Archive | August 2014

Concluding the Summer – A little suggestion on changing minds

It’s not the official “end of the summer” – not till 23rd of September – but I’ve always felt at home with the academic calendar ever since I started kindergarten.

Today, I offer a brief observation on meetings, not the one-on-one kind but meetings of groups.

Anyone who thinks he can change minds in one group meeting is either colossally arrogant or hopelessly naïve. Seriously, can we even quickly or easily change the habits of, say, our cat or dog? I recently learned that crows are highly intelligent and can learn to adapt for their survival…when it suits them (a fascinating TED talk, really worthwhile). If we humans could change our minds readily (and I don’t even demand “quickly”), what would we be like?! And, what would our world be like? If you and I can’t be easily convinced of the value of a proposal, however brilliant and sensible it might be, why should we expect others behave differently? (By “proposal,” I mean something more consequential than the proposal to change the lunch hour from 12 to 1, or move the monthly report from beginning of the month to the last week of the month.) We feel frustrated with most meetings because while everyone wants to change everyone else’s mind, in the end, most meetings are just clarification, convergence on an agenda, or the prolonged spouting of empty words on strategic planning (which is rarely executed).

There are, but rarely, truly productive meetings — mostly one-on-one. And strategic planning has some value as long as we don’t take it too seriously.

"So, what's the agenda today?"

“So, what’s the agenda today?”

Let’s make it simpler for meetings to accomplish program design or change. If you want to reach an important decision that is likely to change the landscape of your group or your project…gather the handful of people who have already shown some level of discontent with the status quo and the inclination to favor the direction of your choice. Further, instead of opening the meeting to all possible scenarios for future direction or change, offer one or two possibilities. Then, launch the meeting focusing on “how to get from point A to point B or C.” While it may seem manipulative, it would be at least more productive, for you and your colleagues.

I will be off next Monday, Labor Day. If you travel, be safe. Whatever you do for the long weekend, enjoy it. Till September,

Staying Sane and Charging Ahead.

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Blending Cultural Spices

I certainly need an antidote to my recent posts, which were marked by too much negativity. And since I haven’t come across anything terribly exciting in my usual haunts, I’ll share a personal story.

Sometime after I received my PhD, I was invited by Simmons College to give a talk on diversity, detailed topic to be my own design. I decided to focus on “what it’s like to be a female immigrant in this country.” The organizer was concerned that this seemed a well-trodden topic, until I gave them my main points, whereupon they welcomed this different perspective. After all, it was about diversity, which to me is always about thought worlds.images

The talk was scheduled for early evening. I arrived early afternoon. After checking out the seminar room and talking with my hosts, I had plenty of time to spare. I decided to treat myself to a trip to the Art Museum. Armed with information for a taxi, I leisurely went through the museum. When I was ready to head back to the college and called the taxi company, I was told that given the traffic hour, they couldn’t predict when I might get a taxi…probably more than ½ hour. The public transit was jam packed, and I wasn’t sure which stop I’d have to get off. I started walking and asked at least a handful of people for directions. After the fourth response being the same “It’s a long walk,” I was about to kick someone. Even though I wasn’t in heels, I was wearing dressy shoes and a long march was not feasible.

While frantically thinking of other alternatives, I left messages left and right with the College that I might be late (cell phones were not yet ubiquitous).

Out of sheer desperation, I approached a standing car on the opposite of the museum, with a female driver, with a plea, “I am a guest speaker at Simmons College, but I am stranded here without any means to reach the campus in time. Would you mind giving me a ride, and I’ll compensate you?” The woman was clearly taken aback and strongly declined. I even showed her the content of my tote bag to assure her my lack of violent means. However, in a US metropolitan city, I understood her extreme reluctance, so I began to retreat. Just as I stepped back, she began to move her belongings on the passenger seat to the back. And the ice broke; I could have kissed her hand.

Here were the main points of my seminar:

  1. Chinese are taught to not stick out like a sore thumb. Be modest, and don’t draw attention to yourself. Yet, being a minority in this country and in most professional workplaces (at least then), most Chinese individuals would automatically be a “sore thumb,” commanding attention.
  2. Chinese culture emphasizes the collective. In fact, our language is telling. 人, ren, means people. We don’t have a direct word for “individual.” Instead, we add the “unit of one” in front of 人,個人, ge ren, to convey the notion of “individual.” This is key to understanding the cultural psyche. Every individual is defined by his/her networks of family, relations, and friends; without these networks, the person is to be pitied at best, distrusted or rejected at worst.
  3. What this individual-network nexus means is that Chinese rely on networks for just about everything, especially for solving problems, overcoming dilemmas or obstacles, or resolving conflicts. Cold calls are only for desperate persons.

