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Jean Latting
Jean Latting
Leading Consciously 
Dr. Jean Kantambu Latting is a coach, consultant, and educator. As President of Leading Consciously, a leadership development company, and Professor Emeritus at the University of Houston, Jean specializes in helping people capitalize on their strengths so they might better accomplish their goals.

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How to Reduce Stress at Work through Conscious Use of Self: Oprah Winfrey, Jennifer Hudson, and the Blizzard, Part 1

Jun. 21, 2011 11:08 pm
Keywords: None

In Oprah Winfrey’s 25th and final season of her award-winning show, superstar Jennifer Hudson was scheduled to appear to discuss her amazing weight loss. Unfortunately for all of them, the taping was scheduled a day after the largest blizzard that Chicago had seen in 25 years, resulting in a textbook-like study of stress at work.

A behind-the-scenes look at what transpired that morning was shown on “Episode 116”of Season 25, the highly acclaimed reality show showing the makings of The Oprah Show’s 25th season.

The night before the scheduled taping, Hudson arrived safely at Harpo Studios for rehearsals. The next morning, the Harpo staff were shocked to discover that Hudson had left town overnight to go to a Dallas event with plans to return to Chicago early in the morning. Because of the blizzard, she was having trouble getting a plane back to Chicago.

In Hudson’s fast-paced world, it’s easy to imagine that she and her staff were accustomed to cutting it close as they zipped between appointments. In this case, though, that tactic backfired. Hudson finally arrived at Harpo at least two hours late.

Three shows had been scheduled for taping that day with Hudson’s show as the first. Those affiliated with all three shows had been forced to wait for Hudson to arrive, including the live audiences, production staff, make-up artists, and interview guests. The situation was ripe for conflict, hurt feelings, anger – the stuff of which stress at work is made.

For Hudson, the incident was a nightmare. As she explained:

“I had a contractual engagement that I had to get to and we were going to take a train to get back here, the plane wouldn’t take off. I feel like I’m in a like a disaster, of a nightmare, of a dream, it’s crazy, but we made it anyhow. We went from a private plane, to a helicopter, to a commercial flight just to get here.”

After Hudson finally arrived, Oprah took Hudson behind closed doors and out of the reach of the camera to find out what had happened. When Oprah emerged later, she said that Jennifer had apologized and that she (Oprah) was ready for the show.

Conscious Use of Self

How did Oprah as leader of Harpo Studios handle the situation? Her brand and legacy is helping others to become their best selves. Did she walk her talk?

I watched “Episode 116”with fascination as Oprah took step after step during the crisis that dove-tailed nearly perfectly with what my co-author and I called “conscious use of self” in Reframing Change.

As we explained,

“Conscious use of self is a term used in social work, organization development, and other helping professions to describe deliberate and facilitative action with others. Elements of conscious use of self include:

  • awareness and mastery of your feelings, motivations, and skills
  • ability to perceive how others are seeing you, and
  • ability to respond appropriately when someone pushes your hot buttons” (p. 142).

We listed seven guidelines for consciously using oneself as an instrument of change:

  1. Get your emotional attachments out of the way.
  2. Accept responsibility for your own contribution.
  3. Maintain integrity.
  4. Focus on the other person’s strengths.
  5. Adopt a learning orientation.
  6. Seek to understand the other’s perspectives.
  7. Recognize your power and use it responsibly.

Did Oprah consciously use herself in how she handled the workplace dynamics resulting from Hudson’s actions? Let’s review what happened with these guidelines in mind.

1. Get your emotional attachments out of the way.

As the two hours of waiting for Hudson ticked by, Oprah and her staff were challenged again and again to get their emotional attachments toward what they thought should have happened out of the way. First, they had to let go of their expectations that Jennifer Hudson would arrive safely at Harpo Studios for the scheduled taping early that morning. Instead, they were shocked to discover she was not even in the city.

Then came the grueling unfolding of events as they heard tidbits of her attempts to return to Chicago. She was supposed to come by private plane where she could get her make-up and hair done on route. That fell through. Then she was supposed to arrive by helicopter and that fell through. Finally, she arrived by commercial airline, hair and make-up undone, so time had to be scheduled for that. Each setback meant relinguishing another expectation of how they wanted things to be.

What technique did Oprah herself use to get her emotional attachments out of the way? As my co-author and I explained in Reframing Change, one approach to handling emotional upsets is avoid identifying with our emotions. This was what Oprah appeared to do.

For example, in commenting to the camera about what was going on, she said, “All this drama, everybody was like, ‘What should we do? Should we cancel the show?’” Note the detached stance from which she is speaking here. Rather than ruminating and over-identifying with her emotions, she labeled what was going on as “drama” and moved into a mental position of mindfully observing the unfolding events in the here and now, In a previous post, “Anxiety Self-Help,” I described how moving into observer mode can help people cope with anxiety and fear.

2. Accept responsibility for your contribution.

As far as we know, Oprah and her staff did not contribute in any way to Jennifer’s lateness in showing up for the taping. However, once the situation had erupted, they did have responsibilities for how the event would be interpreted and played out. Their most immediate concern was for the audience who had been kept waiting. Oprah personally explained to the 375 members of the waiting audience the reason for the delay and the staff arranged for them to have snacks and entertainment.

Oprah also recognized her and the staff’s personal responsibility for the emotional climate surrounding the show. A potential threat was emotional contagion – subconscious spreading of their emotions via a ripple effect among all those they contacted:

Oprah to staff: Oprah: Oh god, this is bad. This is the thing. Let’s keep this frenetic crazy-ass energy in this room and not spread it to others.

Leslie Grisanti [Producer]: Agreed.

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

To be continued in the next post

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What about you? In what situations are you challenged to consciously use yourself? How has it turned out for you?


  1. Reframing Change, Chapter 6
  2. Barsade S.G.(2002). The Ripple Effect: Emotional Contagion and Its Influence on Group Behavior. Administrative Science Quarterly; 47, 644-675
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