Archive | July 2016

Using Self As An Instrument

In my brief bio, I mentioned an important keystone of my methodology: that I see myself as “part of the instrument from which to gain quality data.” A few readers have found the statement puzzling. Let me explain. What I presented last week on my immigrant’s view of inter-racial issues was an example. I wasn’t going to just write a personal journey; there is purpose in such a seemingly self-indulgent method. The “using self as an instrument” is particularly crucial for conducting qualitative studies in social science. And it also has a bearing on management.

For my PhD dissertation, I started with a different topic on cross-cultural issues, and considered the usual questionnaire-survey for data collection. In the end, my desire for deep knowledge won over statistical breadth of cross-cultural comparisons, and I ended up doing a case study on “The Role of Culture in Business Networking,” focusing on entrepreneurs. I paired Americans and immigrant Chinese in two industries, cafes and fashion design.

The main driver for doing the case study was my thirst for understanding how culture influences the cross-cultural interactions in business decisions and operations. While many cross-cultural studies have taught me the importance of different cultural values, I found captures of the interaction between people of different cultures wanting. Memorizing all the cultural dos and don’ts feels limiting and exhausting. Knowing that Chinese are more collectively oriented than Americans, who are more individualistic, doesn’t address how to work with these differences. So, into the deep I went.

sky on fire

The traditional survey questionnaire provides a veneer of “objectivity;” researchers keep the subjects at arm’s length for fear of the intrusion of biases, from both the researchers and the subjects. But as my friend and professor, Kewyn Smith, pointed out, the very term “subject” is denigrating. It’s as if the subjects are some simple vessels from which we, the researchers, just extract needed information. To really understand the perspectives of the researched, or the respondents, the researchers need to first establish relationships, where there is give and take. Otherwise, why would perfect strangers reveal their deeper reflections?

My first lesson on cross-cultural differences between American entrepreneurs and Chinese entrepreneurs (who had been in the States anywhere from less than 10 years to more than 20 years…I interviewed some 20 people in my pre-case study phase) was that that Americans were a lot more willing to participate in my study than Chinese. Americans were also more ready to reveal their business operations and principles than Chinese. With Americans, the quality of my relationship with them was an important factor in but not necessary for the case studies, while with Chinese, the nature and the quality of my relationship with them were both important and essential for case study access.

I was also keenly aware that I was a lot more comfortable with interacting with Americans than with Chinese, having been in this country for more than a decade by then.ElenaY_003

Knowing my own “biases” helped me understand how to better approach the potential Chinese respondents as their levels of comfort with American (and Chinese) cultures varied widely. Some found my American-ness refreshing, and others were wary of my relative indifference to the Chinese norms. To navigate through these cross-cultural currents, I had to be sharply and constantly aware of my own thoughts, behaviors, and emotions.

If I found my American interviewee/respondent too “chatty and revealing,” I asked myself if my judgment came from my Chinese tendency to be reserved or whether I should be suspicious of the interviewee “spinning” the information. If my Chinese respondent seemed hesitant or to put up a wall, I wondered if being more American on my part would make it better or worse. Doing this qualitative study was a lot more challenging than designing questionnaires, inputting the numbers, and conducting statistical analysis –by which, I am not implying that doing quantitative study is easy; it’s just that by then, I had done plenty such quantitative surveys in my career.   (This is one of the reasons why I have written frequently in this space arguing the difficulties of handling “soft” dimensions at workplace, and the relative ease with which to absorb measurable features.)

In addition to use of “self as an instrument,” an equally important tool to minimize the biases in gathering and analyzing qualitative data is triangulation. As a researcher, when I interview a respondent, I am bound to have some internal emotional reactions, whether it’s about culture, educational background, gender, or any other topics. If I find myself siding with one particular respondent’s point of view, I need to keep finding other respondents with different perspectives till I no longer feel more vested in one particular respondent’s view than in another’s. That’s as objective as I can get.

How does this relate to management? In a sense, it’s what I have always argued: That each manager needs to be highly self-aware in his relationship with each and every one of his direct report, colleagues, and higher-ups. A manager cannot assume that she is always fair and objective to everyone around her. Robots can; humans can’t.

whisky

So, how can managers develop self-awareness?

For example, of all the management  education courses I have been involved in (teaching and/or observing), I think the experiential type is generally the most powerful and sustaining in the lessons learned. So, I would propose a course in which participating managers are required to conduct interviews on a certain topic, say, “performance evaluation.” Have them collect data on people’s reactions on this topic, and record their own emotions, reactions, and judgment… I’ll bet that the data on the topic would be enlightening, and the data on “self” would be revealing.

I hope this essay has clarified my methodology. As always, I welcome your feedback.

Till next time,

Staying Sane and Charging Ahead.

Direct Contact: taso100@gmail.com

Color Codes Should Be Used Only For Sorting Materials

At this time of the year – the anniversary of my coming to the States — I am particularly reflective of my immigrant experience, an exercise that’s made more poignant lately. I came to the States decades ago to join my family, to finish my undergraduate degree, and to begin my journey of becoming a “Chinese-American.“ But I always feel more like a citizen of the world. And ironically, the root for the feeling lies in the conflict between Mainland Chinese and Taiwanese-Chinese in the little island of Taiwan.

I embody that turmoil because my father was a Taiwanese and my mother was a mainland Chinese. This difference was the seed of a horrendous and convoluted family saga, which taught me the art of occupying two, sometimes diametrically, different worlds simultaneously. Later, the need to straddle separate identity worlds has included not just Chinese-American but also business-academician, qualitative-quantitative methodologist, social scientist-artist, introvert-extrovert, etc. These all have contributed to my spurning the simplistic either-or worldview.

From childhood on, I have been keen on holding multiple perspectives, understanding opposing sides. This doesn’t mean that I don’t have my own strong opinions or affiliations, but I have always thought that our loyalty to only our villages, provinces, states, schools, (extended) family tribes, or nations can become a huge stumbling block to reaching out, understanding “the others,” or working with differences. Of course, there have been many lessons, missteps, blunders, in my development and I expect them to continue for the rest of my life.

taking fly

I go into this long-winded introduction to relate the following story.

During my first semester at the Western Michigan University – two months after immigrating to this country — I was lucky to encounter a sympathetic professor in my communication course. He often invited me to his office to “just talk.” It was much later that I realized that those “talks” were probably akin to psychoanalytical sessions. He was helpful; those hours were a great outlet for my confusion, frustration, uncertainties, and connections. But one day, he put me on the spot: He asked me to share with the class my experience as an immigrant. I don’t remember much of what I said, but probably indicated a degree of loneliness, despite living with one of my sisters and her roommates (they were her friends but were friendly to me).

Before my soliloquy, a classmate had approached me once to invite me to join him at a club where he played jazz piano. I was confronted with two obstacles, one being my unfamiliarity with jazz at that time, but greater was his being an African-American. In addition, at that point in my life, I had hardly dated, and had little knowledge about black Americans (unless you count TV and movies). I had no clue of how to handle his invitation. I only thought, “Oh, boy, how would my family react to my hanging out with a black guy?” So I demurred and turned down his invite. After my small outpouring in the class, the very same friendly African-American young man came to me, and mildly accused me of dishonesty; after all, he had extended his gesture of friendliness and I had turned him down. Again, I don’t remember my response. I only remember my deep mortification afterwards, and shame even years later. It simply didn’t matter whether my excuses were valid; I screwed up.

Sometimes, black & white can be intriguing as well.

Sometimes, black & white can be intriguing as well.

