Archive | August 2015

Ashley Who?

From certain perspectives, “Ashley Madison Hack” story highlights depressing aspects of human nature and behavior: infidelity/cheating, disregard for innocents’ lives, sneaky attacks (illegal and, more so, unethical), executives’ unapologetic digging in, lying. I am sure there are other dimensions I haven’t thought of, but do we need more? Yet, those of us who hadn’t even known about the existence of Ashley Madison before it was hacked can’t help indulging in a few chuckles, not entirely in schadenfreude spirit but there is an inherently ridiculous nature to the story and of the behaviors of the people involved, mostly the cheaters.

For the still uninitiated – as was I, for quite a few days even after the story first broke – is a website that “assists” mostly married men who want to carry on secret affairs without “consequences.” The site has been around for more than a decade and has more than 35+ million users worldwide. These are facts I just learned last week. Then, a self-righteous “Impact Team” of hackers broke into the and demanded that the company who owns the site take down both AshleyMadison and EstablishedMen (oh, just Google it if you must), and admit the fraud in its claim that the personal information of the users who discontinued using the site was wiped clean. When the parent company refused, the hackers decided that, after all, everyone’s personal information is just a pawn in the game, and revealed it all (minus the full credit card numbers) publicly.

An image for reflection and calming effect.

An image for reflection and calming effect.

I don’t care about the hackers; hackers have been around and are seemingly unstoppable. And all hackers are not equal in their intent. I don’t care about the nature of the “Ashley Madison” business; it too has been around in various forms for millennia. Neither do I care about small cheating (kind of like white lies); most of us have done some in small doses, especially in our youth. I wouldn’t advocate cheating (unless your profession is espionage or counterespionage); but: If one decides to cheat, couldn’t one at least cheat with some intelligent forethought before the act?! Like, Using your work email? Seriously?!

Unless you or your friends got caught in this web, I doubt that you have paid much attention to the story. However, there are some lessons; I mean, we might as well find some lessons from sordid affairs, right?

  1. Don’t be too quick to judge. I wouldn’t know – nor really care to know – the percentage of people whose email addresses might have been hijacked for perpetrators’ clandestine activities.
  2. By all means judge the perpetrators if that makes one feels better, but the beloved ones who got entangled as collateral damage can use some sympathy.
  3. Adults have been lecturing young people to be careful of what to reveal in social media and to the public. Practice what we preach.
  4. Most importantly, employers, leave it off! Just because the “.gov” or “.mil” is in plain sight doesn’t mean your people are automatically guilty. Hackers may not have any qualms exposing people’s privacy for their own gain, but that shouldn’t mean the employers need to add more burden to an individual’s plight. Fine, scold them for abusing office privilege, but serious punishment would be beyond schadenfreude.

Till September,


 Staying Sane and Charging Ahead.

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OMG! No Annual Performance Evaluation?!

Like late night TV show hosts having a heyday with political news, I take guilty pleasure in the recent rash of news and articles about workplace practices, such as the frantic pace at, the cosmic stupidity of using a work email address for an Ashley Madison account, and now, the new trend at several major corporations of eliminating annual performance reviews.  So, I will be writing in this space regularly for a little while.  I want to get into all of these topics – the story alone offers myriad of blog opportunities – but today, I’ll start discussing the ritual of the annual performance review that no one likes. Okay, there may be one person in the whole organization who likes it, the executive overseeing the performance review program.

In major organizations with more than 10,000 employees, managers spend 200+ hours a year evaluating their direct reports (average 8-10), which adds up to approximately $35 million. This quantity of time and effort competes with the rapidly growing set of other responsibilities imposed on managers. Of course, one can argue that many of the managers’ oversight responsibilities are self-inflicted, but that’s another topic. The point is that not withstanding all the time, money, and effort pouring into this annual ritual, organizations are not getting what the performance review intends – better performance from employees. In fact, “Brain research has shown that even employees who get positive reviews experience negative effects from the process. It often triggers disengagement, and constricts our openness to creativity and growth.”

How to evaluate the performance of this weird living tree?!

How to evaluate the performance of this weird living tree?!

It will not surprise the cynics among us that, despite abundant evidence for the null if not downright negative effects of performance management, at present only 10% of Fortune 500 companies have abandoned the practice, Microsoft, Metronic, Adobe, Accenture, Deloitte, to name a few. The latest that joined this growing “trend” is GE. GE now ditching the forced ranking system (which was once a trendsetting process made famous by the former CEO Jack Welch) has been viewed by many analysts as particularly significant, the potential tipping point.

I applaud abandoning the annual performance evaluation practice, but as usual, I am wary (and weary) of the “trend” or “fad” in whatever forms that replace the annual ritual. So what will be the replacement?

While most employees still need feedback, given the rapid pace of operations and technology change in today’s global economy, whatever happens in the once-a-year performance evaluation exchange is almost certainly outdated. Praise or critical remarks regarding a project done six or ten months ago carries little meaning for the employee’s current status or future development. Most companies that have replaced the annual evaluation have adopted a “just-in-time” feedback system. Many of the big organizations have their own internally developed app for instant feedback; employees (including managers) now receive feedback on the current work from both manager and colleagues. Note that one still needs to take the time to compose feedback, and the receiver still has to invest time in processing the feedback, but at least most of such feedback is (reasonably) current. And instead of a forced ranking of all employees, the practice nowadays is to judge a person’s performance against the role she assumes, and to assign salary and promotion accordingly. Kind of like “Back to the Future?!”

No practice, however thoughtfully laid out, is ever perfect. When feedback is provided anonymously, there is always the danger of platitude, sabotage, nitpicking, or just plain rudeness. After all feedback is gathered, the really nasty comments would stand out. Seeing comments radically different from the majority of other comments may warn a manager to allow a period of time to pass and determine if negativity gains additional momentum or credibility. Yes, if a person receives more negative comments than positive, that’s a strong indicator.

As I hinted earlier, the new practice doesn’t necessarily save time or money, but hopefully, the return on the “investments,” in the form of quicker feedback and in-depth conversations between manager and direct report, is a more committed, smarter, and more nimble workforce. Still, I am wary because whenever a practice becomes a trend or a fad, people are prone to doing it mindlessly. I’ll be watching this development with interest. Till next time,


 Staying Sane and Charging Ahead.

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The Cul-de-Sac of “High Achieving”

This time of the year, around the anniversary of my immigrating to the States, I tend to do a little more navel gazing. This year, I find myself reflecting on a term with which I have some issues, “high achiever.” The expression usually implies that someone has achieved more than…but what? It also connotes a high degree of competitiveness.

mt baker 3

I hate competition. Competition makes sense in sports and in related environments where repetition or efficiency is the goal.  In the Chinese/Taiwanese education system, we are expected to be competitive; we need to make our parents look good. Such a burden. My mother, bless her soul, of course wanted all her children to do well (what parents wouldn’t?), but she would never brag about her children’s “accomplishments.” The high school I went to was the best (girls’) high school, and the atmosphere felt like the premed frenzy in this country, although I understood the comparison only after I came to the States. In my high school, we all learned not to let on how hard we had to study for quizzes and tests, and some would actually beam or strut around, albeit subtly, after besting fellow students. Those three years of high school were the worst time in my life.

I don’t accumulate degrees or awards as badges of honor; I simply enjoy learning and exploration. If that means getting degrees and awards, so be it. I don’t regard them as having achieved anything special because for me, it’s all about finding something to be excited about…and the weirder it is, the more fascinating it is.

And I know plenty of people who are like that, regardless of their educational background. Some of the people I most admire have “only” high school diplomas, and some of the PhDs I have known are downright obnoxious. Such superficial accolades are just that, superficial. Years ago, one of the entrepreneurs I met had a PhD in biology but eventually acknowledged and accepted that his true passion was – and still is — woodworking. When he and I compared notes, we discovered what “competition” meant to us both: It’s about competing against ourselves, against some amorphous standards we keep updating, based on everything around us.

The conventional “high achieving” environment is actually quite toxic because it’s based on zero-sum competition mode where my win would have to be at the expense of someone else’s loss. It’s a scarcity mode of being. In such an environment, most people lose by definition. This attitude partly contributes to the ever-increasing stress levels on students, particularly during their high school years, and on employees who see the managerial ladder as the only success measurement. (See the “suggested readings”.) After you achieve a 4.0 GPA – sorry, I mean, 4.75 – then what? After you become a VP, make tons of money, or build five casinos, then what? What will you have accomplished?

I don’t readily know how to make a distinction between “high achievers” and those who forever follow their curiosity and passion. I’d love to hear your take-on and suggestions.

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