“Fake It Till Make It” – Part II

In “Part I” I focused on “Adopting Power Posture to Feel Powerful”, and never thought I’d revisit the issue again. My previous post was largely based on Amy Cuddy’s research and TED talk in which she posits that a two-minute Wonder Woman’s power posture, hands on hips, would cause a spike in one’s adrenaline to accompany the assertion of confidence, which in turn leads to greater willingness to take risks in subsequent behavior. Many followers of her TED presentation have commented that the power posture really works and has helped them build their confidence. Her paper was published in 2010; her TED talk was in 2012, and her career subsequently soared in the areas of public speaking and consulting all over the world.

Since then, the field of social psychology – Cuddy’s professional base – has gone through a paradigm shift urging new guidelines for methodology that are much more rigorous. The champions of this shift, one of whom went to Princeton with Cuddy, challenged the field’s decades-long research practices for relying too much on convenience and tolerance of personal biases (thinking they are immaterial and wouldn’t affect research outcomes), and profoundly lacking in replication of studies. (Reinforcing this last point, journals have not been welcoming of “replication” articles.) These reformers suspected that most studies confirmed researchers’ hypotheses – false positive — and were insufficiently subjected to follow-up studies that would support or refute these confirmations.

This was a huge warning to the field of social psychology (and likely other branches of social sciences). The initial hostile reactions to the reformers’ challenge became louder and messy dynamics ensued. Dr. Cuddy’s work got ensnared in the back-and-forth. While there have been a few other prominent scholars whose studies have been questioned, none seemed to have suffered the same degree of browbeating and crashing of a promising career as Dr. Cuddy has. She has since withdrawn her tenure submission from the Harvard Business School.

The crux of the criticism of Dr. Cuddy’s initial work, the research on power pose, was: (1) the sample size of 42, 21 pairs of power pose and non-power pose, was too small, (2) the measurement of testosterone and cortisol levels was imprecise and/or inaccurate, (3) the danger of false positive results was not adequately addressed, and (4) at least one replication study done by a different researcher demonstrated that Dr. Cuddy’s power pose conclusion was weak at best.

My initial reaction to Dr. Cuddy’s power pose study was a sense of disquiet – for instance, can such a surge in confidence be sustained long enough to be beneficial? It was largely based on some philosophical considerations (see my previous post on the topic). The methodological issue is much more consequential; yet, the ensuing quarrels in the field have largely taken on philosophical, attitudinal, or social dimensions, and even touched on professional etiquette, far-removed from what a “simple” technical forum would entail. Personally, I think this reflects the messy nature of most social topics (consider the current storm regarding sexual assaults and harassments…or more mundane stuff like “performance evaluation”). I still think there is a lot of validity in the semi-jest term “physics envy” for describing social sciences.

A good portion of the ugliness in the criticism of Cuddy’s work came in the form of blogs and other social media. The three reformer-researcher-authors have their own blog,, that focuses on methodological and statistical issues, of which Cuddy’s work was one entry that has attracted readers across different disciplines. I understand and appreciate anyone who, in today’s internet-centric world, desiring more direct feedback and generating more discussion, takes it to blog format; however, there is a tendency for relaxed decorum in such a format. As one professor points out, “Because of social media and how it travels – you get pile-ons when the critique comes out, and 50 people share it in the view of thousands. That’s horrifying for anyone who’s critiqued, even if it’s legitimate.” (from New York Times Magazine article) Even one of the three authors for data colada, Joseph Simmons, who attended Princeton with Amy Cuddy, thought the treatment and criticism of Dr. Cuddy’s power-pose research has been unfair; after all, “the original study wasn’t particularly egregious. It was published in 2010 before anyone was thinking about this [the subsequent methodological revolution].”

