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.

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Follow-up on Introvert-Extrovert

Introverts aren’t automatically shy; shy people aren’t always introverts. And there are shy extroverts, truly.

My articles on introversion-extraversion* seemed to have struck a nerve with many readers, particularly the introverts. Not a surprise, since by definition, introverts generally wouldn’t be compelled to speak up themselves. However, from various comments and conversations, I feel the need to clarify and distinguish between introversion and shyness. Of course, these two concepts overlap, but they are fundamentally different. In Susan Cain’s “Quiet,” which has provided much of the material for my articles, she explains the differences, “Shyness is the fear of social disapproval or humiliation, while introversion is a preference for environments that are not overstimulating. Shyness is inherently painful; introversion is not.” Her distinction is further articulated by a neuroscientist, “Shyness is a behavior; it is being fearful in a situation. Whereas introversion is a motivation; it is how much you want and need to be in those social interactions.”


Many people seem to have equated their feeling of inadequacy and awkwardness in social situations during their teenage years with introversion. As teenagers, about to enter into the adult social world — wholly different from anything they have known – it’s natural to feel uncomfortable interacting with adults. To further complicate the teens’ internal struggle for their nascent identity, the social codes of peers can also make them feel like outcasts, sometimes even among those “popular” ones. All this can overlap with true introversion. However, ultimately, it’s the feeling of joy in a solitary environment that partly defines introversion. If a teen feels that she has to adapt to solitude, that alone isn’t sufficient to establish that she must be an introvert.

Our struggles through our teen years sometimes can lead us to label ourselves erroneously. For the longest time, I would tell people that I have a very bad temper. It wasn’t till I was in my 30s, working on my PhD, when a fellow graduate student – a good friend – looked at me with exasperation in his voice, and asked, “Where in the world did you get that idea about yourself?” I paused, and answered, “My family.” From that “aha” moment, I have never since allowed that image to define myself.

My point is that there are always many nuances behind social concepts, labels, or principles.

Adam Grant, a professor at the Wharton Business School, demystifies “5 Myths About Introverts And Extroverts.” They are:

  1. “Extroverts are better salespeople than introverts
  2. Extroverts are better networkers than introverts
  3. Extroverts are better leaders than introverts
  4. Introverts are plagued by public speaking anxiety
  5. Extroverts get energy from social interaction, whereas introverts get energy from privately reflecting on their thoughts and feelings.”

All but one of Grant’s explanations resonates with me; it’s the last one and I’ll come to it later.

Bark of a skinny tree.

Bark of a skinny tree.

I have written about ambiverts being the best salespeople, and how the quieter and more understated level-5 leaders are more effective than charismatic or flamboyant ones; therefore, I need little convincing to accept that introverts can be quite effective in any social situations when they choose to. An introvert’s network may not be as extensive as an extrovert’s – and even this is debatable — yet the network offers diversity and quality connections, which are necessary for effective networking.

Feeling anxious in public speaking is more related to shyness than to introversion-extraversion. Susan Cain offers the example of Barbara Streisand as a shy extrovert and Bill Gates and a calm (or, non-shy) introvert. We can’t always tell the difference from appearances. A shy person may not feel comfortable speaking up in a meeting; an introvert simply may not feel compelled to speak in a meeting. Similar behaviors, but from different sources of being. I learned that the recently deceased David Bowie, whose groundbreaking stage performance was the equal part of his success as a rock star, for the longest time abhorred going on stage. His preference was to do the design and song writing but have someone else sing and perform. Who’d have thought?! Of course, there are countless examples of performers who have used performance to overcome their shyness.

The Quiet author, Susan Cain herself is both an introvert and a shy person, but you wouldn’t know from her TED talk – one of the top five most viewed. To overcome her anxiety for the TED talk, she employed a performance coach ahead of her scheduled talk, to teach her how to control her breathing, and critique her numerous trial runs. Now she’s one of the most engaged public speakers, traveling all over the world. And each presentation has helped her desensitize her fear and make her more at ease. So, one can overcome anxiety but one does not need to overcome and compensate one’s introversion.

The myth that I struggle with is the one where introverts recharge by being alone while extroverts rely on social interactions. What Grant points out is that we are all social beings, and introverts can gain energy from social interactions as well. Grant elaborates further:

  • “Introverts spend about the same amount of time with other people as extroverts, and enjoy it just as much.
  • When people are randomly assigned to act extroverted or introverted, extroverts and introverts alike experience greater energy when they talk more.
  • Extroverts report the most energy when they’re being talkative and assertive–but so do introverts.”
It's part of a gnarly tree trunk.

