Friday, December 11, 2009

You've Been Brainwashed

Yes, I’m talking about you. You’ve been brainwashed by the bedtime stories your parents told you as a child, by your favorite superhero movies, by your history textbooks.

Well, as brainwashed connotes the intention of evil, maybe isn’t the most appropriate word. But, I want you to grasp … to really, really get how much of YOU is shaped by your upbringing and your current experiences.

Now, I’m a firm believer that we’re all born unique – with certain personalities, strengths and talents. We’re not solely products of our environments. And I believe that there exists some level of universal truth and goodness in the world. But I also believe that the boundaries are really quite fuzzy when we cross cultural boarders … fuzzier than we’d really like them to be … fuzzier than we generally feel comfortable with.

In a fascinating TED talk, Devdutt Pattanaik speaks about cultural myths and legends in the East verses the West, and how they shape individuals' perceptions of the world. Every culture, he says, is seeking to explain the world as we know it. Why does the sun rise? Why were we born? What is the purpose of our lives? We answer these questions through stories, symbols and rituals – which continuously shape the members of society.

"There is my world and there is your world,” Pattanaik says, “And my world is ALWAYS better than your world. Because my world, you see, is rational and yours is superstition, yours is faith, yours is illogical.” Isn’t that typically our view? We have our own guidelines for logic, for what makes sense, for how things ought to operate. The distinct line, in Western culture, between good and evil, between right and wrong, and even between the earthly and the supernatural – this leads us Westerners to create standards, processes, routines that are methodical, rooted in science and based on things we can see, touch and measure. In Eastern cultures, there is a different kind of logic. Often the cyclical logic of “it depends”, of “mostly”, of “maybe” and of “yes means no” rises up.

This understanding is vital in business. Belief drives behavior, and behavior drives business. While we can, perhaps, force compliance of Western policies, we can’t force adoption of our world view onto overseas entities and employees whose world views come in sharp contrast to our own. How can we adapt our practices and even leadership development techniques interculturally to facilitate the achievement of the desired business objectives? Pattanaik ends his talk with a touching story of how Indian culture and myths were integrated into a leadership development practice to to inspire newly promoted managers to rise up from individual contributers to leaders. Be inspired: watch the video to find out what he did.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

The Power of Nice: What You Get When You Give

Giving is selfish. Sure, I give because I want to be others-focused, to make someone’s day and to help those in need. But, let’s face it, giving feels good. I, myself, seek happiness daily, and I simply love the warm feeling I get as I extend a smile, a compliment, a hand to friends and strangers alike. I personally find great joy in the concept that when we are the most genuine in our generosity (not in a grin-and-bear-it sort of way), we are the most rewarded.

Some friends and I have decided to live out this holiday season with intention. We will strive our hardest to pay attention to the people we encounter in every interaction and to meet their emotional and physical needs in any way we can. We actively seek out opportunities to forgive and extend grace when mistakes are made. We look for positive qualities to affirm in others. We look the person behind the counter in the eyes (at the supermarket, at the cafĂ©, etc.) and engage them in real conversation. I have to admit - thus far it’s been incredible.  Here are some favorite highlights of what I've received - on top of the joy of brining happiness to others:

  • After smiling at and conversing with a bank representative – and authentically baring a bit of my soul in our conversation – he waived a significant fee for some banking services.
  • After some friendly chit-chat about the snowfall with a passerby while waiting for the bus this morning, I found out that he was about to shovel the sidewalk. When he came back with his equipment, the first thing he did was scrape the snow off the bus stop bench so I could have a seat.
  • After complimenting a Starbucks barista on his cheerful, friendly and positive demeanor, we engaged in a deep, rewarding discussion on faith and spirituality.
So, this holiday season, I’m not suggesting that you pursue generosity with a “what’s in it for me?” mentality. That simply won’t produce rewards. But I am suggesting that you find simple ways to pursue genuine generosity, and that by doing so, you might find the holiday magic and joy you’ve been seeking.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

'Tis the season to give back ... by shopping

Struggling to find the balance between giving gifts and giving back this holiday season? Money's tight. Period. But thanks to some innovative organizations, you can delight your family and friends with gifts that do a world of good. Here's a quick run down of my favorite gifts that give back.

