Archive | September 2013

Diffuse…a little self-reflection

Recently, a store manager made a mistake on my order.  Though important, my order was not time sensitive.  I happened to be in the store to inquire about my order, and he discovered the mistake.  It was an oversight, but with little consequence, so I shrugged it off.  However, the manager apologized profusely, was embarrassed, and truly felt bad.  I probably would feel the same way if I were in his shoes.  I kept reassuring him that it was no big deal, and his follow-up action was quite adequate. Could I have responded differently?  Acting indignant, throwing my displeasure around, or chewing him out?  None of this would help one iota for what I needed and it certainly would not have helped him.  Besides, I genuinely felt upbeat about the situation, once identified and addressed.

liquid dahlia

This was a very small incident.  To paraphrase Bill Cosby:  I mention this story in order to tell you the following story, which took place in mainland China in 1985.

PRC China in 1985 had just barely opened to the “market economy;” by western standards their idea of “customer service” was still in an embryonic stage.  Everywhere I went, the bigger the entity (stores or organizations) the thicker the bureaucratic hide.  I was checking in with a receptionist/desk clerk at a hotel in Shanghai; my reservation was through the Academy of Sciences (their equivalent NSF, National Science Foundation).  The clerk could not find my reservation at all, and was unpleasant about being inconvenienced to work on my behalf.  My temper and her irritation were rising and our voices became louder.  All of a sudden, there was an internal shift in my perspective and I vividly remember thinking, “This poor clerk, in the Communist system, has no clue whatsoever what ‘customer’ means and how to ‘take care of’ a customer.”

In a split second, I dropped my voice, and said, continuing in my perfect standard Chinese, “I am sure you are getting tired of being told what to do.  I really need your help.  Can you think of ways in which we can work together to resolve my dilemma?” (There is such a thing, “perfect spoken Chinese.”) I still recall her facial expression, first shocked, then befuddled, resigned, and finally softened.  She called the Academy of Sciences and in less than five minutes, I was able to fill out all necessary paperwork and check in.

This is not the telling of a self-congratulatory story.  In my younger days, I was definitely a much shorter-tempered person, and had had my moments of indignant, self-righteous, and “bitchy” customer-is-always-right behavior.  However, my mother’s insistence on civility has saved me from time to time.  And a little empathy helps too.  I have been trying to glean lessons from this profound (to me) episode.  I am afraid I have to repeat my mantra:  There are no 12-step programs when it comes to educating people to deal with social issues, especially in a situation that calls for thinking on one’s feet.  I think possessing basic civil manners is important.

Another attribute that can help is raised awareness.  I generally eschew awareness-raising programs and workshops, either as a participant or as a facilitator, for a simple and important reason.  We can never tell, with certainty, how effective a program may be; the long-term causal effect is too tenuous to measure.  Besides, this type of program always exudes a make-believe atmosphere.  However, I will say this:  being keenly aware of social issues (such as, diversity, thinking in others’ shoes, or sensing the emotional temperature in the room) will come in handy when situation arises.  Precisely because we cannot predict when a situation will occur that taxes our skill set, preparation is important to thinking on our feet and responding quickly.  Raising awareness makes sense.  I just wish I could envision different educational programs with that goal in mind while not driving people, including myself, batty.


What can a manager do, catching a direct report dressing down a colleague from a support unit?  She cannot undermine her own direct report’s authority nor can she take sides against the colleague whose support she (or, her organization unit) needs from time to time.  She has to intervene quickly, dissipating the tension without raised voices.  How about, “Hey, friends don’t bite.”  Something like this once did take place, and the outcome was a noticeable drop in the tension.  What worked?  Civility, multifaceted awareness (of group dynamics, personality, delicate balance, future cooperation, to name a few), and a sense of humor.

I don’t know what specifics I can offer, or what programs I can recommend for this type of thinking-on-the feet solution.  Yet, such dealings are what we all have to learn in our everyday lives, at work, at the grocery store, at school, etc.  I can only think of sharing stories as a way to “raise awareness.”  So, please share some of your stories.  Till next time,

Staying Sane and Charging Ahead.

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I Like Brevity…Till I Need More.

Pithy comments can be enlightening, useful, and often embed great wisdom.  However, sometimes, their brevity leaves much to ponder over.  Or, maybe that’s the purpose of pithy words; it provokes us to think more.  While I cherish Robert Townsend’s “Up The Organization,” full of piercing observations of organizational nonsense and wise advise to counter it, I often want to parse some sentences for details on the how’s.  It is difficult to address how’s in a pithy manner.  A thoughtful and wise manager (yes, it’s a rarity but such managers exist) may be able to glean guidance from this modest volume, but most mortals need more.  Such is also my reaction to David Ogilvy’s observations on creative leaders’ quality and management principles.

A hummingbird moth

A hummingbird moth

Many considered Ogilvy to be the “The Father of Advertising,” or, the original “Mad Man,” according to Maria Popova, the curator and founder of  He was in the creative business and was successful at running one of the world’s leading ad agencies in the 50s and 60s.

