Some Intangibles Lead to Solid Successes

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

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

sea fans 2

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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Lessons From Google’s Group Dynamics

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cats have their norms and group dynamics too.

Cats have their norms and group dynamics too.

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

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

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


Staying Sane and Charging Ahead.

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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!

NUMMI – When The Giant Stumbles…

It hurts everyone in its path.

Is it possible that all those working at NUMMI (New United Motor Manufacturing Incorporated) were happy team players? Of course not, that’d be against reality, and so not American. However, since the dissenters were few, there was little chance of upsetting production. Ultimately, the question was: If NUMMI was such a success, wouldn’t GM want the rest of the company’s plants, or at least the majority of them, to learn (not copy) from it?

As I have explained before, changes are personal. When people perceive changes as threats to their skills or power, they resist.


During the initial implementation of NUMMI, GM set up a team of 16 “rising stars” to help with NUMMI. After NUMMI was launched, these 16 “commandos” were basically sitting idle. No one at HQ contacted them for valuable information. After two years, one of them quit, and another one went to GM Brazil to help set up the plant there and created some success, a la NUMMI.

In the meantime, a GM plant in Van Nuys, manufacturing the Camero and Firebird, was as infamous for both defective products and antagonistic attitudes between labor and management as the Fremont plant. The Van Nuys plant was 400 miles south of NUMMI and was facing the possibility of closing, just like Fremont plant did. All the parallels between the two plants should have served as a warning. The Van Nuys plant manager came to NUMMI for lessons; he even got the regional UAW boss, Bruce Lee, to go to Van Nuys to help train the staff. Both management and labor resisted every step of the way. They didn’t want to give up their comfort; they saw the Toyota ways as threatening in three aspects: 1. Workforce reduction, 2. Blurring the boundary between management and labor, 3. Loss of seniority. The trajectory of these aspects was the erosion of trust. (As if there was abundant trust at that point!)

The Van Nuys plant manager shut down the plant for two weeks for some serious training on product improvement and teamwork. However, there were no trips to Japan, no tearful farewells over sushi, and no immediate threat of job losses. During the training, people just went through the motions, probably not unlike most training programs most of us go through, following a 12-step manual, grumbling privately. The 2-week disruption brought only greater skepticism and deeper distrust. In addition, all the suppliers in the system were part of the dysfunctional dynamics. So, in 1992, GM shut down the plant, resulting in a much larger workforce reduction.

Similarly, when managers from the rest of GM visited NUMMI, they often ended up not just criticizing but also attacking the system. They felt threatened…why didn’t they think of this first? Instead of seeing a good example, they were “shown” their inadequacy and were put on the defensive. Remember, change is very personal.

The Van Nuys plant manager had an Aha moment. He said, “You know, they [the Japanese] never prohibited us from walking through the plant, understanding, even asking questions of some of their key people. I’ve often puzzled over that– why they did that. And I think they recognized, we were asking all the wrong questions. We didn’t understand this bigger picture thing.

“All of our questions were focused on the floor, the assembly plant, what’s happening on the line. That’s not the real issue. The issue is, how do you support that system with all the other functions that have to take place in the organization?”

The above quote illustrates the quintessential failure to distinguish between learning from vs. copying success.

Here is a sad example of an extreme case of copying success. “ So I remember, one of the GM managers was ordered, from a very senior level– came from vice president– to make a GM plant look like NUMMI. And he said, ‘I want you to go there with cameras and take a picture of every square inch. And whatever you take a picture of, I want it to look like that in our plant. There should be no excuse for why we’re different than NUMMI, why our quality is lower, why our productivity isn’t as high, because you’re going to copy everything you see.’” Wow! Just “Wow!”

How do you copy attitude? How do you copy relationships and trust? How do you copy wisdom? How do you copy the ability to listen and think critically? And is the ability to listen and think critically of any value without encouraging its use? And on and on. I am not suggesting that the Japanese have all these qualities and Americans don’t; I do contend that the Japanese possessed those not-easily-quantifiable assets in the 90s, more learned than copied, relative to their American counterparts in the auto industry.