It is difficult to objectively assess why Cuddy’s work was made to be the “poster child” for the criticism, especially without a rigorous study to survey professional reactions to Dr. Cuddy’s work and to compare the treatments of other top researchers’ pre-revolution studies. Even if we could do such a study, can we replicate it?! Sarcasm aside, I personally find the pile-on treatment particularly troubling. It is understandable that we all would defend our data, our methods, and our findings, for as long as possible; however, if enough subsequent evidence ultimately leads to a contradictory conclusion, no matter how uncomfortable for us personally, we learn to yield and move on. (This is the core of the scientific method and indeed the entire Scientific Revolution: We learn to accept the conclusions demanded by evidence.) Dr. Cuddy has grudgingly acknowledged her initial study’s flaws and tried to move on, so, why the personal attacks? Perhaps for social scientists themselves, it is not so easy to separate the work from personality, and for critics of social science, it’s much more fun to not even try?

While I was not a big fan of the power-pose study, it was intriguing. Now that I understand how weak the results are, I am fine with using the study as a springboard for further discussions. I simply do not understand why there is, and I emphatically deny any need for, adolescent rudeness and an infantile lack of decorum on social media in critiquing/attacking others’ work. Academics who would otherwise observe professional courtesy and standards in writing for journal publications become brutal, arrogant, and almost bullying on Facebook, Twitter, blog (personal or professional), or whatever form du jour.

It’s understandable that Cuddy’s research got the lion’s share of scrutiny – the bigger the reputation, the bigger the target – yet, it’s ironic that the very movement that tries to steer away personal bias seems driven by personal bias (why did they choose Cuddy’s work to focus on? Was it purely based on the hyperbolic reception of the work rather than the offending execution of the work?). It’s easier to target the most noticeable mistake, rather than the most egregious. So, these critics just threw their darts at an obvious target (TED talk has that effect, especially when it’s the second most popular one) rather than first making systematic assessment, say of other previous well-known studies. Isn’t that the very definition of selecting data based on convenience?

After finishing reading New York Times’ expose of this whole saga, all I can think of is: We sure like to scapegoat others for the very attribute for which we can be just as flawed. Shakespeare’s Hamlet scolds his mother for this: “Lay not that flattering unction to your soul, that not your trespass but my madness speaks.”

I used to feel apologetic for ending an article in a negative tone, and especially so close to our end-of-year holiday seasons. Times have changed…


Staying Sane and Charging Ahead.

Direct Contact:

When Operating a Business Isn’t About Business…when a business tycoon isn’t a business leader

When Mr. Donald J. Trump ran for the President of the United States of America in 2016, many argued that a successful businessman might make a better world leader. I pointed out the fundamental fallacy of that thinking then – such thinking is still fallacious – and now that the current POTUS is Mr. Trump, let’s use some business yardsticks to look at how his performance has been.

Before such an assessment, though, let’s examine some fundamental premises of Mr. Trump’s business operations. To begin with, it is highly suspect to say that Mr. Trump was a “successful” businessman. He was, however, excellent at marketing his brand. And no doubt after he retires from running the USA, he’ll cash in on his tenure at the White House to strengthen his brand, whether he will have tarnished the brand of “White House” or not. Sometimes, infamy works well too; there is no shortage of people with perverse penchant for anything that can make a splash in the headlines.

Many have pointed out that had Mr. Trump simply invested his inheritance in routine vehicles, he could have accrued more assets than his current standing, particularly after at least four bankruptcies and countless lawsuits. But more importantly, what does the brand “Trump” signify? other than hotels and golf courses? It is particularly dismaying that we collectively keep equating moneyed class with successful class; what’s more disheartening is revealed in this question: What have some of these “successful” businesses, their owners or CEOs, produced? Have they created any products that have benefited our lives, and/or, contributed to the advancement of human race? Shifting money, such as hedge fund mangers, selling image, or marketing fancy services or goods does not make us better educated, informed, healthier or wise.

Furthermore, while Mr. Trump was the owner of his brand and business empire, he was never a true CEO running a big corporation of, say, 50,000, employees where he might have to better understand the actual operations of a big organization. He ran a family business where he could throw his weight around, stiff contractors willy nilly, or, hide behind bankruptcies while relying on taxpayers to provide him with a cushioned landing. These acts do not make a successful businessman. Yet, many have equated his significant name recognition, often gold plated, with “success.”