In lieu of my seminar topic and thesis, you can see the irony of my side trip in Boston. I made a grand entrance to the seminar, 5 minutes late. I was the speaker and already by default the center of attention, but that entrance (with people worrying about my safety) totally nullified my point #1. I had no network to call for help while circling around the Art Museum. And finally, I made a cold call; I certainly was desperate. To cap it all, the lovely woman who gave me a ride was not American-born; she came from Dominican Republic.

My audience was impeccably kind and warmly received my talk. Many in the audience were either Chinese immigrants or American born Chinese. And several came up to me, after the talk, to thank me for verbalizing their feelings.images-1

Truth be told, I was never a typical Chinese even when I was in my birthplace, Taiwan. I just happened to manage to stick out like a thumb, although without being sore, most of the time. My talk actually made me more aware of the beauty of being an immigrant in this country: I can “choose” elements from different cultures to create who I am. I’ve always thought that America’s “melting pot” is not so much about melting various cultures into homogeneity. Rather, it is more about letting every individual “meld” various cultures within herself/himself. In such a context, the concept of “culture” transcends boundaries, be they national, professional, organizational or almost anything else you can think of. Spices in life, or food, make for interesting taste. Don’t you think?

Till next time,


Staying Sane and Charging Ahead.

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Here We Go Again…from time & motion studies to surveillance

When Frederick Taylor did his “scientific method” studies of time and motion in the late 19th century, he intended to bring about higher productivity and economic efficiency. An unexpected outcome of these studies was giving workers interval breaks and better pay as incentives. Taylor himself cared less about the workers’ welfare than about how to streamline production. Scholars after Taylor tried to offer a counterbalance to the stark “scientific method” by emphasizing “human relations.” Since then, the debate between quantification and qualification in the management field has not stopped.

I think in the “either-or,” dichotomous, or, antagonistic, universe, we all end up losing a little.

In the management world, issues concerning quality always seem to struggle for attention and justification. Almost always, quantification trumps. What we can quantify, we can drive to better outcomes. But is it truly so?

If you are in a management position, would you like the ability to monitor your direct report’s movements? If you are a staff member, would you mind being recorded for your movements, interactions, and conversations?

Digital technologies have made surveillance much easier. And tracking employees just seems so tempting, especially when tracking yields “positive” effects.  In the referenced New York Times article, the two areas where surveillance has brought about better outcomes are in the restaurant industry and the “communication” aspect of bank services. Interestingly enough, while the impetus for restaurants owners to monitor workers was to prevent theft, actual theft was found to be insignificant. The unexpected “bonus” was significant revenue growth. Wait staff, feeling watched, made more sales by encouraging patrons to order more, or more expensive items. It seems that the restaurants owners’ initial suspicion was misplaced.

I use this image to counter the "eek" feeling of "keeping employees under surveillance."

I use this image to counter the “eek” feeling of “keeping employees under surveillance.”

As for communication in some of the banks that set up the monitoring system, the data suggested that by taking breaks in an environment that encouraged social interactions, such as a better break room, employees became more productive. (Once again, I worry about the introverts. Or perhaps they avoided careers in bank service communication?)

But no one seems to feel the need to monitor managers.

In the article, the author’s focus is on “privacy” of employees. I think the deeper issue is trust.

There is a range of monitoring systems, from the “crude” conventional camera recording to computer chips embedded in employees’ badges. The later “sociometric” type would record “tone of voice, posture and body language, as well as who speaks to whom for how long.” Of course, the data are used in aggregate, and no individual information is revealed. Small comfort.

One of the professors quoted in the article warns that people would view such surveillance as either bad or good, and that “the real challenge…is what is the right level and in what context it is being done.” Is this professor implicitly suggesting that surveillance is here to stay? How about these basic questions: Is surveillance necessary? and for what purposes? (not to mention the issue of cost effectiveness)   For example, do companies need to shell out consulting fees to learn that “coffee breaks” bring about better productivity? I thought that was a forgone conclusion from as long ago as Taylor’s “scientific management” studies. Most people are social learners, but do we need to spend thousands of dollars to re-learn that? I would like to see some money spent on creating comfort zones for introverts as well. Is detailed monitoring really going to help, say, sales representative to learn the art of conversation? Maybe the supervisors of these sales representatives can learn to work with people first, before resorting to computer chips to do the data collection.

