Archive | January 2014

Half Empty? Half Full? — Are they really different?

Usually, we associate “half-empty glass” view with the “scarcity mode” of thinking, and “half-full” with “abundance mode.”  However, even if one sees a glass is half empty, wouldn’t the next logic step be, “Fill it?”  If we take only a snapshot of a situation, we may see it as either “half-empty” or “half-full.”  However, if we are driven by action, then both modes should compel us to fill the remaining space with water, or other tasteful morsels, to make it full.  In other words, an active mind wants to add value by utilizing the empty space. Per Lao Zu’s wisdom in The Way, “The usefulness of a pot comes from its emptiness.”  In fact, an active mind thinks about how to acquire more empty glasses to fill, and the active mind doesn’t reject half-full glasses either.  To paraphrase Georgia Nugent, president of Kenyon College:  we want more strategies that build, not barriers that deter.

No matter how you see this, it's "abundant."

No matter how you see this, it’s “abundant.”

After posting on posture, faking, appearing confident, gender differences in leadership, I came away feeling more disquieted than buoyant.  (Could I myself have faked being upbeat till I was upbeat?!)  So, when I encountered Kelsey M’s “Don’t discourage our future female leaders” on LinkedIn I was intrigued.  Ms. Kelsey uses “Appreciative Inquiry” principles, and argues that by framing issues in the positive, we empower people, women in particular.  Of course, principles of empowerment apply to all people. I take Kelsey M’s view that focusing only on the barriers for women makes them fearful, which is exactly the basis for deficit mode of thinking and behaving.  As she points out, women of her generation, age 25-32 of the Millennial Generation, are earning 93% of men’s wages.  That’s 9% more than the overall average for women, which is 84%.  This is an impressive improvement for women to bear in mind as they build their careers.

What, though, are some concrete advice and steps?  Like Ms. Kelsey, I find aforementioned Georgia Nugent’s article, “Can we stop talking about glass ceiling?” in Washington Post inspiring.  From being the member of the first co-ed class at Princeton in 1969 to the first female president of Kenyon College in 2003, Ms. Nugent has acquired many “first female” in different capacities.  Ms. Nugent certainly has not achieved all these “firsts” by being suspicious of others’ intentions, fearful of being the only female in the room, or weighted down by external expectations.  For those who prefer thinking and operating in “abundance” mode, like Ms. Kelsey and Ms. Nugent, there is risk of appearing “Pollyanna.”  Positive talk doesn’t lead to positive results; however, it just may lead to opening up more possibilities, instead of choking off possibilities.  There is a whiff of “faking it till making it.”

Here are the principles Ms. Nugent offers (and I believe it works just as well for men as for women): 1.  Acquire a sense of humor, 2.  grow a strong spine, and 3.  build a supportive network.  And learn to say “No.”  This is probably more pertinent for women than men at workplaces, and saying the seemingly simple word, “no,” often requires all three of these principles.

In Ms. Nugent’s article, she provides plenty of examples.  In one situation, she found herself to be the only female on the board at Kenyon College.  Instead of protesting or petitioning by the book, on the first day of the meeting, upon entering the conference room, she simply widened her smile and said, pointedly, “Good morning—Gentlemen.”  By next meeting, there were a few more female members on the board.  In an opposite situation, when she was an assistant to the president at Princeton, she was asked to be on the committee for university-wide “employment conditions.”  After reading the list of members, she went to the chief of staff and asked him to re-examine the list.  Upon seeing it, the chief of staff said, “There are plenty of females on this list.”  Ms. Nugent replied, “It’s ALL women.”

Dry is dry; you can't pretend to make it wet.

Dry is dry; you can’t pretend to make it wet.

Saying “no” doesn’t need to be done belligerently.  Belligerence is usually counter-productive.  A sense of humor goes a long way.  Of course, not everyone can muster such finesse all the time, or even some of the time.  Adopting the knowing-doing gap principle – letting action lead the learning, I would offer this: Practice often in some relative “safe” situations.

Ms. Nugent’s three principles resonate with me. I am still learning; I hope I always will.

Do you have any stories to offer others to learn?

Staying Sane and Charging Ahead.

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Appearing Confident ≠ Being Competent

Do we know, with high confidence, how to discern competence from confidence?  I am sure we have encountered, or dare I say, even been fooled, by people who act confidently but who really are borderline nincompoops.  If we were fooled, we usually keep quiet lest we appear incompetent ourselves.  Last week, my post focused on Amy Cuddy’s research that demonstrates the value of “faking it till making it.”  She would argue, from her own experience and research, that there are plenty of people who are genuinely competent but doubt themselves and therefore appear to lack confidence.  Her research basically offers one strategy to help truly competent people to realize their potential.

In today’s post, I offer a slightly different take on this topic: adopting a confident appearance is often used to mask the lack of skills.  Recently, HBR (Harvard Business Review) Blog Network posted an article with blatantly provocative title, “Why Do So Many Incompetent Men Become Leaders?”, written by Professor Tomas Charmorro-Premuzic, of University College of London.  He tosses a few morsels, in this article, for us to chew upon and debate.  Professor Charmorro-Premuzic argues that men tend to act as if they have more leadership skills than they actually possess, and thus get promoted.  Women tend not to do so, and that’s partly responsible for the lack of women in leadership positions, especially at the higher levels.  And the reason for such disparity is that most of us don’t discern, can’t or won’t, between competence and confidence, or between genuine sills or talents and charm & charisma.

Predator you take seriously.

Predator you take seriously.

Indeed, many competent people don’t feel the need to act confidently, and too many confident-looking people are actually insecure.

One of Charmorro-Premuzic’s arguments is that “arrogance and overconfidence are inversely related to leadership talent.”  While research does bear out this notion, it is yet another tendency most organizations ignore.  Put another way, we can say, “The best leaders are usually humble.”  (See my post on “Level-5 leaders” in Jim Collins’ “Good to Great)  However, humility doesn’t get much media coverage nor academic research emphasis.  (I guess humility is not exciting unless the humble leader is acting counter-culturally, as Pope Francis has recently been saying and doing.)  And part of what makes a person humble is manifested in his/her level of “emotional intelligence.”  On that dimension, in general, women outperform men.  Let me state this once more: men who exhibit emotional intelligence tend to be regarded as “weak,” “indecisive,” and/or perhaps, “lacking leadership.”  In abstract, we say we want to see respect, humility, or emotional intelligence in leaders, yet, we keep “rewarding” managers and leaders exhibiting the opposite behavior.  Sheryl Sandberg in her “Lean In” still advocates for women to behave more like men in order to climb up.

One of the most interesting passages in Charmorro-Premuzic’s article is this:

“…the mythical image of a “leader” embodies many of the characteristics commonly found in personality disorders, such as narcissism (Steve Jobs or Vladimir Putin), psychopathy (fill in the name of your favorite despot here), histrionic (Richard Branson or Steve Ballmer) or Machiavellian (nearly any federal-level politician) personalities. The sad thing is not that these mythical figures are unrepresentative of the average manager, but that the average manager will fail precisely for having these characteristics.

My fault with this passage is that while there are plenty of “average” managers exhibiting these mythical characters (and failing), there are just as many of them who don’t “fail.”  In fact, so many of them get rewarded that others want only copy their “behaviors,” acting as if they are confident, as a means to the top.

Predator you don't take very seriously...unless you are allergic to her scratches.

Predator you don’t take very seriously…unless you are allergic to her scratches.

Needless to say, this article got a lot of readers’ responses.  Unfortunately, I don’t have the time, nor do I care, to wade through all of them.  The few top comments on this article, mostly objecting or critical, seemed to be penned by men.  However, one of them offered a legitimate alternative to the article’s title, “Why Do Many Incompetent People (emphasis mine) Become Leaders?”  Indeed, thus far, most women who have gotten to the top levels seem to be just as belligerent, arrogant, and self-centered as many of their male counterparts are.

While there are pockets of remarkable leaders in politics, businesses, and other arenas, they usually don’t attract attention.  And by definition, people with humility would not seek attention. Our society (and there are plenty of others, I am afraid) is obsessed with the charismatic leaders who may or may not have true humility – which is ironic, recalling how George Washington was so adamant about yielding the Presidency after his second term (“ … I had rather be in my grave than in my present situation…”) and only reluctantly accepted the office in the first place (“…my movements to the chair of Government will be accompanied by feelings not unlike those of a culprit who is going to the place of his execution: so unwilling am I, in the evening of a life nearly consumed in public cares, to quit a peaceful abode for an Ocean of difficulties…”).

Are there ways to restore our cultural admiration for humility?  I am thinking…  If you have any wisdom to offer, please speak up, confidently and competently

Till next time,

Staying Sane and Charging Ahead.

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Adopting Power Posture To Feel Powerful, Yet Power Saps Empathy…

“Fake it till you make it.”  Whether we like “faking” or not, whether we believe this sentiment or not, and whether we want to adopt such “principle” or not, according to Amy Cuddy’s research, a powerful body language can help us grow our confidence, while also changing others’ perceptions of us

Amy Cuddy is a professor at the Harvard Business School.  Both her personal journey and research interests have led her to study the relationships between our nonverbal language, performance, and confidence.  As an “audience,” we respond unfavorably to someone hunched over, wrapping himself with his arms, and looking down – making himself appear smaller than he really is.  Conversely, we perceive someone standing like wonder woman, hands on hips, legs slightly apart, and with steady gaze – spreading out to make her look bigger — as a confident person.

Cuddy’s and her colleagues’ research is not based on only subjective judgment.  Here is the setup of their study.  Each “performer” stands in a small room adopting a certain posture, powerful or weak, for two minutes.  She and her research team measure the testosterone and cortisol levels in the “performer’s” saliva.  The researchers find that there are significant differences in the hormones before and after the two minutes.  At the end of “power” posture, the performer’s saliva indicates a much stronger testosterone.  In contrast, after holding the “weak” posture, the cortisol level is much higher.

Definitely a "weak" posture.

Definitely a “weak” posture.

In her TED talk, professor Cuddy did not encourage people to just fake their confidence for the sake of appearances.  Instead, she encouraged people to rely on positive posture to grow the self-confidence that they deserve.  Of course, those who appear weak most likely don’t think that they deserve attention or praise.  “Feeling like a fraud” probably applies to more of us than we realize.  However, Professor Cuddy would argue that we should give ourselves a chance to at least find out if we do deserve some praise.  And the best way to find out is by acting “as if.”  Just take two minutes in your office, in a bathroom, in a car, or wherever you can find the privacy to practice that “power” posture before a meeting or a presentation.  What does one have to lose?  If the praise resulting from this 2-minute positive posture still doesn’t feel “right,” that would lead to different considerations and examinations.

When Ms. Cuddy sustained a brain injury in a car accident shortly before starting college, she was distraught to find that she was no longer “smart” and many discouraged her to go on to college.  She eventually got her undergraduate degree, which took her four years longer than her cohort.  She went on to Princeton for her graduate degree.  It was there, at the beginning of her graduate program, that her advisor pushed her to “fake it till you make it.”  And now she’s a professor at Harvard.  So, she encourages some of her quieter students who do not feel confident to speak up in classes.  (Susan Cain has much to say about “forcing” such participation norm on introverts.)  Cuddy senses her quiet students’ “feeling like a fraud,” exactly how she felt for the longest time.  With her encouragement to “fake it till you make it,” some students have managed to shine as a result.

In a way, many introverts know the game of “faking it till you make it” very well.  That’s how they have adapted themselves to the extrovert-dominated world.  So, here is a conundrum:  How do we know what really goes on in a quiet person’s head?  Do all quiet people lack confidence?  And why do we always need to appear confidently?

Good posture is important for skiing well and confidently.

Good posture is important for skiing well and confidently.

Another interesting puzzle for the posture-power dimension is the issue of empathy.  A few months ago, I posted an entry on power and empathy.  According to that study, based on neuroscience, powerful people are less empathetic.  Yet, here we have professor Cuddy whose own journey had led her to occupy a seat in a powerful institute, the Harvard Business School.  Along the way, she has learned to let go of that “feeling like a fraud” and become more confident, believing in her own power. Yet, she empathizes with those students exhibiting signs of “feeling like a fraud.”  A paradox?  Certainly worthy of more study.

Personally, I think there are differences between being powerful and being confident.  A “real” fake, faking for the sake of faking, cannot lead to sustainable confidence.  “Faking it till making it” may lead to some real confidence, but we need a series of such “fakes” to produce genuine confidence.  More importantly, not all confident people want to have power.  And many powerful people lack confidence.  In fact, it’s quite often that we find those in the positions of power to be terribly insecure.  Yet, they certainly fake appearing confident.  If I were still a graduate student, these would be fascinating areas to research.

What’s your strategy in building your confidence?  Till next time,

Staying Sane and Charging Ahead.

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Antagonism, Conflicts, Opposites…fight against them? Or, learn to live with them?

First:  Happy New Year.

Nothing like welcoming a new year by completing the incomplete, and embracing differences as the source of energy.


“I won!”

Shortly before my break, I got into the dynamics of “cross-cultural groups,” based on the study and article by Kenwyn Smith and David Berg.  Not surprisingly, the cross-cultural groups in their study displayed more differences than similarities during their initial interactions.  Smith and Berg remind us that in traditional group dynamics, members rely on similarities to build a coherent group.  In cross-cultural groups, though, differences offer more advantages.  In their study, the group members from various cultures were both excited about exploring those differences, a source of learning, and anxious about what to do with those differences, a source of potential conflicts. The fear of the differences could potentially lead to paralysis, or heavy-handed control or suppression.  Most of us intrinsically want to avoid conflicts and see them as problematic.

Smith and Berg propose to view conflicts as “a source of vitality” for an alternative perspective.  Instead of viewing conflicts in the usual “either-or,” “we-them” dichotomy, they propose to frame the issues of differences in “both and” framework.  This is the premise of their book, “Paradoxes of Group Life,” of which I provided some summary points.  The following lesson is worthwhile being repeated.