So, now Mr. Trump is running the government of this world’s leading nation. How has that been going? First, he appointed a bunch of “outsiders” to lead the various departments they purported to disdain before the appointments. I can understand a strand of argument that perhaps the best way to eliminate an organization is to have someone as a leader who has no knowledge of but with full disrespect for the said organization. Yet the very same people who support this argument would whine whenever an organization leader wants to cut their jobs or funds. A blanket slogan, such as “cut regulations,” or, “smaller government” offer neither direction nor enabling specifics. What does a small government actually mean and entail? Have we, as a country, had such discussions? other than throwing size-only generalizations? Based on the administration’s submitted budget proposal – cutting all major services and programs except military spending and building a wall, the CBO (Congressional Budget Office) proclaimed the difficulty of making a genuine assessment because the outline is too vague, but offered a picture of a weak economy with little projected growth.

We certainly have too many useless and cumbersome rules, but which ones to eliminate? The rules I favor may be thorns in others’ sides, and vice versa. What are the metrics by which to cut rules? No one from the current administration has offered any clear definition…mostly because the top executive knows only how to produce catchy slogans without directives.

Let’s use the EPA as an example. So far, the EPA secretary, relying largely on the input of industries, has eliminated rules on asbestos, lead-based ammunition, the pesticide chlorpyrifos that can cause cognitive damage in children. Really? When proven substances have been banned for decades (or, about to be banned under Obama administration)…why allow them back now, or allow a pesticide to hurt children? Yes, yes, one could argue that since no sane business operators would knowingly use these substances again, why not ditch the rules? However, do we really and truly trust the business world? How many scandals do we need, especially at the expenses of people’s lives, savings, or health?

There is another erroneous narrative for free-market among the general public: that competitive business is always for the betterment of consumers. Yeah. How many times has our collective private information been sold without us knowing? Or, been hacked with companies being reluctant to owning the mistake of insecure cybersystems? And why would any private citizen who pays even a modicum of attention to the net neutrality issue consent to let the big companies dictate how the internet should be organized? And who in their right mind still believes that reserved seats and paid-for airline tickets means the seats are guaranteed? The list is long and ugly.

Let’s further use the “free market” or the “invisible hand” argument for running the country like business operations. Shall we then allow all the small and poor towns that are on the verge of losing everything to just simply die out? Shall we let all big cities and states that are struggling financially just declare bankruptcy? Shall we let all the elderly and the poor who can’t afford housing or health care just lift themselves with their own bootstraps? Because that’s what ruthless business models would propose … until when chips are down and the big players crawl to D.C. for bailout, taking taxpayers’ money. If we truly want to rely on business models, we should ignore the coal industry’s cry for help; it’s been dying for decades, not just under Obama administration.

Speaking of energy issues, if observing green energy would cost jobs, how do we account for all the growth in the alternative energies sectors? And if solar and wind energy markets have been growing and creating jobs worldwide, why don’t we go with that trend even more? instead of ceding market and thought leadership to China, Germany, and other countries? If we want to make America great again (why hasn’t anyone defined clearly and succinctly what era shall we aim for that “greatness?”), why don’t we assert our leadership in solar, wind, electric cars, high speed trains, etc? For heaven’s sake, US pioneered solar technology, and now we are giving that position (and market) away.

In all the brouhaha of “Making America Great Again,” no one bothers to define in what ways shall we be “great” again, and therefore in what ways have we lost our edge. When I entered this country in the mid 70s, I didn’t articulate why I wanted to come to the States or how I have grown to embrace my newfound home. In retrospect, it has been the freedom of speech, the joy of pursuing whatever comes to people’s minds, the enthusiasm of tinkering with ideas, the celebration of brain power. Many have complained that Americans have always been either suspicious of, or harbor borderline disdain for, brain power, and I have often puzzled over this.

Is brain power only manifested in high test scores? While American schools always seemed to be “loose” on disciplining children (especially compared to schools in Chinese culture), I contend that it is such “loose” freedom — to think, to play, to wander, to try — that has provided the bedrock for innovation and creativity. Interestingly, most countries scoring mediocre on tests are the ones showing higher entrepreneurial accomplishment or pushing the frontier in basic sciences. It is indeed in these areas, especially cutting edge research, that America has been slipping. It is definitely not because we are not using as much coal nor seeing less people embrace religion, or accepting gay culture that has made America weak. It’s our enthusiasm for, even our aptitude for, critical thinking that’s been under attack.