Stop Traffick Fashion -- Slavery still exists. Against their wills, people are bought and sold to serve in the sex, hard labor and drug trafficking industries.  Stop Traffick Fashion helps the victims of human trafficking by selling cute handbags and jewelry made by the victims themselves.

Kiva and WoKai -- If you're giving a gift to someone who also loves to give back, consider giving a gift certificate to a microlending organization like Kiva or WoKai. With these organizations, individuals can make small loans of $25 or $50 to a specific entrepreneur in the developing world trying to lift him or herself out of poverty. Kiva was a thought leader and innovator in this field, and WoKai (meaning "I start") focuses solely on China. Perfect for families trying to teach their kids about generosity. As a family they can read through the bios of loan recipients and decide who to help!

Crop to Cup --   For the foodies and coffee-lovers in your life, purchase some family farmed direct-trade coffee from Crop to Cup and include some photos of the farmers who grew it with your gift. The owners of Crop to Cup call themselves Farmer Representatives and work directly with farmers across the globe to ensure the quality of the working conditions and the coffee beans (check out their blog here). Crop to Cup's business model cuts out many of the middle men who typically make a hefty profit on coffee sales. On top of paying farmers 20% more than the average market rate for their beans, Crop to Cup gives 10% of company profits back to the farmer community in donations. And, they have great coffee!

Ten Thousand Villages -- A non-profit organization selling handmade handicrafts and home decor, Ten Thousand Villages exists to provide fair income to artisans in the developing world who would otherwise unemployed. Your purchases can help these individuals afford food, education, health care and housing.  Plus, their store is filled with incredibly fun stuff with an ethnic twist! Order online or see if there is a store in your area.

Toms Shoes -- For each pair of shoes you purchase from Toms, the company donates a pair to a child in need. Many children in the developing world go barefoot, walking to school, doing chores, fetching water, etc., placing them at risk. TOMS is committed to providing shoes to these children  through a very innovative business model -- which makes it earn my respect! Thus far, TOMS has donated over 150,000 pairs of shoes to children throughout the world. Just looking at those incredibly cute feet on the left... how can you resist?

World Vision -- Finally, for the person who already has everything and really doesn't want anything, but the generic "I made a donation in your name" just doesn't cut it -- think about World Vision. For $35 or less, you can provide education for one child, five ducks for a family, or clothes for children. When you give a gift in someone's name, that individual will receive a card detailing the purchase that was made and the impact it will have. I personally believe in the good that World Vision does -- when I was in college some of their education materials transformed my perspective, stirring up in me a passion for the developing world. They've really been around a long time and they're definitely worthy of our support.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Initial Fascination: H is for Heath Bars, Human Resources, and Happiness

Is it a coincidence that the name of one of my favorite candy bars is the same as the first five letters of my first name? Or that I'm moving into the field of Human Resources? Or that I'm simply fascinated with the exploration of individual happiness?

Perhaps not. Intrigued by research that there are more dentists named Dennis than those of any other name, researchers at Northwestern's Kellogg Business School explored the links between brands and individuals' first initials. The findings? Our love for our initials (which actually reflects a love of ourselves) drives us to consume brands that share our first initial. And get this. We don't just like the brand names, but we actually like the products more ... the taste, the look, the style. Our love for ourselves actually alters our experiences of products. A bit egotistical, aren't we? Well, not ALL the time, according to Northwestern researchers. In the theory of Name-Letter Branding, these preferences arise when we experience a strong need for a product (e.g. we're really hungry) or we need to boost our self-esteem (e.g. we're stressed out).

These findings bring to mind a study I read a while back about first initials and grades. (A similar reference here.) Essentially, Allisons and Andys love getting As, while Claras and Charlies don't mind getting Cs. I feel a bit sorry for the Fionas and Franks. An affection for Fs might not be good in school.

So, I'm left wondering what I should do with this information (aside from brainstorming cute A names for my future children). When I'm craving a Heath Bar or some Hunan food (also a fave), should I 'think rationally' and just consume something else? Should I try to overcome this bias? Actually, it's funny... this study makes me a bit more affectionate toward the letter H. Hey, if I can boost my self-esteem while eating chocolate, why not?

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Five Thought Leadership Faves

These tough economic times have had a noticeable impact on the talent scene in organizations. I'm highlighting some of the latest research, findings and thought leadership from key players on the present state of engagement and what organizations can do moving forward to achieve success.

#5 DDI -- Pulse of the Workforce

So, how's the workforce doing? You guessed it. The outlook in engagement is not good. In a fascinating report, DDI presents findings that reveal the majority of individual contributors (i.e. in non-leadership positions) are disengaged, unsatisfied and feel as though their roles are stagnant. To quote the report, "They are 'In the No,' that is, they have no challenging assignments, no opportunity to learn new skills or to advance, no recognition, and, we suspect, no idea how their jobs fit into organizational objectives." These employees are not giving their heart to their organizations -- they're simply doing the job and going home. Moreover, they feel as though they have no reason to stay if a better opportunity comes along. Perhaps the glimmer of hope that stems from this research is that not all individual contributors desire to be promoted to leadership. Engagement need not be solved in the costly manner of promoting people up the food chain. There are other solutions!

#4 The McKinsey & Company -- Motivating People: Getting Beyond Money

So what's a company to do? McKinsey's research finds that not only do non-financial incentives motivate -- they motivate even more than money! The positive effects of bonuses and raises are short-lived. Rather, employees report that praise from immediate managers, attention from leadership (such as one-on-one conversations), and a chance to lead challenging projects are the most effective ways to engage them.

#3 Hewitt Associates -- What Makes A Company A Best Employer?

And the companies that take these insights to heart? They became the best employers! Leadership commitment, compelling promises to employees (and execution!), connection to the company and strategy, differentiated high performance culture, and aligned people practices constitute the key components of top employers. In sum, Hewitt's research found that the Best Employers, "have aligned their people practices with a company strategy and created an environment that produces positive employee experiences and strong business results." That's positive employee experiences AND strong business results. Thank goodness it's not an either/or game!

#2 Towers Perrin -- Perspectives - Employee Well-Being

While challenge and opportunity to lead motivates, too much challenge may be a bad thing. Late nights, fast food, workplace stress all serve to lower employee well-being, which Towers Perrin reports has direct links to employee engagement. By pushing their employees to produce, companies may see short-term gains while eroding long-term, sustained results. To the extent that work life degrades employee well-being, it also reduces employee engagement and productivity.

#1 NeuroLeadership Institute SCARF Model

My favorite thought leadership of late comes from the NeuroLeadership Institute, which identifies optimal leadership trends based on neuroscience research. This research, also presented in Strategy+Business' "Managing With The Brain In Mind", highlights five individual psychological needs: Status, Certainty, Autonomy, Relatedness and Fairness. If these needs are thwarted, performance and productivity is undermined. Essentially, organizations should minimize threats related to status (think flat organizations), maximize information sharing and transparency from leadership, refrain from micromanaging employees, promote social connections among staff and employ fair management practices.

All this research seems to reiterate the same thing! Inspiring employees to be engaged and productive is not just about the money -- it's about winning their heads and hearts by offering an optimal amount of challenge, ensuring they feel valued and exhibiting sincere concern for their well-being. Confirmation bias at its best? Perhaps it's simply the truth.

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Metaphorically thinking

What is the purpose of a metaphor? A vivid figure of speech drawing comparisons between two things, a metaphor is typically used to aid our understanding of a complex concept. Yes, metaphors are tools we use to promote comprehension and add emotion to our descriptions. But are they more than that? Do the metaphors themselves actually shape how we perceive the world ... even when language isn't involved? Research summarized in the Boston Globe's article Thinking Literally indicates yes!

This article provides synopses of several psychology studies that reveal that metaphors shape our patterns of thought:
  • When participants filled out a questionnaire with a heavy or "weighty" clipboard in two studies, they considered questions more seriously and attributed more value to an unknown currency than those who held a light clipboard.
  • Subjects who held a warm cup of coffee versus a cup of iced coffee (not thinking it was part of the study) rated the personality of someone who was described to them as happier, more sociable, good natured, and more caring -- all "warmer" qualities. (Find a more in-depth look at this study here.)
These are fascinating insights that depict how the metaphors of our culture influence our subconscious processing. But when speaking cross-culturally, beware! Cultural interpretations of metaphors can vary greatly. An illustration: one Chinese friend gets such a kick out of the "angry burger" at Burger King. As an American, it's clear to me that the angry burger will be spicy as "anger" and "spicy" both indicate "heat". My friend, on the other hand, had no idea what it could possibly mean -- the metaphors in his culture did not connect the two. In sum, the results of the above research have implications for metaphor usage in a cross-cultural setting: we should now not only take caution with the metaphors we use in our language but also those we portray in our actions.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Key Connections

Just had to share this fun article on boosting creativity from Don The Idea Guy: Push Any Key For Creativity. What I particularly love about this is that it represents a fundamental tool in creative thinking -- connecting ideas. In this case, Don connects creative wisdom with a computer keyboard and produces a fab article. What everyday object can you muse upon to help you solve the challenge you're facing?

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Preserving greatness

"When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the Universe." - John Muir, 1911

When John Muir explored the majestic Yosemite Valley, he was not only struck by its breathtaking beauty but also compelled to celebrate and preserve it. His activism eventually led Abraham Lincoln to sign an Act of Congress to safeguard the land for public use ... an action that paved the way for the establishment of our National Parks.

Thanks to Muir's environmental activism, my recent visit to the Yosemite Valley, was, indeed, awe inspiring and uplifting. His personal quest leads me to wonder if we are celebrating and seeking to maintain the beautiful and great things in our lives, organizations and world. Yes, there is a need to be nimble, to react quickly and effectively to change, to not hold on too tightly to things that keep us from moving forward. But on the reverse, there is a need to capture, protect and continuously rejoice over the amazing and awe-inspiring elements of our organizations. Does our inaction allow it to slip away? Perhaps in the name of progress or in response to global market shifts?

Moreover, Muir was keen to realize that simply protecting only the places of greatest beauty or majesty would not be sufficient for maintaining greatness. Without a complex ecosystem in place surrounding the Yosemite Valley, the picturesque sights would deteriorate. In our organizations, do we realize how little changes affect our cultures? Is our greatness slipping away, not because of big changes, but due to little ones? How can we build and maintain a healthy ecosystem, where our employees and our customers can be continuously motivated and inspired?

I am thankful that John Muir went to great lengths, even dedicated his life, to preserving the greatness of creation. Let his efforts inspire us as we stumble upon greatness in our worlds.

Friday, September 4, 2009

Metaphor on marriage

Was reading about the power of a metaphor and was inspired to create one of my own. Tyler and I celebrated our anniversary today - the day of our first date six years ago - because we were apart for our wedding anniversary. As part of my gift to him, took a stab at composing a metaphor (well, a simile really) that summed up my thoughts, feelings and emotions on our marriage.

"Our marriage is like a therapeutic massage ... there may be a few 'ouch' moments, but as we work through them it leaves me feeling delightfully warm, tingly and content."

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Yet another reason half-right is the new perfect

Freedom. That's what I felt when I read today's HBR article, "How to Escape Perfectionism". Not only is perfectionism as a consultant a hindrance to organizational effectiveness, but this article reveals it's a hindrance to your own productivity. Iceland, as a culture that does not stigmatize failure,  is ranked the happiest place on earth and is one of the most productive - with more artists per capita than any other country. If Icelanders pursue activities they're not initially good at, failure doesn't hinder them from moving forward and building competence.

Reflecting on my upbringing in the States, this leaves me wondering how often I hold back because I know I won't be perfect. How often the fear of being laughed at inhibits me. What experiences have I missed out on because I was too afraid to try?

And it also leads me to think about what attitudes we're encouraging in the workplaces. Is your company culture one that leads to fear-avoidance -- where it's easier for employees to just do nothing than to risk failure. Are your numerous assessment tools, e.g. performance reviews, 360 evaluations, personality assessment, etc., that point out performance weaknesses balanced with rewards for taking on new projects to build competencies. Is failure embraced as part of the learning and growing process or is it means for removal?

In his book Management Rewired, Charles Jacobs relates the latest findings in neuroscience research to the leadership/management field. One key message is that critical performance feedback typically serves to undermine performance improvement. At best, employees will dismiss it. At worst, they will become disengaged. I suspect that this is not so much attributed to the fact that people think they're already perfect, but that they're put off by the connotation of failure implicit in critical feedback.   Jacobs argues that allowing employees to own their own development plans, to self-assess their improvements and competencies and to take charge of their own learning will produce much better results. And the folks in Iceland are proof that it works!

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Embracing the far from perfect

The quest for perfection ... it's a journey I've often been on. Perhaps it's rooted in my print journalism background, where one character out of place was the greatest of all sins. Hence, my eyes have been trained to notice the details. Or perhaps it's related to my need to please. In work, I've always wanted to delight clients, bosses and colleagues with extraordinary work. To disappoint would have been utter failure.
But HBR's Why Doing Things Half Right Gives You the Best Results offers freedom for those of us who have been trapped in perfectionism. The author, Peter Bregman, relates lessons he's learned in creating organizational solutions and leading change. What he found is that if he creates things that are imperfect and then asks stakeholders "Why won't this work for you?", obstacle after obstacle is unearthed. When he follows up with "How can you change it so it will work?", the ideas for improvement start flowing. 
To pursue a "perfect" result assumes that we think we have all the answers. It may be our version of perfect, but it may not be the most effective for everyone else. Moreover, a near-perfect prototype shuts out other stakeholders from providing valuable input. Flaws are not as noticeable, and stakeholders may be more hesitant to contradict what has clearly taken significant time to create. The less our goal is to "wow" others with our ideas but rather to do what is best for the organization, the more willing we'll be to let go of our quest for perfection.
So, as I move forward in pursuing a career in talent management consulting, I think a new tactic is in order. It's clear that perfectionism won't work for me any longer. As I create human capital solutions for workplace performance, I'm aiming for half-right. 

Monday, August 3, 2009

Reason to live like the locals

In my years in China, I came across many types of lao wai (foreigners). There were the tour groups congregated together, gaping and pointing as they traversed the city, like spectators watching a show. There were the business travelers, always on the move to their next meeting, always trying to make the next buck in the China market. There were the unabashed expats, living in their foreign communities, eating Western food, looking down on the locals and living life just as they would have back home. And then there were lao wai who seemed sincerely interested in all things China. Those who embraced the culture, who saw the locals as equals and as friends, and who adapted their lives based on cultural expectations.

I've always been biased toward the latter, thinking that that lifestyle reaps the most benefits. It increases your global awareness and interpersonal sensitivity, and it's just one heck of an adventure. Now recent research shows there's one more benefit to add to the mix: creativity. That's a pretty darn good selling point. (I mean, who doesn't want to be more creative?!)

I spotted news of a recent study conducted by Northwestern's Alan Galinsky and INSEAD's William Maddox that found that prolonged periods of time immersed in a foreign culture increased individuals' creative problem solving skills. The more time individuals spent overseas and the more they adapted to the local culture, the better they performed in a series of experiments requiring the use of creative problem solving. (For a more in-depth look, you can read the findings published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology here.)

These findings are not surprising, given what we know about creative thinking. While some individuals may be born with a gift for creativity, it is also a competency that can be learned, fostered and refined over time. At it's core, creativity is about making cognitive connections between concepts and experiences to come up with innovative ideas and solutions. (Tangent: For an interesting look into building creative processes in organizations, read Sticky Wisdom brought to us by the folks at ?What If! Innovation.) It stands to reason that an overseas immersion experience greatly deepens our exposure to new experiences, concepts and even patterns of thought, enabling us to "think differently" when faced with problems or challenges.

Interesting to note, however, is that this study found that simply travelling overseas was not enough to significantly increase creative problem solving.   This suggests that it's not only the quantity but also the quality of new experiences that builds creativity. Depth is as, if not more, important than breadth.

I speculate that this relates to my July posting, Geography of Thought. There, we saw that deep descrepincies in patterns of thought exist between varying cultures. While short trips overseas enable us to gain a surface-level understanding of different cultures, extended immersion facilitates the acquisition of new patterns of thought. This then allows us to view challenges from entirely new perspectives as we integrate our old world-view with the new.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Empowering a global workforce

Featuring insights from Hewitt Associate's Chief Diversity Officer, Andres Tapia, Incorporating Global Diversity into Learning in the latest issue of Chief Learning Officer offers some nuggets of wisdom to consider when designing global or cross-cultural learning initiatives. While it doesn't go deep, the article offers a variety of ideas and approaches that are worth a quick read.

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Geography of Thought

When I first went to China my first year out of college, I had a goal. As I spent the year teaching English at a University in Shanghai, I wanted to "become more and more Chinese". So, in my quest to become more Chinese, I did what I saw Chinese people do:

  • I ate street food habitually
  • I tasted strange foods like octopus, sea cucumber, turtle, and snake
  • I rode on the backs of bicycles and had people balance on the back of mine
  • I played Chinese card games, like 80 points
  • I sang karaoke in Mandarin

It was a great year. Fabulous. Which is why I eventually returned to Shanghai. But did those activities make me more Chinese? As I opened my mind to these new activities, perhaps they they did shift my thinking. Overall, my thought processes remained grounded in Western philiosophy.

These cultural differences I attempted to imitate were tangible. They were easy to recognize and learn. But cultural differences stretch far beyond these customs and preferences. Differences are found in not just not just what we think about, e.g. beliefs and values, or how we act, but, more deeply, in how we think and perceive the world. At our very core, our patterns of thought are shaped dramatically by the cultures in which we were raised. The Geography of Thought by Richard Nisbett is a fascinating account of some of these differences that were identified between Western and Eastern cultures through psych studies conducted at the University of Michigan. Nisbett ties these results together in an engaging story that leads readers to see the value in thought patterns that may not be their own.
Take the below image. In one study, American and Japanese subjects were asked to report what they see. Take a minute to think about this. How would you describe the picture?

The findings revealed that while Americans focused primarily the dominant objects, Japanese subjects took more holistic perspectives. For example, Americans typically began their account by describing the large fish in the foreground, while Japanese began by referencing the background elements, e.g. the lake or the pond. Moreover, Japanese participants offered 70% more statements about background elements and 100% more statements about relationships between the objects in the picture. This is a reflection of how they see the world.

I realize now that while my adventures did serve to make me more open to other cultures, there were (and are) still things about life in China that baffle me. Their logic isn't always my own. But rather than say it is illogical, I believe that it's just a different type of reason and thinking ... one that even six years in China and a Chinese spouse haven't enabled me to fully understand. (Though, undoubtedly, I have begun to be shaped by Chinese thinking.) Reading Nisbett's Geography of Thought has allowed me to put some structure around these differences and to more fully appreciate the way they play our in my work life, my friendships and my marriage. 

Monday, June 22, 2009

Intercultural musings

I have two passions. No, make that three. I love cultures - exploring the depths of differences, experiencing the exotic, seeking to understand oh-so-different perspectives and falling in love with people and places throughout the world (quite literally, in fact).
And then there is the passion around motivation. How are we wired? What make us tick? What drives us to pursue excellence out of intrinsic enjoyment? To function in a way that leads to both joy and productivity? These are the questions that capitvate my attention and swirl endlessly in my mind.
And the third passion? To love the world and everyone in it. To bring joy to others. To do good for all of God's creation.
Join me as I share my musings on these topics in hope of promoting deeper intercultural and interpersonal understanding. I'll be reflecting on insights neuroscience research sheds on leadership, exploring global issues with talent management, and discussing anything else I find intriguing along the way. I embark on this journey with the goal of spreading a message of hope and love ... that we may appreciate our differences just as much as we take comfort in our similiarities.

My Shelfari Bookshelf

Shelfari: Book reviews on your book blog