Once again, let me re-emphasize that the foundation of organizations is relationships, “relations among parts and relations among relations.” And there are no shortcuts in building relationships.

Wishing you a care-free week. Till next time,


Staying Sane and Charging Ahead.

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If It Ain’t Broke…

…and Market Basket was not broken by any stretch of imagination. Market Basket is a 71-chain grocery store primarily serving the New England region. In fact, the company is doing better than fine; it’s a billion-dollar enterprise with good profit margin. So, what did the board of directors try to fix? They removed the CEO, Arthur T. Demoulas (affectionately referred to as “ATD” by the employees), in an ouster maneuvered primarily by his archrival cousin, Arthur S. Demoulas. Seriously, it’s worth paying attention to family dynamics; this has an eerie similarity to the “Vaughan-Bassett” case I used a couple of weeks ago.

I can't get excited about bargains of groceries, but I am fond of Trader Joe's.

I can’t get excited about bargains of groceries, but I am fond of Trader Joe’s.

The board’s formal reasons rehash familiar themes: ATD committed favoritism, made bad business decisions, etc. ATD set aside $46 million for profit sharing with its 25,000 employees during the 2008 financial crisis. Lest we feel sorry for the financial hardship this imposed upon the Demoulas family, according to the Boston Globe (via Washington Post Columnist Harold Meyerson), the family made $500 million during the previous decade.

Externally, Market Basket prides itself on the price advantage it affords its customers and on good customer relationships. As far as brand/image is concerned, it doesn’t suffer at all in the public eye. Internally, the company pays employees well; entry-level employees are paid $12/hour. Under ATD’s leadership, internal promotions have elevated many long-term employees to top management ranks with 6-figure salaries. Employees get bonuses and have their college tuition covered. Many anecdotes portray ATD in the image of “George Bailey” from “It’s a Wonderful Life.” He would visit employees’ hospitalized children, attend employees’ weddings, and he preferred walking around in his stores (and talking to people) over sitting in his office. In other words, in today’s business environment, he is an oddball.

Which begs the question, How can doing what everyone else is doing bring about competitive advantage? And its corollary, Why do business leaders perpetually do what everyone else is doing while expecting (and then claiming) an outcome superior to everyone else’s?

Basket of bountiful wildflowers from the nature's abundant rain.

Basket of bountiful wildflowers from the nature’s abundant rain.

It’s not surprising that the employees, including supervisors, have been protesting. The grass-root effort brought more than 5,000 people together, including customers. Their single demand: reinstate ATD to be the CEO.

The two people replacing ATD as the current co-CEO have since fired the supervisors who organized and joined the protests, and threatened to terminate protesting workers. One of these CEOs has a reputation for mergers and acquisitions. This fuels the employees’ fears that the board intends to sell the company (and its soul), eliminate jobs, lower wages, and take away some of the benefits. Of course, behind the employees’ loyalty to ATD is their fear for their own future. But why do we separate these aspects as if they are independent?nature's basket 4

We have a related example, with the difference that the company is not under threat (that we know of). Costco pays its average employees more than $20/hour, offers benefits even to part-timers, and its CEO doesn’t pocket an obscene salary (which was criticized by the Wall Street some years back).

Tony Schwartz and Christine Porath wrote in the NYTimes op-ed (that I cited last week), “Costco’s employees generate nearly twice the sales of Sam’s Club employees. Costco has about 5 percent turnover among employees who stay at least a year, and the overall rate is far lower than that of Walmart. In turn, the reduced costs of recruiting and training new employees save Costco several hundred million dollars a year. Between 2003 and 2013, Costco’s stock rose more than 200 percent, compared with about 50 percent for Walmart’s. What will prompt more companies to invest more in their employees?”

nature's basket 3Currently, policies focusing on “investing in employees” are rare and as rarities still attract media attention, such as “Paid Leave Encourages Female Employees to Stay.”

Sometimes, it is difficult to not feel a degree of despair. If we are in a position to bring to those around us some measure of workplace satisfaction, what stops us? (The answers are what prompted me to start writing on these issues.)

Till next time,


Staying Sane and Charging Ahead.

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