It’s part of a gnarly tree trunk.

Social beings need social interactions. True enough, then, what distinguish between introverts and extroverts? It’s the sensitivity to stimulation. So, all things being equal, introverts would get exhausted more quickly than extroverts in social interactions. Well…that negates all the points listed above. No? Personally, I question the application of the premise that “we are all social beings; we all fundamentally need to belong.” While the premise may be valid as a general principle, it does not necessarily hold for everyone, nor to the same extent.

Ultimately, regardless of one’s “types”– everyone possesses several — we aim to be at peace with ourselves.

Till next time,


Staying Sane and Charging Ahead.

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* According to Scott Barry Kaufman, “extrAversion” is more appropriate than “extrOversion” and accurate, most likely what Carl Jung would have intended. In principle, I probably should have used extravert, but that usage is almost non-existent, and so I will continue using extrovert. Academics!

How Much Anxiety Is Good For You? (or, bad for you?)

And do anxious people tend to be unhappy in general? While pessimists’ anxiety can drive some people nuts, optimists’ seemingly perpetual cheerfulness can wear others down as well. America is a society largely geared for positive and cheerful people, at least, that’s the direction toward which we like to push each other, similar to social norms over-representing extroverts.  Many Americans like the either-or perspective, certainly preferred over single-choice or neither-nor.

Since most social issues and dynamics are not black and white, it should not surprise anyone to learn that there is an upside for pessimism. It’s called “defensive pessimism.”  It works this way: When people fear certain situations or imagine unfavorable outcomes, they intentionally prepare themselves for these “bad” things. That preparation is their defense mechanism which often allows them to perform better than if they didn’t think about the situations at all. Of course, there is another way out of feeling anxious: taking the “flight” option rather than “fight.” However, avoiding an anxious situation altogether – the flight choice — is a defeatist attitude; that’s probably the abject and ultimate pessimist. I don’t think “Extreme Pessimists” reality show would ever come to reality.

Optimist or pessimist is irrelevant when installing Mr. Dale Chihuly's glass  artwork.  Be prepare is prudent.

Optimist or pessimist is irrelevant when installing Mr. Dale Chihuly’s glass artwork. Be prepare is prudent.

Of course, when people vocalize their anxiety or worry – and if they aren’t dismissed outright as “not quite competent” — they often get the response, “Oh, think positive.” That would definitely make me feel very punchy. People feel the way they feel, they can’t really help their feeling. What they can help is letting the feeling inform them what actions to take to ameliorate the situation that causes their anxiety. Quite often, “forcing” a cheerful attitude can bring about more anxiety than sitting quietly for a while. Seriously, we can no more force a pessimist to be more cheerful than we can force a cheerful optimist to take a downer, just as we can’t force an introvert to become an extrovert or vice versa.

This doesn’t mean that people, of various natures, cannot adapt and take actions of their own volition. Public speaking is most often cited example where people’s anxiety can be managed, or even channeled into becoming helpful. The pessimists’ defense mechanisms, by conjuring images of some of the worst possible scenarios such as possibly tripping over wires, helps the person to be more attuned to what lies around on the floor. Anticipating a computer breakdown, the anxious presenter may have some props ready to continue the talk. Practicing some “gracious” responses or retorts can calm one’s nerves. And worst comes to worst, if I really “fail,” I image ways of picking myself up.

All in all, being prepared, or more prepared, isn’t a bad strategy. What’s the downside? As I hinted previously, once you voice your anxiety, some may see you in a negative light; you just supply them with additional reasons to doubt you. But even for someone like Scott Stossel, editor of the Atlantic magazine, whose severe anxiety requires medication, careful preparation including well-timed medicine administration is a silver lining. And Mr. Stossel, according to his “My Age of Anxiety,” certainly has awesome anxieties, some of which are quite bizarre, like fear of one’s own vomit. Hmmm, chew on that idea!

Pessimists do not go moping about all the time; they smile sometimes and can possess a great sense of humor. Are they happy? Do they fear happiness?  I think these are strange, and quite frankly pointless, questions. Who is happy all the time? Happiness is an emotional state, which means it is not a constant. Even “happy people” doesn’t mean that they are happy all the time. And the pessimist, when preparedness brings about great outcomes, can be euphoric.

blue boat

For me, the lessons from reading some of the articles on “defensive pessimism” are: 1. The either-or perspective ignores nuances. We don’t operate optimally on an on-and-off mode. Human beings are quite complex, politicians excluded. 2. What works well for others may not work for me. The core of understanding what would work best for you is finding that fit. Pessimists spend a lot of time and energy “over-preparing;” it works for them. Others might prefer to punt as they go along; their preferred modus operandi works for them. Why should one way be automatically and universally “better” than the other? 3. True diversity is about allowing different ways of thinking and being.