No longer do we seem to celebrate the thinking class. Somehow we have come to scorn those who think. I will never ever forgive Sarah Palin, the 2008 GOP vice-president candidate, for epitomizing such scorn…thereby forever staining those who promoted her.

One could argue that Mr. Trump has been on the job for only six months, and therefore, we should give him more time to grow and learn. But, has he shown willingness or capacity to listen to others who are not in his family, and grown in knowledge of operating a government? To what extent can we trust that the country and the world this country is supposed to lead will be improving in the next six months? If the recent G-20 summit is any indicator (recent? It feels like eons ago.), it seems that the rest of the world is leaving us behind.

China has stepped in the vacuum Mr. Trump has deliberately created. Whether Europe will work with China and allow her to assert the leadership role remains to be seen, but we can’t expect Europe to wait around for us to wake up. Those who think with Mr. Trump that NATO has soaked up our wealth forget history. US helped create NATO to contain the elements that made WWII possible, and to eliminate the costs that WWIII would incur; it was a way for the European countries to stay connected, while seriously inhibiting any one actor from taking up arms or military dominance again. So, now we are handing the reins back to Germany and France, and giving a green light to Russia. Perhaps we really can’t learn from history.

None of the above is what a truly good business leader would do. Even if we accept that US government is a global conglomerate organization – which it is not — it is unwise to hunker down to domestic affairs only. In negotiating with global partners, a CEO does not delegate power without first delineating the prime directives. A CEO refrains from allowing young children without any qualifications to run the show. And entering into a negotiation by first belittling or disparaging potential partners- maybe ok in a near-term real estate deal but an invitation to our “partners” to stab us in the back when a future international alliance is at stake.

Sometimes, becoming a business leader requires deviant thinking and behavior, breaking a few norms, stepping on a few toes. However, had a CEO insulted disabled people and veterans, or openly bragged about taking pleasure in seeing teenage women naked or scoring grabbing women’s genitals, that CEO would have been fired, sued, or discarded in no time, and in no uncertain terms. Somehow, the same people who want a business person to run the world’s largest government regard these acts, or the complaints about them, as unimportant “diversions.”

Most importantly is the fact that the US government is not a global conglomerate with profit making as the goal. As I said before, and I will say it again and again, running a government, any government, is about juggling a wide range of diverse and potentially conflicting goals with a budget that’s never enough. Prioritizing these goals is maddeningly complicated and executing action to achieve them is even more complicated – “Who knew?!” – and sometimes a leader has to cajole allies, massage egos, bully opponents without seeming to do so, or lie subtly (white, blue, or black…depending on the local situations) in order to get things done or move along. Smashing china is easy – most likely fun for a 5-year old – but creating the next generation of design and high-quality china requires very different skills than smashing. Side note: A five-year old would be great for creativity, but not old enough to understand “quality.”

America made an insane choice in the 2016 election. I only hope that when all’s done someone can help us restore this beautiful country that I have come to love and embrace as my “first” country.


Staying Sane and Charging Ahead.

Direct Contact:

Farewell…second time

In May a year ago, I thought I had written enough about the various topics in management of interest to me. I knew I was becoming repetitive at that point. Yet, assuming people wouldn’t have read every single article on this blog, repetition doesn’t carry a huge risk. It’s for the sake of my own mind that I needed to take a long break. Still, I anticipated the possibility that I would occasionally want to espouse some points-of-view on topics that tickle my interests. So, I kept the doors ajar.

Part of the reason I knew I’d still post articles from time to time was my commitment to our local newspaper, which picked up my blog articles two years after I started the TASO site. So, after I slowed down writing for my own blog, I continued for the newspaper and for a while could recycle my older articles on TASO, but only the ones that were general and not based on some current hot topics of the time. And yet, when a certain topic demands immediate attention, such as the article exposing Amazon’s inner working culture, I feel compelled to ride the wave. In such cases, I write some fresh articles and post simultaneously on my blog as well as for my local newspaper.

