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.


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!


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.


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.

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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.


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.

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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.

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Follow-up on Introvert-Extrovert

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

Bark of a skinny tree.

Bark of a skinny tree.

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

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

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

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

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

It’s part of a gnarly tree trunk.

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

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

Till next time,


Staying Sane and Charging Ahead.

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

Kicking Habits, Forming Habits…good habits or bad habits, it all depends.

I get irate whenever people try to tell me what to do; it’s a childhood reaction I’ve never learned to outgrow. Is it bad? I could have missed good advice. Is it good? It has taught me self-reliance. Of course, ultimately, it depends on how I manage my irritations. So, when my dental hygienist tried to convince me that it would take only about 21 days to form the habit of flossing everyday, I smiled and demurred. Silently, I said, “That 21 days is a bunk.

First of all, averages or statistics don’t really apply to individuals; they’re information about the aggregate, a group of people. Second, according to some researchers who wanted to have a closer examination of this “21 days to form a habit” claim, their studies show that the actual average is 66 days, and the range is 18-245 days. However, more importantly, the length of time varies among individuals and among types of habits. Maybe for some people it’s easier to form the habit of folding laundry than writing two hours every day…but not if you’re a devoted writer who’d prefer to wear rumpled clothes.

outside SF (1)

However long it takes for a person to form a habit, the foundation lies in what motivates her to do so. For some people, watching TV is a bad habit, but for others, it’s a form of relaxation. If a person forgoes watching TV but spends the freed-up time playing computer games… Spending “too much time” on the computer? It depends on what you do on the computer, no? It behooves us to think about what it is that we want to achieve for ourselves and what underlies our anxiety.

Forming a habit is never just a matter of willpower. Wendy Wood, professor of psychology and business at the University of Southern California, provides a good clarification: “Willpower is more about looking at those yummy chocolate chip cookies and refusing them. A good habit ensures you’re rarely around those chocolate chip cookies in the first place.” Good habits are about structuring our daily lives and environment so that we minimize those temptations that we deem unhealthy or unhelpful.

Structuring our habits requires both positive thinking as well as recognizing where potential negatives may hide, and in that order. We need to know what our dreams are, but we also need to be cognizant of where obstacles may lie. To focus on only one aspect is likely to lead us astray, and to think of obstacles first is likely to sap our energy. For instance, I only recently figured out my painting habit. I usually enjoy the first 5-10% of each of my paintings; I hate the following 80+%. I have to kick myself all the time to finish each painting, and then, I step back and think, “It’s not half as bad as I thought.” So I know what I’d like to achieve, and I have finally learned to grit my teeth for the majority of the journey thus allowing the end to bring the final joy. If I were to focus on only the potential negative side: wasting time, watercolors, papers…I might as well give up painting, which actually I did for quite some time.canyon wall 2

Some people scorn habits and others love them. But imagine having to mindfully engage in every single activity every time: We’d be exhausted before lunch. In fact, we repeat about 40% of our activities every day (huge variance from person to person), and habituation frees us to devote windows in our minds to the pursuit of bigger (and more important?) matters. Rather than wondering whether we should or should not have habits, it seems more important to be mindful of what habits we want to create and maintain, and how to use them to stretch ourselves in new areas and directions.

Poets give poignancy on the otherwise mundane matters. I like Mary Oliver’s words on habits:

The different and the novel are sweet, but regularity and repetition are also teachers. The patterns of our lives reveal us. Our habits measure us. Our battles with our habits speak of dreams yet to come real.”

So, form away your habits. And if you’re trying to instill a “good habit” don’t feel guilty if it doesn’t stick, if you’re trying to defeat a “bad habit” don’t regret its resurgence … just don’t rationalize.

Till next time,


Staying Sane and Charging Ahead.

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What Riots Can Teach Us

“Hows” always intrigue me. Learning about learning; how we behave differently in different contexts (how do we know?); or, how to think…

Mark Granovetter’s The Strength of Weak Ties, the seminal work on social networks, was the foundation of my own PhD dissertation. However, only recently from reading “Everything Is Obvious did I learn about Granovetter’s “riot model” and how we rationalize the motivation behind baffling collective behavior. Like many people, I don’t always realize what motivates myself (I can usually find plausible explanations with 85% confidence); I also cannot always unfailingly detect how another individual (even a close friend) is motivated. And we certainly do not know how a crowd is motivated. Yet, we sure can come up with brilliant analyses of crowd behavior.

A close up.

A close up.

Granovetter’s “riot model” deserves a close look.

In Granovetter’s hypothetical scenario, we first imagine a group of 100 students in their college town, protesting, for example, the proposed hike of government fee. While frustrated and angry, the students are perfectly willing to listen and have a dialogue. Still, they are prepared to “take action” if necessary, and some are more ready than others. Further, every student has different bases for determining how much risk s/he is willing to accept: financial background, degree of vested interest in the political process, a chance to get on TV, comfort with physical engagement (or, violence), and a myriad of others that we might not think of. And even if we can come up with many other reasons, how valid are they? Some students are going to be crazier than others, and they might be the first few that start throwing or smashing things. Lastly, in a potential or an actual riot situation, even ordinarily sane people might behave in ways that they normally would abhor.

Now, let’s also imagine that every single student has a different “threshold” for violence. Andrew Watts, explaining this “riot model,” defines the threshold in this scenario as, “a point at which, if enough other people join in the riot, they will too, but below which they will refrain.” Some people need only 1: just one person shouting and throwing things is enough to push these people to join the action. People with such a low threshold are the “rabble rousers.” Others who might perceive more personal risk in the potential riot would have a higher threshold of say, 25. And still others would have a threshold of 2, 3, or 10, etc

In his “riot model,” Granovetter posits for this crowd of students a particular threshold distribution, in which every one of them has a different actual threshold, from 0 upward. In this example, the first “crazy” one would start throwing and smashing things initially because s/he has no threshold, then the one with threshold of 1 would immediately follow, and the next one with threshold of 2 joins, and before you know it, a full blown riot ensues.

Let’s stretch our imagination even more. Suppose in a different college town, another 100 students are protesting the same issue. Let’s assume that these students’ backgrounds, family, financial and everything else, are identical to the students of the first town we just visited. Everything is much the same except for one little difference in the “threshold” distribution. For this group of students, no one has a threshold of 3 and two students have a threshold of 4. To outside observers, these two groups of students look and behave – before they start acting on their frustration – as similarly as can be perceived. But for this second group, there is insufficient momentum for a full-blown riot. After the first “Ms. Crazy” starts throwing things in this second group, the threshold 1 and 2 students join in. Then, things fizzle out. No one would follow since there is no one in the group with threshold of 3.

As outside observers, we want to puzzle over the “reasons” for the differences between these groups; we want explanations. We postulate all kinds of motivational possibilities, from students’ temperaments, local business’ reactions, some particularly inflammatory comments by certain people, and on and on. They all sound reasonable. Yet, the only difference is in the threshold distribution. Had we known about the two different threshold distributions, might we be wiser? The only way we could have known about the detailed differences of threshold distributions, where the second group skips the threshold of 3, is by being intimately familiar with each and every one of the 200 students involved — how they interact with each other and what would tip each one into violent action. In reality, we can never really know such detailed information about a population, or even a moderately sized group of people.

A smashed object can be interesting...from an old car with shattered windshield.

A smashed object can be interesting…from an old car with shattered windshield.

Like everything worthwhile in life, the detailed journey takes a lot longer to achieve the outcome. So I have taken most of the space today on this theoretical example to make these points: 1. This is a hypothetical situation, yet, the lessons are important. 2. Even a clinically scrubbed and hypothetical case stretches our understanding. What does that say about our reality, where all social situations are so very much more complicated? Somehow in our daily life, we seem to feel sure about our analysis and conclusions, and confidently make subsequent policy decisions. 3. We shouldn’t automatically assume that which motivates us is the same as what motivates others. If we can’t ever wear another person’s skin — and imagining ourselves in that person’s shoes is really an inadequate substitute – perhaps at least, we should try to listen more carefully? Of course, that’s much easier said than done. Does any school offer a course on “how to listen?”

Ultimately, this feels like a philosophical problem…so I will continue reflecting in the next post. Till then,

Staying Sane and Charging Ahead.

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“Only If I Must Lead…”

Having read “level-5 leadership”, then observed and heard stories about some leaders/managers, I occasionally wonder if those who are tapped for (or in some cases, conscripted into) leadership roles are more methodical, reflective, and deliberate in their managerial/leadership style, compared to those who aspired to manager/leader roles. Since learning the concept of “reluctant” leadership (read here, here, and here), I do agree that reluctant leaders seem to take the time…to listen, to ponder, to consider nuances, to take a longer and a wider view, when making a decision. Not surprisingly, some followers and bystanders see such leaders, especially in the early stage of their roles, as “indecisive,” “slow,” “weak,” or maybe even “incompetent.”

Oversize objects always need help to maneuver.

Oversize objects always need help to maneuver.

“Reluctant leaders” possess these qualities: “adaptability, humility, a capacity to bring others along in their efforts, and a plain old willingness to listen.”  Studies on “reluctant leaders” have primarily taken place in the “service” industries where professionals are more willing to consider alternatives to the traditional “command and control” model of management/leadership. Most of these professionals, including potential “reluctant leaders,” prefer calling their own shots, or, designing their own projects. The sources of their motivation are mostly intrinsic. This fits in Dan Pink’s definition of motivation, in which “autonomy” is one of the three key elements for better performing organizations; the other two are “purpose” and “mastery.”  When we take power and control out of management – and I question that we ever really need them in certain sectors – how do managers proceed?

Reluctant or not, managers of today’s quick-paced and volatile economy need to dance to different tunes. In this fast moving economy, as well as in the social world, we all have to be a lot more flexible than we used to be. And since we don’t become flexible overnight, or as soon as a situation calls for flexibility, we have to develop this quality over time. So, a concomitant to “flexibility” is a willingness to listen to others and absorb multiple perspectives…regularly, frequently, constantly over the long term.

There are two leading vehicles, and a police car, to help "lead" that big object, part of a windmill.

There are two leading vehicles, and a police car, to help “lead” that big object, part of a windmill.

Perhaps we are still in a transitional phase in most organizations – switching from “command and control” to “listen and coordinate.” Transitional phase is inherently in flux, marked by uncertainty, and requiring skills in negotiation, political maneuvering, and knowledge of when to bend and when to insist. Maybe this is why many younger professionals are reluctant to step into leadership roles? Further, whether working to the new or old model of management, there is a great deal of “politics” involved in management, an aspect most professionals try to avoid. And, while there is no shortage of manipulation, maneuvering, or concealment among the reluctant leaders, I suspect that the tenor of “politics” as endured by this century’s flexible leaders is different from the old school of manipulation, power, and deception. I hypothesize that a reluctant manager is likely to manipulate situation rather than people. A manager once described to me – and he has a pretty high EQ, emotional quotient — “If a manager thinks he’s a ‘Manager,’ he’s likely to manipulate people. If he doesn’t see himself as a manager first, he’s likely to focus on the situation.” Imagine this: Upon seeing a fire, a traditional “Manager” might say, “YOU, go and put out the fire, and use the hose closest to you.” A “reluctant manager” might respond differently, “Fire, let’s put it out.”

Given the above definition and description, “reluctant leaders” may be cut from very different cloth than the traditional “command-and-control” type of leaders. For instance,

  1. A sense of humility may mean: “My colleagues know more than I do,” and therefore “I need as much input to help me as possible.”
  2. A sense of resolution may mean: “This is about the health of the whole organization,” and thereby “I need to build a majority, preferably a consensus on the bigger picture.” It follows then that reluctant leaders have little need to obfuscate; they tend to be more open about their thinking process.
  3. There is a built-in paradox in “reluctant leadership:” “I despise playing politics, so I will adjust my approach so as to minimize the politics in my decisional and operational environment.” However, paradoxically, “In order to minimize my political involvement, I need to be cognizant of how others are playing politics around me.”

As I have indicated before, we cannot, and should not, examine leadership without considering followership. What would the people “following” a reluctant leader be like? They need to see their leaders’ professional record as equal to, or superior to, their own. They are given plenty of room to develop their own skills; they accept being challenged even while they don’t want to be directed or managed. While they may not like playing politics (as if they could totally avoid it), they are sympathetic to the leaders’ occasional need to act politically.

"I don't need no stinky leader.  I just want a friend."

“I don’t need no stinky leader. I just want a friend.”

The key to the relationship between the reluctant leader and his followers lies in one of the elements mentioned earlier, “autonomy.” It’s paradoxical, and that’s why it’s fascinating. It is precisely when a leader is willing to relax control of people, letting them determine their own courses of action, that people are willing to “follow” the leader’s vision. Conversely, in a professional organization, a controlling manager, hungry for more power and control, is likely to alienate his people. The committed professionals are still going to aim for excellence in their work, but they may not always have the controlling leader’s vision in mind. In such a scenario, the work done by the “reluctant” followers isn’t likely to cohere with the organization.

In abstract, “reluctant leadership” feels tiring. I wonder if reluctant leaders/managers stay in their positions for very long, especially compared to the command-and-control type. What do you think?

Till next time,


Staying Sane and Charging Ahead.

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