Of course, as GM ate more humble pie, they eventually learned. And as Toyota grew bigger, they have had, in recent years, their shares of mishaps and colossal mistakes. It never fails that as soon as one thinks of oneself as exceptional and the best, one begins to decline. This is true for individuals, groups, organizations, and nations. In the case of Toyota, the mantra of “continuous improvement” might sound as if they are open-minded about learning; in reality, that assumption ignores the lessons from the third law of thermodynamics. To reach that elusive and impossible goal of 100% perfection, an entity needs to commit all its resources and energy to the futility of “improving” that very last bit of imperfection. Along the way, the organization chokes off all innovation and creativity.

As for GM, eventually, it began to learn, especially as more and more managers rotated through on-the-job-training at NUMMI; the slow – because giants don’t walk fast — but steady accumulation of learning among these managers did tip the scale. And GM began to improve its quality. Ironically, at the time of GM’s bankruptcy, it might have achieved its highest quality production in recent decades, albeit a little late.


Are we ever likely to learn from NUMMI? A few may, but most won’t…not necessarily for lack of smarts, willingness, or resources. Most organizations will not learn “properly” because such learning fundamentally requires top management to face facts, or, to truly grasp what the lower levels of managers and other employees know all too well. It also demands that employees, of all levels, have a deep sense of humility, knowing that they don’t always know everything. It’s complicated to change even a small group, let alone a giant organization. “Too big to fail?” Until it fails…then everyone suffers.

In the end, NUMMI closed in 2010. After GM’s bankruptcy in 2009, it pulled out of the JV, leaving Toyota running the plant alone. NUMMI was Toyota’s only unionized plant in the States. Eventually, Toyota decided to close NUMMI. The NUMMI site was bought by Tesla for a fraction of its book value.

I don’t mean to end on a downer note, but let’s be realistic. Till next time,


Staying Sane and Charging Ahead.

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Socially Constructed Reality of Amazon’s Inner Working

The immediate responses to the lengthy New York Times’ article on the inner workings of white collar professionals at were almost as intense as article’s content. The 5,800+ readers’ comments are by far the most any New York Times’ article has ever elicited. The very next day, a post on LinkedIn provided a detailed rebuttal by Nick Ciubotariu, one of the system engineers/managers from Amazon. He emphasized that he wrote the piece totally on his own initiative. Amazon’s owner/CEO, Jeff Bezos, in addition to directing the employees to read Mr. Ciubotariu’s article, issued a public statement with the basic gist that the Times’ image of Amazon isn’t what he recognizes, and that all employees who ever witness the ugly stuff portrayed in the article should email him directly. (I wonder how many such emails he will actually receive? I don’t wonder that we’ll never know.)

I am not at all surprised that plenty of Amazon insiders would defend the company – otherwise cognitive dissonance would drive an employee crazy if she didn’t leave the company – nor am I surprised at the chorus of ex-Amazonians’ concurring with New York Times’ narrative of the company’s brutal working culture. What surprised me, sadly only a little, was how many people seemed to think that Amazon’s demanding working culture is unique to Amazon. Have they forgotten how Walmart locked in workers overnight? Do they not know the grueling hours medical interns (and sometimes doctors too) have to undertake? Of course, some people have pointed out that professionals in law, finance, or high tech also work 80+ hours a week, spending ½ of their vacation time chasing emails and fulfilling scheduled conference calls, or springing right back to work after a not-so-major surgery. Gee, is that supposed to make us feel better?!

What’s really depressing is that it doesn’t matter even when (some) companies offer generous policies for employees to take time off. If the organizational structure is such that people feel they have to stay competitive, most of them will forgo the offerings from such policies.

A little whimsical visual provides some counterbalance to this article.

A little whimsical visual provides some counterbalance to this article.

What angers me most is the category of response that goes something like this: Work is not a child’s play; it’s hard. Deal with it. You shouldn’t expect a country club environment. Implicitly implied in the “country club environment” jab is that such a “cushy environment” would dull your mental state and lure you into shirking even more. This either-or dichotomous worldview is simply detrimental, full stop. Google, Apple, a few other tech giants, as well as some major players from other industries, are known for offering their employees a “country club” work environment or benefits, and we don’t hear, at least we haven’t heard, that their employees are just lazing about and taking advantages of their companies.