The below statement is true.

The above statement is false.”

Viewing them separately, each is true.  Putting them together, they become self-referential and self-contradictory.  “While the content of each statement remains the same, its meaning is changed once it is framed by the other.”

So, when group members experience their differences in such a contradictory manner, their natural tendency is to either duke it out or bury it.  However, if we honor the premise that different members’ attitudes (toward whatever issues are at hand) are all valid, this premise then gives both group and individual members some breathing space.  When people’s views are validated, they are likely to think of different possibilities for the group as a whole, instead of trying to make the others “wrong” or their ideas “impossible.”  In other words, working with diversity, and we gain more ideas; fighting against diversity chokes off possibilities.

Based on their study, described in their paper, Smith and Berg summarize seven paradoxes for the multicultural groups.

  1. “The Paradox of Involvement:  Reframing the confrontation-conciliation dilemma
  2. The Paradox of Identity:  Reframing the individuality-collectivity dilemma
  3. The Paradox of Authority:  Reframing the autocratic-participative dilemma
  4. The Paradox of Democracy:  Reframing the spontaneous-orchestrated dilemma
  5. The Paradox of Boundaries:  Reframing the task-process dilemma
  6. The Paradox of Abundance:  Reframing the quality-quantity dilemma
  7. The paradox of Face:  Reframing the criticism-diplomacy dilemma”

Of course, all of these paradoxes are inter-related.

Ying & Yang: paradox

Ying & Yang: paradox

Let me begin with the issue of involvement.  Groups always want only part of the individuals but individuals always want to give the whole of themselves.  It’s the tension between “being part of” and “apart from” the group.  If we suspend some of our own individualistic tendency and just “go along” with the group for a while, we allow the group to become more coherent over time, which in turn allows members to go off on their own.  This tension between individuals and the group, though, should always be present lest members become too complacent and begin to conform into “groupthink.”

Such dynamics of give-and-take, tension-and-relaxation is also true for the issue of identity.  Most of us carry several “memberships.”  For instance, whenever I get involved in group-work, at any given time, I am a Chinese, an American, a mother, a wife, a daughter, an introvert who can act like an extrovert (and vice versa), with perspectives in arts, social sciences, photography, culinary experience, etc.  Not all of these backgrounds need to come to the surface in my engagement in the group, but only through a process of interacting with others can we all find out what the group really needs from me and me from others in the group.

However, groups usually can’t function in an egalitarian manner at all times.  Issues concerning leadership and authority inevitably bubble up. The authorization process, through group members’ participation, is more pertinent in ad hoc type of groups.  In addition, we typically regard these issues as naturally flowing from the top. However, even in an organization where a manager is implicitly or explicitly invested with authority, a new manager still needs to work out how her authority should be manifested.  A new manager who throws his weight around without understanding his new group is not likely to lead a productive and healthy group in the long run.  No matter how a group comes about and how a leader or a manager arises, members’ participation is essential in the authorization. In typical Smith & Berg language, “The paradoxical perspective on authority in groups affirms that authorizing others to act on one’s behalf is an authorization of oneself, and authorizing self to take actions for others is likewise authorizing the group.”

So, in such spirit, we deal with other paradoxical aspects of group life:  between spontaneous work or orchestrated work, focusing on task or process, the perennial quantity vs. quality, and to confront/criticize or to circumvent/conciliate.   All these choices do not need to end with one side over the other.  Embracing all sides involves a lot of work — the almost constant process through which members negotiate with each other.  It can be tiring and frustrating, but it brings results.  Plenty of organizations and groups favor the either-or and choose one over the other, at the cost of diminished work-product quality and demoralized employees.


Pretty “diversity.”

I thought of a perfect example of living with paradoxes in our everyday life.  Most of us have family issues.  We may not like all our family members, but we still love them.  We may quarrel during Thanksgiving holiday but we still cannot NOT get together every so often.  Granted it is difficult, actually downright impossible, to transfer such spirit to our colleagues, we can still apply the learned principles, however we have derived them.  Personally, my compass has always been grounded in “Appreciative Inquiry,” so I look for the positives in the hope to build something.


While I adhere to the spirit of respecting other cultural values, there are a few I find it impossible to accept, not even after a “fight.”  One such objectionable cultural value, or should we call it a traditional practice, is Chinese foot binding.  While no one would advocate it now, it was practiced for way too long.  Among practices still observed, I will not condone inflicting female genital mutilation nor refusing vaccination.  In other words, when beliefs or practices are in conflict with respect for human rights or scientific facts, I will err in favor of rights and facts.

Let’s build an awesome 2014.  Till next time,

Staying Sane and Charging Ahead.

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