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Fact, Truth, Reality…which one is debatable?

  • Author’s note: Since our move to the northwest, I have been busy setting up the new household. Our lives have been full yet relaxing. We haven’t quite completely immersed in the local community, but that’s just a matter of time. Neither have I resumed my painting, but that too, will be part of my daily routine in due course. In the meantime, I have had the urge to comment on some aspects of the development of our society, which intertwines closely with organizational life.

 


 

A child asks mom, “what is that man doing?” Mom says, “He’s entertaining.” Child, “No, what is he doing?” Mom, “He’s performing.” Child gasped, “But what is he doing?” Mom tries again, “He’s making people smile.” Child continues, “But what is he doing?” Mom finally adopts the conventional definition, “He’s juggling.” Child responds, “But what is juggling?” and on we go.

Which version of the mother’s responses is real is beyond debate. All versions are real, depending on where you are, how you see things, and what occupies your mind at the moment. If Mom happens to be fresh out of work, she might answer, “He’s making a living.” Of course, there is also the issue of the “audience.” So, the child’s curiosity may finally be addressed by another different response, “He’s having fun!”

The above example is an illustration of socially constructed reality. The fact is: A man is tossing balls, or juggling pins, or cones, in the air, catching a few before tossing them up again, while catching the other few. There are also the facts that a child is asking a question, and the mother is trying to ascertain how to answer the child satisfactorily. The truth is that an engaging parent would utilize interactions with his child to offer answers, lessons, ideas, etc. But at no point will the parent ever engage in offering “alternative fact,” which is a lie. No parents, with sane minds, would deliberately tell their child that the juggler is fishing or farming, nor that a dog is a “pig,” the sun a “lollipop” or a stone is “bread.”

When I first heard the term “alternative fact,” I gasped. Granted all politicians prevaricate and “spin,” but to engage in downright lies, to espouse random accusations without a shred of fact, or to formulate policy based on an opinion pulled out of thin air, it makes me wonder, “Might this be what living in the days of [one of the most seditious Roman emperors] Caligula felt like?” Good God. I heard of one apologist’s defense of “alternative fact,” that it is used as a means to stay defiant. Defiant against what? Establishment? Do facts now only exist in the “establishment”? Or, using facts is now considered “elite”?

Back in NM

Back in NM

Then, I began to question myself about one of the fundamental pillars of my being a social scientist: socially constructed reality. I asked myself: How do I make it clear to others who aren’t familiar with this term, the difference between socially constructed reality and lies? We recognize there are multiple realities, which could be called alternative realities, per the opening example and explored further below, but by definition there can be no “alternative facts,” not even as euphemism.

We go through our daily lives, taking “reality” for granted. We don’t even think about our mutually agreed norms, rituals, salutations…etc. We drive on the right side of the road in this country; we apologize when we accidentally bump into each other; we discuss topics using tacitly agreed rules and norms. (Well, we used to.) The socially constructed reality is a perspective for social scientists in their pursuit of generating knowledge. As a social scientist, it is my professional interest as well as responsibility to observe the different realities that people bring into their work, organizational life, and various social situations. And I try to ascertain the core from which different perspectives emanate.

Nuclear physicists and engineers rely on detailed facts to build nuclear facilities. How nuclear energy should be used would be in the realm of socially constructed reality. It may be to the chagrin of the scientists and engineers, having spent lifetimes figuring out how nuclear energy can be used, but that’s our social reality, partly because scientists are also human beings with all human foibles and emotions in making judgment, with which utilization of scientific discoveries happens – or doesn’t. Architects and contractors build hospitals, but when, where and for how much, and how the space is designed and used, often get politicized, i.e. socially constructed reality. Issues such as, who gets the corner office, which wings should house the patients (but somehow admin always gets the nicest wing), or where the bathrooms be located (read “Fix the woman” for the quarrels about access to bathroom; here & here) get decided and resolved through social interactions.