A second category of response that drives me batty is “data management.” While I am totally on the side of using evidence and data whenever possible, I object to the implied notion that as long as managers use data, all’s well and forgiven. Data is just information, which can be distorted. Decision, on the other hand, requires thinking, knowledge, wisdom and courage. Hiding behind data doesn’t justify pitting employees against each other, normalizing 80+ hours work weeks, and data definitely do not lend sympathy to those who suffer physically and emotionally at work and outside of work. Context gets lost in data. If data can dictate everything, let’s eliminate management.

I applaud Bezos’ efforts of making his “leadership principles” actionable; it is especially remarkable that he seemingly has instilled in most of his employees the desire to also act on those principles. However, how sustainable is the intensity of Amazon’s work culture? Put it another way, can Bezo’s goal of “perpetual start-up spirit” at his company go on and on? The image comes to mind is stretching an elastic band. I said that I don’t know the answer to this question in the previous post. I still don’t. However, drawing analogies from the laws of thermodynamics, continuous improvement (link) of anything, productivity, safety and security, competition, or perpetual growth requires an infinity of resources just to fuel it, and another infinity of resources to combat entropic deterioration. Yes, Amazon can afford to have a high turnover rate, because despite its reputed hypercompetitive environment, there are always people who thrive in that kind of atmosphere, or people who just need a job. For now. However, it cannot go on in perpetuity. What remain unanswerable for me are:

  • Is this high octane work environment what we will face all over the workplace in the not-so-distant future? One factor against this, is that a good portion of the millennial generation is rejecting such notion. But that’s just one factor.
  • What would Amazon be like in 10 years?

Next time, I will ponder on the consumer angle of “working inside of Amazon.” Till then,


Staying Sane and Charging Ahead.

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Emotion Isn’t the Enemy of Rationality

So…I have something to write about.

I am a huge fan of Pixar movies ever since “Toy Story.” I also love most of the short films before each of the feature movies. I am still in awe of Pixar’s latest, “Inside Out” which I finally caught on July 4th weekend. It’s a story about the emotional tumult of an 11-year old girl, handling the uprooting of her life when the family moved from Minnesota to San Francisco. The various personified emotions, Joy, Sadness, Anger, Fear, and Disgust, constantly jostle to control the young girl’s near-term and longer-term responses and development. Their headquarters is in the little girl’s head. This is but one of the many nuances, which I probably would not have noticed were it not for Terry Gross from Fresh Air. Not only did the writers of the movie get the science right (here & here), their delivery of the poignancy and complexity of human emotions is simply superb.

As a social scientist, I know that life cannot be all positive all the time. Yet while watching the movie, I wanted Joy to take control, felt frustrated at Sadness’ clumsiness, was angry at Anger’s bone-headedness, wanted to kick Fear out of the picture all together, and could just about tolerate the juvenile Disgust. I allowed my emotions to go through the roller coaster ride with the movie narrative; I laughed and I cried. Afterwards, sipping coffee with my best friend, I said, “This movie is brilliant…in every respect.”

cb flowers 6

Nothing about human life, especially the mind and heart, is one-dimensional. We can’t be always happy, sad, mad, or apathetic. It is precisely the riot of all the emotions we possess that makes us who we are. We know that, yet we often insist on telling others to be positive, in responses and in moods. We want to suppress certain “unpleasant” emotions; however, all emotions can inform and guide us as to what to do. This doesn’t mean that we act on any particular emotion right away, but emotions can be our teachers.

Why is it that the only publically displayed emotional “outburst” we collectively accept in this society is joy? Every other emotional expression is frowned upon most of the time. We avert our eyes when someone cries; we ourselves would feel embarrassed if caught crying in the public. We disapprove when someone doesn’t contain his anger, and we offer platitudes at funerals. We seem to allow anger or other negative emotions to surface only in “approved” settings such as group protest.

Inside Out” is multi-layered in its presentation; only in its subtle unfolding do we begin to accept the pairing of Joy and Sadness. But doesn’t this parallel reality? Often it is those who can subtly provide guidance are the most effective in their influence: There is a figure in the movie, the imaginary friend of the 11-year old girl’s earlier life, who when first introduced seems utterly unimportant. But [spoiler alert!] as the imaginary friend gradually faded into the abyss of the forgotten past, his final effort helped shape the trajectory of the next chapter of the girl’s life. Truly, sometimes, that which we pay little attention to, dismissing it as light and fluff, turns out to have a significant role in our life. As someone who typically eschews rituals, I had to stop and reexamine my own beliefs.

The ending of the movie is ingenious and hilarious. As the camera pans over other people’s and other creatures’ brains…it stops at a cat’s… and it’s hilarious. You just have to be there to appreciate the creativity.


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Quitting a Job?!

“Even in the darkest days in the aftermath of the biggest financial meltdown since the Great Depression, 1.7 million Americans each month were willing to tell their bosses to ‘take this job and shove it.’” reports Eric Jackson in Forbes. And that number has been climbing steadily since 2009, a year after our second biggest financial calamity. In March of this year, just under 2.5 million Americans quit their jobs. Undoubtedly the percentages of quit jobs varies considerably across different professions. Very likely, the lower the skills required for a profession, the harder it is for the person to quit that job, which coincidently, correlates with wage level: It is much harder to leave a low-wage job during financial hard times.iris 4

However, regardless of the level of the job one quits, what’s the most common reason for such a daring act? It’s the boss! Most often one quits one’s boss, not one’s job. In most cases the new job is very similar to the job left behind, but hopefully one’s new boss is an improvement over the boss one has quit. Mr. Jackson offers eight reasons why people quit their bosses, and most of these reasons are intuitive and “obvious” (once the reasons are identified).

  1.  Overburdening people with more responsibilities…without proper compensation.

During financial hardships, we take for granted that organizations slash budgets and reduce staff size. Yet, these belt-tightening measures don’t immediately let up when economy turns positive. It is especially galling when the bosses don’t seem to work that much harder, or take financial losses proportionally to everyone else’s.

  1. Lack of clear directions, or directions are too diffuse and too changeable.

It’s bad enough when people don’t have a clear sense of where their work group is heading, or, when direction changes every six months. This bad situation is compounded when people have to work extra hours with neither monetary reward nor job satisfaction.

  1. Running horrible meetings. Who’d thought this could have long-lasting impact? (I would add: calling too many meetings.)

Mr. Jackson provides the example of Google’s Larry Page. In the early days of Google, Page’s idea of running a good meeting was to have people engage in arguments. This inevitably led to a sense of antagonism and “anything goes” chaos. I hypothesize that managers who don’t know how to provide big picture direction for the group or organization are likely to run meetings without clear boundaries or agenda.

  1. Promoting or hiring incompetent people. To this I add, promoting the “wrong” person over someone in the group who is more worthy is a proven way to drive away valuable employees.
  1. “Absent” managers. This doesn’t mean that the managers are not reporting for work, just that they are often absent from their offices and work groups. The situation is made worse when a manager baldly claims “My office door is always open.” In addition to not bothering to truly care for her people, she is now a hypocrite. An “absent” manager is likely out of touch with her people, and not surprisingly, promotes or hires “wrong” people.

Do not confuse “absent” managers with managers who “get out of people’s way…so they can get things done.” Absent managers do not engage with staff. A good manager knows his people and their work in order to be able to gauge when to stay out of the way.

  1. Micro-management. Yes, the degree of micro-management is a socially constructed reality. Still, managers who cannot help themselves in their need to review everyone’s work product, sign every document and approve every travel request, prevent their people from being effective in their work and finding reward in their employment.
  1. Disconnected from their direct reports’ career development. I further contend that both micro-managers and absent managers, because of their lack of good judgment, are in danger of ignoring or misdirecting their people’s career tracks.
  1. When a manager conveys that he’s more important than you are. How can any manager not understand the principle that “your people’s success is what makes you look good?” How does undermining your people’s work and success accomplish anything except lowering your performance evaluation? Logical conclusion: The insecure boss loses top performers in his group.

iris 1So, here are a couple of trick questions:

  1. If a manager loses his star employees at a rate of one per month, for four straight months, should the manager blame externalities for “luring away” his people? blame his direct reports for lacking loyalty? Or, should he take a good look in the mirror?
  1. What should the same manager do for his remaining staff? Monitor them even more closely? deliver stern lectures? separate them so that they can’t share “bad ideas?” conduct exit interviews? Actually, not a bad idea, but the manager from whom employees are fleeing really shouldn’t conduct exit interviews himself.

Next week, let’s look at what motivates people to want to stay and work. Till then,


Staying Sane and Charging Ahead.

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