The Way Home

The Way Home

The “farewell” this time has a little more staying momentum. After my husband’s retirement at the end of this year, we will be moving to central Oregon. We did not choose to move because of an unpleasant experience in our current community – in fact, we still love northern New Mexico enormously – but we decided to try an experiment: For the first time in our lives, apart and together, we will be moving to a place because we want to be there, rather than because of our professional commitments, even though these commitments have brought us joy as well. Our future community has many similarities to where we are now, dry climate, open space, mountains, lots and lots of outdoor activities to offer. The major differences are that there is a real river with year-round constant flow right through the city, and the annual precipitation is fairly even throughout the year. In addition, it’s a new-ish city with a youthful energy which we desire. We retire due to our biological age, not our minds’.

Neither of us knows exactly what we’ll be pursuing, and that’s terribly exciting. I will continue paint and write, though the contents of these activities are likely to evolve into different directions and domains. But I will also pursue new subjects for sure.

Since the publisher of my local newspaper has graciously invited me to submit writing whenever the mood seizes me, after I settle in our new home, I probably will reappear in TASO again…somewhen in 2017. Whenever you think of this site, please check in again occasionally come next year, won’t you? Till then,


Staying Sane and Charging Ahead.

Direct Contact:

A Pictorial Memory Journey

Looking back at the photographic endeavors that accompany my writing, I offer some of my favorite images in this penultimate post…at least till spring of 2017.

I am not a morning person by nature, and so whenever I catch spectacular sunrises, they’re all the more special to me. I was grateful for some of the sunrise shots, just in time to debut my blog in 2010.



The dramatic sky in the southwest is almost a weekly event, sometimes daily. I must have accumulated hundreds of shot in my files. I can’t choose my favorites, but here are a few awesome ones.


And the clouds. The Clouds! I learned about “mammatus” in this part of world, and cannot get enough of them. I await the experience of capturing one during sunset, with the wildly vivid colors reflecting on them…someday.


My painting career has really taken off since I moved to northern New Mexico in 2002. I have since exhibited a few times and sold a few paintings.




And this year, I started the exercise of painting left-handed, using my non-dominant hand that might have been my dominant hand. Here is the first trial.


We created a backyard where colors, fruit, and wild look are the themes; it’s given us so much pleasure.


And now that I have overcome my reptile phobia (my high school biology text book had centerfold of snakes; I glued the pages), I actually find some pleasure in encountering them. They are certainly fascinating.


The typical vivid mixture of colors in autumn in the East is a fond memory. Yet, after living in the southwest high desert for a while, I have come to welcome with joy the yellowing aspens every autumn. Occasionally orange and red are mixed in, but yellow is the dominant color. When the breeze ripples through the aspen leaves, they do sound like gold coins. I think the yellow aspens (and cottonwood) reflect the quieter atmosphere in this part of the world because we don’t get much traffic congestion. Even during the peak of the season, when everyone wants to catch the beautiful views, the traffic is nowhere comparable to that endured on the east coast.




The ski resort that’s only 25-min drive from door to door is great, but what’s even greater is that the mountain offers quite challenging runs, even mentioned two years ago by National Geographic. I improved my skills here, and my son got his ski patroller certificate at age 14. I swear you never see unhappy people on ski hills.



And petroglyphs! There are a few special preserved sites, but there are occasional finds on random trails…and trails are readily available in our neighborhood and beyond.



Of course, there are more, but these few immediately come to my mind.

Till next time,

Staying Sane and Charging Ahead.

Direct Contact:

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.

Direct Contact:

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.

Direct Contact:






The Dynamics of Ignorance; The Utility of Uncertainty

“…in recent years scholars have made a convincing case that focusing on uncertainty can foster latent curiosity, while emphasizing clarity can convey a warped understanding of knowledge.” – from New York Time’s op-ed, The Case for Teaching Ignorance;” by James Holmes’, author of “Nonsense: The Power of No Knowing.”  Given that organizations by nature are about order – as in “organize” – and the known, and that the work of managing organizations aspires to be more science than art, the above quote challenges practitioners, for most managers view uncertainties as threats to the order, rather than opportunities to explore the new.