Here is an aspect of cross-cultural and inter-racial conflict that Asians rarely openly admit. A great many Asians, mostly older generation, have a profound bias against black Americans. I use “black Americans” because that’s how we still refer them in Chinese. And over the decades, I have often overheard Chinese use a Chinese epitaph to describe this population, or witnessed not-all-that-subtle disdainful expressions on their faces toward the few black people on the streets, in the malls, or other public domains. The fact that younger generations (particularly those born in the States), from Gen Y forward, have forsworn such racist attitude brings me only small comfort. The fact that I have since made quite a few close friends with African-Americans, men and women, still doesn’t mitigate my shame every time I remember that exchange at WMU.

After one year at WMU, I transferred to Michigan State University. Being on my own opened my eyes even more.

Fast forward. At one Academy of Management (AOM) annual meeting in the mid- 90s, where I attended a special symposium on diversity, the focus was the usual black-and-white interactions and conflicts. During a momentary lull – which was rare, being the only Asian in the room I piped up: “From my perspective, at least the black and white populations are talking with each other. The conversations may be unpleasant and downright hostile at times, but there are interactions. I don’t ever encounter such discussions between Asians and African-Americans.” The room went very quiet for a second or two. Then the chair of the symposium, my dear professor-friend at Wharton, semi-teased, “As usual, Elena’s wisdom brings us a different perspective.” I wanted to dig a hole and drop myself in it, but I was heartened to note that the tone of the conversation after that moment became more relaxed and more constructively animated.

That moment at the AOM reminded me of “The Functions of Social Conflict,” by Lewis Coser. When two groups are in deep conflicts, sometimes, introducing a superoridnate goal toward which both groups can find common ground to work would temporarily unite the groups. Or, the presence of a third group can often divert the two original groups’ tensions so that they may see possibilities for meaningful interactions.

santa ana b&w

The recent racial tension and anti-immigrant sentiment in this country as well as in Europe have saddened me profoundly. I don’t know how I would have coped if I had been in the States during WWII (you know, all Asians look alike, even though Japanese were the mortal enemies of Chinese in that war). I sometimes wonder if we, the collective, will ever learn. So, at times like this, I tend to be more inward-looking than usual and hope in my small ways to offer different perspectives.

To my old classmate at WMU: I am so sorry to have misread your kind intention and rejected your friendly gesture. And I thank you for being honest and thereby teaching me a valuable lesson.

Till next time,

Staying Sane and Charging Ahead.

Direct Contact: taso100@gmail.com

Some Intangibles Lead to Solid Successes

In the previous Post, I related a story of how a Google’s team leader’s revelation of his terminal cancer opened up a doorway for his teammates to share their respective vulnerabilities. This ultimately made the team more cohesive than it might have been otherwise. The risk of stepping out of one’s comfort zone is a crucial part of quality leadership – the risk lies in the uncertainty whether one’s opening up would be reciprocated or dismissed as weakness – and is one of the key elements of building trust.

But what is “trust?” It’s one of those soft features that is amorphous, difficult-to-impossible to measure, and awfully subjective. It’s kind of “if it walks like a duck and quacks like a duck…” Yet, the concept is often talked about and frequently demanded in organizational life. I think one of the best ways to appreciate trust is through its manifestations. There are examples galore, such as, when an orchestra performs beyond precision and captures the heart and soul of the audience; it’s a sign that the orchestra members trust their conductor, and the audience trusts the orchestra. Or, when members of a military unit gave the leader their precious rationed food while under siege because that very leader always let his men eat first in the field (often, with nothing left for that leader). Or, during the economic downturn, an owner or a CEO would share the pain of cutbacks with everyone, instead of laying off people, per “Standard Operation Procedure.” You can hear all of these in the TED Radio Hour, episode “Trust and Consequences.”

sea fans 2

Most of the time, “trusting someone” doesn’t always involve weighty acts or actions that lead to momentous outcomes. Managers and leaders have to take time to gradually build up trust with their direct reports, such as the situation for orchestra conductor. This is especially true in ordinary organizational life, where most activities and events are mundane, typically not requiring dramatic trustworthy gestures on the manager’s part. Further, since establishing causality in the social world is terribly difficult, many mangers may not view trust as a big deal. Yet, during crisis – time of drama – it’s the managers/leaders with a small trust fund who have difficulties navigating the troubled waters. And these are the managers who constantly face crises.