Till next time,


Staying Sane and Charging Ahead.

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More Business/Management Myths, Or,

“It’s That Group Thing”… Some Like it; some avoid it, and everyone has issues with it.

Most organizations intend to improve their products and services.  If you are a manager, would you welcome one superb idea, or are you hungry for many more so-so ideas from which to choose?  If you have to choose, would you go for quality or quantity?  Given how much I detest dichotomous, either-or, framing, the answer to the above questions is – of course – “It depends.”

It depends on whether we are dealing with incremental improvement in a process, such as manufacturing operations, or with innovative breakthroughs that might lead to increased brand recognition or dramatic market share increases.  For the former, the organization aims for improved performance based on tweaking here and modifying there.  For the latter, the organization desires the “extremely” good idea that could dramatically change the organization’s market position.

And who better generates innovative ideas than a group of bright individuals, right?  After all, more minds spawn more ideas than individuals working alone.

Not so fast.

Rarely fly solo.

Rarely fly solo.

According to Girotra, K., Terwiesch, C, and Ulrich, K, in their recently published paper in Management Science, “Idea Generation and the Quality of the Best Idea,” a conventionally-formatted group, working together in the same space and time, generates less impressive outcomes than a “hybrid” team does.  Individuals in a hybrid team work on ideas alone first before they collaborate on improving the collection of ideas: assessing, selecting, and modifying.  These authors also confirm what others have pointed out over the decades, that brainstorming is not nearly as effective as it was first advocated in the late 50s.  Why?

In a typical group, people deal with not only free riding (see footnote below), but more importantly, the inhibitions they implicitly place on each other (“evaluation apprehension”).  There is always a tendency for groups to move toward a norm, and thereby discourage “wild” ideas. More often than not, group members “build onto” each other’s ideas…a useful technique for incremental improvement, but not so much for innovation.  What’s more, when one person is delivering her idea(s) in a meeting, others have to wait for their turns (“production blocking”).  It is not the most efficient way of spending one’s time.  And I am not even going to discuss the issue of introvert-extrovert, even though this dimension is bound to have impacts on group performance.

In their paper on idea quality, the authors highlight three flaws of previous studies on groups and innovation:

  1. Previous literature on innovative ideas has been focusing on the number of ideas generated by groups, assuming more ideas are likely to lead to better ideas.
  2. The traditional literature defines “quality” of innovative ideas by using average rating.  As the authors point out in their theoretic foundation, innovation is about the best ideas, not the average of ideas.
  3. In addition, often only a couple of research assistants rated the quality of ideas.  This practice makes both the validity and the reliability questionable.

So, the authors of the current paper provided a much more rigorous challenge and realistic scenario for participants on idea generation.  As for rating ideas, they used a “web-based” rating system so that each idea received on average 20 ratings.  They also introduced a “purchase-intent” survey for more realistic assessment.

The authors found that the hybrid team generated three times more ideas than the conventional team and that hybrid team’s best ideas were much better than the conventional team’s.

Granted, this study’s findings need to be replicated and confirmed before we should fully embrace the hybrid team concept.  However, the logic of the paper is sound, and the findings are strong.

Yes, I have biases; I especially like it whenever my suspicion is proven right or my preference is vindicated, as in this case.  Yet, studies like these also frustrate me because they remind me again of the disconnect between what we have known and what we have practiced in management.  For instance, tying CEO’s pay to company performance has not proven effective, yet we still have skyrocketing rises in CEO’s pay.  Brainstorming is not especially effective as conventionally done, yet we keep doing it.  We know that the relationship between teamwork and performance is tenuous at best, yet we still impose teaming as our first course of action.

Working alone most of the time, but does hang out with others occasionally.

Working alone most of the time, but does hang out with others occasionally.

Dan Pink’s talk on motivation, highlighting “autonomy, mastery, & purpose” as the incentives to bring about better productivity and results, might be too dramatic for most managers to embrace immediately.  However, forgoing brainstorming shouldn’t be that difficult.  As my M&M piece indicates, canceling a few meetings will win gratitude and likely bring about higher productivity.  Seriously, is there any danger to experimenting with the “hybrid team” model?  Why not try it and see for yourself?

Till next time,

Staying Sane and Charging Ahead.

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“Free ridership” is a problem that will probably persist in perpetuity.  Free riders occupy one end of the “bell curve” in the normal distribution.  A more pertinent question is, how much resources do we want to devote to detecting and monitoring them?  Granted if “free riders” increase over time, it is a problem.  However, we need to assess how many is too many?  Personally, I would much rather see organizations devoting resources to improving the work environment, thereby making the “free riders” problem almost insignificant.

A “New-ish” Niche For Intro-Extrovert: Ambivert

Obviously this personality type isn’t new but the term, ambivert, is relatively new.  Actually, the term has been around since 1920 but hasn’t been adopted widely; so, it’s new-ish.  On a scale of 1 to 7, 1 being extreme introvert and 7 being extreme extrovert, the ambiverts score 3,4, or 5.

Most of us have the preconceived notion that extroverts are perfect for sales jobs, whereas introverts are likely to be borderline disasters when trying to persuade people to buy things.  Hiring managers have largely followed this presumption as well.  But as Daniel Pink (whose Ted talk on motivation is one of my all-time favorites on social science and management) stated in a recent Washington Post article, “There’s almost no evidence it’s actually true.”  Social scientists have done many studies examining how personality impacts sales performance, and have found that the correlation between extroverts and sale records comes close to zero, as in “.007!”

Once again, managers practice opposite to what the evidence indicates.

In his article, Mr. Pink cited a study done by a Wharton professor comparing introverts, extroverts, and ambiverts sales records.  You would be right if you chose introverts’ record to be lowest, but you’d be wrong to think extroverts would fare much better than introverts, even if you now know enough to suspect that ambiverts would come out on top.   It turned that in this Wharton study (conducted by the youngest tenured professor, Adam Grant), while introverts did score the lowest sales, average $120/hour, extroverts only netted $125/hour.  That is not “much better,” wouldn’t you agree?  So, just how much better were ambiverts than the others?  By 24% over extroverts, at an average of $155/hour!  The best individual in this study, an ambivert, took in $208/hour.

Agility saves the day!  Or, the hide!!

Agility saves the day! Or, the hide!!

So, what’s so special about ambiverts?  Nothing we don’t already know.  They are the ones who are comfortable in keeping quiet when they need to be, and talk when they think the situation calls for it.  Extroverts don’t always know when to shut up, and introverts are, by definition, uncomfortable speaking loudly and forcefully.

For me, the interesting questions to contemplate are:

  • Why do we always assume a bi-modal distribution of, just about every dimension?  The bi-modal assumption takes on the “us vs. them” shade.  Such is the erroneous premise for competitiveness, which turns out to be NOT good for innovation and creativity.  In fact, Daniel Pink, in my favorite Ted talk, demonstrated that competition is a bad motivational stick.
  • So, might these three categories fit onto a normal bell curve of our population distribution?  Might ambiverts actually be at the peak of the bell curve, thus constitute the norm?  Or, are these three categories likely to be three distinctive modes, as in “tri-modal?”
  • What are the implications for organizations/management if extroverts are not always in the driver’s seat?

Do you have verifiable evidence to answer any of these questions?  Please share.

If I don’t post an entry for next week, that means I’ll be skiing down somewhere… Till whenever the next time,

Staying Sane and Charging Ahead.

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Can Creative People Implement/Execute Ideas?

Of course they can, depending on the circumstances and the nature of the creative project.  But I think there are profound differences between executing a creative idea for oneself, as a typical artist would do, and doing so for an organization.

Certain words just do not naturally go with “organizations”:   “sensible,” “creative,” “playful,” “awesome…,” etc.  As I mentioned in the last post, organizations, by definition, are about orderly matters, with routines, procedures, or control attached to status.  But most organizations still need occasional creative and innovative breakthroughs to grow.  And a step-change breakthrough starts with a creative or innovative idea.  But accomplishing implementation requires very different kinds of skills than the skills needed for generating creative ideas.  A research study suggested a pathway (mentioned in the previous post):  Idea-bearers need both motivation and networking skills to push through successful implementation of a creative idea.

Networking for a purpose needs intentional focus on the quality and the content of the network.  I propose using the “Team Dimensions Profile”  framework to examine the network composition.  (I am providing one link here, but please Google the term for more elaborate reviews.)  All diagrams below are taken from the “research report,” provided by Center for Internal Change, whose web link I provide above.  The pictures are fairly self-explanatory.

Basic Concepts

Basic Concepts


Whenever I use a framework that puts people in categories, I get a bit nervous. Categories are helpful in giving us anchors and information, but they can too easily be used to box people into overly-narrow portrayals, it being our human nature to latch onto labels that are tangible, convenient, or seemingly sensible, such as “introvert” and “extrovert,” or “executor” and “creator.” Yet categories are handy for analytical purposes.  So, for now, I will suspend my disquiet in order to make some points.

The four categories addressed in Team Dimensions, Creator, Advancer, Refiner, and Executor, are not mutually exclusive; I suspect all of us occupy at least two roles simultaneously, if not more.  However, most of us are naturally inclined to assume one role over the others.  Equally interesting is the comparison – and the inevitable discrepancy – between how we see ourselves and how others see us.

When working in a team, we should be allowed to tap into our best skill set, rather than employing our weak points.  Common sense?  But look around in your organization and see how seldom we achieve such fidelity.  Without intending to offend anyone, let me frame it in this way:  Why would we expect a dog to catch a mouse and a cat to meow an alarm at an intruder into the house?  Yes, odd things happen once in a long while, but I am talking about general probability.  Similarly, for example, why would we task an introverted “creator-refiner” to carry out “advancer-executor” work needing an extrovert’s networking capability?

I do not want to discourage people from learning and acquiring skills outside of their natural talents; however, that should take place when we are at leisure.  Most people face deadlines and pressures at work, and often in such environment, we work best when we are allowed to “swim with the current,” instead of against it.  The same point said differently:  Anyone can create and anyone can execute, but it’s a “creator” who will create even when s/he is working 60-hour weeks with no apparent bandwidth to accomplish anything extra, and it’s an “executor” who will multitask project execution while exercising over the lunch break.

Another example:  I have an artist friend who is extraordinary in creating, with words and with fabrics.  She is also a natural social scientist, methodical and organized in her own environment.  Recently, she was invited to join other artists for an intriguing educational program with local schools.  The program’s goal is to provide alternative and creative learning methods.  In this venue, not only did she have to collaborate with others, she also had to deal with aspects of administrative functions of large organizations.  It frustrated her no end!  It is reasonable and expected that even artists – usually individualistic in their expressions – need to work within perimeters of a program, but, shouldn’t they be allowed to employ their strengths within such boundary?  My friend was tasked to do something with words, but not in the format of poems that is the heart and soul to her.  Furthermore, the organizers’ design for the artists’ schedule resulted in a totally fragmented calendar, as if the artists don’t need time to work on their own projects during the semester.  Maybe some of these organizers are not really good at “execution of realities?”  Or, more likely, the organizers neglected to take into account the artists’ realities.

My point in describing this example is this:  If we invest time upfront in understanding people’s natural talents and ensuring a fit between their skills and the tasks, we will create a team much more likely to produce even under the stressful circumstances that are the new normal for our workplaces.  And when operations are smoother, we are less likely to waste time correcting mistakes and solving peripheral problems.

Applying the framework to the population

Applying the framework to the population

Categorizing people can be liberating when there is a great fit between people’s strengths and certain aspects of a task, but limiting when applied wrongly.  In the “team dimensions” framework, there is another insidious consequence of categorization:  We attach certain social values to each of the roles.  For example, in some organizations, we tend to value “creator” over “executor,” or “analytical skills” over “advancing skills.”  And in other organizations, the “sales/execution” gets the recognition over the “creative research.”  These are artificial values; they are socially constructed.  However, these biases impact how people push in certain directions, and how people win career advancement or financial rewards, regardless of where their true talents lie.

Finally, if a team ends up with more than half of its members loaded onto the execution side, this team may not grow quickly in generating new ventures.  Or, a team with a majority in the “creator” role will not advance easily to getting ideas off the ground.  I think the major challenges in forming a team using this “Team Dimension Profile” are:  Who’s going to decide the team’s composition?  What is to be done with the “excess” members of certain role(s)?  Do you have any suggestions?

Till next time,

 Staying Sane and Charging Ahead.

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Introversion Is Not Taught In Business Schools

In fact, introversion is deliberately marginalized at business schools.  One Harvard Business School (HBS) professor once said, “If a student talks often and forcefully, then he’s a player; if he doesn’t, he’s on the margin.”  At HBS, the culture is all about pursuing the extrovert dream: being forthright, being vocal, being a team player (or at least seen as such until seizing the opportunity to dominate the team), being outgoing, and acting confidently at all costs, or at least, seemingly so.  Extroverts thrive in such an environment.  The majority of introverts have managed to adapt to extroverts’ world, but at the end of the day, they are exhausted.

we are SO NOT alike, but we’ve managed to get along fine

Here are a few other tips for HBS students – and most likely for students at other B schools: (from Susan Cain’s Quiet)

“If you are preparing alone for class, then you’re doing it wrong.  Nothing at HBS is intended to be done alone.”

“Speak with conviction.  Even if you believe something only fifty-five percent, say it as if you believe it a hundred percent.”

“Don’t think about the perfect answer.  It’s better to get out there and say something than to never get your voice in.”

What’s your reaction upon reading these points?  Regardless whether they are for extroverts or introverts, I find both the tenor and the substance disturbing.  While there isn’t a “perfect” answer in social world –reality, after all, is socially constructed – saying something as if it’s 100% factual/right is tantamount to espousing ideology.  Not only there is no trace of humility in the above tips, it’s frowned upon if one doesn’t voice something, anything.

As for working alone?  The bulk of great inventions and innovations has been done by individuals working alone.  Imagine Newton wrestling with the newly discovered laws of “gravity” with three other scientists over tea!  Or Cavendish, who in 1797 used apparatus so exquisitely sensitive it could measure the force of gravity between small objects – including himself, so he used telescopes to read the forces remotely.  Exchanging ideas through publications or over the internet is a profoundly different experience from sitting in the same room with ten other people vying to come up with brilliant breakthroughs.

There is a fine line for leaders to act and speak confidently when facing uncertainty and to behave as if they have the ultimate answers to everything.  In the former, a wise leader with humility would listen to others’ points of views and ideas.  In the latter, the presumptuous leader thinks he cannot be wrong and therefore has little need for others’ input.

naturally diverse…and so beautiful

In this culture, we tend to attribute vocal people as having better ideas.  The louder they speak, the more attention they command.  One of Cain’s observations resonates with me strongly:  Assuming vocal people have the same number of ideas, both good and bad, as quiet ones, by giving more attention to the vocal people’s ideas, by definition, we bias our choices of ideas to execute with the bad ideas of the vocal contributors, at the expense of the good ideas that could have come from the quieter contributors had we the wit to listen.

In a simulation exercise at HBS, teams (of course) have to prioritize items in a survival kit after a crash landing in order to get through the days in the wilderness.   In one class, one of the teams actually had a member who had extensive training and experience in backcountry travel.  It turned out that what he recommended was exactly what the answers called for.  Did his team value this member’s expertise?  Of course not.  Why?  Because his voice was too soft!

Given our repeated history of financial meltdowns, accounting frauds, housing debacles, downright management disasters – largely engineered by supposedly stellar B schools grads – it’s maddening that we are still enamored with MABs from top tiered schools.  What’s that definition of insanity?  “Doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.” (And here we thought, hoped, our business schools were teaching our future leaders how to be right, while instead they were taught that being right doesn’t matter.  Enron 2, here we come.)

We can’t afford to wait for the business schools to wake up and teach the core of true leadership, that being, how to distinguish between the right answer from the loudest one.  So, if you have the power to do something differently and to honor a true diversity of different minds, what would you do?

Happy 4th of July. Till next time,

Staying Sane and Charging Ahead.

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Imagine Working In A Universe Of Introverts…

There will be many fewer meetings.  Doesn’t that very idea immediately release weight and tension? even for extroverts?  Where meetings are necessary, they would be short or shorter.  Better yet, at least half of the needed meetings would be done via email, which may generate more thoughtful comments and ideas, as participants take the time to think, reflect, and validate before espousing.  Downside?  The extroverts might get stir-crazy needing more face time.  So extroverts can go chat up others who are of similar temperament.

Can introverts become effective managers or CEOs?  Of course!  Jim Collins’ “level 5 leadership,” a kind of quiet leadership, is largely derived from the data of effective managers, a topic I examined more closely in an earlier entry.  These people do not need the limelight; in fact, they prefer to work under the radar.  They tend to be methodical, pursue data and facts, and aren’t likely to hover over others’ shoulders; after all, they themselves would like to be left alone to do their work.

Imagining doing this painting by a committee!

I can keep on dreaming, but lacking the sci-fi writing background and skills, I should stop now.  And admit that a whole world run by introverts would come to a screeching halt.  For one thing, who’s going to run the stock market?  After all, stock market is a major wheel in the running and growing of the economy.  Yet, yet…having fewer talking heads in the media would lighten the airwaves, and the screaming “reality shows” might be replaced with teaching how to paint dreams, sewing ideas, or exploring caves!

The bottom line is:  We need variety.  But, I don’t feel as if there is a true embrace of “variety” in the workforce or in the society, not in the honest recognition of the different ways we think and operate.

I’ll bet that if you examine more closely and reflect a little deeper, you realize that many of the workplace performance evaluation criteria are for the most part in favor of extroverts’ predilections.  For example, “The number of team projects you have participated in… and have driven to successful execution [the more conspicuously, the better],” or, “relevant professional conferences you organized or at which you have been invited to present.”  This lopsided evaluation can be easily remedied.  Just ask a few introverts to provide input, preferably via writing, rather than meetings.  I am not saying that introverts would never be involved in meetings.  I am, however, saying that by giving introverts a chance, they can bring fresh perspectives on different ways to look at the world and to operate at work.  In describing “Level 5 leadership” Mr. Collins presents a textbook picture of introversion at work, but what is most surprising about his description is that he himself was so surprised by the discovery that introverts can be effective.

a sport enjoyed by a variety of people

What are your suggestions for evaluating an introvert’s job performance?

Till next time,

Staying Sane and Charging Ahead.

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Socially Constructed Diversity – The meaning of differences lies in the eye of the beholder

Should minority members immediately and automatically latch onto diversity issues and causes?  If a minority member wants to free herself from the bond of categories, wouldn’t assuming another category, Asian Americans, Native Americans, African Americans, etc. be just as binding?  When a minority member has experienced profound and prolonged persecution from the society, it is perfectly understandable why this person may want to align with his minority group.  As the United States is moving toward a society in which non-white will become the majority, the term “diversity” will take on different meanings, different struggles, and different dynamics.

For this post, what I really want to discuss is another layer of diversity that’s often missed, ignored, or totally unacknowledged: the introvert–extrovert continuum.  This continuum cuts across so many other categories that we need to study it more.  Susan Cain’s “Quiet:  The power of introverts in a world that can’t stop talking,” demonstrates that a lot of management practices are based on extroverts’ worldviews.  Many of these practices are endorsed and advocated by business schools which are run by, yes, mostly extroverts.

A wonderful place for extroverts to get energy

Let me just discuss one aspect delineated in the book:  Brainstorming.  It’s a terrible and unwelcoming idea for introverts, and it’s proven to be not all that effective even if only extroverts participate in such a session.  Yet, like several concepts that have been proven wrong, such as tying executive pay to company performance, motivating employees with little carrots and big sticks, or emphasizing competition in any circumstances, industries still hold onto them.  However, working by internet connections, brainstorming can be very effective if the process is managed well.  Not surprisingly, most computer technologies and internet services have been brought about largely by introverts.

In other words, introverts need time and space for processing information and contemplation to achieve better productivity.  What’s more, it turns out that allowing time and space is rather conducive for extroverts too.

A truly diversified working environment is structured to allow people of various working styles to be able to choose their own time and place to work.  Research demonstrates that introverts are more willing and comfortable with cooperating with others, if they are allowed to choose when and where to do the cooperative tasks.  Some well-known high-tech companies, such as Google, Microsoft, Pixar, have created different and open environments that encourage people to create more spontaneous conversations, i.e. not scheduled meetings, and cooperative work habits.  Far more creative and innovative activities have come out of such environments than from the tried-and-not-very-true brainstorming.

a setting much more to my liking

Today’s working world is very different from when Robert Townsend ran Avis in the 60s.  But in his Up the Organization, he did have a few paragraphs on “racism.”  He understood it clearly by saying that “stamping out racism will be a process, not an act.”  I wonder what he would have thought and practiced on the issue of diversity and the introvert-extrovert continuum.  I conjecture – and he did advocate – that he would say something like the following:  The best way to tap into an employee’s talent is to find out what she’s really good at and to match the job with her qualifications and working styles.

HAPPY FATHER’S DAY to all the dads out there!

I will continue on this continuum.  Till next time,

Staying Sane and Charging Ahead.

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How Do You Motivate People? By structuring the organizational environment!

The first point that resonated with me in Dan Pink’s TED presentation on motivation is that there is a gap between science findings and business practices.  This is the same point made in Pfeffer & Sutton’s book on “Evidence-Based Management,”  which I reviewed earlier, as well as Ghoshal’s critical assessment of business schools in his essay on “Bad Management Theories,” which was the focus on of my first post.  So, the notion isn’t new, but it still hasn’t caught the full attention of the public, and definitely not the right kind of management attention.

whatever motivated me…painted 2 paintings this week!

The central issue in Mr. Pink’s indictment is motivation techniques, especially the old school “carrot & stick” approach.  Scientific studies have demonstrated, again and again, that when groups are provided with monetary incentives to pursue a task demanding innovative solutions, against groups without incentives, the monetarily incentivized groups lag behind.  However, if the task is a matter of mechanistic routine, the incentives do drive better performance.  The reason why potential rewards don’t produce positive outcomes when seeking innovative solutions is that the groups become too focused; their thinking gets channeled and their creativity becomes blocked.  The important distinction here is tasks involved in mechanical skills vs. those requiring cognitive skills.

Such studies have been replicated in different cultures.

Higher incentives lead to poor performance?!  As Mr. Pink stated:  This is one of the most robust findings and yet also the most ignored.

So, why are CEOs getting tens or hundreds of million dollars in compensation?

We also need to be reminded, often, of the distinction between “work for the sake of work (mechanistic)” and “work for accomplishment (results).”  One of my repeated criticisms of management is its obsession with creating more oversight for people, not necessarily for productivity or innovation, but just to make sure people are not “shirking!”  Such structured activities are de-motivating rather than motivating.  One of my friends occasionally has to go to Afghanistan.  Whenever he’s there, he and his colleagues work all but Fridays, but then, they live in tents i.e. their lodging is barren, as well as their local life, so they all end up working on Fridays.  Here is a perfect example where structure propels people to work, but to what end?  I have no doubt that the majority of these people are dedicated, committed, productive, and work damn hard, but for whom is it healthy?  For them? For our war effort there? Or for the local government? or population?  When people are worn out, not only productivity decreases, creative solutions become even more remote possibilities.

Most jobs, in the majority of the 20th century, did fall into the category of relying on mechanistic skills for which extrinsic incentives did work most of the time.  As manufacturing jobs are shrinking, jobs relying on solutions that require “out of box” thinking are growing.  Mr. Pink makes the case – he stresses that this isn’t a philosophy but a “case” – that in the 21st century, organizations need to structure in such a way that people will find intrinsic motivation to pursue their work:



                    Purpose (larger than ourselves)

Now, here is a cogent argument for a right-brain artistic approach that is lacking in traditional management literature, and it isn’t just for management only.  And you notice that none of these criteria are what truly motivate people – you can’t externally motivate people – but are for structuring the organizational environment so that people find resonance to motivate themselves.

2nd painting

Organizations that recognize these principles are likely to be the leaders in this century.  I greatly appreciate Mr. Pink’s statement, “management is an invented concept.”  Indeed, prior to the industrial revolution, there wasn’t much need for management.  And as our businesses evolve beyond the old industrial era, we need to rethink what management means, or if we need it any more.

And there are organizations that are already practicing such principles, such as Atlassian’s practice of “FedEx Days!”  Employees of this software company are encouraged to volunteer to participate in this exercise where for one day a year, everyone gets to play with ideas of their own choosing, and they present these ideas to colleagues the next day.  Hence, the “FedEx Day” although the actual coordination is a little more complicated.  (Google the phrase, and you’ll be delighted by the read.)  Essentially, this organization gives employees a day to just daydream, to pursue whatever they like…in other words, to play!  What a concept!  Actually, “playfulness in organization” was advocated by James March in the early ‘70s but even with March’s stature in the management field, the idea was treated mostly with “nice…but…”  Google also encourages its employees to devote 20% of their work time to “play;” I’d say so far, they seem to be doing pretty well, and I don’t mean just their stock price.

Mr. Pink describes such practice as “results oriented work environment.”  As he points out, the idea of “Wikipedia” could not have been feasible 10 years ago; yet, it’s now thriving.

Furthermore, what I like about this type of intrinsic motivation is that it’s egalitarian; all employees are given opportunities.  Why not?  Accessing one’s right brain for creative solutions isn’t just for managers or business leaders, is it?!

awesome sunset…will be an inspiration for a painting someday

So set aside some time to play, will you?  Encourage others to do the same.  Better yet, if you are in a position of power, structure a day-off for people to dream!  Till you actually do so,

Staying Sane and Charging Ahead.

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