Managers who know how to work adroitly with both the known and the unknown are more likely to achieve success, for their organizations, and to be regarded as leaders. Ultimately, though, I contend, repeatedly and frequently, we do ourselves the disservice of pitting one concept against the other.

For instance, art and science while seemingly diametrically different – the former being touted as subjective while the latter the objective supreme – actually often complement each other. And both rely heavily on observations of our physical world as well as spiritual world. Many scientists write excellent poems, create beautiful images, or produce songs. Filippo Brunelleschi in 13th century devised a contraption where a mirror reflecting a scene viewed through a small hole of a panel helps artists render drawings and paintings in correct perspective. Fifteen years later, Leon Battista Alberti explained this type of perspective in the then new “perspective geometry.” I only learned about this history when stumbled upon the article: Why Physics Needs the Art to Help Picture The Universe? by Nobel Laureate Frank Wilczek


Scientists often have to search in very dim light for ideas, suggestions, or clues for the next frontiers; much of their effort is iterative between data and imagination. Artists render their imaginations in words, images, or sounds to connect with people. The images of fractals or (artificially imposed) colorful pictures of our universe are some exquisite representations of the marriage between art and science. From this perspective, management is like the orphan who doesn’t actually know its lineage but claims a more noble heritage than anyone else.

In both science and art, uncertainty and ignorance are the precursors of curiosity. In Mr. Holmes’ New York Times op-ed article, he cites “island of knowledge” by Michael Smithson, a social scientist at Australian National University who co-taught an online course on ignorance. Mr. Smithson uses “island of knowledge” as an analogy to illustrate how the knowledge begets more questions to further the growth of knowledge. The shoreline of the island is the intersection between the known and the unknown. The bigger the island of knowledge, the longer the shoreline, and the more unknown needs to be explored. Mr. Holmes expounds further, “People tend to think of not knowing as something to be wiped out or overcome, as if ignorance were simply the absence of knowledge. But answers don’t merely resolve questions; they provoke new ones.” Hence, the more we know – expanding the island – the more we don’t know and so the more questions we will have.

Of course, in today’s social climate, I am wary of using the term “ignorance” as a badge of integrity. In science and art, ignorance is the beginning point, not the outcome, not a characteristic, and certainly not a stationary state. Those who can’t grasp (or actively oppose) the scientific process – a non-linear journey of searching, gathering data, affirming or rejecting one strand of an idea, tending some offshoot discoveries and on and on – latch onto “ignorance” as an excuse to reject even overwhelming scientific evidence. Such is also often the case in the practice of management; preponderant evidence is rejected in favor of long-held and often “myth-based” practices, for example, tying executive pay to stock performance, or, motivating people with mostly sticks and some carrots. This topic, the misuse of evidence and adoption of half-truth, I have often alluded to in the past, and will explore more in the near future.


If we follow the “island of knowledge” metaphor, then, most organizations would operate in the middle of this island. “The center of the island, by contrast, is safe and comforting, which may explain why businesses struggle to stay innovative. When things go well, companies ‘drop out of learning mode,’ Gary P. Pisano, a professor at Harvard Business School, told me [James Holmes]. They flee uncertainty and head for the island’s interior.”

To stay innovative and vibrant has always been one of the biggest challenges for growing entrepreneurial organizations. One possible way to keep innovation alive in an organization, young or old, is to institute “FedEx Day,” where employees deliver their innovative ideas, after a 24-hour period during which people who sign up for the exercise can work on whatever projects they choose and with whomever they choose. Some other organizations offer more generous structure, allowing employees to work on blue-sky ideas, say ½ day to 1 day out of a working week. Many of Google’s ideas have come out of people using that “free” time to develop “crazy” ideas. If an organization feels compelled to spell out all the rules and procedures for every task, project, or experiment, it pretty much guarantees the demise of innovation.

Set aside some “play” time, structure a little uncertainty, provide some safe space for people to try and fail…Of course, all this would require everyone, management included, to act boldly and take risks. Would you try?

Till next time,

Staying Sane and Charging Ahead.

Direct Contact: