I don’t watch much TV these days, but one of my favorite shows is “Scrubs,” perhaps partly because of its hospital setting, in my opinion, “Scrubs” does the best job of capturing the feelings and situations that life throws at us since “M*A*S*H.” In one poignant scene, a young intern is criticizing an older doctor about his graveyard humor. The mentor points to a doctor talking to a family and says: “That surgeon is telling them that their husband and father didn’t survive the operation. They’re going to go home, and maybe take the next few days to mourn. He has to perform another life or death operation in 30 minutes. That’s why we have to keep our feelings at a distance. If we didn’t, we couldn’t do our jobs.”
In the medical profession, the term for what happens when you get too emotionally involved for too long is “compassion fatigue.” Healthcare providers are trained in how to maintain a disengaged professionalism, and have support organizations to help them if they slip over into compassion fatigue (the Compassion Fatigue Awareness Project at compassionfatigue.org and the Center for Professional Well-Being in Durham, North Carolina, for instance). Its symptoms can include apathy, a feeling of isolation, and emotional outbursts, as well as headaches, insomnia, depression, and/or anger.
Unfortunately, there isn’t any such training or support in professional detachment for financial advisors. Most independent advisors I know feel a high degree of “attachment” to the well-being of their clients–it’s one of the things that makes them great advisors, and separates them from the rest of the financial services industry. Yet in times like these, when portfolios are halved, financial plans are in tatters, and clients are emotional, financial advisors more than ever need to be objective and professional. It’s an emotional rollercoaster that can lead an advisor’s own brand of compassion fatigue, and inhibit their ability to help their clients when they need it most.
Feeling Their Pain
Chris Hicks, president of full-service outsourcing firm Focus Point Solutions in Portland, Oregon, recently sent out a letter to his advisor clients after a doctor friend of his suggested that advisors today may be suffering from compassion fatigue. “It sounds like this might be the issue for many of you right now,” he wrote. “I have never heard so much self doubt from so many advisors as I have over the last three weeks. Clients followed the planning process you outlined, did what you told them to do, and right now it feels like they will run out of money far sooner than expected. You may feel like you’ve failed your clients.”
Hicks believes that advisors are feeling their clients’ pain more today than in past bear markets because so many baby boomers are now at or near retirement. “Never has a group of advisors had to deal with such a large number of retired clients. Most of them are living off of what they’re taking from their retirement savings. We cannot bear to tell clients to go back to work, or even cut their spending. That is a hard burden to bear.”
The solution, of course, is for advisors to somehow distance themselves from the financial trauma their clients are facing. To find out more about professional disassociation and how to achieve it, I called my friend, publishing consultant Larry Chambers. Larry has a unique perspective on professional detachment, as a Special Forces combat veteran, as well as many years as a Merrill Lynch broker.
“When I was younger, I trained myself not to have feelings about what I was going through until it was over,” he told me. “In battle, you have no choice, you just have to react to what’s going on around you with a clear mind. You can be more objective and focused if you’re disassociated.” But even though he found a disciplined mindset for combat, when he became a broker Chambers found that he still had the same reaction to stressful situations that most advisors do. “When one of my clients lost money, I felt bad,” he says. “And I’d avoid calling them. A lot of advisors feel what their clients are going through–sometimes too much.”
Chambers has done a lot of research and writing about how people behave in high-stress situations. He found that when times are tough, people tend to move through the same menu of emotions: fear, then anxiety, followed by anger, frustration, depression, and, finally, guilt. “I know a lot of guys who left the [securities] business because they felt guilty after bear markets,” he says. “The problem is that most people don’t understand that each of these emotional responses is part of the process of dealing with stress.” So you really shouldn’t make any serious decisions until you’ve worked your way through all of them and come out on the other side.
You Only Have Control Over Yourself
According to Chambers, we can train ourselves to turn off our emotional attachments, at least temporarily, so we can make objective decisions. “We can’t control what the market’s going to do,” he points out. “You can only control your reactions.” Here are some steps he suggests will help advisors stay in the moment, and make good decisions even when they are feeling some pressure: