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Immigration: compassion and logic are not mutually exclusive

Americans like to say: This country was founded on immigrants; immigration is the bedrock of American democracy. Yet, throughout our history, we’ve repeatedly, without seemingly learning a lesson, used various immigrant groups as scapegoats for whatever collective insecurity we feel at the time. Italians, Irish, Chinese, Japanese, Jews, and now Mexicans. And of course there are the equally suspicious people from certain Islamic countries.

What was said about the Jews fleeing Europe in the late 1930s are the same complaints we lay against the current influx of South Americans: “We can’t afford them.” “They bring problems here.” “They won’t assimilate.” During WWII, without some of those Jews, we’d not have made the atomic bombs (whether that’s good or bad is a different topic). So now we demand “high skill” for the latest immigrants. Is practicing humanity based on hierarchy of skills? When we finally allowed the fleeing Jews to immigrate into this country, we didn’t know that some of their backgrounds and skills could have become important assets. Many of the descendants of the Chinese coolies are now scientists, doctors, lawyers, professors, etc. Desperate people don’t usually dress properly, speak our language fluently, or score high on SAT.

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Mr. Trump won the presidency largely by stoking some Americans’ fears of immigrants and then amplifying these fears to encompass all refugees. Mr. Trump is not one for nuances, intelligent analysis, or facts; nor is he known for compassion. His policy – and yes, the separation of the asylum seekers’ families is ALL his – of taking children away from parents at the border is the apogee of 21st Century ugly Americanism. Compounding this was his lie that Democrats started this “policy.” During the short period of separating families at the border, the officials defending this policy changed positions/stories 14 times!

“We are not taking children from their families.”

“We are doing it, but the Democrats made us do it.”

“We don’t want to do this, but the law makes us do it, we cannot stop it.”

“We are doing it, and it’s ok because of what the Bible says.”

“When you prosecute the parents for coming in illegally, which should happen, you have to take the children away,” (Trump).

“I want to stop this but the Democrats aren’t letting me, it’s their fault.” (Trump).

Remember when Trump said that he knows the best and he “alone can fix the problem?” For those who support him and like his “telling like it is,” accept his words at the face value. Now, explain why he can’t fix this problem…

In the end, magically, Trump found power to sign an executive order to stop the separation. But because of the lack of forethought, or any thoughts, the families that are scattered all over the country are not likely to be reunited anytime soon, despite a judge’s order. This chaos stems from the lack of coordination and procedures among agencies involved in this operation. Staff members or advocates have been severely strained to trace and connect these broken souls. Read Jonathan Blitzer’s first-encounter reporting in the New Yorker, or, listen to the interview on Fresh Air.

indian painting brush 1According to the latest survey commissioned by CNN, two-thirds of the Americans overall object to the policy of family separation while the majority of Republicans supports it. Let. That. Sink. In. Even the outgoing Republican senator from Tennessee, Bob Corker said, “This is cultlike.” Once again, New York Times’ Charles Blow’s eloquence speaks to me: “Not even the sight of devastated families could move the party that once called itself the party of family values. Not even the idea of ‘tender age’ internment camps for babies could move the party built on the protection of ‘unborn babies.’”

Why do immigration issues feel so raw for so many people? It’s scapegoating combined with fear-based assertions; it appeals to people’s emotions rather than reasons. I would like to unpack some of the tangled web using facts and logic.

First and foremost are the issues of jobs and economy.

The jobs typically filled by “unskilled” immigrants include farm labor (formerly called “stoop labor”), cleaning, or odd jobs for construction. So far, some of the farms that have relied on low wage labor have experienced damaged produce owing to lack of laborers.  Have we seen a rush of Americans filling these jobs?

There is a severe shortage of truck drivers, and companies even offer higher wages, often with sign-up bonus, and/or other perks, yet cannot fill the openings. Of course, no illegal immigrants can apply without a valid driver’s license, so where are the Americans crying for better-paying jobs?

Some tech industries are looking for skilled workers, but most Americans don’t seem to possess the required skills. Whose fault is that? (Related question: “How is Trump’s Department of Education driving improvements in the skill set of our future workforce?” Answer: “Gutting our public school system.”)

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In a “true” market, to attract Americans to their jobs, companies would adjust their wages – i.e. raise them high enough to be attractive. To use either “illegal” or “e-verify” is a strategy to suppress wages. From another perspective, why do we allow companies to cross the border to seek low-cost production means but cry foul if people try to cross border to seek better economic opportunities? This is simply “corporate welfare” to which we’ve been blind.

Once again, it’s much easier to scapegoat “others/outsiders” than to confront the big corporations who happen to have much more control over our social narratives through their political beneficiaries, i.e. local and national politicians, and media. The illegals just want to work, and they have to remain silent.

As for how immigration affects the greater economy: An internal government report, commissioned by the Trump administration, states that refuges brought $63 billion more tax revenue over the past decade than they cost the government. I wonder why that report hasn’t been tweeted about? or, widely circulated? Previous economic studies all point out that immigrants may cost more during their first year in the States, but they contribute significantly to the economic growth during the subsequent years.

In the next post, I will touch upon issues of: Border (including walls), National Security, Crimes, and Moral Standards/Humanity. Till then,

May the 4th of July bring you peace and joy.

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“Fake It Till Make It” – Part II

In “Part I” I focused on “Adopting Power Posture to Feel Powerful”, and never thought I’d revisit the issue again. My previous post was largely based on Amy Cuddy’s research and TED talk in which she posits that a two-minute Wonder Woman’s power posture, hands on hips, would cause a spike in one’s adrenaline to accompany the assertion of confidence, which in turn leads to greater willingness to take risks in subsequent behavior. Many followers of her TED presentation have commented that the power posture really works and has helped them build their confidence. Her paper was published in 2010; her TED talk was in 2012, and her career subsequently soared in the areas of public speaking and consulting all over the world.

Since then, the field of social psychology – Cuddy’s professional base – has gone through a paradigm shift urging new guidelines for methodology that are much more rigorous. The champions of this shift, one of whom went to Princeton with Cuddy, challenged the field’s decades-long research practices for relying too much on convenience and tolerance of personal biases (thinking they are immaterial and wouldn’t affect research outcomes), and profoundly lacking in replication of studies. (Reinforcing this last point, journals have not been welcoming of “replication” articles.) These reformers suspected that most studies confirmed researchers’ hypotheses – false positive — and were insufficiently subjected to follow-up studies that would support or refute these confirmations.

This was a huge warning to the field of social psychology (and likely other branches of social sciences). The initial hostile reactions to the reformers’ challenge became louder and messy dynamics ensued. Dr. Cuddy’s work got ensnared in the back-and-forth. While there have been a few other prominent scholars whose studies have been questioned, none seemed to have suffered the same degree of browbeating and crashing of a promising career as Dr. Cuddy has. She has since withdrawn her tenure submission from the Harvard Business School.

The crux of the criticism of Dr. Cuddy’s initial work, the research on power pose, was: (1) the sample size of 42, 21 pairs of power pose and non-power pose, was too small, (2) the measurement of testosterone and cortisol levels was imprecise and/or inaccurate, (3) the danger of false positive results was not adequately addressed, and (4) at least one replication study done by a different researcher demonstrated that Dr. Cuddy’s power pose conclusion was weak at best.

My initial reaction to Dr. Cuddy’s power pose study was a sense of disquiet – for instance, can such a surge in confidence be sustained long enough to be beneficial? It was largely based on some philosophical considerations (see my previous post on the topic). The methodological issue is much more consequential; yet, the ensuing quarrels in the field have largely taken on philosophical, attitudinal, or social dimensions, and even touched on professional etiquette, far-removed from what a “simple” technical forum would entail. Personally, I think this reflects the messy nature of most social topics (consider the current storm regarding sexual assaults and harassments…or more mundane stuff like “performance evaluation”). I still think there is a lot of validity in the semi-jest term “physics envy” for describing social sciences.

A good portion of the ugliness in the criticism of Cuddy’s work came in the form of blogs and other social media. The three reformer-researcher-authors have their own blog, http://www.datacolada.org, that focuses on methodological and statistical issues, of which Cuddy’s work was one entry that has attracted readers across different disciplines. I understand and appreciate anyone who, in today’s internet-centric world, desiring more direct feedback and generating more discussion, takes it to blog format; however, there is a tendency for relaxed decorum in such a format. As one professor points out, “Because of social media and how it travels – you get pile-ons when the critique comes out, and 50 people share it in the view of thousands. That’s horrifying for anyone who’s critiqued, even if it’s legitimate.” (from New York Times Magazine article) Even one of the three authors for data colada, Joseph Simmons, who attended Princeton with Amy Cuddy, thought the treatment and criticism of Dr. Cuddy’s power-pose research has been unfair; after all, “the original study wasn’t particularly egregious. It was published in 2010 before anyone was thinking about this [the subsequent methodological revolution].”

It is difficult to objectively assess why Cuddy’s work was made to be the “poster child” for the criticism, especially without a rigorous study to survey professional reactions to Dr. Cuddy’s work and to compare the treatments of other top researchers’ pre-revolution studies. Even if we could do such a study, can we replicate it?! Sarcasm aside, I personally find the pile-on treatment particularly troubling. It is understandable that we all would defend our data, our methods, and our findings, for as long as possible; however, if enough subsequent evidence ultimately leads to a contradictory conclusion, no matter how uncomfortable for us personally, we learn to yield and move on. (This is the core of the scientific method and indeed the entire Scientific Revolution: We learn to accept the conclusions demanded by evidence.) Dr. Cuddy has grudgingly acknowledged her initial study’s flaws and tried to move on, so, why the personal attacks? Perhaps for social scientists themselves, it is not so easy to separate the work from personality, and for critics of social science, it’s much more fun to not even try?

While I was not a big fan of the power-pose study, it was intriguing. Now that I understand how weak the results are, I am fine with using the study as a springboard for further discussions. I simply do not understand why there is, and I emphatically deny any need for, adolescent rudeness and an infantile lack of decorum on social media in critiquing/attacking others’ work. Academics who would otherwise observe professional courtesy and standards in writing for journal publications become brutal, arrogant, and almost bullying on Facebook, Twitter, blog (personal or professional), or whatever form du jour.

It’s understandable that Cuddy’s research got the lion’s share of scrutiny – the bigger the reputation, the bigger the target – yet, it’s ironic that the very movement that tries to steer away personal bias seems driven by personal bias (why did they choose Cuddy’s work to focus on? Was it purely based on the hyperbolic reception of the work rather than the offending execution of the work?). It’s easier to target the most noticeable mistake, rather than the most egregious. So, these critics just threw their darts at an obvious target (TED talk has that effect, especially when it’s the second most popular one) rather than first making systematic assessment, say of other previous well-known studies. Isn’t that the very definition of selecting data based on convenience?

After finishing reading New York Times’ expose of this whole saga, all I can think of is: We sure like to scapegoat others for the very attribute for which we can be just as flawed. Shakespeare’s Hamlet scolds his mother for this: “Lay not that flattering unction to your soul, that not your trespass but my madness speaks.”

I used to feel apologetic for ending an article in a negative tone, and especially so close to our end-of-year holiday seasons. Times have changed…

 

Staying Sane and Charging Ahead.

Direct Contact: taso100@gmail.com

When Tough Men Can Cry Openly…

Why do we take our emotional well-being for granted? We talk a lot about “taking care of” it, but do we do as much about it as we talk? The phrase “mental hygiene” is apropos, but the premise of this metaphor conjures up a gross feeling, like, flossing teeth or basic grooming (yet, what’s wrong with doing these acts?!). (The phrase also belittles the complexity of our mind, as if it could be cleaned in a quick ritual act after each meal.) Of course, someone’s emotional/mental mess may be something easily shrugged off in another person. I think that’s part of the problem; the yardstick against which we evaluate our emotional situation and mental state is a fluid measure. When do we know we really need to do some serious mental flossing? When can we get away with a little tooth-picking? Gross…well, we’d better deal with it.

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Thanks to a friend who sent me a link to an Invisibilia” episode in which the focus was on suppressed emotions and forced “positive” attitude. According to the program’s website, “Invisibilia (Latin for invisible things) is about the invisible forces that control human behavior – ideas, beliefs, assumptions, and emotion.” The two stories in this episode explored whether it’s possible to change habits of an entire group of men and to alter a deeply-rooted cultural behavior. The former story took place on a Shell’s deep-water oil drilling rig, Ursa, the size of about two football fields. The latter took place in the first McDonald’s in Moscow.

Most of us are probably ignorant of the nature and degree of danger for oil rig workers. Seeing deaths of colleagues is not uncommon, while physical challenge and injury are common. The culture among oil rig workers is one of ultimate stoicism and hypermasculinity. No show of emotions, even upon witnessing a death; keeping the work process uninterrupted is the key. Most men carry the same bottled-up emotional practice at home as well. Would the practice for regular oil rigs work just as well for an unprecedented deep water drill? In 1997, the first deep water drilling, 4,000 ft deep, even for the experienced oil workers was “like going from Earth to Mars.” The typical 20-person crew for a regular rig would swell to more than a hundred for Ursa, with all the potential hazards and dangers increasing exponentially.ursa-1_custom-8358af5fba589f61d21864036b6ce4551c33fa4b-s900-c85

The main character in the oil rig story, Rick, was put in charge of Ursa. “He was stressed at home, barely able to speak to a son who was about to leave for college. He was stressed at work, in charge of a giant, really complicated venture that he didn’t know how to tackle. Things felt like they were spinning out of control.” Rick’s saving grace was that deep down he suspected and sensed that something was out of kilter and that he didn’t know what to do.

When the student is ready, the teacher will come.

Out of blue, a “crazy one-eye lady” made a cold call to Rick and offered to work with him on leadership issues. Claire Nuer, now deceased, heard about Ursa and thought that she could offer something useful. Rick accepted a meeting and they talked, through an interpreter mostly since Nuer spoke little English; her native language was French. Rick began the meeting with the typical business of scheduling, planning, production, etc. Claire cut him off with “…if you just don’t tell people you’re scared, you’re not going to create safety together.” That caught Rick’s attention. One can bottle up one’s emotions, fears in this case, only for so long. It would work well…only for so long. One might even coast along on another smaller rig, the old familiar environment…only for so long. When all emotions have no outlet for relief, something has to give. At home, Rick was risking losing his emotional ties with his family, and at work, the risks wouldn’t just be Rick’s “incompetence” in managing, but the potential injuries and/or deaths of some colleagues.

So, who was Claire Nuer? She was a leadership coach, founder of Learning As Leadership. Based on new age Est’s method, popular in the 70s and draconian to many, digging deep into one’s emotions to lay the foundation for healing and emotional well-being. The typical Est experience was a day-long encounter (well into 10 or 11PM) that often made grownups cry (by itself, there is nothing wrong with that). Claire and her husband fashioned something similar in their business, mostly breaking down business executives.

Eventually, Rick joined Claire’s sessions, usually conducted through translation. Since Rick’s motivation was largely his broken tie with his son, he even persuaded his son to join him for an encounter session. That session lead to a 180-degree turn for Rick and his son. That was enough for Rick to get his men from the rig involved.

Now, when a boss wants you to do something outside of work, in this case personal development for the better productivity of the team, even when the offer is on a voluntary basis, you take it, however reluctant and dubious you may feel. So, most of the rig workers went; a few refused to do some of the exercises, and remained skeptical. However, those who were more willing to participate ultimately learned to show their vulnerability, and couldn’t say enough good things about the outcomes, not just about work, but more so about their personal lives. Most of these sessions took place while they were waiting for the completion of the rig construction that took 18 months.

During the few long days of sessions (from 6AM – 11PM on some days), these super macho tough guys gradually broke down, cried, shared their stories and feelings… Even the ones who thought “I’ll just reveal a little…” couldn’t stop once they began the process. I understand these principles, but it did creep me out a bit when I read that they eventually managed to overcome revulsion and massaged each other’s feet, demonstrating deep trust. (Author’s note: In many of these intense workshops, participants are required to do things they would normally eschew. Breaking down old boundaries is an important foundation. While I am not totally against some of these exercises, I always find it obnoxious that participants have to behave according to the program’s demands. I mean, there have to be other ways of showing trust. Yes?)

The efforts and money paid off. The accident rate at Shell fell by 84%, and the productivity exceeded the previous industry record. The energy that formerly preserved the hyper masculine norm was now invested in working together, sharing technical information. Instead of fearing to show lack of knowledge or admitting mistakes, the new refrain of “I need help” made the work process much smoother.

All the converts to the new culture openly admitted that as they become more themselves, they like themselves better. “The old way is no fun.”

Darn it, when it comes to story telling, I just cannot economize and fit all the themes and nuances in one post. I will conclude in the next post the changing cultural habits for some Russians who wanted to work for McDonald’s. Till then,

Staying Sane and Charging Ahead.

Direct Contact: taso100@gmail.com

 

 

 

 

 

On “Doubt”…This time, doubt was addressed with evidence

The second crime story of the “Anatomy of Doubt”  of This American Life took place in Colorado in 2011, two years after the crime against Marie of Lynwood, a suburb of Seattle (see previous post). In Colorado, there was a series of three rapes, which took place in three locations in close proximity. The lead detectives of at least two of the three cases were female and a crime analyst providing one piece of key (in retrospect) information was also a female.

I highlight the female part because I think it’s relevant in rape cases. In addition, one of these two female detectives, Stacy Galbraith, had handled at least 50 rape cases by the time of this story.

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The latest victim of Galbraith’s case was unusual; the young graduate student didn’t show much emotion while being interviewed right after the assault. She also managed to notice quite a few striking features of the perpetrator, partly because she chatted up with him afterwards: He traveled a lot; he spoke at least four languages; he talked about math, he had no problem finding girlfriends but disliked the consensual relationships; and most importantly, he has a birthmark of a size and shape of an egg on his leg. In addition, she noticed his height and weight, the pink Sony camera, and described him “gentleman, calm, and mannered,” even though she was raped at gunpoint, and was told to take a shower afterwards to wash off the DNA.

Detective Galbraith didn’t always understand her rape victims, some were more hysterical than others. However, the victims’ manner was never part of her investigation. When she discussed the case with her husband, a policeman, he mentioned the similarity to another case in his district. So, Galbraith contacted the other detective, also female, and their comparison of the cases revealed a large degree of overlap, with one notable difference, the other detective’s case had a theft component: A pink camera was stolen. Further, the other detective mentioned yet another similar case, in a neighboring county.  huntington 2

Five weeks into Galbraith’s latest rape case, there was a meeting of lead detectives of recent rape cases, officials from Federal, state, and local levels, and a crime analyst who presented information of suspicious vehicles in the vicinity of an attempted rape. When she showed a picture of a Mazda pickup, it caught Galbraith’s attention. Galbraith had seen only a fuzzy image of a pickup truck in a surveillance tape some time ago, but the coincidence struck her. Since this analyst had the pickup’s license plate — it belonged to a Marc O’Leary – it was their first break in the cases.

With FBI’s assistance, agents were sent to trail O’Leary while others went to his apartment to collect a DNA sample. What the team didn’t realize was that they had been trailing Marc’s brother, of similar build and appearance. When they thought Marc was out of the apartment, they knocked on the door before going in. The agents were taken aback by the person answering the door, the very Marc O’Leary who was supposed to be out. The agents quickly made up a convincing story: They were canvassing the neighborhood for a suspect, and even produced a photo of the person of interest.

In the meantime, the agents who were following Marc’s brother managed to collect the brother’s DNA from his meal at a diner. The DNA results showed that one of the two brothers committed these crimes, but was not conclusive. The birthmark would help.

Two days later, Galbraith and her team went to O’Leary’s place again, with a search warrant. While inside the apartment, she patted down Marc, and it just so happened that he was wearing a cargo pants. She could lift up his pant legs, and saw the egg-size birthmark.

Afterwards, Galbraith processed the gathered evidence; she encountered many images of his victims on a thumb drive. Most of these victims were from Colorado. And then, Galbraith saw a woman, gagged and bound, with a Washington driver’s license on her chest. It was Marie.

Marc O’Leary was convicted of five rapes, including the one in Washington, 2 months after Marie’s case, and 20 other felonies, and was sentenced to 300 years in prison.

Lynwood’s police chief personally went to visit Marie and apologized. Marie described,” They were just like, we’re sorry. We’re deeply sorry, you know, about what had happened to you. But it didn’t mean much to me at all.” Marie demanded a personal apology from her case investigator and she received it. She was reimbursed the $500 court fee (no interest?) and her record was wiped clean. She sued the Lynwood police and settled for $150,000. No one at the Lynwood police was disciplined.

Her apartment management? “Our hearts go out to Marie and her family. We strongly believe that Cocoon House and its employees acted appropriately on behalf of the client [Marie].” Wow. They were also sued and settled out of court.

Marie forgave both Shannon and Peggy, her foster parents, and remains friends with them. Shannon still cannot quite forgive herself. After the case was closed for Marie, Peggy, the one who reported her “doubt” to the lead detective in Marie’s case, said, “OK, now this is going to sound really bad, like I’m blaming the victim. But some of the way that she [Marie] was acting was part of the reason why it had the outcome that it did. And I am not the only person that didn’t believe her.” Wow!

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When doubt becomes certainty, it shouldn’t be considered “doubt” any more. By the time Peggy called Marie’s case detective, she was hoping someone could confirm her doubt. Voicing her “doubt” to someone, especially a figure of authority was a strong symbol for her; the doubt was off her chest and now became real. When the detective pursued Marie based on Peggy’s statement, he had no doubt in his mind about Marie’s guilt, and proceeded accordingly. When all hell broke loose on Marie, there did not seem to be any trace of doubt left in Peggy’s mind…hence her last words still put the onerous burden on Marie.

Doubt, a form of uncertainty, makes us uneasy and uncomfortable. It’s in our nature to minimize or erase doubt. There are gaps of information associated with doubt and uncertainty. In those moments, we tend to fill in the gaps with certain assumptions to generate a more-or-less complete story to ease our doubt. Since the assumptions come from our own worldview, lens, or logic, we usually are satisfied with the story we come up with, and feel little need to check those assumptions. What’s more interesting is that even when we want to check our assumptions, we tend to check with a third party rather than with the source of our doubt. So, Peggy called Shannon and they two commiserated with each other’s doubt; Peggy never checked with Marie directly.

I will get into a more full-bodied analysis next time. Till then,

 

Staying Sane and Charging Ahead.

Direct Contact: taso100@gmail.com

 

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.

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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.

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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

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.”

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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

Lessons From Google’s Group Dynamics

I might have given this example before, so please forgive me for repeating it. However, the lesson is worth repeating. Decades ago, someone did this experiment: He assembled a team of top engineers from across the globe, gave them the assignment of assembling the world’s best car, by taking best parts of the best automobiles. The result? The car didn’t even drive.

The same principle applies to team composition. Assigning the best people (by what criteria?) in an organization and putting them in a team almost guarantees a mediocre-performing team at best, or a losing team at worst. How to assemble a good-to-great team has bedeviled many practitioners as well as academics. I think one of the traps is our thinking that if we gather a bunch of talented people, they ought to work things out for the best…forgetting that team dynamics is not static. Ever. Hence, “dynamics.” Even the best-forming team can only hum along on a project for so long before something throws them off. And different projects evoke different emotional responses from members.

Sometimes it's fun to single out one cat for weird composition.

Sometimes it’s fun to single out one cat for weird composition.

It turned out Google also fell into the above erroneous assumption, “building the best teams by combining the best people.” However, being data-driven Google, they plunked down enough resources to learn about team, starting from researching the existing literature, consulting with internal and external experts, to gathering data on hundreds of teams among the 57,000 employees. The project was called “Project Aristotle” (PA).

As skilled in detecting patterns as Google is, the PA team didn’t see patterns emerging from the massive amount of data. It mattered little whether people shared similar values, similar professional backgrounds, or similar interests. The teammates of effective teams might socialize outside work, or they might not. Teams of almost identical make-up (“identical” on paper, in other words, in measurable features) would have very different levels of performance. The group comprising “smart” ones might work more efficiently than others, but the group of “average” employees seemed to know how to make the best out of everyone and create “sum larger than the parts” synergy.

Group dynamics have a way of messing with our heads…and emotions. And emotions play an important role.

When the Project Aristotle team dug deeper into the data, what they first tentatively grasped was that “norm” seemed to be the glue for group, regardless of the group performance. Norm is the unwritten, taken-for-granted rules that naturally emerge as a group coalesces around its identity. Another way of understanding norm is by breaking it, or imagining breaking it. The PA team leader wanted to push further and tried to understand what norms would guide a group toward a more synergistic whole and perform better than others, especially over time. The PA team finally hit the sweet spot of a good-performing team: When everyone in the team had a fairly equal opportunity to speak up, the team thrived. When someone, or a smaller subset of members, dominated the conversations – however brilliant their ideas might be – the group ultimately suffered.

An astute leader who could help the group navigate the conversation flow was a plus. And such leadership role didn’t have to reside with one person only. Situational leadership means that everyone can undertake the leadership role depending on the task at hand. For instance, during the task’s creation stage, someone who’s more comfortable with generating thoughts and ideas can take the lead role, and when the task moves into the execution stage, perhaps another person with better organization skills can step in.

All this hinges on the individual’s ability to “read” others’ emotions, mood, or temperament. This is the essence of emotional intelligence (EI) With little EI, group members might not feel comfortable stepping into the various leadership roles. To divvy up tasks for efficiency is relatively easier than to negotiate different roles without stepping into each others’ domains. Ultimately, though, a group’s manager needs to assume the emotional leader’s responsibility to know if the group is coherent, if it has a common goal, which group members might need more nurturing, and when to leave people alone.

Cats have their norms and group dynamics too.

Cats have their norms and group dynamics too.

One of the dramatic examples concerning Google’s search for creating the best team involved a team’s leader revealing his terminal cancer. When the group heard the news in a retreat, the members began to share with each other their own vulnerability. Obviously, everyone’s vulnerability is different. The point is that when a leader shows hers, she’s signaling that she’s willing to take the risk and trust her team. Not everyone is comfortable with such a tactic, but then, that’s how a leader demonstrates leadership qualities.

While Google’s efforts were admirable, most organizations don’t have the resources to expend on essentially experiential learning. On the other hand, experiential learning doesn’t need to be costly. On the fifth hand, not trying, not learning, not opening up would be costly…for individuals as well for organizations.

Enjoy your July 4th weekend. And be safe. I will resume after July 10th. Till then,

 

Staying Sane and Charging Ahead.

Direct Contact: taso100@gmail.com