He sat at his desk in front of me, tapping his pen in frustration, ‘She’s affecting everybody. She’s just toxic.’ He was describing a dilemma he was facing at work. One of his employees, a woman who was contracted over several years, was proving to be a real hindrance to his team.

‘She finds a way to get everyone into dramas. She starts gossip and just creates a lot of conflict between people.’

Legally she couldn’t be fired. She could only be ‘encouraged’ to move on through a covert strategic means of making her work ‘less and less interesting’. ‘Well, that just feels totally unethical,’ said my client. ‘So, I’m just stuck with her I guess.’ He exhaled in defeat.

For months he’d tried all number of things to inspire her to do the things she enjoyed, in hopes that she’d become more engaged, and hence cause less trouble in the workplace. He and his team had bent like pretzels to ‘bring out the best’ in her. All to no avail. It seemed the more they contorted, the more toxic she became. The entire team was caught in an enabling pattern and it was beginning to cause stress.

‘What is it costing your team, your being ethical?’ I questioned with a wink.

He thought for a while, ‘Everything.’

Like most charismatic leaders, Richard was sensitive and hence had won the trust and support from his team through equal measure of intuition, finesse, heart, care and a natural gregariousness that inspired people to not only follow him, but love him. His team was powerfully engaged and effective.

But also like many sensitive people, he had one Achilles heel – the attachment to one’s values. DisclosureI have this heel. And I have noticed that this attachment manifests through a desire to ‘be good’ and not go ‘against’ anyone.

We tend to, in our desire to stick to certain values, either ignore a situation and go passive, or after bending for too long, explode in frustration. If it goes chronically unattended, the whole system will explode.

Richard’s team was about to detonate.  

‘Sometimes you have to drop your values,’ my friend said to me on the phone the other day. I was confused. I thought my friend might have lost their sanity for a moment. Sensing my worry, he proceeded to tell me a story. I love stories. So I curled up with my coffee mug clasped between both hands and listened intently. The story goes something like this:

Once upon a time, he began, a king named Agamemnon, and leader of the Greek coalition before and during the Trojan War, encountered a strange lack of wind to carry he and his boatloads of troops over the ocean to Troy. It was discovered that the goddess Artemis was angry with Agamemnon (as goddesses are want to do with kings), and put a curse on the wind. In order to set the winds towards Troy again, she demanded, Agamemnon must sacrifice his daughter Iphigenia to her. Well, Agamemnon was horrified, outraged, and cursed Artemis with fowl language (according to my friend).

He refused, his honor as a father at stake. But he was in a dilemma. Agamemnon was also risking the lives and honor of his army. Months, passed. Each time Artemis requested Iphigenia, the father refused. The troops starved and became ragged and ill. At some point, Agamemnon finally succumbed, and sent poor Iphigenia to the alter of Artemis. The winds blew and you know the rest of the story – at least on the Troy side of things.

Accounts of Iphigenia’s fate are blurry. Some say a deer took her place, other’s say that Artemis did not sacrifice her at all but welcomed her into her divine kingdom.

So, what’s the moral of (this version of) the story? ‘If you lead with your values, you’ll narrow your options,’ said my friend. ‘Rather you be open to all the options first, and then apply your values.’ Well I had to think about that. So I did.

I began to recount events where, in order to be ‘good’, I lead with certain values, rather than responding presently in the moment, appropriate to the circumstances.

That proverbial road to hell…

I wanted to be the ‘balanced one’, the ‘fair one’, the one who could be counted on for equanimity, loyalty and maturity. I respect myself that way of course, but there was a hidden agenda in there tooI wanted to be liked. I didn’t want to go ‘against’ anyone.  

Some circumstances require rigorous self-inquiry. Sometimes we have to pull back the veneer of what is parading around as virtue, morality or ethic and be willing to see the self-interest that is there. And here’s the key: when one is stuck in a pattern of holding on to values, other more creative options are eclipsed.

Back to my client Richard. After our conversation, Richard spent some time suspending his ideas, beliefs and values and allowing for something else to emerge. Suddenly a stroke of genius hit him. He called together his team, and outlined with them a ‘new interpersonal best-practices policy’ whereby certain behavior was not tolerated, among the list was gossip, innuendo, back-stabbing, and triangulating.

Each behavior had a constructive means to incapacitate it. For example, if someone heard gossip about themselves, they would immediately approach the party or parties concerned and engage in a constructive conversation to clear assumptions.

Within two weeks, the team was brighter, healthier and more trusting. And the toxic employee, starved of all the drama she was used to creating, quit. Apparently things were way too boring for her.

Sometimes, to serve the greater whole, the beloved daughter has to be sacrificed to the goddess. In my client’s case, the daughter was his precious identity as the ethical boss. When he let her go, his team could set sail. And the daughter didn’t end up being sacrificed after all. 

The other day I was driving home and a text chimed in on my phone. It was one of those really important texts that makes you do stupid things like respond while you are driving. Which I nearly did. Instead, I pulled over, and started letting my fingers fly on the tiny keyboard.

