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…”


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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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Words Aren’t Really Innocent

…you must accept the alien idea that your actions and your emotions can be primed by events of which you are not even aware.” — Daniel Kahneman, from Thinking, Fast and Slow

This “priming” effect can take place in words, ideas, emotions, or behavior. If we are hungry or just ate, the word EAT is likely to prime us to fill SO_P with U and make it “soup.” However, if we see WASH, we are likely to fill the blank with A and make it “soap.”

This isn’t just about word association; it goes deeper than we realize. If we happened to eat at a restaurant where the setting was stuffy and warm, we might remember the food as kind of stale. If we just recovered from a cold, we might see in our mind’s eye “soap and wash” with more scrubbing than we normally might feel.

In a study that has made the “Florida effect” well-known in the academic world, college students

First sign of fall colors and cooler temp "prime" me to think of snowy winter!

First sign of fall colors and cooler temp “prime” me to think of snowy winter!

were asked (or, primed) to construct 4-word sentences from a set of five words. Half of the students were given words associated with ageing, such as, “Florida, forgetful, bald, gray, or wrinkle.” The measurement of effect came afterwards when the students were asked to walk the length of a hallway. The students primed by the old-age related words walked significantly slower than those primed by non-age related words. None of the students were aware of the impact.

The effect may be opposite if you happen to dislike old people. In that case, you are likely to walk faster. Not only words can impact your behavior, your subsequent behavior may affect your thoughts. In other words, those words that lead you to act old may in turn make you think of old age and feel slightly older than you would otherwise. But not to worry; this effect isn’t long lasting, unless some diabolic politicians want to design programs to mess with your mind.

Unfortunately, some politicians do try to employ priming effects…whether or not knowing the term. A study showed that for issues of school funding, voters tended to favor school funding when the polling station was at school than when it was at a nearby non-school building. Such an effect might not be huge, but were it a close election, that difference may be enough to tip the outcome.

Money-primed studies are particularly depressing. When participants were primed by money-related words –therefore thinking they were better-off than others – they tended to be more independent/individualistic, less willing to engage with or help others, and more selfish. In one study, a research assistant walked by the participants and dropped a bunch of pencils; the money-primed students picked up far fewer pencils than students without such priming. In another setting, money-primed participants would choose to sit much farther away from someone else in a meeting than participants without such priming. (I am not sure if these studies took into account introversion/extroversion.)

As Kahneman reminds us, “The evidence of priming studies suggests that reminding people of their mortality increases the appeal of authoritarian ideas, which may become reassuring in the context of the terror of death.” In other words, words matter. Now I wish I wasn’t so testy whenever my mother said, “Be careful,” before each of my trips.


Of course we all like to believe that we are in firm control of our thoughts and behavior, and that we are rational beings who would not do silly things from “simple” suggestion. The priming principle doesn’t negate this belief; it just reminds us that we aren’t always in control. So, I embrace Kahneman’s admonition, “The idea…is that disbelief [of priming effect] is not an option.”

One more fascinating study, and I’ll stop. At a UK university’s break room where coffee and tea were available and suggested prices were listed, purely on honor system, people left money in a collection box. One day, without any notification, a poster showing a pair of eyes went up right above the counter where tea and coffee, and the collection box, were placed. A week later, a different poster showing flowers replaced the previous one. No one paid much attention to this little addition and alteration. The posters were basically two types, one with a pair of eyes and the other with flowers; various posters of these two themes alternated in the break room. This went on for 10 weeks, and yes, this was a study.

Researchers tabulated the amount of money left in the collection box. Whenever the poster with eyes was up, the contribution shot up and whenever the flowers poster was up, the contribution went down. Of course, the ups and downs were not of the exact same amount or magnitude, but the differences were striking. Not surprisingly, the largest difference was marked between the first week, a pair of eyes, and the second week, flowers. Remember, people didn’t realize what was going on, and somehow the difference between 9th and 10th, the final week, was profoundly sizable as well. Visualize a zig-zag line, side by side with eyes-flowers in alternate order for 10 weeks. (I’d offer an image but it’d take too long to get copyright permission to use the figure in the book, so I invite you to create your own image.)


