Gritting Your Way…Toward What?

Growing for the sake of growing is a mindless exercise.

Most human beings are complex, capable of holding several ideas at the same time. Yet, many of us are also keen on catchy phrases and regard a few bumper stickers as profound philosophies. Nothing wrong, just is. Still, it behooves those of us who yearn for deeper meaning and lively discussion to be more aware of the pitfalls of attractive one-liners or descriptors.

I am coming to the main point.

Grit” has been the buzzword in the education field for quite a few years by now. The researcher, Angela Duckworth, who coined the term in her years of study was granted a MacArthur Fellowship award in 2013. That further bolstered the attractiveness of the concept. Students possessing grit, the ability to sustain interests and meet challenges over a long period of time, do better academically than those who give up more easily. You want the workplace staffed with adults who had this trait developed during childhood. I wonder how that applies to hedge fund managers… Anyway, the majority of the parents would say, “But of course,” and wish their children to acquire more grit.

Naturally beautiful even as petals drop...

Understandably, children with grit are likely to carry that attitude and habit into adulthood. On the other hand, it would take much longer and more effort for adults to develop grit. I can just see some HR (human resources) departments requiring interviewees to submit their “grit” scores from 2nd grade. I am betraying my bias, and I will explain it after I introduce another concept, “growth mindset.”

The term “growth mindset” is usually presented as the contrast to “fixed mindset.” In the former, a person holds a dynamic view of the world and of herself, and so she would always strive to improve herself regardless of her endowed talent and intelligence. The “fixed mindset” sees the person’s talent as a be-all-end-all attribute; if he doesn’t have talent in a particular area, hard work alone isn’t going to lead to significant achievement. People with “growth mindset” regard failures as the inevitable byproduct of improvement; people with “fixed mindset” regard failing to meet standards as a profound blow. I described these differences more closely some time ago. At first glance, this seems to make sense. On looking closer, the wording of these concepts reveals underlying biases: Who wants to be labeled as “fixed” and not desiring “growth?” Not surprisingly, growth mindset overlaps with grit; both entail working hard to better oneself.

How can anyone argue against instilling resilience and bettering ourselves? Having the grit to grow one’s mind is admirable. But there is a key ingredient missing in these equations: Toward what end?

This is similar to the critique of “goal” by a prominent scholar, James March: Being goal-oriented or having goals is fine, but how do we evaluate the content of goals? For instance, is pushing for 100% safety record a good goal for an R&D entity? Would 93% be acceptable? Would 80% be considered a failure? Should diversity for, say a 5,000-employee organization, perfectly reflect the society’s racial composition?

Dramatization certainly makes it interesting...but beautiful still?!

In perpetuating some of these catchy concepts or phrases, we often pay too much attention to their potential benefits and neglect what it is we hope to achieve and more importantly, why. In the education arena, adopting “grit” and “growth mindset” has lead us to emphasize “praising the students’ efforts” while overlooking the content of their learning, and abandon the hope that learning itself is an exciting enterprise. Our sole goal seems to be that our students strive to test well. Good signals? I grew up in an all-grit educational environment; it was grueling at some times and pointless at most times.

These days, when kids hear “You’ve tried really hard, don’t worry about the outcomes yet,” they can’t help but think “Oh, I am really not good enough.” Students hear “trying/working hard” as code for “not very smart in the first place.” Put it differently: If we ask 100 kids picked at random to practice the violin with all the grit they can muster, how many do you think you’d enjoy listening to? If 10 students perform well, what should we do with the other 90? Tell them to develop more grit? Instead, how about we try harder to discover what would really make the other 90 kids excited, for which they would be “happy” to generate more grit, without being asked to? Applying this same principle to organizations: Wouldn’t it be more productive to task people with the activities they are naturally good at, and for which they would willingly “grit” their way to accomplish more than expected? Wouldn’t this be the win-win we truly desire?

