” is also a fabulous asset-based question, as long as it’s asked in a real spirit of curiosity. I often say, “Why is this important to you?” The “why” question helps people get a deeper sense of what’s most important to them.

I was a glassblower at one point. Learning to blow glass is fun, it’s dynamic, and it’s not as dangerous as it seems. I remember I was very anxious to talk about it with other people as I was learning. I guess that’s a natural part of the learning process; talking about it with other people helps reinforce in your own mind what you’ve learned. So asking this question, “How did you do that?” reinforces what you did, taking perhaps the unconscious and making it conscious.

KC: That’s right, or the subconscious. Look at the “why” question and the “how” question relative to your glassblowing. “Why was it important to you to have that as part of your repertoire?” is a very different question than, “How did you learn to do it?” So, why did you do it?

I was an explorer. My ceramics professor in college was also a glassblower. I thought, “This looks cool.” For a long time I didn’t have any job for more than six months at a time, because I was very curious about things.

KC: Why is exploring and being curious about things so important to you?

I don’t know. I can’t help it. But you’re asking the questions now. That’s not the way an interview should work. That’s okay, we’re exploring. I’m Norwegian with Vikings for ancestors. On a nice day, they were explorers. So, I don’t know. It’s a big world. It needs exploring.

KC: If I were to continue, I would ask you a third time. The reason I’ve asked you questions is to show by example an ABT practice I call “the rule of three.” A person doesn’t go deep enough until you ponder the question at least three times. As you get deeper, your relationship with yourself is more robust. You gain a sense of yourself in a different way. Now I know you at a much different level than I would if I had just said, “Wow, that’s fascinating. You’re a glassblower. How did that happen?” and you said, “Well, I didn’t have a job. I thought it was cool. I’m kind of an adventurer,” and then we go on to the next thing.

Part of the aim of asset-based thinking is to not only see yourself, but also to be able to see the other’s value and worth, the other’s unique capabilities and talents, what there is in the other person to admire, to appreciate, to recognize.

When we look at the cultures in which we work, most of us co-exist with coworkers or customers in a transactional way. It’s about getting the work done. When the other is driving you crazy in this setting, asset-based thinking looks for the positive motive. When the other person is adding value, how do you signify that? As we become better and better at this approach, a culture is created. It creates a relationship. The network of relationships becomes much more resilient, robust, able to innovate, create, fix.

Generally, people like to talk about themselves. But I noticed my own reluctance at the second question …

KC: You were wondering whether we were going off on a tangent and not getting the job done. So I honored that. You didn’t ask me to demonstrate this. You just asked me to talk about it.

The three questions must be posed in a very genuine way so that people don’t feel that they’re getting the third degree, but that you’re genuinely fascinated. People are fascinating. We tend to put tasks, goals, and busyness ahead of relating when we are not aware of how important the relational field is.

I like to examine with people the benefit of unconditional, positive appreciation. Yesterday, while I was doing an interview, a little two-year-old kept coming into the room and interrupting. The interruption was not seen as a problem. The interruption was seen as a total hoot. This little one was doing a somersault or saying something new each time. When we’re around toddlers, most of us are enthralled and celebrate every single nuance of what this little person is showing us. Shortly after age two or three, when the child gets into the preschool situation, feedback changes. We can all benefit from asset-based feedback. It is exactly what we naturally know how to do and still do with the precious little ones in our lives.

Would you try to get involved in the education system? Gordon MacKenzie, who wrote Orbiting the Giant Hairball, makes the same case: In kindergarten, all the kids believe they are artists. By the sixth grade, maybe two goth-looking kids in the back of the room still raise their hands when asked if they are artists. It’s as if all creativity and energy is, in a way, pummeled out of kids by the school system. That is definitely an example of deficit-based thinking, right?

KC: Yes. It’s well intentioned. I mean, 99 percent of the time, the schools are trying to make sure things don’t get out of hand. But yes, we do work with school systems. Asset-based thinking has actually been adopted by several schools. We’re working with a movement in public and private schools in the state [Missouri] on how to build the parent/teacher/student partnership. It seems the most enlightened, cutting-edge people are asking, “How do we form a partnership here?” Many parents are interested in micromanaging their child’s educational life from the time they’re in kindergarten all the way through college. The baby boomers and their direct descendants believe that we have a right to do this.

The asset-based thinking approach that leads to better partnerships comes out of asking, “What am I going to do with these parents who are overly energetic, overly involved?” That’s an example of an asset-based way of describing people who—we might ordinarily say—are in your face or too involved. Teachers find themselves in a very deficit-based kind of relationship with parents. You don’t want to do that. Using deficit terms or phrases may be accurate, but they’re not helpful. Being “energetic” is a positive, an asset. We had teachers ask, “How do I take that energy and direct it? This is energy coming at me. How can I direct that energy, be in consort with it as opposed to fighting it, as in the martial arts?”

The important aspect of that for our discussion is that you see it in a different way. On a current events front, how would asset-based thinking change all of the media discussion, for instance, around the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina?

KC: I’m so glad you asked that question. Asset-based thinking should not be confused with rose-colored glasses or pie-eyed optimism. Let’s take the tsunami for example. What is the redeeming value? What is it that the tsunami made possible that would never have been possible without it?

Look at the Clinton/Bush partnership. We saw two past presidents from different political parties coming together. The fundraising was fabulous, but also interesting was the demonstration of, “How do they really see each other?” It was a window into these two people that we never would have witnessed on the political scene.

Now, is that worth thousands of lives? Of course not. But to ignore that would be to miss the whole experience. The tragedy is only part of the experience. There are many other responses to the tragedy that are heroic in nature. Every now and then the media will go for that because we love heroes. If you think about 9/11, [Rudy] Giuliani made heroism more important than terrorism. The media loved it.

In any act of horror and damage and strain, or any act of courage and resilience, there’s an emotional valence that the human spirit gravitates towards. Deficit-based thinking is fed by fear, I always say. Asset-based thinking is fed by desire.

Every one of us wishes that we have a hero inside us that could come out during times of devastation. This is the importance of the individual. In the last chapter of Tom Friedman’s book The World Is Flat, he reminds us that a small band of committed citizens can either destroy the world or create the world. What’s it going to be? And how is it that we infiltrate and cultivate this positive imagination? He doesn’t answer the question, but he poses it. I do think that we’ve been missing leadership. I’m not talking about positional or political leadership. We’re missing the voices that can talk about how people are committing acts of courage. It’s missing from the public discourse. Take the Clinton/Bush alliance. That is an amazing force.

I’m still hard-pressed to imagine them spending much time together in the same room.

KC: Alright, so we all have a Geiger counter for how authentic it is. What would you say? Do they really admire one another?

Well, they’ve both been President of the United States, so they’re part of a very small club. They clearly have some common denominator in that they wanted to become president. You don’t just fall into that, except maybe young George Bush. I think they probably have a certain respect for each other, because each knows what the other had to go through to be president. They were vicious enemies for a while, but to use an allusion to sports, you do battle and then you step back and go have a beer with everybody.

There’s probably more reconciliation and collaboration possible between the two of them than I had thought initially. I think my position has changed because you kept asking me those questions. That’s what I’m going to come away from this interview thinking about, “the rule of three” question.

KC: A demonstration of collaboration that has a genuine quality to it is different than the spin and posturing that we’re used to seeing. There’s humanity to it that I believe adds value to the public’s deeper understanding of, “What is the body politic all about? What are these parties all about?” It helps us to see that things are not always as they seem.

That creates wisdom in the collective that wasn’t there before. Now is the tsunami worth that? No. But we have to redeem it somehow, make those lost lives worth something. This deeper way of connecting is healing. I think that’s what Giuliani did too. He changed the way everybody saw New Yorkers. He changed the way everybody saw firefighters. He changed the way everybody saw Ground Zero. I don’t mean he did that single-handedly, but he’s a visible …

He was there. Tom Peters always says that what matters is just that he was there. That was what was needed. The day before, the guy was a total schmuck.

KC: People saw him as cynical, an agitator. He was the great operations guy, but he certainly wasn’t inspiring the collective imagination.

That’s very interesting. I like that.

KC: What you’re doing makes this whole conversation worthwhile. You’re actually stepping into the territory that we’re talking about and playing with it. You’re doing some of the shifting.

I think it’s because I’m so weak-minded that the latest thing I’ve read is what influences me the most.

KC: That’s not a very asset-based way of talking about yourself.

That’s just in my personality. It raises the question, who is this book for? Twenty years ago, I wouldn’t have had the same reaction to this book. Do you have any thoughts about your audience or who responds to this?

KC: I do. Let’s talk about our consulting and coaching clients. There is, in business today, a huge need for a culture that can be asset-based. Why is there a huge need for this? There are many barriers to success that didn’t exist before. So you need resilient people. I’ve heard that you and Tom love the work of Martin Seligman. I love the work of Seligman, too. He’s one of the people who I cite in the book.

Asset-based thinking is the switch that needs to turn on before you can learn to be more optimistic than pessimistic. It’s a fundamental shift. The selective attention process creates thought that creates experience. So what you see triggers what you think, what you say, and what you do.

If you look at Seligman’s work, the elements of pessimism and optimism are rooted in, “Is the universe a friendly place or an unfriendly place?” Do you have a pervasive sense of, “It’s all okay,” or, “It’s not all okay”?

It is a result of what you selectively pay attention to. We say you should focus eighty percent of your attention on what is working, what could work, the strengths, all that upside territory. That’s a habit of attention which creates a habit of thought, which makes all these other systems like Seligman or Cooperrider, possible and learnable.

So back to the question of, “Who is this for?” This is for leaders who want to cultivate a deep sense of ownership, empowerment, innovation, resilience in their culture. Using asset-based thinking when there are problems helps to build resilience. Using asset-based thinking when there is opportunity helps to speed the innovation. It’s a mindset shift. Leaders at the top and at the middle will tell you, “We need people to be in the right mindset. We have more naysayers than we need. We have more we’ve-always-done-it-this-way people than we need.” This is an example of how you change those people.

Part of the book audience is high achievers, who want to have an edge. They gravitate to this because they gravitate to anything that’s going to give them an edge. There are usually two or three nuggets for anybody in this book, even a fantastic sales guy who suffers rejection daily and thinks it’s fabulous.

One of your exercises asks the reader to do something every day and states, “It takes 21 days to form a habit.” Is that a fact?

KC: That is a fact. Every day on your commute home or as you’re falling asleep, ask, “What went right today?” Take an inventory and do that for 21 days.

It brought to mind when my wife comes home in the evening and we say, “How was your day?”

KC: Yes, and the litany begins. You love each other and it’s a haven, which is great. At the same time, what if you said to each other, “What’s the best thing that happened to you today? Tell me about that. I want to celebrate it with you”?

Yes. After a few years of marriage, you know the territory. Some days you can guess in advance what’s going to go wrong with your spouse during the day. I like the idea of, “What went right?” because it’s a whole different kind of conversation.

KC: It is. You get to say and think things like, “You’re amazing.” It’s contagious. These brands of thinking, positive or negative, take hold. We all either end up feeling burdened by the realities of life or lifted by the realities of life. People always ask me, “Is this like the glass is half empty or half full?” I am struck by that question because it’s not about whether we see the glass as half empty or half full. The real question is what assets are in the water and how can I use them to reach my goals?

This is the power of positive thinking made real. It’s not the wish. It’s the practical approach to taking that positive side of life’s ledger and using it to full advantage.

I think that’s a nice summary of what asset-based thinking is. Where are you now?

KC: I’m at The Concept Farm.

What is The Concept Farm?

KC: This book is a “marriage” of psychology and advertising. The Concept Farm is a media company, an ad agency. I wanted this book to be an emotional experience as well as a sharp, clear, concise business psychology book. Which is funny because it’s coming out right after Tom’s highly illustrated book [Re-imagine!].

Hank Wasiak and I put the talents of The Cramer Institute and The Concept Farm together to create something that would make an impact beyond reading just normal text. One reviewer calls the book “an experience,” not just a good read.

We call asset-based thinking “the Project.” So we have a book, we do seminars and conference speaking, television programming, and web casts. We just completed our first 72-Hour Mindset Makeover pilot for a new reality show. It’s really fun. Instead of the walking wounded or an extreme disaster of a person made over into perfection, what we’re doing is taking people who are fabulous to start with and giving them the edge that they want.

The word “brainstorming” didn’t exist in the lexicon before around 1955. But two psychologists invented that word so that people could stop judging each other’s comments and start the creative process in a different way. My mission and Hank’s mission is to get “Asset-Based Thinking” into the lexicon. That way people can call for it in their own thought process, call for it in a meeting, and make the shift from a deficit-based to an asset-based approach when it’s important. We’re trying to figure out, “How do you do that?” I think a book is really important. And all these other platforms, too.

I’m reminded of Tom Kelley’s most recent book [The Ten Faces of Innovation: IDEO’s Strategies for Defeating the Devil’s Advocate and Driving Creativity Throughout Your Organization]. He describes the ten kinds of people you need to have an innovative workplace. He starts off with how bad a devil’s advocate is and how it kills innovation because it stops the conversation. I used to pride myself on being a devil’s advocate.

KC: We all did.

Now I’m thinking, “Oh shit.”

