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

Direct Contac: taso100@gmail.com

Quick To Judge, But Slow(er) To Understand The Reasons

In case you haven’t heard of the Invisible Gorilla short film… The authors of the film, Christopher Chabris and Daniel Simons, also wrote a book with the same title. The film was a study tool. In the film, there are two teams, one wearing white shirts and the other black, passing basketball to each other within the team. In the study, the participants were asked to count the number of passes for only the white team. It’s a task demanding a high level of focus. Half way into the film, an actor in a gorilla suit came on the court, stared straight at the camera, and thumped her chest…for 9 seconds. Upon finishing the film and the task of counting the passes of the ball, the researchers asked participants: Did you see the gorilla?

Only half of the thousands of participants in the study saw the gorilla. The ones who missed it couldn’t believe that they would miss something so in-your-face obvious. As psychologist Daniel Kahneman, Nobel laureate of economics, states in his Thinking, Fast and Slow, “The gorilla study illustrates two important facts about our minds: we can be blind to the obvious, and we are also blind to our blindness.”

(The unanswered questions are: How accurately did the participants who noticed the gorilla count the passes? How did the accuracy of the counting compare between the ones who noticed the gorilla and those who didn’t see the gorilla?)

Some things are slow by nature...

Some things are slow by nature…

I am sure you have experienced many times in your life when you are deeply involved in a task, a conversation, a book, or any other activities, that you block out most noises from your environment. Kahneman in his Fast & Slow book introduces the principles underlying this phenomenon: system 1 and system 2 in our ways of thinking.

System 1 is based on our involuntary senses where we can operate instinctively, like driving in the “right” lane where Brits would drive in their “left” lane. Or, turning our heads toward a startled cry. Or, knowing 1×2 is 2 without a pause. If we live in generalities, system 1 would be terrific. However, when it comes to dealing with specifics, system 1 can be unreliable. For example, all women should be hysterical after being raped; so, one — even when she is your friend — who is calm or even giggling must be suspicious.

System 2 is based on our voluntary senses, once the reaction from system 1 requires more information. So, upon turning toward that startled cry, system 2 kicks in to assess if the source is in distress or is sounding a warning for others; if the former, we further evaluate to see if our assistance is called for, if the latter, we decide whether to run away from the danger or toward it to thwart the danger. Or, when you drive your hired car out of a garage while vacationing in UK, your system 2 kicks in to remind you to do it “right.” System 2 is about self-control, a way to check system 1.

For the most part, our system 1 allows us to go through our days fairly confidently with few hiccups. Yet, if we rarely check with system 2, we can let our biases dictate our emotions and behaviors. On the other hand, constantly checking minutiae with our system 2 results in hardly getting anything done. The trick, as always, lies in the how; how do we decide when to check with system 2? There is no 12-step program to guide us. However, as Kahneman says, “It is easier to recognize other people’s mistakes than our own,” so we keep learning. And hopefully, we can learn from others’ mistakes to shore up our system 1’s accuracy, increase our awareness, and better recognize when to invoke system 2 for better judgment.

Other things allow you to be fast…

What Peggy, Marie’s foster mother, did in the “Anatomy of Doubt” of This American Life – divulging her doubt to the detective of Marie’s rape case – was jumping to conclusion. As Kahneman explains, “Jumping to conclusion is efficient if the conclusions are likely to be correct and the costs of an occasional mistake acceptable…[It’s otherwise] risky when the situation is unfamiliar, the stakes are high, and there is no time to collect more information.” Uncertainty and doubt really belong to system 2, and that’s why I asserted in my last post, that when Peggy called the detective, she had already erased her doubt. And since system 1 is guided by experience, and further, since the detective working Marie’s case had had about two or three rape cases prior to Marie’s, his system 1 would be at infant stage on working with rape victims. As a result, he relied on Peggy’s knowing Marie well, and assumed Marie was being untruthful in her rape account.

When we attach our emotional response to the first impression, of a person or a situation, and interpret the subsequent evidence based on our first impression, we are committing to the “halo effect.” We are likely to consider someone we just met, who has a nice smile and soft voice, to be “kind and generous.” In job interviews, confirmed in social science studies, taller people are regarded to have more managerial potential than shorter people. And not surprisingly, extroverts get more positive reactions than introverts. In reality, none of these first impressions offer any valid clues to what a person is or is not.

We use halo effect on organizations as well. Eron was the darling…till it collapsed. Companies that have shown wide swings in performance still get high ratings on leadership, strategies, or execution if they established a good impression years ago, even though these very same companies have been using the same strategies, under the same leadership, and behaving pretty much the same over the years.

We are humans; we are fallible; we have biases; we have blind spots. We get it right most of the time, but we also get it wrong more often than we realize or are willing to admit. So, back to that “humility” that I often extol…

Labor Day weekend is coming up. I wish you a fantastic weekend, and please be safe if travel is involved. I’ll be back in this space after 9/11. Till then,

Staying Sane and Charging Ahead.

Direct Contact: taso100@gmail.com

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.

Direct Contact: taso100@gmail.com


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.

Direct Contact: taso100@gmail.com

Using Self As An Instrument

In my brief bio, I mentioned an important keystone of my methodology: that I see myself as “part of the instrument from which to gain quality data.” A few readers have found the statement puzzling. Let me explain. What I presented last week on my immigrant’s view of inter-racial issues was an example. I wasn’t going to just write a personal journey; there is purpose in such a seemingly self-indulgent method. The “using self as an instrument” is particularly crucial for conducting qualitative studies in social science. And it also has a bearing on management.

For my PhD dissertation, I started with a different topic on cross-cultural issues, and considered the usual questionnaire-survey for data collection. In the end, my desire for deep knowledge won over statistical breadth of cross-cultural comparisons, and I ended up doing a case study on “The Role of Culture in Business Networking,” focusing on entrepreneurs. I paired Americans and immigrant Chinese in two industries, cafes and fashion design.

The main driver for doing the case study was my thirst for understanding how culture influences the cross-cultural interactions in business decisions and operations. While many cross-cultural studies have taught me the importance of different cultural values, I found captures of the interaction between people of different cultures wanting. Memorizing all the cultural dos and don’ts feels limiting and exhausting. Knowing that Chinese are more collectively oriented than Americans, who are more individualistic, doesn’t address how to work with these differences. So, into the deep I went.

sky on fire

The traditional survey questionnaire provides a veneer of “objectivity;” researchers keep the subjects at arm’s length for fear of the intrusion of biases, from both the researchers and the subjects. But as my friend and professor, Kewyn Smith, pointed out, the very term “subject” is denigrating. It’s as if the subjects are some simple vessels from which we, the researchers, just extract needed information. To really understand the perspectives of the researched, or the respondents, the researchers need to first establish relationships, where there is give and take. Otherwise, why would perfect strangers reveal their deeper reflections?

My first lesson on cross-cultural differences between American entrepreneurs and Chinese entrepreneurs (who had been in the States anywhere from less than 10 years to more than 20 years…I interviewed some 20 people in my pre-case study phase) was that that Americans were a lot more willing to participate in my study than Chinese. Americans were also more ready to reveal their business operations and principles than Chinese. With Americans, the quality of my relationship with them was an important factor in but not necessary for the case studies, while with Chinese, the nature and the quality of my relationship with them were both important and essential for case study access.

I was also keenly aware that I was a lot more comfortable with interacting with Americans than with Chinese, having been in this country for more than a decade by then.ElenaY_003

Knowing my own “biases” helped me understand how to better approach the potential Chinese respondents as their levels of comfort with American (and Chinese) cultures varied widely. Some found my American-ness refreshing, and others were wary of my relative indifference to the Chinese norms. To navigate through these cross-cultural currents, I had to be sharply and constantly aware of my own thoughts, behaviors, and emotions.

If I found my American interviewee/respondent too “chatty and revealing,” I asked myself if my judgment came from my Chinese tendency to be reserved or whether I should be suspicious of the interviewee “spinning” the information. If my Chinese respondent seemed hesitant or to put up a wall, I wondered if being more American on my part would make it better or worse. Doing this qualitative study was a lot more challenging than designing questionnaires, inputting the numbers, and conducting statistical analysis –by which, I am not implying that doing quantitative study is easy; it’s just that by then, I had done plenty such quantitative surveys in my career.   (This is one of the reasons why I have written frequently in this space arguing the difficulties of handling “soft” dimensions at workplace, and the relative ease with which to absorb measurable features.)

In addition to use of “self as an instrument,” an equally important tool to minimize the biases in gathering and analyzing qualitative data is triangulation. As a researcher, when I interview a respondent, I am bound to have some internal emotional reactions, whether it’s about culture, educational background, gender, or any other topics. If I find myself siding with one particular respondent’s point of view, I need to keep finding other respondents with different perspectives till I no longer feel more vested in one particular respondent’s view than in another’s. That’s as objective as I can get.

How does this relate to management? In a sense, it’s what I have always argued: That each manager needs to be highly self-aware in his relationship with each and every one of his direct report, colleagues, and higher-ups. A manager cannot assume that she is always fair and objective to everyone around her. Robots can; humans can’t.


So, how can managers develop self-awareness?

For example, of all the management  education courses I have been involved in (teaching and/or observing), I think the experiential type is generally the most powerful and sustaining in the lessons learned. So, I would propose a course in which participating managers are required to conduct interviews on a certain topic, say, “performance evaluation.” Have them collect data on people’s reactions on this topic, and record their own emotions, reactions, and judgment… I’ll bet that the data on the topic would be enlightening, and the data on “self” would be revealing.

I hope this essay has clarified my methodology. As always, I welcome your feedback.

Till next time,

Staying Sane and Charging Ahead.

Direct Contact: taso100@gmail.com

Color Codes Should Be Used Only For Sorting Materials

At this time of the year – the anniversary of my coming to the States — I am particularly reflective of my immigrant experience, an exercise that’s made more poignant lately. I came to the States decades ago to join my family, to finish my undergraduate degree, and to begin my journey of becoming a “Chinese-American.“ But I always feel more like a citizen of the world. And ironically, the root for the feeling lies in the conflict between Mainland Chinese and Taiwanese-Chinese in the little island of Taiwan.

I embody that turmoil because my father was a Taiwanese and my mother was a mainland Chinese. This difference was the seed of a horrendous and convoluted family saga, which taught me the art of occupying two, sometimes diametrically, different worlds simultaneously. Later, the need to straddle separate identity worlds has included not just Chinese-American but also business-academician, qualitative-quantitative methodologist, social scientist-artist, introvert-extrovert, etc. These all have contributed to my spurning the simplistic either-or worldview.

From childhood on, I have been keen on holding multiple perspectives, understanding opposing sides. This doesn’t mean that I don’t have my own strong opinions or affiliations, but I have always thought that our loyalty to only our villages, provinces, states, schools, (extended) family tribes, or nations can become a huge stumbling block to reaching out, understanding “the others,” or working with differences. Of course, there have been many lessons, missteps, blunders, in my development and I expect them to continue for the rest of my life.

taking fly

I go into this long-winded introduction to relate the following story.

During my first semester at the Western Michigan University – two months after immigrating to this country — I was lucky to encounter a sympathetic professor in my communication course. He often invited me to his office to “just talk.” It was much later that I realized that those “talks” were probably akin to psychoanalytical sessions. He was helpful; those hours were a great outlet for my confusion, frustration, uncertainties, and connections. But one day, he put me on the spot: He asked me to share with the class my experience as an immigrant. I don’t remember much of what I said, but probably indicated a degree of loneliness, despite living with one of my sisters and her roommates (they were her friends but were friendly to me).

Before my soliloquy, a classmate had approached me once to invite me to join him at a club where he played jazz piano. I was confronted with two obstacles, one being my unfamiliarity with jazz at that time, but greater was his being an African-American. In addition, at that point in my life, I had hardly dated, and had little knowledge about black Americans (unless you count TV and movies). I had no clue of how to handle his invitation. I only thought, “Oh, boy, how would my family react to my hanging out with a black guy?” So I demurred and turned down his invite. After my small outpouring in the class, the very same friendly African-American young man came to me, and mildly accused me of dishonesty; after all, he had extended his gesture of friendliness and I had turned him down. Again, I don’t remember my response. I only remember my deep mortification afterwards, and shame even years later. It simply didn’t matter whether my excuses were valid; I screwed up.

Sometimes, black & white can be intriguing as well.

Sometimes, black & white can be intriguing as well.

Here is an aspect of cross-cultural and inter-racial conflict that Asians rarely openly admit. A great many Asians, mostly older generation, have a profound bias against black Americans. I use “black Americans” because that’s how we still refer them in Chinese. And over the decades, I have often overheard Chinese use a Chinese epitaph to describe this population, or witnessed not-all-that-subtle disdainful expressions on their faces toward the few black people on the streets, in the malls, or other public domains. The fact that younger generations (particularly those born in the States), from Gen Y forward, have forsworn such racist attitude brings me only small comfort. The fact that I have since made quite a few close friends with African-Americans, men and women, still doesn’t mitigate my shame every time I remember that exchange at WMU.

After one year at WMU, I transferred to Michigan State University. Being on my own opened my eyes even more.

Fast forward. At one Academy of Management (AOM) annual meeting in the mid- 90s, where I attended a special symposium on diversity, the focus was the usual black-and-white interactions and conflicts. During a momentary lull – which was rare, being the only Asian in the room I piped up: “From my perspective, at least the black and white populations are talking with each other. The conversations may be unpleasant and downright hostile at times, but there are interactions. I don’t ever encounter such discussions between Asians and African-Americans.” The room went very quiet for a second or two. Then the chair of the symposium, my dear professor-friend at Wharton, semi-teased, “As usual, Elena’s wisdom brings us a different perspective.” I wanted to dig a hole and drop myself in it, but I was heartened to note that the tone of the conversation after that moment became more relaxed and more constructively animated.

That moment at the AOM reminded me of “The Functions of Social Conflict,” by Lewis Coser. When two groups are in deep conflicts, sometimes, introducing a superoridnate goal toward which both groups can find common ground to work would temporarily unite the groups. Or, the presence of a third group can often divert the two original groups’ tensions so that they may see possibilities for meaningful interactions.

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The recent racial tension and anti-immigrant sentiment in this country as well as in Europe have saddened me profoundly. I don’t know how I would have coped if I had been in the States during WWII (you know, all Asians look alike, even though Japanese were the mortal enemies of Chinese in that war). I sometimes wonder if we, the collective, will ever learn. So, at times like this, I tend to be more inward-looking than usual and hope in my small ways to offer different perspectives.

To my old classmate at WMU: I am so sorry to have misread your kind intention and rejected your friendly gesture. And I thank you for being honest and thereby teaching me a valuable lesson.

Till next time,

Staying Sane and Charging Ahead.

Direct Contact: taso100@gmail.com

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.”

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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,

Direct Contact: taso100@gmail.com