But the way things are practiced in schools and organizations, the message is still that we need external definition of what we ought to do and external rewards for our “improvement” at it. Remember, intrinsic motivation is a whole lot more effective than extrinsic rewards. This notion has been robustly proven and resonates with almost everyone; however, it is largely ignored in organization (and school) life. People, of all ages, see empty praise and compliments for the manipulative moves they are. As Alfie Kohn, an independent scholar and a proponent of progressive education, puts it succinctly, “…the most salient feature of a positive judgment is not that it’s positive but that it’s judgment; it’s more about controlling than encouraging.”  Positive judgment may tickle us for a little while, but only fleetingly.

This doesn’t mean that we should forego all compliments and praise, but offer them with concrete evidence and useful feedback. People, again, of all ages, welcome specific information; they can better grow their minds knowing what, how, and why.

more like devil here, thanks to photoshop!

Another missed dimension in typical self-help promotional materials is the assumption that if only individuals did their part… In other words, adjust yourself to adapt to the changes. This is the fundamental flaw in the “Who Moved My Cheese?” which I wrote about before: You don’t get to question the content of the changes; you just need to adjust your own attitude and behavior. So, one of my favorite examples concerns the low rate of young women studying science (and I include math and engineering under that umbrella). Applying the “growth mindset” and “grit” concepts, we only need to focus on telling women that it’s all in their own minds. There is no institutional sexism in society; organizations really welcome all talent. Right, and I’ll win the next lottery.

My final point is this. There are valuable aspects of “grit” and “growth mindset.” But let us please grow our minds to go beyond the either-or mindset. Let’s develop our individual minds so that we can better evaluate our environment and question the structures of our schools, work organizations, governing entities, “smartphones” (maybe rename them “effortphones!”), the internet of things, etc. Let’s honor people’s desire to be autonomous, master their desired skills, and locate their own sense of purpose. Sometimes, it isn’t about us; sometimes, we need to strive for changing our environments and systems.

Till next time,

Staying Sane and Charging Ahead.

Direct Contact:



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.

Direct Contact:

* 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!

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.

Direct Contact:

Seriously, It’s Not Always About Money

Why do people want to work? Why do you want to work? Is the paycheck the only incentive? Do only professionals care about “the meaning of work?” While there aren’t straightforward answers — and philosophical discussions are called for – Professor Barry Schwartz in his “Rethinking Work” informs us that empirical evidence has pointed to “we want more than just monetary reward from our work,” and it applies across the board

barn catMore than a decade ago, the Yale organizational behavior professor Amy Wrzesniewski and colleagues did a study on custodians in a major academic hospital. These custodians’ job description never included assisting patients in any manner, but many of the custodians would go out of their ways to interact with and assist patients and their families, such as joking around to lighten the mood, tucking in rumpled bed sheets, distracting patients while nurses hooked up tubes or drew blood, or even “dancing for them.” One custodian decided to postpone vacuuming the waiting room because some family members had fallen asleep. For these acts of kindness and considerations, the custodians never got extra pay; yet, it was the prospect of feeling useful that “got them out of the bed in the morning.”

Before you argue that it’s the setting – perhaps hospitals command compassion (not everyone’s experience) – that influences people, other studies also confirm that regardless of the type of work, some people always look for higher purposes in their work environments, including even call centers. I emphasize “some” because not all people desire autonomy and purpose, both professionals and laborers.

The findings from these studies have been widely cited, yet they never seem to have reached management in most organizations. Managers by and large still hold onto the “old” belief propagated by Adam Smith (and his disciples) in his “The Wealth of Nations.” Perhaps from his observations but certainly not from impartial evidence, Smith postulated that “it is the interest of every man to live as much at his ease as he can,” and therefore since people are that lazy, they would work only for pay. Remember, such assumptions were also the premise of Frederick Taylor’s scientific management that helped make assembly line work profitable. A reader, William Farina, author of “The Afterlife of Adam Smith,” responding to the New York Times article, “Rethinking Work,” informed us that Smith made the “lazy” assertion mostly based on his own profession at the time, a professor on a fixed salary. Further, Smith believed that “rivalship and emulation” would better motivate people. And even this assumption has been debunked.

Still, we keep the old assumptions like a security blanket; it may not smell great but it’s comforting…to children who need them.

I don’t presume to criticize Adam Smith’s seminal contribution; however, I resonate with Professor Schwartz’s perspective that we might have taken Smith’s assumptions for granted and created a self-prophetic process. If we assume people are fundamentally lazy, cheating and stealing at every chance, we would set up organizational structures accordingly, with rules and watchdogs. When people at work feel constrained, they find loopholes to give themselves breaks, release boredom, or just to rebel. And lo and behold, the manager spots rule breakers and confirms the assumptions that probably all people are lazy and want to cheat. By the way, aren’t managers workers too, more cogs in the organizational gears? And thereby also assumed to be lazy? The tragedy of such deficit thinking was what prompted me to start writing on these issues.images-2

Human nature is complex; it has dark sides, positive sides, and a whole lot more than 50 other shades in between. How did we latch onto the negative assumptions made by Adam Smith? Why didn’t we instead try to explore and exploit the better sides of human nature? Even Smith’s assertion that there is a trade off between work satisfaction and efficiency – in order to gain organizational or production efficiency, we have to ignore employees’ job satisfaction – has been thoroughly refuted. Research findings have yielded strong evidence that where people find engaging, challenging, and meaningful work they help increase the organization’s overall performance and profits. Conversely, “there is a human cost to routinizing and depersonalizing work.” From this angle, Professor Schwartz’s last sentence in his article, “Half of our waking lives is a terrible thing to waste” is heartbreaking.

I know this post feels like a downer but we need to understand the sources of some of our organizational ills. Hence my constant rallying cry,

Staying Sane and Charging Ahead

Direct Contact:

The Cul-de-Sac of “High Achieving”

This time of the year, around the anniversary of my immigrating to the States, I tend to do a little more navel gazing. This year, I find myself reflecting on a term with which I have some issues, “high achiever.” The expression usually implies that someone has achieved more than…but what? It also connotes a high degree of competitiveness.

mt baker 3

I hate competition. Competition makes sense in sports and in related environments where repetition or efficiency is the goal.  In the Chinese/Taiwanese education system, we are expected to be competitive; we need to make our parents look good. Such a burden. My mother, bless her soul, of course wanted all her children to do well (what parents wouldn’t?), but she would never brag about her children’s “accomplishments.” The high school I went to was the best (girls’) high school, and the atmosphere felt like the premed frenzy in this country, although I understood the comparison only after I came to the States. In my high school, we all learned not to let on how hard we had to study for quizzes and tests, and some would actually beam or strut around, albeit subtly, after besting fellow students. Those three years of high school were the worst time in my life.

I don’t accumulate degrees or awards as badges of honor; I simply enjoy learning and exploration. If that means getting degrees and awards, so be it. I don’t regard them as having achieved anything special because for me, it’s all about finding something to be excited about…and the weirder it is, the more fascinating it is.

And I know plenty of people who are like that, regardless of their educational background. Some of the people I most admire have “only” high school diplomas, and some of the PhDs I have known are downright obnoxious. Such superficial accolades are just that, superficial. Years ago, one of the entrepreneurs I met had a PhD in biology but eventually acknowledged and accepted that his true passion was – and still is — woodworking. When he and I compared notes, we discovered what “competition” meant to us both: It’s about competing against ourselves, against some amorphous standards we keep updating, based on everything around us.

The conventional “high achieving” environment is actually quite toxic because it’s based on zero-sum competition mode where my win would have to be at the expense of someone else’s loss. It’s a scarcity mode of being. In such an environment, most people lose by definition. This attitude partly contributes to the ever-increasing stress levels on students, particularly during their high school years, and on employees who see the managerial ladder as the only success measurement. (See the “suggested readings”.) After you achieve a 4.0 GPA – sorry, I mean, 4.75 – then what? After you become a VP, make tons of money, or build five casinos, then what? What will you have accomplished?

I don’t readily know how to make a distinction between “high achievers” and those who forever follow their curiosity and passion. I’d love to hear your take-on and suggestions.

Direct Contact:

Suggested Readings:

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.

Direct Contact:

Suggested Reading: