Some Intangibles Lead to Solid Successes

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

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

sea fans 2

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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NUMMI – The Giant Moved One Foot Forward

In the Joint Venture (JV) negotiation between GM and Toyota for the NUMMI (New United Motor Manufacturing Incorporated, link below), the labor union had to concede many of their usual taken-for-granted rights, such as seniority. Recalling the bad-to-worse workforce at the Fremont site, it would be insane for GM to rehire that same lot after closing down the plant. Yet, the UAW western region boss, Bruce Lee, felt compelled to give the same crew another chance because he believed that their poor behavior was the product of the system. However, before Lee got the green light to do so, understandably, labor saw him as someone who betrayed their trust.

Now Bruce Lee wasn’t naïve or a wide-eye idealist. He fully acknowledged the behavioral problems at the old Fremont site. He said, “It was considered the worst workforce in the automobile industry in the United States. And it was a reputation that was well earned. Everything was a fight. They spent more time on grievances and on things like that than they did on producing cars. They had strikes all the time. It was just chaos constantly.” Still, his intuition and his understanding of the system convinced him to re-engage the same old hands. GM wouldn’t sanction doing so, but the Toyota executives believed that their system would change the workers. Of course, when Lee brought the proposal to the workers, they hated it, not least because the loss of seniority but everything was going to be different. They even vented their frustration and anger by burning a Lee effigy.

In the end, Bruce Lee held the aces: He had the jobs that the workers needed and with Toyota’s blessing he had hiring authority.

My small step toward loosening my control in painting.

My small step toward loosening my control in painting.

Being rehired was certainly a strong incentive for people to modify their behavior; however, a lot more was needed to sustain their willingness to transform. In retrospect, Toyota’s training groups of workers for two-week stretches in Japan was money well spent.

For the former Fremont workers, most of whom hadn’t travelled outside of California or the country, the trip to Japan was almost unnerving. Being in a totally different environment, not just the national culture but also the work culture, probably contributed dramatically to how these Americans reframed their own work attitude and changed their behavior. Not only did they learn that stopping the assembly line for trouble-shooting was encouraged, they were astounded to find themselves being asked to contribute ideas. Their opinions mattered; they possessed knowledge of how to get things done and done right. So, yes, “even” among assembly line workers, when invested with purpose, mastery, and autonomy, they could thrive and become more productive.

One related, “I can’t remember anytime in my working life where anybody asked for my ideas to solve the problem. And they literally want to know, and when I tell them, they listen, and then suddenly, they disappear and somebody comes back with the tool that I just described– it’s built– and they say, ‘Try this.’”

Underneath the excitement of new attitude and new workflow, however, lurked a sense of embarrassment. Weren’t Americans supposed to be the best? Weren’t they the leaders in this industry? Now the “little” Japanese were showing them not only how to do things differently, but even do it better? A little hurt pride sometimes can be a good boost…especially when you are given a second chance.

After two weeks of relearning and retooling, the workers from both sides had an emotional farewell dinner over sushi. Sushi! This was still in the early 80s when Americans were only beginning to appreciate this exotic cuisine. The Americans felt confident in their “new clothes.” When all of the newly trained workers returned and restarted the Fremont assembly line, they gave it their all. In December 1984, the first Chevy Nova came off the line and everyone was proud of the product. It took less than one year to establish (or, reestablish?) GM Chevy’s reputation.

Bruce Lee: “Oh, I was so proud of them, you can’t even believe. The fact that they did it didn’t surprise me that much, but how quickly they did it did. It was amazing. Here was these same people, who before– I mean, hell, they’d go out of their way to make life miserable for General Motors particularly. And, you know, they were old, they were fat. Because that was not a young workforce that we brought in there.”

By industry’s standards, such as number of defects per 100 vehicles, Fremont’s record was the best in the country. It was the same as for Toyota’s Corollas. In addition, the cost saving for GM was astounding. They had figured it’d take additional resources, probably about +50%, under the old management to get anywhere near the new record.

The title for this, "This Way Home."

The title for this, “This Way Home.”

Before NUMMI, the workers would keep their association with Fremont hidden, fearing confrontations with customers who had problems with the old vehicles. After NUMMI, one worker went around posting index cards on Novas parked on the street, with his name and address, asking for feedback. Largely positive.

So, you’d think the rest of GM plants would and should learn from NUMMI? The recent GM bankruptcy signaled to us that they didn’t. Changing a lumbering giant’s gait is just too hard. Stay tuned. Till next week,

Staying Sane and Charging Ahead.

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Buy, Buy, Buy…Now, Now, Now

Do consumers help shape the work environment? In some ways, of course; yet, most of us as consumers feel pretty helpless about getting quality service most of the time. In that light, Amazon’s success, at least as of now, could not have been possible were it not for its ferocious customer-focus operations. So, consumers definitely have helped determine the working conditions at Amazon. The evolution of their customer services has been groundbreaking for sure, and as a consumer, I have been part of their equation. Will I continue my patronage after learning about their inner working conditions? Let me brood over that question.

Among the close-to 6,000 comments to the New York Time’s article on Amazon’s working environment, there were many who expressed outrage and immediately cancelled their “prime membership” with Amazon. Yet, I suspect the cancellation has not created even a ripple in Amazon’s sales bucket. That doesn’t mean that consumers should stop protesting or expressing their concerns and criticism of workplace conditions. However, as I have mentioned previously, there are plenty of other organizations and professions where grueling working conditions are the norm, whether employer- or self-imposed. How shall we consumers react to those other places and professionals?

Let’s look at the airline industry…need I say more?  In this case, it is the customers who have been loudly complaining about the ways we have been treated, from the headache-inducing contortioned act of figuring out how to cash in on the “loyalty” point system, enduring fees slapped on everything, to surviving the reduced-size carry-on… Would any of us give up flying? Can we? This is but one small area where “consumer power” is a joke.

blue bird

So, back to Amazon. In 2011, a series of reports about a warehouse in eastern Pennsylvania highlighted yet a different kind of grueling working conditions. Amazon warehouse workers at this location labored in temperatures of 100 degrees and above in the summer, with paramedics standing by in ambulances parked outside to treat workers who fainted, or to rush them to ER. After the exposé, Amazon installed air conditioning. Later, the joke on the street: Given that Amazon will eventually deploy robots to do the sorting and packing, and those robots will need A/C environment… If we consumers didn’t find that story appalling enough to cancel our business with Amazon, why would the company think that the latest brouhaha, generated by a NYTimes article, would lead to any significant downturn in its business volume? To me, the more interesting question is why we seem to be more exercised over the white collar working conditions than the 2011 warehouse story.

Let me be clear. I am not defending Amazon’s operations. The intensely competitive condition is not unique to Amazon. That doesn’t justify any of these types of operations in any professional field. But, what-can-we-do? Apple’s fans haven’t modified their enthusiastic purchasing power even after stories about their Chinese manufacturers’ horrible (and abusive) working conditions. Google hasn’t suffered because it has given the government massive amounts of data for surveillance purpose. Walmart’s business hasn’t been damaged despite myriad criticism from all corners of society. As I have mentioned before, consumer power in the globalized economy is very diffused. I can scream at the Verizon rep (I don’t, at least not without giving him/her a warning first and with the disclaimer that my tone was not directed at the rep), but none of my frustrations and criticism will ever make any dent in Verizon’s operations. But AT&T is even worse. Delta Airlines is on my “do not fly” list. But of course, if the place where I need to go is served only by Delta…sigh. Back to cable and signal carriers: Does anyone have enthusiastic love for any of them? Verizon? Comcast? AT&T?

The only recent episode where consumers actually seemed to have unified their voices concerned “net neutrality” with the FCC last summer. In an episode of “Last Week Tonight with John Oliver,” Mr. Oliver’s 20+ minutes monologue on “net neutrality” was a gem; it was informative and energizing…and entertaining. No one can tell if the FCC website crash the following day, after Oliver’s segment, was due to Mr. Oliver’s “plea” for people to take action. Neither could we be certain that President Obama’s taking the consumer side carried much weight. However, FCC’s eventual decision in consumers’ favor was a pleasant surprise, after an almost nail-biting wait.


So if Amazon keeps “improving” its delivery time, such as helping a New York customer to get an Elsa doll (based on movie “Frozen”) in 23 minutes, how do you begin to complain about that? Like, “Can you please deliver this doll in 23 hours instead?!” While this example may be about satisfying an upper class customer – and we don’t really know – Amazon’s offers of conveniences and speedy delivery might also provide much needed relief for many harassed parents or singles who work 80+ hours a week, or single parents who work 65 hours a week. However, is this really “innovation?” Please. Rovers on Mars are innovative; speedy delivery, even by a drone someday, is just an extreme outcome of badgering employees into “continuous improvement” and comes with a huge hidden cost.

If I lived in an area where I can have decent accesses to everything I need and desire, I would happily drop my business with Amazon. But I don’t, and so I just have to swallow my dismay and focus on other battles of my choosing…like everyone in this quick-paced world. What’s your priority?

Till next time,

Staying Sane and Charging Ahead.

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Amazonians, Amabots, Amholes – Working for

It would have been better timing for me to post this workforce-oriented article on the Labor Day weekend, but I wanted to honor my commitment to my family. My attitude might be “old-fashioned” in the fast-paced tech world, and I am pretty sure that I would not survive for even one day working at places like So I read the New York Times’ exposé on the workings inside Amazon – focused largely on white collar professionals – with mixed feelings.

Big animal with big horns.

Big animal with big horns.

The Times’ article is long, about 6,000 words, but the gist is an age-old issue manifested in the modern tech-savvy world: How to maximize employers’ utilization of employees’ labor or brain power. Decades ago, Frederick Taylor’s scientific management, studying time and motion in labor-intensive work tasks, made assembly line work possible, and profitable. In modern service oriented industries, the race is on how to incentivize (I really hate this word, but, ah well…) professional brainiacs.’s owner, Jeff Bezos, started his enterprise determined to not let the company slip into the typical corporate culture of bureaucracy, regimented rules and processes, or conventional practices of any kind. He intended, I am sure still intends, to instill in Amazon a “perpetual entrepreneurial” spirit. One can hardly argue with his “leadership principles,” such as customer obsession, hire and develop the best, or insist on the highest standards. Would anyone object to these ideas? Further, most people would react with, “Finally!, someone with vision.” However, like all statements de jour of vision and mission, and pledges of ethical behavior, the ultimate test lies in the execution. The New York Times’ article is about how Amazon has executed these “leadership principles.”

The article portrays the Amazon’s white collar environment as a high-octane, fiercely consumer-oriented, constantly striving for excellence, in which colleagues could be supportive, demanding, competitive, or back-stabbing. Nothing new, just magnified by 10 at Amazon. For instance, many who have worked at Amazon mentioned colleagues leaving meetings in tears, from the combative, confrontational tone of “critiquing” each other’s ideas. While this may not be universal across Amazon, how widespread should it be? would 10% of the work force – 180,000 employees – be acceptable? 20%? Working 60-80 hours a week is a norm; conference calls on Thanksgiving or other holidays are necessary at times; keeping up with emails while on vacations isn’t a rule but is expected… All true also in many other organizations; however, at Amazon, a person receiving an email at, say 10 PM might get a follow up text if that person doesn’t respond the email within an hour. People who take time off tending sick loved ones, taking care of one’s own chemotherapy and recovery process, or dealing with grief often find themselves being put on “performance improvement plan.” In other words, your time off is on you and will reflect against your career progress. Again, this isn’t unique to Amazon, just bigger per the company’s Amazonian size. As one former employee said, “When you are not able to give your absolute all, 80 hours a week, they see it as a major weakness.” (NYTimes report)

There is never a shortage of thorny issues in organizations.

There is never a shortage of thorny issues in organizations.

Not surprisingly, many young people, especially singles with fewer commitments outside of work, thrive in Amazon’s work environment. Many also see their “short” stint – however one defines it — at Amazon as a stepping stone for better career opportunities elsewhere. And some leave the company feeling drained and needing a lengthy period to recover. Regardless of how the employees, former or current, handle the work environment, one thing seems clear; their work habit sticks with them, for better or for worse. For those who thrive on the intensity, they continue their “pursuit of higher performance” wherever they go, and thereby make themselves attractive to the next employer. Others who leave the company with a bad taste, may nevertheless appreciate the Amazon discipline. It’s not that the latter group doesn’t care for excellence, they just prefer excellence as manifest in a kinder spirit of their own definition and choosing.

Ultimately, my major question is: Would “perpetual start-up spirit” within one entity eventually morph into its own conventional form and choke off the very spirit it has tried to engender? I don’t know the answer…and, not knowing the answer would be another objectionable response at Amazon. Truly, I wouldn’t survive for even half of a day.

In the next post, I will summarize some reactions to this article…and of course add my own nickel’s worth. Till then,


Staying Sane and Charging Ahead.

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Note: “Amazonians” and “Amabots” are used internally by people working in Amazon, but “Amholes” are used by some outsiders.

Abundancy In Full Circle

When we enter the world, are we wired to be passive and inert? Or are we wired to be active and engaged?” I can’t imagine anyone with a functioning mind would answer the former. And as adults, wouldn’t we prefer to work in the latter mode, engaging our minds to be in charge?

One of the comparisons I learned from Mr. Dan Pink’s TED talk on motivation and his book, Drive, has become my favorite: In 1995, Microsoft began a monumental project to assemble the information needed for their “encyclopedia on CD-ROMs, and later online.” “On October 31st, 2009, [they] pulled the plug on MSN Encarta.” Because? A bunch of hobbyists and volunteers put together a little thing called “Wikipedia,” launched in January, 2001. As of April, 2015, “Wikipedia includes over 35 million freely usable articles in 288 languages that have been written by over 54 million registered users and numerous anonymous contributors worldwide.” Would any experts in economics or management have predicted this?



Jeff Gunther, CEO of Meddius, in Charlottesville, NC., decided to try a ROWE model – a Results Only Work Environment – on his 22-person operation, allowing people to come in to the office whenever. At the beginning, most people were uncertain about this, but after a few weeks, they adjusted to it. “Productivity rose. Stress declined.” When the trial period was over, only 2 employees who struggled with the changes had left, and Gunther decided to adopt the ROWE permanently. This company develops computer software, involving creativity; the ROWE makes perfect sense. When people have autonomy over their own task, time, techniques, and team, their performance increases greatly, as well as their overall well-being. Some researchers at Cornell University conducted a comparison across 320 small businesses, half of which relied on a top-down conventional organizational model and the other half gave their employees autonomy. “The businesses that offered autonomy grew at four times the rate of the control-oriented firms and had one-third the turnover.”

What conventional motivational approaches have been good at is to get employees’ compliance. “Do this, then you get that reward…” It chokes creativity and dulls people’s minds and skills. Of course, we may still push ourselves to better our performance, but it’s likely to be small incremental steps. However, if we feel totally engaged at work, we have the desire to master our knowledge and skills. In his book, Mr. Pink cites Gallup research on “engagement” at work: “…in the U.S., more than 50% of employees are not engaged at work – and nearly 20% are actively disengaged. The cost of all this disengagement: about $300 billion a year in lost productivity – a sum larger than the GDP of Portugal, Singapore, or Israel.”

There are times and places for relying on a compliance mode, in survival, in safety, in routine work with predictable outcomes. But for creative work, personal fulfillment, or mastery, we absolutely need to feel engaged. (How often do I use the word “absolutely” in discussing social issues?!) And we can’t force others to be engaged; it has to come from an internal drive. It’s about “doing the things you love to do, on the days you don’t feel like doing them.” (Maybe that’s why I sometimes question whether I truly love painting!) In addition, mastery isn’t about the be-all-end-all perfection; it’s striving toward that non-existing and elusive “perfection,” whose definition evolves with our development. Such a journey might be painful at times, but when the mind is engaged, it can be paradoxically liberating and exciting. (See Carol Dweck’s work).

We tend to assume that the purpose/goal for for-profit organizations is making a profit, and that people working for these places are about making as much money as possible. However, “profit motive, potent though it is, can be an insufficient impetus for both individuals and organizations.” This isn’t just idealistic talk; there is research evidence that when people are motivated by only material gains, their “goal” is essentially unreachable, their need is unfulfillable and therefore, they can never be happy. In one of my dissertation cases, a café owner’s mother demanded at least three gifts from her children annually, for her birthday, for mother’s day, and for Christmas (even though the family was Buddhist). And anything less than $500 (back in the mid 90s) would be deemed insufficient. Yet, the mother was not a happy person; she was never satisfied with her living conditions.

Of all three elements in Motivation 3.0, autonomy, mastery, and purpose, purpose is probably the most amorphous one to define, yet is probably the most foundational in providing meaning for the other two. However, organizations imposing purpose onto their employees do so at their own peril. Just take a look at all those “elegantly” written ethical standards at many corporations – Enron offered one of the best – which then provide meaningless or weak structures for employees to meet the standards. For example, when employees just need to check off a list of expectations they are rarely inspired to take the high road. Yet, as human beings, our innate nature is to seek and recognize, or create, our own purposes. If organizations offer people autonomy, they do not need to fret over providing purposes. Top management can define organizational purposes, but it’s up to the individuals to find the fit between their own goals and purposes and the organization’s.



I started my blog in October, 2011, introducing some bad management teaching and countering with description of abundancy mode, appreciative inquiry. Now I have come full circle with Dan Pink’s abundancy mode, “motivation 3.0.” While I admire Pink’s work – and I certainly have quoted him and used his work numerous times — the frequency with which I find myself repeating certain works and concepts has made me realize that perhaps I am running out of things to say. I think this is a good time to quit. Once in a while, I may “park” an article on this site because I need to get something off my chest, but the weekly posts will cease.

Thank you for reading my writing. I wish you well, in both your organizational life as well as your personal life.




Can We Please Let Go The Carrot-and-Stick Shtick?

When I read my previous post’s suggested article, How Successful People Overcome Toxic Bosses, I felt more depressed than hopeful. Evidently, there are a lot of horrible bosses out there, requiring us to develop strategies to keep them at bay. What a waste of energy and time, both of which are such precious resources for our work and life. A different perspective that places more responsibilities on bosses evokes in me a slightly more positive reaction. Managers who develop relationships with their direct reports approaching trusted “alliance” are in a better position to keep staff from quitting. Always easier said than done, right? But can we afford not trying?! For good reasons, I keep going back to Dan Pink’s articulation of autonomy, mastery, and purpose for his motivation 3.0 as the blueprint for managers to build a long-term healthy workforce.

In his 2011 book, Drive: The surprising truth about what motivates us, Mr. Pink lays out in greater detail why and how autonomy, mastery, and purpose should replace the primitive “carrot-and-stick” motivation system, which he terms motivation 2.0 and, with slight tweaks, motivation 2.1. (Motivation 1.0 was hunter, predator and survival instinct…really old). Largely relying on external motivational forces, the old systems worked for a time, but our new technologies have created needs for business models that embrace different ways people in the 21st century operate. Intrinsic motivation has always been a major part of us, but it’s especially critical in today’s business world.

imgresWhen Maslow proposed his “hierarchy of needs,” he had already offered a truer picture of the more complex nature of human motivation. His hierarchy starts with the most basic needs, food, security, shelter, etc., and moves up to self-esteem and self-actualization. Based on Maslow’s model, McGregor’s Theory Y posits that there is intrinsic motivation behind peoples’ desire to work; they want more responsibility (with authority) to do their work. Further, “carrot-and-stick” (C&S) ultimately limits a person’s productivity. And Theory Y was introduced in the 60s!

Yet, in 2015, we still see most organizations operating on C&S assumptions, even in the face of preponderant evidence demonstrating otherwise. In many new business models, such as Wikipedia or Google, “open source” is the operating principle; people join the force because they enjoy it or find it challenging. Other new business models, such as “social business,” aim to maximize purpose instead of profit; they downplay profit-making and emphasize social missions. Carrot-and-stick model is outmoded for these new types of business. In fact, the C&S model isn’t especially effective on animals, as horse and dog whispers have demonstrated to many pet owners; so what’s with managers who still hold onto C&S?images-6

So why doesn’t carrot-and-stick work well? It usually ends up with “giving us less of what we want and bringing us more of what we don’t want.”

All organizations, of all natures, want high performance, creativity, and good behavior from their employees. Numerous studies have found, time and again, that giving and increasing rewards, in the long run, reduces performance, creativity, and good behavior. Mark Twain, typically keen of observation, noted such a relationship in Tom Sawyer, “…that Work consists of whatever a body is OBLIGED to do, and that Play consists of whatever a body is not obliged to do.

In the early 70s, Lepper, Greene, and Nisbett, focusing on preschoolers, studied the relationship between reward and intrinsic motivation. This study is now considered a classic and has been widely cited. The researchers arranged to observe some preschoolers during their recess; they were intrigued to see some children preferring to stay behind and draw. So, they set up their research procedures in this manner: For one group of preschoolers, they offered the children, upon completing drawings, a “Good Player” certificate, complete with the child’s name with a pretty ribbon. This was the “expected-award” group. For the second group, “unexpected-reward,” the children only received the certificate when they finished their drawing; they were not told in advance that this would happen. And the third group, “no-reward” group, they just drew as they usually did.

Two weeks went by before the researchers returned to observe the children again. The No-Reward and the Unexpected-Reward groups of children drew just as much, with the same relish, as ever. However, the children who expected reward “showed much less interest and spent much less time drawing.”

Here is the important key to understand and grasp. The reward by itself didn’t dampen the children’s spirit; it’s the contingent if…then (if you do this, then you’ll get that) that produced the negative impact. It took away the children’s autonomy.

This research has been replicated in different manners on different age groups across different cultures numerous times. But as Mr. Pink said and wrote, “This is one of the most robust findings in social science – and also one of the most ignored.” Many economists have researched in the business settings, and their conclusion? “We find that financial incentives…can result in a negative impact on overall performance.”images-5

Please understand that no one is advocating not giving financial compensation, but when people’s basic levels, “baseline rewards,” are met, they yearn for better working conditions. It’s when people are underpaid, when they have to worry about how to feed themselves and/or their families (and shelter and security…Maslow’s basic needs) that they get angry at the “unfairness of their situation and the anxiety of their circumstances.” Employers get limited productivity from underpaid employees.

I’ve written often enough about how extrinsic motivation kills creativity (examples here & here), so I will not repeat that here.

Using carrots not only has limits, it can be counterproductive. Extrinsic motivation often gives us more of what we don’t want, such as unethical behavior or short-term thinking. For instance, if we make our own goals, we are motivated to reach them. If goals come from higher management, they can lead to bad outcomes. When Sears imposed a quota on auto sales parts, workers overcharged customers or repaired parts that didn’t need repaired. Enron set a very high financial goal, and guess what happened?! So, some business professors now actually suggest that goals should come with a warning label, “Goals may cause systematic problems for organizations due to narrowed focus, unethical behavior, increased risk taking, decreased cooperation, and decreased intrinsic motivation. Use care when applying goals in your organizations.” I wholeheartedly concur.

Next week, let’s take a closer look at autonomy, mastery, and purpose. Till then,

Staying Sane and Charging Ahead.

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When Science Meets Reality – final part

Scientists understand social cues and are, like the rest of us, equipped with human emotions. Their take on socially constructed reality might be slightly askew (by whose standards?), but their social construction of reality is just as valid as another group’s social construction. Managers in R&D organizations face the same kind of relational issues and group-intergroup dynamics as all other managers. So, the education of future scientist-managers should touch on the same fundamental principles as for management in general. And I stress “general.” When it comes to education, my bias is toward the liberal arts tradition that strives to provide a broader base of knowledge.

Wide view.

Wide view.

I find resonance for this broader education focus in Fareed Zakaria’s “Why America’s obsession with STEM education is dangerous, published in Washington Post a few weeks ago. In contrast to the current calls from many sectors in the society to emphasize STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics), Mr. Zakaria lays out reasons why a broader education agenda would be more beneficial for society: “A broad general education helps foster critical thinking and creativity. Exposure to a variety of fields produces synergy and cross fertilization. Yes, science and technology are crucial components of this education, but so are English and philosophy.” (Remember what “STEM” was called in the 18th and 19th centuries: Natural Philosophy.) While his argument is targeted at broadening science education, I regard his argument as pertinent not just science but also to management education as well.

Part of the push for STEM comes from our collective angst over mediocre performance of US students in international ranking in sciences, math, and reading. However, as Mr. Zakaria points out, even during the post-WWII golden era of our scientific and technological dominance, American children’s academic performance wasn’t all that impressive by global standards. While US continues lags in test scores these days, it is still highly rated internationally in innovation and entrepreneurship, along with Israel and Sweden, whose test scores are mediocre as well. Zakaria attributes the economic success of these countries to the following common traits: “They are flexible. Their work cultures are non-hierarchical and merit-based. All operate like young countries, with energy and dynamism. All three [countries] are open societies, happy to let in the world’s ideas, goods and services.”

There are plenty of examples of how technology/science interplays with consumers’ needs and wants. For instance, computer designers have to understand what people desire to produce marketable products. So it is for all technological and scientific products, even if usage may be confined to smaller groups, such as exploration of outer space or medical treatment for rare illnesses. Even when starting from limited usage — generally for very expensive endeavors — the transfer of science and technology to more popular consumption eventually comes from people who can imagine beyond the formulae and equations. The ability to think creatively does not come from, and certainly does not require, a STEM-focused academic background.

Up & close.

Up & close.

Of course, no one suggests that we should applaud ourselves for mediocre performance on international tests (or for that matter, mediocrity in anything); being mediocre doesn’t automatically lead to creativity and innovation. However, the solution is not to narrow our education focus. Taking away art classes, shortening recesses, eliminating gym…all would contribute to students’ feeling boxed in, stressed out, and short-changed overall. Like Mr. Zakaria, I also came from a system in which the students are taught how to take tests and driven to score well on tests (although the normal distribution curve still applies). For me, I didn’t feel that I was truly engaged in my own education until I came to this country to finish my undergraduate education. And for the first time in my life, I felt unfettered and excited to pursue whatever my imagination would lead me toward … though it still took me a long journey to allow myself to imagine, without guilt and apprehension. In Taiwan (and I suspect in China as well), we were never taught to have fun; in fact, admitting having fun was frowned upon. Babysitting experience during my undergraduate years in the States taught me a lot about Americans’ childhood.

All these arguments apply to general management education as well. I recall a conversation with a group of executives from Hong Kong, a much more westernized place than most other Asian countries. Many of them commented to me about how they admired and envied the Americans’ creativity and innovation. Yet, in the next breath, they’d complain about Americans’ irreverent attitude and how it bordered on being disrespectful of laws. As you’ll have suspected, I pointed out that all these things come in a package: You cannot ask people to be creative by telling them what to do and expecting them to obey exactly. I still remember the reaction on their faces: Oh!

Our business schools have been adopting a STEM-like framework, inculcating MBA students with “the important” tools and skill-set without emphasis on reflection, philosophy, or arts (not necessarily painting or sculpturing, but perhaps language arts, learning appreciation for fine-tuned expressions, effective capture of emotions, influential choices of words). (Ironically, in many technical organizations, new employees are taught technical writing!) Real time management often involves exercising the art of decision-making or making “wise” choices, i.e. making judgment calls. Patents discuss prior art, make note of “those skilled in the art,” and make other references to art. “Art” and the wisdom to recognize and appreciate it in its broadest sense and definition are essential for STEM. Data and evidence are important but they have their limits. Wisdom comes from wider views, richer experiences, and a diversity of interactions with the world.

A mid-range view.

A mid-range view.

My words and reflections are woefully inadequate in addressing complicated issues like education. But I know that putting more focus on STEM can only be one component of a starting point. Similarly, management education needs to go beyond strategy, economic principles, marketing tools, metrics…

Till next time,


Staying Sane and Charging Ahead.

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