KC: I know. We were trained that if you are really smart, your critical thinking will kick in and you’ll find the problem with whatever somebody else said.

There must be something in the water. We have somebody talking about innovation, but along the same theme as your book, “Let’s all change.” Is this something that happened in schooling, in the ’50s, ’60s, and ’70s?

KC: You mean, now that we’re ready for this? We’re hitting our stride. You know the book The Cultural Creatives? Somebody would say to me, “Who’s the audience for this book?” I said, “It’s the, what is it, 50 million of us who don’t even know we’re a cohort group.” I believe we’ve had the luxury of self-reflection. We placed more emphasis on knowing ourselves, finding allies, going for what was important on a personal and societal plane then we did fighting the enemy and protecting ourselves. Although I guess some people did build bomb shelters in their basements in the ’50s.

Did you hide under desks when you were a kid?

KC: Yes, for tornadoes. I don’t know about the Russians. In our era we went to the moon; we broke the back of racism in this country; we created a democratic body politic. Women are doing what I’m doing today because of the kind of education that we had and the kind of possibilities that exist. We know there’s another way. I think we have a sneaking suspicion that different things worked in the age of industry, in simpler times when people were not so hyper-connected, when we were still in the competitive nation state spot and the competitive corporate spot. I mean, it’s a whole different world.

Somehow we know that we’re the generation that has to at least ask this question and bring it forth. We’re getting people to pause and say, “What kind of a life am I creating? What am I creating right at this moment?”

The publisher came up with this great tagline: This is a business book for people who are in the business of life. What do you think? Do you think this has merit?

Yes, I think there’s good stuff here. I think it’s a tough sell, though. As soon as you venture over into the business thing, you’re suddenly dealing with the old-white-guy mentality from the ’50s: “That’s a little too touchy-feely.”

KC: Yes. People might be shocked a bit. But I have had more white guys in their 50s say to me, “Thank you for writing this book. I have a fighting chance of finishing it.”

I’m really glad to hear that.

KC: But these are the people who I work with, who know me. We’ve made a book that is both systematic, logical and emotionally engaging, as I think Tom Peters did in his last book.

Yes. We love that. We knew we were a little overboard, even while we were doing it, I think. But the whole point was to create something that shook people up a bit. I think anybody over age 45 thought, “Hey, wait a minute. There’s too much stuff going on, on these pages.” We see it as a web-based book in a way.

KC: You guys are a force to be reckoned with. You do change the way people see innovation. At times it feels like an assault on the senses, but you are mirroring the reality we all swim in every day. I think Tom is the embodiment of that.

Although I was very disillusioned when I saw the “Blogs to Riches” article in New York Magazine. Have you seen that yet?

KC: No, I haven’t seen it.

In it, the guy who writes, basically a celebrity stalking site, says he has to get up very early in the morning and post something at his blog before people go to work. He says the audience for his site is people who hate their work. It is so depressing to read that, to think in this day and age that people still hate their work. How can you have time to hate your work? It all seems so competitive. You’ve got to be producing so much and hate is just not very productive.

KC: I couldn’t agree more about that. He’s talking about people who would rather be doing anything else but going to work. Talk about making a shift that will make a significant difference in your life. If you spend 40, 50, 60 hours doing something you hate, and I’m not even talking about quitting your job by voting with your feet, although you might do that too, instead, try to see what there is of value there for you, as opposed to …

Exactly. That’s what Tom’s been talking about for a long time. Bring your passion. If it sucks, make it better.

KC: Yes. Life according to your passions, work according to what is satisfying, rewarding, meaningful, challenging.

But here we are, 50-ish people. I think when you’re 20, it’s different. It’s sort of hip to hate your work. There are a lucky few in that age group who really know what they want to be doing and are really engaged in it. But I think for so many, ironic detachment is always easier than full-on engagement.

KC: Right. For 30-somethings, the whole issue of balance is a big deal. How do you make time your ally, not your enemy? How is it that you have just enough of what you need rather than not enough, never enough?

It’s all about relationships for the 20-somethings. We have this whole thing on the website []: “What’s so great about breaking up?” People stop dead in their tracks and say, “What do you mean?” “No really—what’s so great about breaking up?” The idea is to be able to see what it is that something offers you, even when you hate it. You’re right; people love to hate their job. It’s like a badge of courage. If you’re 20-something and you get some kind of secondary gain out of that, great. But at 50, who wants to hate their job?

I know I don’t. Thanks so much for your time.


The Cramer Institute
The Concept Farm

Email: kcramer (at) –