The precursor of trust is feeling safe. Feeling safe with colleagues, with supervisors, with direct reports may manifest differently depending on the issues, but usually they touch upon our vulnerability. In order for innovation to occur, employees need to feel safe experimenting with ideas, even (especially?) ideas that are revealed to be “failures.” In combat, soldiers need to know they have each other’s backs. Even in the mundane family setting, we like to feel safe in that our families would accept us regardless of whether they understand us. So long as our mistakes are not colossally stupid – what John Cleese describes as, “spelling rabbit with three ‘M’s” – we shouldn’t be judged “incompetent” immediately upon making some mistakes.

Of course, I am speaking in general terms. I am sure there are volumes written on these topics.

abstract1I recently learned about this story: In a lunch concert with the Amsterdam Concertgebouworkest conducted by Riccardo Chailly, pianist Maria João Pires experienced a couple of minutes of “shock, denial, anger, depression, and finally acceptance.”  (check out the “Performance Today” Facebook, June 28th, 2016…for some reasons, I couldn’t get the link work)  Pires prepared for a Mozart piano concerto which turned out not to be what the orchestra started playing. Fortunately (if one could even use such a word), the concerto the orchestra was playing (#20 by Mozart) has a 2½ minute lead time before the piano kicks in. I can only imagine what Ms. Pires’ internal turmoil must have been like. She had a couple of whispered exchanges with the conductor during that lead time, to the effect, “This isn’t what I prepared for.” Conductor: “Yes, you can do it.” Ms. Pires even put her face in her hands a couple of times. Oh, the despair.

Yet…yet, when the time came for the entrance for the piano, Ms. Pires hit the first few notes tentatively, then seamlessly, and went on to finish the whole concert “beautifully,” as Fred Child related the story in a “Performance Today” episode.

When I watched the video (viral on YouTube), even knowing the happy ending of the story, my breaths were shallow and I felt the pounding of my heart. The closest scenario for my profession might be standing at the podium to begin a seminar when the first slide indicates a different topic. But that’s nowhere near the live-or-die career-facing moment that Ms. Pires went through.

While the drama was all shown in Ms. Pires’ body language, the subtle yet equally critical execution lay with the manager-leader, the conductor Chailly. The managerial decision was whether to go on with what the orchestra was playing, or, interrupt and address the “mistake.” If the latter, what then? Hope that the orchestra knows the piece for which Ms. Pires had practiced? The leadership decision by Chailly was to inspire Ms. Pires to go on with the concerto in progress, and to trust her repertoire and her talent. Should Ms. Pires have failed, Chailly would have worn egg on his face for quite some time.abstract 2

An above-average manager makes “good” decisions of which the beneficial outcomes spread widely, internally as well as externally. And clearly, we can only judge the quality of the “outcomes” in hindsight. This is where management’s track record comes into play. That record is bound to show some mistakes here and there…but usually not of the colossal type (e.g. not spelling rabbit with three ‘M’s). An excellent manager works to so inspire people that during a crisis, and/or when a decision leads into an uncertain exercise, her people will have developed enough trust in her to rally behind her. Thus a good manager who can inspire his people becomes a trustworthy leader.

In light of yet another horrible, terrible, no good, and very bad week of killings, the eroding trust between law enforcement officers and citizens is laid bare for the world to witness. In such an atmosphere my musings on trust almost seem trite and pedestrian. However, in everyday organizational life, we must keep the lights on. So, perhaps, this is the period during which we should be even more attentive to keep sowing the seeds of trust.

 

May we all attain that peace of mind. Till next time,

Direct Contact: taso100@gmail.com