Texts have this way of making you feel like something is really urgent, an emergency of epic proportions. Maybe because of their brevity, combined with their symbolic shorthand, they kick in that genetic conditioning from the old telegraph days:  Your mother is dead [stop] Come home from the war immediately [stop].

Before I could finish the text, I realized something interesting. I was actually addicted to that brief moment of relief delivered by responding to that text right away. Like a rat with her proverbial lever, responding to texts and emails releases a tiny yet significant amount of pleasure hormonesemphasis on tiny. So minute after minute, we press that lever to get the pellet, responding to dozens of emails and texts that promise some eternal final resolutionSisyphus with an iPhone.

I imagined me in a 12-step meeting, all of us smartphone-less, writing appointments down in our Filofaxes, having actual face to face conversations, ‘Hi, I’m Kelly, I’m a text addict’.

But here’s something else I learned. I get a rush of adrenaline when I can respond to something quick and efficiently. For a moment I feel, just a little, in control of my destiny world dominance measured out in infinitesimal bits and bytes. I feel, yes (just a little bit) powerful.

But adrenaline is not power. It is, however, a cheap imitation.

I began to watch myself throughout each day, during those moments of choice between a quick-fix option (adrenaline), or a more considered, wisdom-informed alternative (power). I started slowing down, responding less immediately, choosing power over adrenaline. I made some people mad. ‘Where were you?’ They shouted, ‘I just texted you!’ Or, ‘Why didn’t you respond to my email yet?’

But in spite of their sense of abandonment or worry (‘I thought you were off in a ditch somewhere!’), I was giving them more of me. Responses that took time were more present, accurate and effective. Some things even resolved themselves without me getting in the middle and making a mess of them. I stuck my foot in it a lot less. I made less mistakes. And I was happier.

Something about our modern culture’s framing of time drives this artificial sense of urgency. It sets up the perfect neurochemical setting for the creation of a society of adrenaline addicts.  

As technology governs more of our lives, we find ourselves in a widening gap between chronos and kairosthe ancient Greeks’ two words for time. The former refers to chronological or sequential time, and the latter signifies a time lapse, a moment of indeterminate time in which everything happens. While chronos is quantitative, kairos has a qualitative, permanent nature.

Chronos is a stopwatch. Kairos is a compass.

To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven, Ecclesiastes assures us. In other words, relax, it’s taken care of. We don’t have to be the guy at the control panel every second of the day. We can pause, we can let the greater mechanism at work handle things.

Kairos, meaning the right or opportune moment (the supreme moment), begs the questionright for whom? Therein lies the key, for the ‘rightness’ is governed by something more universal than your idea of a deadline. As collateral damage in this age of adrenalin, its disappearance means we lose a kind of divine leverage. Kairos allows for something else to do the heavy lifting.

Chronos feeds adrenaline. Kairos feeds power.

One of the qualities of successful people is their trust in kairos. I have a friend who refuses to have a to-do list, nor practice any kind of time management strategy. I’ve watched him over the years with curiosity. Remarkably, his time is rarely wasted by email ping pong or phone tag.

Invariably if he needs to tell someone something, he bumps into them right at the perfect moment, or picks up the phone and they are there. He seldom lets artificial emergency govern his actions (much to my frustration at times!). If something is truly urgent, then yes, he responds. But otherwise, he moves more like his own river. He is calm and easy to be around.

Here’s a fun self test (I grabbed from the Internet) to see if you are an adrenalin addict:

1. I drink caffeinated beverages in order to get going and keep going.
2. I eat sugar to calm myself.
3. I over-promise and then rush to finish projects.
4. I arrive at work rushed and already “on”.
5. I feel an inner rush or lack of stillness most of the time.
6. I tend to be impatient.
7. I drive over the speed limit, tail gate and get angry in traffic.
8. I tend to run late or arrive just in time.
9. I often have to deal with a problem or hassle in my life.
10. I don’t allow reserves of time in the day for things that come up.
11. I love a challenge and pushing through it as hard as I can.
12. It takes me a few days to calm down from surprises or upsetting events.
13. I find it boring or difficult to just relax and hang out.
14. I am at my best when under pressure and deadlines.
15. Sometimes I deliberately set myself up to wait until the last minute.
16. I don’t arrive at the airport an hour before my flight.
17. I carry my cell phone even when I don’t need it.
18. I unconsciously try the hardest way to get something done.
19. People complain that I’m not there with them, even when I am.
20. I am a driven type person.

 Score Key:
15-20 — You are a certified adrenaline addict
11-14 — You probably have an unhealthy level of adrenaline in your body.
6-10 — You may have an adrenaline problem.
0-5 — Bravo! Adrenaline does not have a hold on you.

If, like me, you get high from adrenaline, don’t worry (it’s just another form of adrenaline). Just take tiny baby steps to befriend kairos again. She’s waiting patiently for you. Remember that every second on this earth is a gift, so what do you want to do, or not do, with it? Respond quickly to a text, or pause and exhale and let kairos have her way? Guaranteed, dear Sisyphus, she’ll help you keep that stone on the top of that hill.