A manager’s view of an employee’s “being late” is different from the said employee’s own reality. The employee arriving late at work might be due to a car accident on the way to work. Or, her child woke up with a fever and she had to make a last-minute arrangement. It is within the manager’s right to say, “She still has to perform work professionally and diligently.” However, a little understanding can go a long way toward building trust, understanding, and workforce morale. Yes, the quality of the employee’s work could become delinquent and shoddy, but is one day’s work performance determinant of the employee’s worth?

If we normalize the use of “alternative fact,” it will eventually trickle down into the fabric of society, including corporations and organizations. I can imagine scenarios where a manager can easily tell a direct report, “Sorry, Joan, I cannot give you any promotion or raise this year because your recent work for project Y was sloppy. I have an alternative fact; I’m declaring that Mary actually saved the project.” Even though Joan had been working overdrive to push for project Y to be done on time. (Perhaps Mary and the manager have been besties for months?) If Joan complains to senior managers, she’s unlikely to be heard objectively since Joan’s manager couldn’t have carried out such “alternative fact” approach without the collusion of higher management. Chances are the higher the managerial ladder reaches, the more often the managers are tempted to use the “alternative facts.” It’s a perfect tool to seize and abuse power.

Now in OR

Now in OR

I used to think “true fact” is a silly redundant expression…well, it still is.

One of my favorite quotes is from the Robert Bolt play “A Man for All Seasons,” about the life of Thomas More under Henry VIII, in which Thomas More said, “Some men think the Earth is round, others think it flat; it is a matter capable of question. But if it is flat, will the King’s command make it round? And if it is round, will the King’s command flatten it?”[*] In today’s world, sadly, people in power and their minions are declaring alternative facts and millions of supporters cannot make the distinction. Those of us who can need to keep the lights on.

Who knew? My signature mantra seems to be even more pertinent these days,

 

Staying Sane and Charging Ahead.

 

[*] Taken from the text of the play, available via Amazon. Even more poignant is this quote from Bolt’s Preface to the text of the play (Bolt, 1960):

“A man takes an oath only when he wants to commit himself quite exceptionally to the statement, and when he wants to make an identity between the truth of it and his own virtue; he offers himself as a guarantee… Of course, it is much less effective now … we would prefer most men to guarantee their statements with, say, cash rather than themselves. We feel – we know – the self to be an equivocal commodity…”

 

Direct Contact: taso100@gmail.com

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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When Even Generic Smile Is Seen As Dishonest And Suspicious

To strangers to American culture, Americans’ smiles can be unnerving. “Is there something on my face?” “Did she know something I missed?” “It’s so inappropriate for him to smile at me.” According to some Russians, for the longest time, American’s smile was a symbol of the evil American capitalism. Non-verbal communication is just as much of a socially constructed phenomenon as verbal communication. Cultural shock is akin to bacteria invading our bodies, annoying, inconvenient, and we just want to find some drugs to zap them away. We rarely see cultural adjustment as a challenge to our emotional well-being.

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The second story of the Invisibilia focused on changing one aspect of a national culture, Russian specifically. When McDonald’s opened its first franchise in Moscow January of 1990, it was a huge deal. Not only the symbol of capitalism invading a former communist country, the Russian employees of McDonald’s continued the Big Mac’s culture of smiles in their greetings and services. However, it was the totality of the “customer service,” a la American/Western/Capitalistic ways, that tested the uninitiated and curious Russians. From “Hi, how are you?” “What can I get for you?” to “Is there anything else?” and “Hope to see you soon,” it was the complete opposite of what Russians usually experienced in their own restaurants where servers were surly, rude, slow, very slow, and sometimes downright nasty.

How did the average Russian customers react to their own fellow countrymens’ Americanized behavior, at least inside McDonald’s? Would they be suspicious of such unwanted friendliness? Not just smiling, but eye contacting and “faked” chumminess? Guess what people of all cultures would prefer? To be treated kindly…with or without smiles. The featured Russian in the radio story, Yuri, considered the question whether Russians going to McDonald’s are for food or emotional culture, and his response was, “I think emotional culture. People – some people liked food – some people were kinda, like, eh, food is OK. But, you know, it’s really a great place to just hang out.” Contrary to American’s perception of the uniformed soulless fast-food corporate culture, Russians saw McDonald’s an “island of light and humanity.” Socially constructed reality!

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Such attitudinal change in Yuri and his co-workers took hold of their psyche over time, and some of them began feeling impatient with general Russians’ old ways of taking everything so seriously. In fact, two years after Yuri’s foray into the world of Big Mac, he and his family immigrated into the US, and settled down in Boston. Yuri had a honeymoon period in the States. Then, one day while waiting for bus, a fellow rider struck a conversation with Yuri, and they had a great back-and-forth on some personal stuff. Yuri saw a budding friendship and was delighted. The bus came; his “new friend” boarded after Yuri and sat away from Yuri, like all those talking points had just evaporated into thin air. Yuri concluded, “And I still remember that feeling. I was, like, I thought you were my friend. That’s really strange.”

Of course, you know by now that very few things in social science/social world are absolute. So it is with smiling, it can get carried away in customer service. Many American workers who are on the frontline dealing with customers feel burnt out after a prolonged period of smiling too much, a disguise for suppressed frustration. The forced smile has also created the expectation on the customers’ side to think they are always right and can become wholly unreasonable. So, there is a dark side of “keeping up with the smile!”

I remember vividly my first trip to the People’s Republic of China in 1985. The country had barely opened its doors to outsiders. Almost everything was still state operated with zero concept of “customers;” the few mom-and-pop shops were accustomed to not seeing too many happy customers. Everyone seemed dour and impatient. The only friendly people were your relatives, connections with your relatives, or small merchants who’d like to take a little bit of advantage of you if they could. My western style combined with impeccable Chinese often unnerved the strangers, and if I could be quick, I could enjoy a little break of getting what I needed while they were recovering from being caught off guard. My second visit two years later saw dramatic changes across a large swath of the country, and by my last visit in 1991, Shanghai was on the cusp of becoming a cosmopolitan center. By then, my reaction to seeing the smiling Chinese wait staff was, “They are just being obsequious.” I haven’t been back since and have no idea of how people have changed.

Globalization has upended many carts, such as customer services, labor forces, attitudes toward “strangers,” or cultural habits. My take on of the two stories presented in the Invisibilia episode is this: Top-down changes are achievable in a small group and when the leaders practice what they preach. This was the case of the oil rig, presented in the previous post. The McDonald’s case was initiated from the top HQ down to one Moscow store, but it eventually caught fire as more McDonald’s opened up throughout Russia. More than two decades later, Russians’ smile score was higher than Americans’ in the 2015 “Smiling Report.” Yet, when it comes down to individuals living cross-culturally, such as in Yuri’s case, there is still much internal struggle and negotiation with the external world.

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After being in the States for 40+ years, and happy like a fish back in the water, I still occasionally experience a cultural shift and puzzlement. Actually, such a feeling of disquiet occurs to many people when they move from one region to another, e.g. east coast to west coast, or north to south, and vice versa. Sometimes, English-speaking people moving from one country to another English-speaking country, say, US to UK, or UK to Australia, etc. experience even stronger cultural shock precisely because the changes may be subtle and easily taken for granted.

There are no magic medicines or programs to help us overcome the cross-cultural malaise. However, like all emotional issues, we need to take time to understand, really and deeply understand, not just our cultural environment but how we fit in that environment. It’s stop-and-go; it’s constant; it can be tiring and exhilarating; it’s personal, individualistic and collective. And it can be rewarding whenever we “get” it.  Till next time,

 

Staying Sane and Charging Ahead.

Direct Contact: taso100@gmail.com

When Tough Men Can Cry Openly…

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

redmaple2

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

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

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

When the student is ready, the teacher will come.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Staying Sane and Charging Ahead.

Direct Contact: taso100@gmail.com

 

 

 

 

 

Some Intangibles Lead to Solid Successes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

Direct Contact: taso100@gmail.com

Lessons From Google’s Group Dynamics

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cats have their norms and group dynamics too.

Cats have their norms and group dynamics too.

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

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

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

 

Staying Sane and Charging Ahead.

Direct Contact: taso100@gmail.com

Executives ≠ Leaders; Business Operations ≠ Government Operations; Business Executives ≠ Political Leaders

“We must reject the idea – well-intentioned, but dead wrong – that the primary path to greatness in the social sectors is to become ‘more like a business.’” — from Jim Collins’ “Good to Great and the Social Sectors

(“Social sectors” can be easily replaced with “government agencies.”)

When I first read that passage, I wanted to dance a jig. Finally, someone well known and highly respected for his ability to bridge academics to practice says something that I, with little public reputation, have been arguing for quite some time.

imgres-2While a great leader – with talent manifested in a track record of sound judgment and excellent decisions outcomes – may be able to transfer her talents from business to social sectors and government, the entities themselves are not quite comparable. Using Mr. Collins’ language, both the input and output of business operations is money. In government operations, money is only an input; the output measurement is largely effectiveness. Furthermore, many functions and objectives within a government may compete with each other, such as environmental concerns versus energy production.  Comparatively speaking, focusing on only making money seems more straightforward.

When a business runs into trouble, it allocates money to finding solutions, fixing things, and/or generating PR campaigns – in real time. A government agency doesn’t get to allocate money easily, or quickly. A typical business executive may choose from a diverse range of options for any issue at hand, and most of the time, the boss doesn’t need to consult with others beyond those few the boss likes. The president of United States has to work with many body collectives; within his inner circle, he may occasionally get pushback, but outside of the West Wing, the opposition has grown fiercer over the decades. Being tough is a requirement for the US presidency, but it doesn’t give anyone the right to shout louder, talk incessantly with made-up stuff, and insult others with impunity.

Many candidates of this year’s presidential campaign have been making racist, misogynistic, inflammatory, and simply false statements. These people would have been fired long ago had they been employed in private companies or public sector entities. Yet, one of them is now the presumptive nominee in one of the major parties in our country, which is regarded as the leader of the free world. For now.

More importantly, on the matter of running government as a business, as one writer, John Harvey, argues well in a 2012 Forbes leadership column, “not everything that is profitable is of social value and not everything of social value is profitable.” The various government agencies have different types of functions and purposes, but their purposes are not to make profits. And even if we debate till our faces are blue, we cannot ever agree on which agency and which function should be privatized. Further, to think that somehow private businesses are more efficient – think about hospitals, phone companies, most airlines, your local cable company, to name only a few – is just not realistic.

In today’s private industry, many large-ish companies run like government: top-down decision-making, little transparency, little attention to consumers’ voices, blatant intrusion into our privacy…etc. Market mechanism doesn’t recognize morality and it isn’t always effective in checking and catching abusers and cheaters, from both within and without. How many colossal private industry meltdowns do we have to go through before this lesson is learned? Should we take that kind of risk in running our government like business?

I am by no means arguing against checking the efficiency and effectiveness of government, but the metrics for measurement are not readily transferrable from private sector to government, certainly not without careful calibration. Running a government and operating a business are fundamentally different. In fact, many government agencies’ budgets are so constraining (with most employees’ pay, especially most senior executives’ pay, at much lower levels than private industries) that from a financial perspective, perhaps some of these agencies are more efficient than private businesses?!imgres-1

Again, it’s not that government cannot learn a thing or two from private industries…or vice versa. Let’s just not mindlessly associate private industry’s practices with virtue and government’s practices with evil. And if we really want some business executives (with true leadership qualities) to lead our government agencies or branches, let’s choose executives who have a history of wisdom instead of self-indulgence, who recognize talent over sycophancy, who show a willingness to work with other wise people, who exhibit breadth of knowledge and passion for truth, and feel deep compassion for all people. Such leaders would have a higher probability of creating effectiveness, financially or otherwise.

Most of today’s politicians deserve the scorn from the general public. They are as responsible for the rampant bureaucratic waste as the executives and managers running the various agencies. However, when it comes to government waste, we the voters have to take some responsibilities. These “wastes” are totally socially constructed reality. It seems that a good portion of people use the term only on the programs with which they disagree. The left thinks the defense budgets are wasteful corporate welfare, and the right thinks the Affordable Care Act is wasteful public welfare. Who’s right?!

Eric Schnurer in The Atlantic points out that most of us have some pet government programs we want to keep while eliminating others. While many have complained about the growing federal budget and “wasteful” programs, by and large, the ones we might consider giving up would amount to a miniscule dent in the budget. And how do we go about agreeing on what’s truly “wasteful” and to be eliminated? “The public — not just here, but everywhere — demands a wide range of government services. On the other hand, the public is unwilling to pay for the government it demands. Yes, that means taxes.

images-4And just about all experts, and non-experts too, agree that indiscriminately cutting budgets across the board is the most inane way to go about reducing our waste. Yet, that’s exactly what Congress has given us, through “sequestration.” In the meantime, we think building a wall across our southern border is a wise way of spending money? (Hint: Rome tried that on its northern border in Britain, China tried that on its northern border in Asia, Russia tried it on its western border in Berlin, France on its eastern border with Germany. Admittedly, nobody seems to have tried it on its southern border, so maybe that will work better.) Strangely, these days, it seems the comedians have a better grasp of the nuances of public policy. For another perspective on building this wall, please take some time to view John Oliver’s delivery on the topic.

In general, I have avoided talking about politics in this space. However, the pervasive insistence that business operators know better how to run our government in the face of evidence to the contrary, has compelled me to cross the line. I am sure I have overlooked many aspects, so I invite you to help me learn more in this area.

Till next time,

Staying Sane (and Calm) and Charging Ahead.

Direct Contact: taso100@gmail.com

 

Wishful Thinking; Magical Thinking; Idealism; Reality: We seem to lose our ability to distinguish these categories

I try; I’ve really tried, and I truly want to hold onto appreciative mode of thinking. But these days reality frequently bites me with reminders of why so many people in our society, or for that matter, in the rest of the world, have become cynical.

Last week, Ted Cruz chose Carly Fiorina as his VP running mate in the GOP presidential campaign.

Snake has more grace than some humans.

Snake has more grace than some humans.

Professor Jeff Pfeffer, of Stanford University’s Graduate School of Business, once described Fiorina succinctly, “[even] people who have presided over catastrophes suffer no negative consequences. On the contrary, Ms Fiorina, who by any objective measure was a horrible CEO, is running for president on her business record. I love it! . . . You can’t make this stuff up — it’s too good!” Perhaps Mr. Cruz thinks that Ms. Fiorina could help other businesses understand how not to fail?!

Oh, what am I thinking? That would require a degree of humility to acknowledge one’s mistakes. Humility in today’s leadership? either in organizations or in politics?!

The aforementioned Professor Pfeffer is one of the prominent scholars in the management field. He’s studied countless organizations and leaders/managers. He and his colleague, Robert Sutton, have written many books that are good reading for both academics and practitioners, of which “Hard Facts, Dangerous Half-Truths & Total Nonsense” was the basis for several of my earlier posts (here & here). Pfeffer’s latest book is titled, “Leadership BS.” According to the Financial Times writeup, even some of Pfeffer’s colleagues think that he has become too cynical, focusing too much on the “scorpions, spiders and cockroaches” of D- or F-rated leaders. Hmmmm…first, let’s not call these D/F-rated managers or politicians “leaders.” Second, only the cockroach should be used as the reference; the other species actually serve a purpose in the ecosystem. Pfeffer’s defense is: He relates what the data inform him.

In Professor Pfeffer’s view, we want to imbue inspirational qualities in the images of ideal leaders, qualities such as authenticity, consideration, humility, etc. But the majority of the managers in his studies do not live up to this inspirational image. This doesn’t negate the existence of a few truly inspirational leaders with abundant humility. Pfeffer himself has named a few inspirational leaders in his years of studying leadership. Jim Collins’ books, for example “From Good to Great,” illustrate some of the quiet type of leaders; yet, Mr. Collins has highlighted many charismatic, pseudo-inspirational leaders who focus on their own satisfaction rather than serve the good of the people in their organizations. Nonetheless, I take Pfeffer’s point that genuinely inspirational leaders are few and far between. By building up the “shoulds” in the leadership attributes while neglecting the reality, we (who like to write about or teach these topics) do a disservice for our audience and help create the disenchantment that’s been festering in our society. It is but one source for the loss of our collective trust in our management and leadership.

Another strand of criticism laid against Professor Pfeffer is that by focusing on the narcissistic leaders/managers, he is essentially condoning those who hoard power. Pfeffer argues that there are always those who hunger for power; we cannot ever eliminate that; it’s part of human nature. Nor can we wish it away by only focusing on the few inspirational leaders. We may try to contain the abuse of power, but hierarchy is part of our DNA where power is a tool. What his research has done is to help us understand how people acquire and keep power. Pfeffer uses the examples of President Lincoln and Nelson Mandela to illustrate that even true leaders have to lie and manipulate in order to achieve what they perceive as “higher” purposes.   As for how to use power for better purposes, for the greater good of the public, answers lie in our upbringing, our philosophical leaning, the kind of peer and social circles we have, etc.

Snake or twig?

Snake or twig?

And oh, by the way, just because someone can lie and manipulate masterfully, or even seemingly so, doesn’t make that person a shining example of a “leader.” Especially if at the end of the lying and manipulating, there is little evidence of accomplishment for anyone but him/herself…that’s simply someone drunk on power; it’s called “being Voldemort.”

Ultimately, what we look for in leadership is judgment exhibited in the track record. It isn’t just successes we want, but also the quality of these successes…as well as the nature and circumstances of failures. Making tough decisions is not the relevant metric; if (say) three out of five tough decisions lead to impressive failures then “the ability to make tough decisions” is hardly a bragging point – a tossed coin could have done better. Tanking a Fortune 500 company might be worth, say, five-fold failure.

According to Professor Pfeffer’s research, the data on the quality of leadership do not back up what the business schools teach or what the leadership industry advises. Should we give up? Of course not, but a healthy dose of realistic examination would be valuable. In fact, Pfeffer and Sutton have another book calling for such practice, “Evidence-Based Management Principles.

Robert Townsend in his book “Up The Organization,” offers an easier and much less costly method of assessing a good leader. “How do you spot a leader? They come in all ages, shapes, sizes, and conditions. Some are poor administrators, some are not overly bright. One clue: since most people per se are mediocre, the true leader can be recognized because, somehow or other, his people consistently turn in superior performances.(Highlight mine)

A genteel dog in real life.

A genteel dog in real life.

Regardless of the method we choose to assess leaders, the evidence clearly demonstrates that some of the business operators who attempt to enter into politics do not possess a good track record. Yet because they themselves have not suffered terribly in the business world, their narcissism leads them to think they know better. Hence the public cynicism. It seems there are no consequences for executives’ bad behavior and decisions. Ms. Fiorina was fired, but enjoyed a golden parachute of millions in compensation and stock options. Mr. Trump has filed four bankruptcies, but is touted as successful billionaire. As many have pointed out, had Mr. Trump just sat on his inheritance, he’d accrued more asset than what he currently claims to possess. In addition, having 1,300 lawsuits involving Trump and/or his companies since 2000 isn’t exactly a positive reflection on the quality of his business, is it?

Still, many keep arguing for a business operator to run the largest government on this planet. The assumptions for such a wish are fallacious. I will address these assumptions in the next post. Till then,

Staying Sane (and Calm) and Charging Ahead.

Direct Contact: taso100@gmail.com