Mr. Ogilvy offers many excellent points and lessons on writing, creativity, leadership, and management in his “Unpublished David Ogilvy.”

On the quality of creative leaders, he offers the followings:

  1. “High standards of personal ethics.
  2. Big people, without pettiness.
  3. Guts under pressure, resilience in defeat.
  4. Brilliant brains — not safe plodders.
  5. A capacity for hard work and midnight oil.
  6. Charisma — charm and persuasiveness.
  7. A streak of unorthodoxy — creative innovators.
  8. The courage to make tough decisions.
  9. Inspiring enthusiasts — with trust and gusto.
  10. A sense of humor.”


It is difficult to argue with these seemingly common-sense points.  However, times have changed since these words were uttered, decades ago.  For instance, Mr. Ogilvy explained the hard working principle,  “Hard work never killed a man. Men die of boredom, psychological conflict and disease. They do not die of hard work. The harder your people work, the happier and healthier they will be.”

If people are allowed to have their “purpose, mastery, and autonomy ” at work, they would want to work hard to reach their personal “high.”  But when an organization – through management – demands, seemingly wily-nily, that you surrender evenings and weekends, it kills your soul and spirit eventually…and possibly your marriage and family.   Working hard is what most of us desire to do, but that has to come from self-motivation rather than external incentives/disincentives.   If Mr. Ogilvy could see how much busywork there is in organizations these days, and how people are stressed because they can’t find enough time to do what they really care to do, he probably would modify his statement on “hard work.”

Twofer...including the blurry one.

Twofer…including the blurry one.

And about “charisma,” I am always a bit wary of charismatic people.  Lee Iacocca was hugely charismatic, so was Jack Welch.  Both of them had shining moments in their “leadership” years, but ultimately, much of what they did was for their own egos.  They are not considered “level-5” leaders, in Jim Collins’ taxonomy, for good reasons.  In fact, many “level-5” leaders are not at all charismatic but definitely methodical; they may even be a little dull.  Does this mean that executives in advertising industry have to be charismatic?  Does the nature of the industry have certain claims on leadership qualities?

Before you think I need to challenge most of Ogilvy’s words, here is one gem I love:  “If you fail to recognize, promote and reward young people of exceptional promise, they will leave you; the loss of an exceptional man can be as damaging as the loss of an account.”  Yet…yet…beware of those self-important “exceptional” persons.  An “asshole,” no matter how brilliant, can be demoralizing for colleagues at the workplace.  So, I found strong resonance with Ogilvy’s point on creative integrity: “Our offices must always be headed by the kind of people who command respect. No phonies, zeros or bastards.”

Ultimately, my point is this:  For every wonderful pithy statement, there are many nuances one needs to consider.  However, I accept totally this piece of wisdom from Mr. Ogilvy:  “If you ever find a man who is better than you are – hire him.  If necessary, pay him more than you pay yourself.”  What humility!  If you encounter such a boss or colleague, cherish your luck.

Till next time,

Staying Sane and Charging Ahead.

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Scarcity, A Good Motivator? Or, A Detriment To Our Mental Faculty?

“I work better under pressure.”  Such a sentiment resonates with many of us.  Scarcity of time, more commonly known as “deadline,” forces us to focus.  However, did you know that scarcity of money takes away a few IQ points?  This is according to Sendhil Mullainathan and Eldar Schafir.  You can find an excerpt from their latest book, Scarcity Changes How We Think” on  I don’t know of what I am in such profound shortage as to change my own thinking, but this title certainly made me pause and ponder.

Unfulfilled needs influence how we think and behave.  When I go beyond just hungry and actually feel the pangs, I am no longer picky about the first food source in sight.  I’ll take a fast food meal, or a bag of potato chips, at that point.  When someone feels lonely for a prolonged period, he is likely to undertake some activities he might not otherwise do, or recommend to others.  But when people feel financial scarcity, according to the authors, people’s mental faculties are slower in both “executive control” (our abilities to manage our impulses, planning, paying attention, etc.) and “fluid intelligence” (our abilities to think abstractly, or solve problems that aren’t immediately relevant to our lives).

The authors collaborated with other scholars on a study with sugarcane farmers.  These farmers received a lump sum for their harvest, and so were cash-abundant immediately after the harvest and cash-poor a few months before the harvest.  The researchers then measured the farmers’ performances on those two indices mentioned above.  The comparison was done on the individual’s own records for well-off and cash-strapped periods, and the performances were profoundly different.  The postharvest farmers outperformed themselves by 25% on the “fluid intelligence” index.

This is really disconcerting if the findings hold true over time and are verified by others.  It does make some intuitive sense.  When people feel strapped for cash, their worries magnify, especially if they have families to support.  This is bound to distract them from their work, their studies, or mundane matters, like, their driving.  Being a poor graduate student is probably a little different.  There is an end to that status, and hopefully, one’s life station improves upon receiving the degree.  And when push comes to shove, one’s family may come to rescue.

The authors also reported a study comparing people’s recall accuracy between those who were slightly hungry and those who were satiated.  The hungry group performed better, especially on recalling words associated with foods!  I’d modify the findings by pointing out important conditions:  1.  If a person experiences physical ills from hunger, that cannot be good for that person’s mental faculty.   2.  As a corollary, there would be profound differences between temporary hunger and perpetual and prolonged hunger.  So, children who are hungry often cannot focus in classrooms.

Back to the scarcity of time.  When we know we have plenty of time for a project before a deadline, we allow many other matters, important or not, to occupy our attention span.  The authors call this our “bandwidth.”  As deadline approaches, our bandwidth narrows, and our focus sharpens.  Of course, there are exceptions.  I have known quite a few people who seem to be able to plunge into projects of their passion at any time. Deadlines are incidental to them; or, deadlines associated with other projects they have to do become annoying distractions.

Whether scarcity truly changes our thinking, it certainly impacts our thinking and behavior.  The type of scarcity discussed so far is in the context of an individual’s internal goals, be they time, finances, relationships, or just getting enough to eat.  In the context of organizational issues, “scarcity” largely involves deadlines.  If everyone has several deadlines to meet, and their deadlines are contingent upon others’ deadlines, that’s when everything in the organization “needs to be done yesterday.”  Such “queuing” of deadlines get exacerbated when every matter needs to be attended to now.  This is the kind of organization that seems to hop from crisis to crisis.  I wonder if people’s IQ drops a few points in that kind of situation.  Certainly the organization’s collective intelligence suffers.

Finally, I want to make a distinction here.  I sometimes talk about deficit/scarcity mode of thinking, in the context of Appreciative Inquiry (AI).  In AI, deficit/scarcity modus operandi means “I need to beat my competitor in order to get a bigger share of the pie.”  In contrast, to appreciate is to inquire, and to build, such as, “I will do my best to contribute to increasing the pie.” Appreciative Inquiry is mostly used in the bettering of group and organizational dynamics, but individuals can use the same principles to augment their own development.  I wonder if those people whose passion guides their work are naturally AI practitioners; they are always building or creating something.

I welcome your feedback and input.  Till next time,

Staying Sane and Charging Ahead.

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Balancing Between Power And Empathy


empathy (Photo credit: glsims99)

It turns out that people lose their empathy once they assume a position of power.  (Who’d thought?!)  This isn’t just based on hunch, or some social/psychological research findings.  A recently published neuroscience study demonstrates such a link in one’s brain.  It’s hard to quarrel with physical evidence.

By and large, I seem to be critical of managers; they bear more responsibilities, and therefore need to be judged on higher standards.  In a few cases, though, I offer some sympathy.  When a person moves into a position of power, she finds herself inundated with at least 10-fold more information than she used to have in her pre-managerial status.  Once an empathetic person, now in a managerial position, his “old” empathy is a channel for constant noise.  All of a sudden, a newly minted manager can’t afford to care about the family saga, promotional angst, dating horror stories, vacation tidbits from just a few favored colleagues.  He has to attend to the needs, wants, and desires of dozens of staff members.

While a manager may be able to take a little longer to grasp personnel issues and decisions, she often has to make quick decisions on operations, with or without enough data.  And these decisions inevitably impact people’s office lives and/or personal lives, and some staff members are always going to feel slighted.

In response to the neuroscience study by Obhi, et al, Dacher Keltner, a social psychologist at University of California, Berkeley, said, “Power diminishes all varieties of empathy.”

To some extend, empathy lies in the eyes of beholders.  Not all managers are equal in their diminished empathy.  And just because someone may not strike us as particularly empathetic doesn’t mean he cannot be a wise manager who allows staff to make occasional mistakes and to grow.  Being in a position of power does not necessarily mean the person uses the power to control others, or to control others frequently.  There is a difference between “control of people” and “control of situation.”  Manipulating people to do certain things isn’t the same as manipulating the situation/system in order to facilitate smoother operations or better outcomes.  There is never a shortage of power-hungry people, but once in a while, there are a few managers who use power only when necessary, or use it to better their staffs’ work lives.

Empathy (software)

Empathy (software) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

On the fifth hand, the neuroscience study might explain why the top level of managers seems so clueless.  Perhaps, the higher one moves up, the longer one is deprived of empathy, and ultimately one becomes insulated and clueless regarding the lives of “the others.”  Solution:  Managers should be moved out of managerial positions (not as penalty) or to lower managerial positions (also not as a penalty) every so often.

I like to read readers’ responses to some articles.  For this article, one reader suggested that perhaps this explains why women in management are generally regarded as more empathetic than men since women have typically been in less powerful positions.  Intriguing.  Maybe that’s why it’s all the more disquieting whenever a female moving into a managerial position suddenly seems to become nasty?

What’s your view on this?  Till next time,

Staying Sane and Charging Ahead.

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A Simple Thought

I was going to skip this week, but now I am going to cross this “black line” with a simple thought about the impeding US action on Syria.

What if we dropped packages of Sarin antidote?

Continue your fun and peaceful weekend.

Always a good antidote.

Always a good antidote.