When big brothers and sisters watch you…

This is also why “fake it till you make it” works. Priming yourself with a smile, e.g. holding a pencil horizontally with your teeth for a few minutes, does get you in a more relaxed mode. When our minds are less strained, we think more clearly. So,


Stay Sane, and Charge Ahead

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On “Doubt”…This time, doubt was addressed with evidence

The second crime story of the “Anatomy of Doubt”  of This American Life took place in Colorado in 2011, two years after the crime against Marie of Lynwood, a suburb of Seattle (see previous post). In Colorado, there was a series of three rapes, which took place in three locations in close proximity. The lead detectives of at least two of the three cases were female and a crime analyst providing one piece of key (in retrospect) information was also a female.

I highlight the female part because I think it’s relevant in rape cases. In addition, one of these two female detectives, Stacy Galbraith, had handled at least 50 rape cases by the time of this story.


The latest victim of Galbraith’s case was unusual; the young graduate student didn’t show much emotion while being interviewed right after the assault. She also managed to notice quite a few striking features of the perpetrator, partly because she chatted up with him afterwards: He traveled a lot; he spoke at least four languages; he talked about math, he had no problem finding girlfriends but disliked the consensual relationships; and most importantly, he has a birthmark of a size and shape of an egg on his leg. In addition, she noticed his height and weight, the pink Sony camera, and described him “gentleman, calm, and mannered,” even though she was raped at gunpoint, and was told to take a shower afterwards to wash off the DNA.

Detective Galbraith didn’t always understand her rape victims, some were more hysterical than others. However, the victims’ manner was never part of her investigation. When she discussed the case with her husband, a policeman, he mentioned the similarity to another case in his district. So, Galbraith contacted the other detective, also female, and their comparison of the cases revealed a large degree of overlap, with one notable difference, the other detective’s case had a theft component: A pink camera was stolen. Further, the other detective mentioned yet another similar case, in a neighboring county.  huntington 2

Five weeks into Galbraith’s latest rape case, there was a meeting of lead detectives of recent rape cases, officials from Federal, state, and local levels, and a crime analyst who presented information of suspicious vehicles in the vicinity of an attempted rape. When she showed a picture of a Mazda pickup, it caught Galbraith’s attention. Galbraith had seen only a fuzzy image of a pickup truck in a surveillance tape some time ago, but the coincidence struck her. Since this analyst had the pickup’s license plate — it belonged to a Marc O’Leary – it was their first break in the cases.

With FBI’s assistance, agents were sent to trail O’Leary while others went to his apartment to collect a DNA sample. What the team didn’t realize was that they had been trailing Marc’s brother, of similar build and appearance. When they thought Marc was out of the apartment, they knocked on the door before going in. The agents were taken aback by the person answering the door, the very Marc O’Leary who was supposed to be out. The agents quickly made up a convincing story: They were canvassing the neighborhood for a suspect, and even produced a photo of the person of interest.

In the meantime, the agents who were following Marc’s brother managed to collect the brother’s DNA from his meal at a diner. The DNA results showed that one of the two brothers committed these crimes, but was not conclusive. The birthmark would help.

Two days later, Galbraith and her team went to O’Leary’s place again, with a search warrant. While inside the apartment, she patted down Marc, and it just so happened that he was wearing a cargo pants. She could lift up his pant legs, and saw the egg-size birthmark.

Afterwards, Galbraith processed the gathered evidence; she encountered many images of his victims on a thumb drive. Most of these victims were from Colorado. And then, Galbraith saw a woman, gagged and bound, with a Washington driver’s license on her chest. It was Marie.

Marc O’Leary was convicted of five rapes, including the one in Washington, 2 months after Marie’s case, and 20 other felonies, and was sentenced to 300 years in prison.

Lynwood’s police chief personally went to visit Marie and apologized. Marie described,” They were just like, we’re sorry. We’re deeply sorry, you know, about what had happened to you. But it didn’t mean much to me at all.” Marie demanded a personal apology from her case investigator and she received it. She was reimbursed the $500 court fee (no interest?) and her record was wiped clean. She sued the Lynwood police and settled for $150,000. No one at the Lynwood police was disciplined.

Her apartment management? “Our hearts go out to Marie and her family. We strongly believe that Cocoon House and its employees acted appropriately on behalf of the client [Marie].” Wow. They were also sued and settled out of court.

Marie forgave both Shannon and Peggy, her foster parents, and remains friends with them. Shannon still cannot quite forgive herself. After the case was closed for Marie, Peggy, the one who reported her “doubt” to the lead detective in Marie’s case, said, “OK, now this is going to sound really bad, like I’m blaming the victim. But some of the way that she [Marie] was acting was part of the reason why it had the outcome that it did. And I am not the only person that didn’t believe her.” Wow!


When doubt becomes certainty, it shouldn’t be considered “doubt” any more. By the time Peggy called Marie’s case detective, she was hoping someone could confirm her doubt. Voicing her “doubt” to someone, especially a figure of authority was a strong symbol for her; the doubt was off her chest and now became real. When the detective pursued Marie based on Peggy’s statement, he had no doubt in his mind about Marie’s guilt, and proceeded accordingly. When all hell broke loose on Marie, there did not seem to be any trace of doubt left in Peggy’s mind…hence her last words still put the onerous burden on Marie.

Doubt, a form of uncertainty, makes us uneasy and uncomfortable. It’s in our nature to minimize or erase doubt. There are gaps of information associated with doubt and uncertainty. In those moments, we tend to fill in the gaps with certain assumptions to generate a more-or-less complete story to ease our doubt. Since the assumptions come from our own worldview, lens, or logic, we usually are satisfied with the story we come up with, and feel little need to check those assumptions. What’s more interesting is that even when we want to check our assumptions, we tend to check with a third party rather than with the source of our doubt. So, Peggy called Shannon and they two commiserated with each other’s doubt; Peggy never checked with Marie directly.

I will get into a more full-bodied analysis next time. Till then,


Staying Sane and Charging Ahead.

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Some People Are Very Certain About Their Doubt

This American Life,” a weekly public radio show, not only presents interesting human stories, but also often provides insightful social commentaries and analyses. NUMMI of pre-bankrupt GM is a good example (read here, here, and here). And the episode with the intriguing title, “Anatomy of Doubt” still lingers in my mind. While remembering all the key facts, I nonetheless reviewed the show’s transcript to erase all doubts before writing the following.

The “Doubt” episode is yet another reminder that “common sense” can lead us astray. It also reminds me of the classic exercise for communication, or miscommunication, that some of you might have done. This exercise asks groups of five to seven people (or more) to relay a simple message within each group; by the end of the relay, the message can sometimes be unbelievably garbled. It’s a lesson, or a warning, about the reliability of our memory, our tendency to rewrite messages according to preconceptions, and unintended consequences. Yet, we keep doing this on a regular basis…because we are humans.


There are two stories in “Doubt,” and they are convoluted, as life often is. The stories are based on crimes made more gripping because the doubts that seemingly inevitably surround sexual assaults. (Now, why does sexual assault elicit more doubts, especially from those who are close to the victims?) I am sure that I will not be able to capture all the twists and turns in this short space; however, I will sketch out the essentials; of course, that reduces the mystery and suspense. So, I urge you to read the transcript or listen to the episode.

The first story took place in 2009, in a Seattle suburb, Lynwood. An 18-year old Marie found herself tied up, under threat of a knife, and raped in the middle of the night. Afterwards, the assailant, still wearing a mask, took a picture of her and threatened her with publicity if she reported. She reported.

Marie grew up through several foster care homes; one caregiver, Shannon, became close to Marie even after she moved out. Marie’s last foster mom, Peggy, a teacher, also kept in touch with Marie. Because Peggy lived closer to Marie, she was by Marie’s side when the police were still processing Marie’s apartment. They did a rape kit, documented various bruises, especially around her wrists, and found all the materials the assailant used, his mask, knife, and the shoelace. No fingerprints were found except one set on the sliding glass door.

Peggy recalled her doubt about Marie’s story from the get-go. “ I was like, oh, my God. She’s telling me that she got raped. But I felt–I just felt horrible. I felt horrible that I didn’t believe her.” Later, Peggy called Shannon who shared the same doubt. The basis for their doubt:

  • Marie called too many people the next day to tell her story.
  • Marie had a tendency to seek attention.
  • Marie was surprisingly un-emotional when she related the story, as if “she just made a sandwich.”
  • All the materials used by the assailant belonged to Marie, and Peggy wondered if shoelaces were strong enough to stop someone’s struggling.
  • Days later, Marie was her giggling self, rolling in the grass, and flirting with her apartment case manager who was trying to help.

Peggy eventually let her doubt take over. She called the investigative detective and shared her doubt, and that began Marie’s nightmare. Both of the detectives on the case were men, and the senior one had had little experience in sexual assault cases. Marie’s case was his 2nd or 3rd one.bridge

After Peggy’s call, the detectives brought Marie in to the police station for further interviews, though this time, it was clear that they treated her more like a criminal than a victim. They saw inconsistencies and suspicious points in Marie’s story. Another round or two of more interviews later, Marie broke down and agreed to recant her story. Though when she wrote, “I dreamed…” she was forced to rewrite, “I lied about…I made up this story.” At one point, the police threatened her with a polygraph test, which should have raised a red flag but the detectives later claimed that Marie herself brought it up first. Regardless, Marie eventually was charged with false reporting, for which she had to pay $500 court fee, go through mental health counseling, and meet other conditions for a year.

When the news broke that she lied, it was all over the local TV stations. Marie got hate mail and was crucified online. This was an 18-year old woman who was trying to be independent, with her support network faltering around her. She was alone; she needed help; she needed a lawyer. Her subsidized apartment, housing recently independent former foster children, would normally provide assistance. However, the case manager called the police station and was told that there was no rape.

Later, the case manager called a residents’ meeting, without revealing the purpose of the meeting, and exposed Marie’s situation. Needless to say, the majority of the residents were hostile to Marie. (There was one young woman who saw Marie’s tone and posture as those of someone who was traumatized…this young woman had a similar experience.) After this public shaming, for the first time in her life, Marie thought about suicide.

The false reporting charge meant that Marie’s rape case would be officially closed. The physical evidence police had gathered at the scene was destroyed except for a single fingerprint card that was left behind. Everything else– the rape kit, the bedding, the DNA swabs– they were never even tested in a crime lab, never analyzed.”

Two months after Marie’s case, Shannon saw on TV a news story of a rape case in a neighboring county with the exact same M.O. as Marie’s. Shannon realized then that her friend probably was a true victim. Shannon contacted the detective in charge of the new case and told him about Marie’s story. The current detective called Marie’s case detective and was told that she lied and there was no rape. The current detective never followed up with Marie.

Years later, there was an outside review of the case by a police investigator, a sex crime specialist named Sergeant Gregg Rinta. His report said, quote, ‘The manner in which she [Marie] was treated by Sergeant Mason and Detective Rittgarn can only be labeled as bullying and coercive.’” 

You didn’t really think that I could finish this story in one shot, did you? And I promise there are implications for social psychology and management. Till next time,


Staying Sane and Charging Ahead.

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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.

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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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