Are Diversity Initiatives Worthless?

Recently, Jack Welch, former CEO of GE, made some controversial comments at a Women in the Economy conference sponsored by the Wall Street Journal.  What did he say that upset at least some of the female attendees? First, he said that working hard and showing how your skills can benefit the company are the keys to getting ahead.  In effect, he said, “over deliver … performance is it.” Unlike what some may believe, this is not what upset them; who could argue against this, in the first place?

He then criticized mentorship programs and other diversity initiatives for women, referring to them as “victims’ units.”  He even mentioned some female executives who approached him while he was at GE, telling him that they refused to participate in these kinds of programs.  By inference, Welch would probably also argue against any kind of diversity initiatives for African-Americans or minorities.

We all know the numbers.  Of the Fortune 500 companies, only 3% have a female CEO today.  A survey of 60 major companies by McKinsey shows women occupying 53% of entry-level positions, 40% of manager positions, and only 19% of C-suite jobs.

In my experience, Welch represents the mindset of a generation of white male executives (mostly in their sixties), some of who still believe that there is true meritocracy in corporations, that there are no barriers to anyone getting ahead other than your own internal ambitions, and that regardless of the culture or work environment, those who are successful find ways to make it to the top.  In this Darwinian world, there is no need to do anything special or different for diverse groups. You just have to figure it all out, since “the cream rises to the top.” For these executives (I know; I have worked with quite a few of them in my career), diversity initiatives, affinity groups, and support networks for women (and by extension, African-Americans) are unnecessary and even unfair.  And some women and African-Americans agree with them! Taken to an extreme, what Welch implies is that managers should have no responsibility in developing others. Just leave them alone and let them figure it out for themselves.

Contrary to what Welch implies, there continue to be cultural, systemic, and organizational barriers to success in today’s work place.  The evidence is overwhelming, and I don’t need to rehash this in this column. Here are a couple of points I would like to offer based on what we know from the science and practice of Industrial-Organizational Psychology.  

First, we know from research and from schema theory that we have filters and expectations about individuals that tend to bias our perception of them.  And one of these pervasive biases is a “similar-to-me” bias. We tend to like those who are like us, and tend to react favorably to those with whom we perceive to have similarities.  No question that this has been a barrier to females getting ahead. Fortunately, through diversity programs and the track record of many outstanding women in the work force, I believe that individuals in corporations today are more “enlightened” than they have been in the past.  But the biases still exist. In Europe during the eighties, many orchestras changed their practice from having judges watch and evaluate potential orchestra members audition in front of them to having them audition “blind.” That is to say, the applicants performed behind a curtain so that the judges could not tell whether the applicants were male or female.  This simple practice led to a dramatic increase in the proportion of female orchestra members.

Second, while very few if any corporate executives would argue against evaluating people other than for their performance (as Welch suggests), how that performance is viewed can be subject to bias.  Here, attribution theory can shed much light.  Attribution theory states that we as managers not only evaluate performance, but also try to determine the causes of that performance.  Is the reason for their performance based on ability, effort, luck, or some other factor? A manager’s evaluation of the potential of an individual may depend therefore not just on his or her performance but also ona the manager’s answer to this question of what caused the performance.

Welch implies that it is all about performance.  But wait. Isn’t this the same Jack Welch who in GE introduced the famous 2 X 2 matrix where managers were evaluated not just on their performance (on the one axis), but also on their values (the other axis), and that a manager who performs well but who does not have the right values should be “terminated?”

Unfortunately, our biases creep into our evaluation of the causes of performance.  There is a lot of evidence, for example, that male managers tend to attribute the performance of their female subordinates more to luck than to ability or effort.

So what are the implications to individuals and to corporations of the Welch assertions?  First, for individuals, there is no question that your performance is your “foot in the door,” your ticket for punching your way to the dance.  This will mean making some personal sacrifices and trade-offs, and working some long hours to build a successful track record if your ambition is to be a successful executive.  But I don’t believe that this means rejecting whatever support and help you can take advantage of, whether within your company or outside the company. For example, many of us need to build our networks (as Reid Hoffman calls it, your personal board of directors) and if your company offers programs to help you with this, there is no reason not to take advantage of them.  Believe me, the Welches of the world (white males in their sixties and seventies), when they were rising stars, had their own network and support system. It may not have been formalized, but they still took advantage of them. And many of these groups excluded women, whether intentional or not.

For managers, this means that your responsibility as a manager includes developing and coaching others.  Catalyst just published some recent research demonstrating that a majority of high potentials received developmental support and are in turn developing others in their organizations.  This “culture of talent development” is critical for companies today, and yet Welch, of all people, would seem to suggest it is not necessary, or even desirable.

For corporations, continuing to provide mentoring programs, affinity groups, and similar initiatives – and more broadly implementing diversity initiatives – will provide them with a competitive advantage.  After all, the business case for diversity in attracting, developing and retaining talent is well-established, notwithstanding the opinion of Mr. Welch.

Global Mindset Part II

An example:  you are an expatriate manager of a multinational company in a Middle Eastern country  and you have just found out that no women are allowed to even apply for certain jobs in your department.  You say to yourself, “I just don’t get it.”  Another example:  an executive who works with Korean nationals once expressed his frustration to me that Koreans will never tell you what they really think.  “Why can’t they just be candid like Americans?”

I could give many more examples to illustrate reactions to differences in cross-cultural management practices that suggest a gap in global mindset, especially in one aspect:  that of developing empathy, which suggests an ability (and willingness) to understand another person’s or group’s perspective.  Actually, lots of research suggests that this skill differentiates effective negotiators from average ones.  For managers working cross-culturally, I believe that this “perspective-taking” skill is critical.  As two researchers from the University of Chicago (Epley and Caruso, 2008) have stated, “… the ability to accurately adopt someone’s perspective is better than chance but less than perfect.”  They point to three barriers, which I will paraphrase here. 


The first barrier is “activating” or switching on in our minds a willingness to do this.  As managers and leaders of global teams, this is sometimes difficult to do when there are so many mental balls that we are juggling.  And if we have not even made the effort to learn about other cultures, or to recognize that our way is not the only way, switching mentally to consider practices from another person’s perspective will be tough.  Our default mode is our own perspective, our own way of viewing things.    

The second barrier is our natural tendency is to react to things from our own perspective.  In one experiment which they cite, participants were asked to send either sincere or sarcastic messages to another participant, either over the telephone or via e-mail.  They were asked to predict, for each of 10 sincere and 10 sarcastic messages, whether the recipient would interpret the message correctly or incorrectly.  Recipients were not significantly better than chance at distinguishing between sarcasm and sincerity over e-mail, but not surprisingly, were significantly more accurate over the telephone.  But the senders did not think there would be any difference in the recipients’ accuracy when communicating over e-mail or the telephone.  “The senders’ intentions to communicate sarcasm or sincerity were so clear that it rendered them unable to appreciate … that the perception of the person on the other end of the computer monitor would be very different from the person on the other end of the telephone.” 

From my experience, I can recall many times when executives say they don’t understand why their messages are not being understood, or are being misinterpreted by employees.  If the executive working with Korean nationals has asked them for their opinions and they don’t give him any, it must be because they prefer not being candid!  The perspective that in some cultures, authority is so respected that voicing an opinion is tantamount to challenging the boss, is not something that would occur right away to this executive.           

Third, if we do recognize that we need to understand another person’s perspective, our ability to do this may depend on whether we believe that person is similar to us or not.  In either case, this may lead to problems.  Let’s say that you are a manager for a global company working with a group of Japanese employees in the Tokyo subsidiary.  You could make the assumption that because these employees belong to the same company as you they should react similarly to you.  Or you could make the assumption that because these employees are Japanese, they will react based on your “stored knowledge” of what Japanese are like – which may or may not be accurate.  Each of these assumptions will not necessarily reflect the Japanese employees’ perspectives.

I was recently in Singapore to teach a class in Global Leadership to a group of intelligent and experienced Asian executives, most of whom have regional roles working in global companies.  One of their challenges is in managing within a matrix environment and convincing senior management that certain global policies and strategies might have to be adapted for different markets.  In discussing their situation, we had a productive dialogue in looking at the situation from the senior managers’ perspective – what could be going on in their minds, what might be driving their behavior?              

Although empathy and perspective-taking are sometimes difficult, developing this skill can be learned through practice and mindfulness.  I have three simple suggestions.  One, get to know the other person or group better, as well as their cultures.  By doing this, you will minimize your tendency to stereotype.  Second, learn to describe first before judging.  We have a quick tendency to evaluate based on first impressions.  But in cross-cultural situations, what you see is often not what you get, because our observations are filtered through our own cultural frame of reference.  And third, try to reflect on what is going on and what might be causing the behavior.    

So for the expatriate manager and the executive working with Korean nationals, learning about the local cultures might give them insight into why these practices exist.  It does not mean accepting these practices, but it may mean developing alternative approaches.  The executive working with Korean nationals, recognizing that he is an authority figure, might put more effort in asking specific questions rather than asking them generally for their opinion.  Ultimately the benefit of developing empathy and of having a global mindset will help you become a more effective global leader.      


Epley, N. and Caruso, E.  (2008).  Perspective taking:  misstepping into others’ shoes.  In K. D. Markman et al. (Eds.), Handbook of Imagination and Mental Simulation.  New York:  Psychology Press.

Global Mindset Part I

Larry Parker (not his real name) was a marketing executive for the Asia Pacific division of a multi-national company.  He would hold regular teleconferences with his marketing directors in Asia and, according to him, he found it difficult to make much progress with them.  Asking for my advice, he commented, “Why is it that when I tell them that they need to meet a certain deliverable by a certain time, they all say they will do it, and yet nothing happens by the deadline.  I can never tell if they have agreed to do something or not.  Why can’t they just be straight with me?”

Does Larry have what many management experts are calling “global mindset?”  What is global mindset, anyway?  How do we know when someone has it?  Professors Anil Gupta and Vijay Govindarajan define global mindset as “combin(ing) openness to and awareness of diversity across cultures and markets with a propensity and ability to synthesize across this diversity.”  And The Thunderbird School of Management says that global mindset is made up of your:  intellectual capital (e.g., your global business savvy, your cosmopolitan outlook), psychological capital (e.g., your passion for diversity, your quest for adventure), and social capital (e.g., your intercultural empathy, your diplomacy).    

These are certainly reasonable.  As implied, global mindset is a mental attitude, an inclination.  It is not a behavior, but it should predict behavior.  In my own experience and interviews with executives and students, I would say there are four components which can be easily remembered with the acronym FACE:  Flexibility, Acceptance/openness, Curiosity, and cross-cultural Empathy.

I asked my students near the beginning of my course in Cross-Cultural Management to describe what global mindset means to them.  Here is a sampling of what they wrote:   

“Global mindset means that you are aware of your environment, of others and the impact of ideas and events in your business, strategy or position.”

“Taking a more macro look at things … understanding that things won’t work the same all over the world, and taking that into account.”

“Having an understanding that countries have different cultures, and going into each country, one must always be aware and sensitive to that country’s cultural ways.”

 “Someone who understands or has an open mind to understand different cultures and how these affect the outcomes of decisions.”

“Putting yourself in the other culture’s shoes.”

“Listening and resisting reflexive judgments.”

“Your way is not always the right way.”

“Understanding that different countries/cultures have different ways of doing things.  They value certain things differently.  A global mindset has to take all of that into consideration and be open-minded and willing to compromise.” 

When I asked Larry (a mid-westerner who had only begun to travel to Asia) what he thought was going on, he said that it was either because Asians don’t have the same sense of urgency as Westerners, and/or that they are not as candid.  Six months later, Larry requested a transfer from his position and eventually moved to a staff job in headquarters.

We can reasonably assume that Larry did not have a global mindset and was perhaps a poor fit in his global role.  He showed little curiosity for the geography he was managing, was not willing to explore other ways to accomplish his objectives, and could not imagine viewing things from his direct reports’ perspective.      

Developing a global mindset, on the other hand, is not easy.  Traveling to other countries, or reading about different cultures, may help, but is not sufficient.  And of the four components, developing inter-cultural empathy is probably the most difficult.  In a subsequent article, I will explain why, and also some of the ways you can develop global mindset.

Does Working Right Trump Finding the Right Work (or Passion)?

We all have hobbies, and some of them we pursue with quite a bit of passion.  It’s been written that Charles Darwin, when he was young, was so intrigued by beetle collecting that when he had to make a choice between spending time with his girl friend or his hobby, he chose the latter – and ended up marrying someone else later in life.  Steve Jobs had a passion for music, especially for artists like Bob Dylan and the Grateful Dead.  He once had a $100,000 stereo system installed in his home.

Now we’ve all heard the adage to follow your passion.  Yet if these individuals had simply followed their passion, we might not have benefited from their contributions to science and technology, and the world would have been poorer as a result.

I became intrigued with this especially after I read a book called So Good They Can’t Ignore You by Cal Newport, a Computer Science Ph.D.  He pretty much states unequivocally that following your passion is bad advice because career passions are so rare.  He cites studies that show that less than four percent of students who are asked about their passions mention anything related to work.

Yet many of us probably know people who have decided that they are sick of the rat race, of the boring nature of their work, or that they are simply not interested in their chosen career that they get off the “treadmill” and decide to follow their dream – whether that is having their own business, pursuing a life-long hobby like tennis, playing the guitar, learning yoga, or writing a novel. Perhaps you have considered this yourself.

Newport, however, argues against our adopting this “passion” mindset, but instead suggests that we adopt a craftsman mindset.  For him, the passion mindset is about what the world can offer you, while the craftsman mindset is about what you can offer the world, what value you can create.  It is, ironically, the foundation for creating work that we love.

The craftsman mindset implies that we find those characteristics in the work that we are doing that taps into something that we enjoy, and that makes use of our talents.  Of course there may be conditions when you cannot apply the craftsman mindset (see page 56), such as when:

  1. The job presents few opportunities to distinguish yourself by developing relevant skills that are rare and valuable
  2. The job focuses on something you think is useless or perhaps even actively bad for the world
  3. The job forces you to work with people you really dislike.

So how do you become a craftsman?  Is it by following the 10,000-hour rule that Gladwell popularized in his book Outliers?  In that book, he cites research, for example, on what it takes to become a chess grandmaster.  Even Bobby Fischer took about ten years to become internationally famous.  But studies show that even among players who spent about the same amount of time – 10,000 hours – some became grandmasters while others remained at an intermediate level.  The answer seems to be that it is not just the time, but what you do with that time.  As Newport reports: “The researchers discovered that the players who became grandmasters spent five times more hours dedicated to serious study than those who plateaued at an intermediate level.  The grand masters, on average, dedicated around 5,000 hours out of their 10,000 to serious study.  The intermediate players, by contract, dedicated only around 1,000 to this activity.”

This seems to be the key – serious study, or as Anders Ericsson and his colleagues said, “deliberate practice.”  This is “an activity designed, typically by a teacher, for the sole purpose of effectively improving specific aspects of an individual’s performance …  (It’s) an approach to work where you deliberately stretch your abilities beyond where you’re comfortable and then receive ruthless feedback on your performance.”

Of course deliberate practice is not always enjoyable.  You are stretching yourself, pushing yourself, and getting feedback from others. However, in a study published in the Journal of Business Venturing and as reported in the Wall Street Journal (January 26, 2015), entrepreneurs who founded a business based on a personal pastime lagged behind other founders initially, but after 45 months they more than caught up.  Perhaps those who did it based on a hobby were not as business-savvy, so they had to do a lot more groundwork at the beginning?  The authors of the study don’t address this but here is what they do say:  “Since they’re working on businesses that are closely related to their pastimes, sure they’re going to encounter some difficulties.  But what our data are showing is that they’re still making progress at a steady pace.  They’re doing something that they enjoy, so it’s not as likely that they’ll give up.  And because they’re doing it for reasons not necessarily related to them making a lot of money or growing a big enterprise, the reasons for giving up are not necessarily the same as they might be for conventional entrepreneurs.”

So some advice to help you with your passion mindset and your craftsman mindset:

First, figure out whether you have the talent in something you are really interested in.  If not, keep it a hobby.  Don’t expect to make a career of it.  If so, put in the practice so that you can become better before you decide to make this into a career.

Second, examine what you are currently doing in your job and figure out what aspects you enjoy the most.  For some, you may discover that you really enjoying developing people.  For others, you enjoy the analytic side.  Can you build on these in your current job?  Once you are in a job, you might discover a career passion.

Charles Darwin did not make beetle collecting into a full-time endeavor, but the skills he learned while on his hobby certainly helped him in his observational skills that led to the theory of evolution.  Steve Jobs did not become a rock star literally, but his passion for music led to the development of the iPod.

Interestingly, Amy Wrzesniewski has conducted research in which she has found that the more experience people have in a job, the more they are likely to love their work.   Newport suggests that “… it’s more important to become good at something rare and valuable, and then invest the career capital this generates into the type of traits that make a job great.”


Ericsson, K. A., Krampe, R. and Tesch-Römer, C. (1993). The Role of Deliberate Practice in the Acquisition of Expert Performance. Psychological Review, 100 (3): 363-406.

Huston, C.  (2015).  First Comes the Hobby.  Then Comes the Startup.  And, Eventually, Profits.  Wall Street Journal, January 26.

Newport, C.  (2012).  So Good They Can’t Ignore You.  New York:  Hachette Book Group.

Wrzesniewski, Amy, et al.  (1997).  Jobs, Careers and Callings:  People’s Relations to Their Work.  Journal of Research in Personality, 31, 21-33.

Is Meritocracy Dying – Or Was It Just a Myth All Along?

An organizational culture that values meritocracy sounds good, doesn’t it? After all, we want to be hired, evaluated, and promoted based on our own merits – as opposed to non-performance-related factors such as our race, our gender, our network, or our political skills. It’s all about getting what we deserve because of our performance.

Scan the web sites of companies and many of them make explicit reference to meritocracy. Goldman Sachs states it is “a meritocracy built on the belief that collaboration, teamwork and integrity create the right environment for our people to deliver the best possible results for our clients.” One of McKinsey & Company’s core values is to “sustain a caring meritocracy.” Similarly, one of Bank of America’s core values is “inclusive meritocracy.” AB InBev, the beer conglomerate, claims that its culture “is built on ownership, informality, candor, transparency and meritocracy. We set ourselves stretch targets and are never completely satisfied with our results.” The newly formed Kraft Heinz Company states on its web site that “we recognize and reward outstanding performance at every level, in the true spirit of meritocracy. In 2014 alone, more than 1,000 employees were promoted as a result of their high performance and value creation.” And there is GE, which has meritocracy as one of its values, which they define as “creating opportunities for the best people from around the world to grow and live their dreams.”

Not only employers but most employees also seem to value meritocracy. According to Ready et al. (2010), this is one of the factors that attracts talent in emerging markets. In my experience, I have also found that young professionals in Asia find the seniority-based system in many Asian firms to be hampering their advancement opportunities, and they want more recognition for their hard work and performance. In fact, when China recruited for its civil service examinations starting around the seventh century, it introduced a merit-based system. The exam was based on classical literature and philosophy, and candidates were selected based on their exam scores. Of course, there were many people from the lower classes who did not have the educational background to compete, and women were excluded from applying. In principle, however, the concept was based on a meritocracy.

Yet there are significant barriers to creating meritocracy in organizations. First, organizations may say they value it, but their practices might not necessarily reflect this. Executive coach Marshall Goldsmith (2004) has written about how leaders subtly encourage (and by implication, reward) those who fawn over and suck up to them. According to a recent survey by Right Associates (Lauby, 2012), 44% of employees believe the key to their success lies in “who you know,” and not job performance (39%). Other employee surveys show similar results, despite the prevalence of organizational practices such as performance appraisal systems.  In a 2014 survey of over 356,000 U.S. federal employees, 54% disagreed with the statement that “pay raises depend on how well employees perform their job.” (fedrev report, 2014) In their excellent book, The Meritocracy Myth, McNamee and Miller (2004) point to social capital (“whom you know”) and cultural capital (“what you need to know to fit into the group”) as important non-merit factors that influence life outcomes:

“It helps to have friends in high places, and the higher up one starts in life the greater the probability that one will travel in high-powered social circles. One must also have the cultural wherewithal to be fully accepted within these high-powered social circles. Those who are born into these circles have a nonmerit cultural advantage over those not born into these circles …” (p. 198)

Second, as Castilla and Benard (2010) have argued, emphasizing meritocracy might unintentionally introduce bias and create inequity in the distribution of employee rewards. Their research suggests that “… in contexts in which people are led to feel that they are unbiased, fair, or objective, they are more likely to then behave in biased ways.” (p. 547); they refer to this as the “paradox of meritocracy effect.” Why does this happen? Two mechanisms seem to be operating. One is through the concept of moral credentials. If you believe you have established your credentials as a non-prejudiced person, you are more prone to express prejudiced attitudes.  Similarly, if you believe strongly that your organization values and endorses meritocracy, then you must therefore not be biased and must be making your decisions based solely on merit. The second mechanism is through self-perceived objectivity. If you believe that you are an objective person, then you may not realize that you may be acting on your prejudices. And we all have conscious and unconscious biases. So the paradox here is that if you believe in meritocracy you might be more likely to behave in biased ways.

Third, we are subject to the fundamental attribution error, which is the tendency to overattribute other people’s behavior to internal rather than to external causes, and one’s own success to internal rather than external causes. Those who have made it and who are successful believe that it is due to their hard work and because they got there through their merits. They also believe that internal factors such as aptitude or motivation are the causes for others not succeeding, rather than external circumstances.

A fourth barrier is around our unconscious biases, especially related to (but not limited to) race and gender. As an example, Samson (2013) conducted a survey-based experiment in which half of the sample of White respondents in California were asked about the importance of GPA (a merit-based variable) as a factor for admission to the University of California. The other half received the following information prior to the question: Under current admissions procedures in the University of California system, Asians make up almost 40% of the student body (or 2 out of every 5 students), while they are only 12% of the California population (p. 240). His results showed that individuals’ acceptance of merit-based admission varies as a function of their perception of “group threat” and not just perceptions of fairness. In other words, when group threat is primed (as it was in half the subjects), these White subjects tended to decrease the importance of a merit-based variable like GPA as a factor in admissions. He concludes that commitment to meritocracy may be based not solely on principle but varies “… depending on the outgroups under consideration and the extent of the group threat they pose to Whites.” (p. 253)

In an interesting set of studies, Uhlmann and Cohen (2005) showed that individuals use different criteria to define merit that fits their own preconceptions and biases. For example, in one study, they asked participants to rate the strengths of male and female applicants for the job of police chief. Applicants’ credentials and gender were manipulated. Credentials were either strong on being streetwise (e.g., working in tough neighborhoods, getting along with fellow officers, poorly educated) or on being educated (e.g., experienced in administrated, well educated, did not get along so well with fellow officers). The participants then rated the importance of several hiring criteria, and whether the applicant should be hired. What they found was that educated characteristics were more important when the male applicant had them than when he did not. Educated characteristics were less important when the female applicant had them. In fact, male and female participants constructed criteria favorable to the male applicant. Because the job of a police chief is traditionally male, the participants defined merit in a way that favored male over female applicants.

As reported in the Wall Street Journal (Silverman, 2015), the Clayman Institute for Gender Research at Stanford has been analyzing hundreds of performance reviews in several technology companies. So far, researchers have found that women received 2.5 times the amount of feedback men did about aggressive communication styles (e.g., suggesting that they pipe down and be less aggressive), while men’s reviews contained twice as many words related to assertiveness, independence, and self-confidence (e.g., “drive,” “transform,” “tackle”). In addition:

“… women’s reviews had more than twice the references to team accomplishments, rather than individual achievements … while men … received three times as much feedback linked to a specific business outcome and twice the number of references to their technical expertise.”

Fifth, the criteria for determining merit can vary by company and by culture. Being promoted in some Asian companies means that you have to be able to speak English very fairly well. Many companies look at factors other than performance to determine who gets hired, rewarded and promoted, and arguably some of these factors are more subjective than others, as well as being weighted differently by different raters. For example, in identifying those who might be the future leaders of the company, executives might consider performance, but often look at other factors, such as interpersonal skills, that elusive quality called executive presence, and perhaps even the advocacy of other executives who might have mentored these individuals. Aren’t some of these “non-merit” factors? McNamee and Miller (2004) give a detailed example of their own experience selecting a new faculty member for their department, and they conclude:

“… we call into question the presumption that people know merit when they see it. … it is a cardinal principle in meritocracy that the ‘most’ qualified or ‘best’ person should be hired for the job … However, we argue that it is often difficult or impossible to ‘know’ who the ‘best’ is.” (p. 43)

What can organizations do? First, and the most basic, is to make sure their practices are consistent with their statements about merit. Do their performance and reward systems clearly reinforce excellence and high performance? They can conduct periodic surveys or pulse checks to determine what employees’ perceptions are, instead of simply relying on making pronouncements. Second, make these practices and processes more transparent by defining more clearly what excellent performance is, and why it matters. For example, if behaviors in addition to performance are used as criteria for rewards and promotions, make these explicit, and build in safeguards to minimize subjectivity.

Third, hold managers accountable. Have processes in place to make sure that managers evaluate and reward employees based primarily on performance and other merit-based factors. There is a lot of research evidence from studies of small groups that meritocratic hierarchies (for example, when individuals in groups are given higher rank because of their task expertise) predict group success (Anderson and Brown, 2010).

Fourth, raise awareness of unconscious biases. According to the Wall Street Journal (Lublin, 2014), as many as 20% of large corporations with diversity programs (including Chubb, Genentech, Google, Price Waterhouse Coopers, Roche and T. Rowe Price) now provide training on unconscious bias. Other companies (e.g., Microsoft) provide guidelines to managers before they write up their performance reviews to remind them about gender bias.  There is some evidence that such training might be helpful. Of course efforts to consider diversity in hiring and promotion decisions should continue. Especially important is making sure that there is diversity in the pool of candidates being considered. Most White senior executives when considering successors for their positions or those within their team might favor first those who they perceive to be like them (the “similar-to-me” bias). With a more rigorous screening process, organizations can make sure there are candidates who may be just as qualified but who may not be on their radar screen – and some of them might be female and people of color.

Fifth, as much as possible, define criteria for merit up front and get agreement from evaluators on what the indicators for these criteria are. This will reduce individuals’ tendencies to emphasize qualifications that tend to fit their biases. When working with organizations on evaluating their future leaders, make it a practice, as my colleagues and I do, to gain agreement with the executive team on what success looks like in concrete terms.

It is clearly not enough for organizations to simply state that they have a meritocratic culture. In fact, the reality is that it is very difficult for any organization to achieve this ideal, although it is well worth the effort. The current debates about wage and income inequality touch on the difficulties of achieving meritocracy in societies. However, companies that are serious in attracting and retaining talented employees need to continue to make serious efforts to eliminate these barriers.


Anderson, C. and Brown, C. (2010). The Functions and Dysfunctions of Hierarchy. In A. P. Brief and B. Staw (Eds.), Research in Organizational Behavior, 30: 55-89. New York: Elsevier.

Castilla, E. and Benard, S. (2010). The Paradox of Meritocracy in Organizations. Administrative Science Quarterly, 55: 543-576.

Goldsmith, M. (2004).

Kaplan, S. (2015). Meritocracy: From Myth to Reality. Rotman Magazine, Spring, 49-53.

Lublin, J. (2014). Bringing Hidden Biases into the Light. Wall Street Journal, January 9:

Lauby, S. (2012). For Your Career, It’s Not What You Know – It’s Who You Know.

Samson, F. (2013). Multiple Group Threat and Malleable White Attitudes Towards Academic Merit. Du Bois Review, 10(1): 233-360.

Silverman, R. (2015). Managers: Watch Your Language. Wall Street Journal, September 30, 2015.

Uhlmann, E. and Cohen, G. (2005). Constructed Criteria: Redefining Merit to Justify Discrimination. Psychological Science, 16 (6): 474-480.

Shadow Work and Shadow Staffs in Organizations

I recently came across Craig Lambert’s book Shadow Work, in which he describes all those unpaid tasks we perform on behalf of businesses and organizations – from self-service ATMs, supermarkets, and gas stations, to shopping web sites. He places the blame with our sleep deprivation and our stress levels partially on these businesses, stating that part of our fatigue “… comes from performing extra jobs that were once done by someone else …” (p. 182)

Shadow work can sometimes save customers time or money (unless you live in New Jersey or Oregon, think about your experience with self-serve pumps at the gas station) and give customers a sense of control and autonomy, but it can also cost jobs and decrease human interaction (there are no more gas station attendants to exchange small talk with – not that this was the highlight of your day anyway).

While his definition of shadow work refers to tasks by businesses that are in a sense passed on to customers, there is another use of this term in organizational behavior. Shadow work in organizations refers to work that is conducted over and above (and at times in place of) the formal or official organizational structure. This is work that is done by shadow organizations or shadow staffs; while they are prevalent in IT (note the flap about Hillary Clinton’s private e-mail server, a good example of a shadow IT presence), they also exist in other functions, such as HR, marketing, and finance.

I first heard the term several years ago when a multinational I was familiar with embarked on a strategy to implement global support functions (like HR, Finance, and IT) that would provide “shared services” for its business units and subsidiaries around the world. As a first step, the company gathered headcount figures to identify the number of employees performing “duplicate functions” within different business units and subsidiaries. Such shadow staff added another 15-20% to total support staff head count. This is consistent with work that consultants at Booz & Co. found in their own analyses (Booz & Co., 2003). It turns out that certain business units and subsidiaries had created their own mini-support functions, in many cases duplicating and doing work that was sometimes not aligned with the global support functions’ direction.

Why have such shadow staffs? There seem to be five major reasons. First, business unit heads and subsidiaries want their functions to be able to perform certain tasks which they do not believe they can get from the corporate functions. Perhaps the subsidiary has a unique need such as a talent recruitment and development program for engineering graduates at certain local schools. Given their needs, this subsidiary knows that corporate would not really understand their situation, and so it would be more efficient simply to have its local HR function develop and implement this program without having to involve corporate. Second, business unit managers and local support staff may not feel that they are getting sufficient support from their corporate or global functions. In some cases, the corporate model may either be too sophisticated or not sophisticated enough in meeting their local needs. In other cases, the local business or subsidiary may not be high on corporate’s priority, where the focus (and resources) might be on other more strategic or more important business units or subsidiaries. Third, and this is related to the second reason, the business units may not feel that corporate truly understands their needs, or that they are responsive enough to their needs. One business manager executive I interviewed spoke about the bureaucracy in the global function, and his challenges in even getting the proper attention for and understanding of his marketing needs. Fourth, the business units might be operating under a legacy system that does not align with the global or corporate system, and the costs of conversion might be prohibitive for the subsidiary. This is true especially with IT; for example, the Gartner group predicted several years ago (Gartner press release, 2011) that:

“By 2015, 35 percent of enterprise IT expenditures for most organizations will be managed outside the IT department’s budget … These people are demanding control over the IT expenditure required to evolve the organization within the confines of their roles and responsibilities. CIOs will see some of their current budget simply reallocated to other areas of the business. In other cases, IT projects will be redefined as business projects with line-of-business managers in control.”

Fifth, the structure, governance mechanisms, and culture of the company encourage business units and subsidiaries to do what they have to do to succeed. In many cases, the rules of engagement have never been spelled out, or are not clear. There are no explicit guidelines or policies on various roles and responsibilities among corporate and regional or local staffs; in some organizations that are decentralized, in fact, subsidiaries have considerable latitude in determining their staffs and their activities. Besides, if they can get away with it and there are no adverse consequences but good upside potential, why not? The costs can be hidden or buried and if senior management does not really care, especially if the duplicate staff is not really that expensive (as is the case in many emerging markets), then local management will simply create a shadow staff. According to Korolov (2015), for example, only about 8 percent of companies know and can actually track their shadow IT. However, the local subsidiary might at times come up with interesting and innovative solutions that help drive its local business forward.

Despite these solid business reasons, however, there are unintended consequences to such shadow staffs. One, they may waste company resources and create inefficiencies – not only in terms of headcount duplication but also misalignment. For example, in one organization, a local subsidiary had developed its own competency model and performance management system that were quite at odds with the systems that the parent company had developed for the entire organization. Two, they perpetuate the schism between corporate or global and the business units and subsidiaries. The corporate or global functions can gradually become further removed from the subsidiaries and, without feedback mechanisms to learn from the subsidiaries, a vicious cycle is perpetuated.

Many years ago, Bartlett and Ghoshal (1992) wrote about the need for global leaders heading these global functions to be strategists, architects and coordinators; and for local leaders like country managers to act as sensors, builders and contributors. Their recommendations suggest close collaboration and cooperation between global and local leaders. Three, shadow work contributes to silo thinking and further erosion of collaboration and best-practice sharing between business units and across subsidiaries. Tett (2015), in her book The Silo Effect gives detailed examples of the negative impact of silos on innovation and profitability (her section on Sony’s failures due to its traditional silos is especially relevant).

The presence of shadow work and shadow staffs is more prevalent with large companies, especially those with subsidiaries in different countries, separated from headquarters by distance. However, eliminating shadow staffs may not always be the solution, especially if shadow work done in some subsidiaries is truly innovative and may be transferrable across the organization. Here are a few suggestions for addressing shadow staffs. One, create mechanisms to have global support functions better understand needs of different business units and subsidiaries. For example, corporate functions might have “account managers” who will be responsible for interfacing with internal customers to make sure that they have a good understanding of their customers’ needs. In some cases, these account managers are located closer to the customer geographically, but maintain a solid line or a dual reporting relationship to corporate.

Two, create centers of excellence or expertise in selected subsidiaries or business units. while giving them regional or global responsibility. It is very possible that there are pockets of deep expertise that a subsidiary or business unit has developed. If so, rather than dismantling this expertise, make them available to the entire organization. For example, in one organization, the finance function in its French subsidiary had managed to attract very talented financial professionals who had introduced some innovative finance practices. This French finance function eventually become a center of expertise for the organization’s European region, providing support and expertise to the other finance functions in the company’s European markets.

Three, make structural changes and create governance mechanisms (especially in reporting relationships) to break down the we-they mindset. Many multinationals have support functions in subsidiaries with dual reporting relationships – both to their local management as well as to regional or global management for that function. For example, the head of HR for a subsidiary would report to both his or her country general manager as well as to a regional head of HR.

If the strategic decision is made to reduce or eliminate shadow staff, then make sure to have the following in place: a transition period to allow the business unit or subsidiary to adjust; provisions to help ensure that the local business unit or subsidiary can continue any value-added work, for example, by assigning global or local staff to support this work; and retention plans in place for any talented local or global staff that may be affected by headcount reductions.


Bartlett, C. and Ghoshal, S. (1992). What Is a Global Manager? Harvard Business Review, 70 (5): 124-132.

Booz & Company (2003). Shining the Light on Shadow Staff.

Gartner Press Release (2011).

Korolov, M. (2015). Only 8 Percent

Lambert, C. (2015). Shadow Work: The Unpaid, Unseen Jobs That Fill Your Day. Berkeley, CA: Counterpoint.

Tett, G. (2015). The Silo Effect: The Perils of Expertise and the Promise of Breaking Down Barriers. New York: Simon & Schuster.

Nasty or Nice in the Workplace?

When I worked for Citibank in the eighties as a young professional, I used to tell my friends that the corporate culture in Citibank taught me to be rude. In those days, Citibank was known to be aggressive and even arrogant, and one survived only by adapting to this rough-and-tumble environment.

Corporate cultures have become more genteel since then, with some exceptions (e.g., GE, Apple and the now-defunct Enron). The broader culture of the U.S. has also become more polite, except perhaps in some pockets of New York City. In many parts of corporate America, workplace civility has ruled, although the pendulum may have swung too far in this direction, with many individuals in organizations holding back on their criticism. Managers who undergo training on giving feedback are sometimes taught to use a sandwich approach; that is, make sure that any negative feedback they provide is sandwiched between two positive comments, one prior to the negative feedback and the other after delivering the negative feedback.

While executives at some organizations are encouraging more people to “speak up,” there are still far too many organizations where employees are afraid to do so for fear that they will be punished for their candor. And there continue to be bosses who are mean-spirited jerks, as Sutton (2007) has written about extensively.

A recent Wall Street Journal article has pointed out that candor may be making a comeback: “Companies from Deutsch Inc. to hedge fund Bridgewater Associates are pushing workers to drop the polite workplace veneer and speak frankly to each other no matter what. The practice is referred to at some companies as ‘radical candor,’ a ‘mokita’ or ‘front-stabbing.’ ”

Ironically, the explosion of social media has led to an outburst of vitriol, sarcasm and hostile comments especially from anonymous sources. Just read online comments on any political issue, on celebrities’ doings, and even book, movie or product reviews, and you immediately get the feeling that there is a parallel universe going on online where incivility seems to have few boundaries.

What is going on, and what can managers and organizations do about it? I believe that there are at least two mistaken assumptions that are made regarding the tension between candor or directness on the one hand, and politeness or workplace civility on the other. The first assumption is that being rude, uncivil or nasty is simply part of being candid or direct. American comedians like the late Joan Rivers and Don Rickles became popular with their vicious put-downs of others, including members of the audience. The Republican candidate for U.S. president Donald Trump reflects this with his continuous insults of his opponents.

Sue is a manager in a chemical plant who believes in “telling it like it is” to the point of berating her direct reports in front of others in the guise of being candid and direct. If she perceives that they are not getting the job done, she jumps on them like a drill sergeant and confronts them directly, letting them know in no uncertain terms what she thinks they are doing wrong. Fred, on the other hand, is a supervisor for a consumer products company who has just been promoted and manages seven direct reports who have been in the organization much longer than he has. He often hesitates to tell them what’s on his mind especially with regard to any performance problems he sees because he is afraid of hurting their feelings and demoralizing them.

Neither belief is helpful to the organization or to the individuals involved. Feedback is essential to the motivation, performance and productivity of individuals, teams and organizations. Withholding feedback for fear of offending others or hurting their feelings is not helpful. At the same time, giving feedback that so offends others is counterproductive. Over time, managers will most likely create a climate where individuals withhold information, lose respect for their managers, and become disengaged from the organization. According to a study by Porath and Pearson (2013), among workers who have been on the receiving end of incivility: 78% said that their commitment to the organization declined, 66% said that their performance declined, 48% intentionally decreased their work effort, and 38% intentionally decreased the quality of their work.

Steve Jobs was known not only for being direct, but also being extremely blunt. He was criticized by some for his withering and no-holds-barred comments as being too insensitive to others. In a story about his chief industrial designer at Apple Jonathan Ive (Parker 2015), Ive recalls that when he protested to Jobs, Steve replied: “Why would you be vague?” He actually argued that ambiguity (or indirectness) was a form of selfishness: “You don’t care how they feel! You’re being vain, you want them to like you.” (p. 126) Ive finally concluded that Jobs did not mean to be hurtful and just wanted to make sure he gave clear, unambiguous feedback. The assumption that Jobs had, like many in the Western world, is that the best way to communicate clearly is by being direct, and that being direct includes being blunt and at times nasty.

The second mistaken assumption is that being direct or candid is universally more effective than being indirect. However, there is a significant body of research in the cross-cultural management literature indicating otherwise. Some cultures such as Australia and Israel encourage managers to get straight to the point. Earley and Erez (1997), for example, state that “Israelis are most likely to tell each other directly, and very explicitly, what they have in mind, even when it may lead to a confrontation.” In other cultures such as in several East Asian countries, messages are more subtle and indirect. What is implied is more important than what is actually stated. People in these cultures place a great deal of emphasis on nonverbal communication. The anthropologist Edward Hall (2013) suggested that societies differ in their degree of context when communicating. He refers to context as “the nature of how meaning is constructed differently across cultures using different ratios of context and information.”

Luc Minguet, a French national who is head of Group Purchasing for Michelin, described his observations while he was in the U.S. as COO of Michelin’s truck business unit (Minguet 2014):

“In France, we focus on identifying what’s wrong with someone’s performance. It’s considered unnecessary to mention what’s right. What’s good is taken as given. A French employee knows this and reacts accordingly. But for a U.S. employee, as I discovered, it is devastating, because Americans tend to sugarcoat one negative with a lot of positives. French managers get their wires crossed. When they get what sounds like glowing feedback from an American boss, they think they’re superstars. Of course, when they don’t get the big pay raise they expected after the great review, they’re bitterly disappointed!”

Eduardo, a Brazilian expatriate working in Thailand, remembers a time when his project team was late on a key project milestone. He sent an e-mail to the team in what he thought was a polite message, reminding them that the project was at risk of falling behind schedule, and asking everyone to pay increased attention. He later learned that his e-mail was perceived as both “rude and pushy.” He learned to soften his approach, for example, by asking questions such as “Will you help me with …?”

When Julia, an American expatriate assigned to Germany, gave her first presentation to her German boss, he said to her very directly, “Don’t take it personal; this report isn’t organized well. Talk to me again when it’s ready.” In the U.S., according to her, she would have received very polite feedback, and would probably have heard something like this: “Here are the ten things that are good about this report; however, it would make me more comfortable if you added this.” The bluntness of the Germans, in contrast to the watered-down feedback from Americans, was a difficult adjustment for Julia to make.

Sanchez-Burks and his colleagues (2003) have suggested that this directness is related to “relational concerns,” and in a series of experiments, have shown cultural variations on this variable. They explain the relative absence of relational concerns (at least historically) in America to the influence of Calvinist theology, which tended to stress the importance of limiting social-emotional and interpersonal concerns at work. In one of their studies, they examined how Americans and East Asians interpreted indirect messages in a work setting. They found that Europeans and Americans tended to make more errors than East Asians in indirect cues.

According to Bill Bryson (1990), English has about 200,000 words in common use, while French has 100,000. Perhaps because Americans are relatively more direct (although not as much as the Germans) and low-context, they need a larger vocabulary to explain more clearly what they mean. Meyer (2014) points out that many French words have multiple meanings, and the listener has to make an effort to understand the intention of the speaker.

In other cultures, where loss of face is very important, effective managers have learned to be more indirect especially when giving feedback in order to preserve harmony. Comfort and Franklin (2014) refer to “blurring techniques” that managers can use to soften the harshness of providing negative feedback. For example, they suggest talking about a hypothetical case to direct the feedback receiver’s attention to the problem rather than confronting the individual directly.

Here are two important points to remember for managers and global leaders. First, you can be direct and candid without being nasty, uncivil or impolite. This does require you to be more mindful in what you say to others, and how you say it. It also means that you need to practice different approaches to communicating with others that does not require being direct and confrontational. Second, be aware of cultural norms especially when interacting with colleagues and customers from other countries, and adapt your communication style accordingly. In some cultures, you may in fact need to be even more direct than what you may be used to. Remember that your goal as a manager is to enhance the motivation and performance of your team, and the communication style you use needs to fit the particular situation.


Bryson, B. (1990). The Mother Tongue – and How It Got That Way. New York: William Morrow.

Comfort, J. and Franklin, P. (2014). The Mindful International Manager: How to Work Effectively Across Cultures. United Kingdom: Kogan Page.

Earley, C. and Erez, M. (1997). The Transplanted Executive. New York: Oxford University Press.

Feintzerg, R. (2015). When ‘Nice’ Is a Four-Letter Word, Wall Street Journal, December 31.

Meyer, E. (2014). The Culture Map. New York: Public Affairs.

Minguet, Luc. 2014. Creating a Culturally Sensitive Corporation. Harvard Business Review, 92 (9): 78.

Parker, I. (2015). Jonathan Ive and the Future of Apple. The New Yorker, February 23, 2015.

Porath, C. and Pearson, C. (2013). The Price of Incivility. Harvard Business Review, 91 (1/2),114-119.

Sanchez-Burks, J., Lee, F., Choi, I., Nisbett, R., Zhao, S., and Koo, J. (2003). Conversing Across Cultures: East-West Communication Styles in Work and Nonwork Contexts. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 85 (2): 363–372.

Sutton, R. (2007). Building a Civilized Workplace. The McKinsey Quarterly, 47-55.

In the Work Place, Is It Better to Receive Than to Give?

By now, students of organizational behavior are probably familiar with Professor Adam Grant’s research on givers and takers, which he has summarized in his book Give and Take (Grant, 2013). Grant has found that people have three general interaction styles: taking, giving and matching. Takers, according to Grant, like to get more than they give. They believe in a dog-eat-dog world, like to promote themselves, and make sure they get credit for their efforts. It’s a looking-out-for-me mentality. Givers on the other hand pay more attention to what other people need from them, sometimes helping others without expecting anything in return. Their focus is on acting in the interests of others. Matchers try to balance the two and believe in a fair exchange.

While people may shift their interaction style based on their different roles and relationships, Grant claims that everyone has a primary style. Most of us (about 55-60% by his estimate) are typically matchers in the workplace. However, what he has found is that givers tend to be more successful in their careers than either takers or matchers, although they are also the least successful. This is because there are two types of givers. The successful ones tend to be more selective on who to help, when to help and how to help. Those who are not may become doormats and spend too much of their time helping others and not getting their own work done.

Matchers (and they are the vast majority of us) don’t like takers because they violate a sense of justice and fairness. Furthermore, according to Grant (Dearlove, 2014): “… as the world shifts to become one that’s more about collaboration and service than it has been in the past, it’s going to be harder and harder for takers to succeed.”

Grant has done a number of studies with colleagues to validate his concepts, and a recent study by Keysar et al. (2014) also has supported his findings. They conducted a series of experiments in which they found that positive actions by subjects were reciprocated, but negative actions (in other words, subjects who were takers) not only were not reciprocated but led to even more selfish responses. Their conclusion was that there are different patterns of reciprocity: “… people reciprocated in like measure to apparently prosocial acts of giving but reciprocated more selfishly to apparently antisocial acts of taking.”

Grant points out that these interaction styles do not seem related to personality traits. In fact, he has found that the correlation between agreeableness (one of the so-called Big Five personality traits) and giving-taking is virtually zero. There are agreeable takers and disagreeable takers, just as there are agreeable givers and disagreeable givers. Interaction style is more about intentions and motives.

What about cultural differences, however? This concept of reciprocity and fair exchange is indeed fairly common in the Western workplace, which is dominated by what the behavioral economist Dan Ariely (2008) refers to as market norms. Many of our social exchanges in the work place are based on cost-benefit trade-offs. How does reciprocity work in other cultures, and do similar dynamics take place?

Interestingly enough, other cultures do have their own terms to describe these types of exchanges. Most of us have probably heard of the Chinese concept of guanxi, which is based on Confucian beliefs about hierarchy and relationships. Creating exchanges of favors builds relationships between parties and is considered as essential to doing business successfully in China.  These social connections built through guanxi generate loyalty, dedication and trust. In their meta-analysis of fifty-three empirical studies, Luo et al. (2012) found a linkage between guanxi and organizational performance; guanxi enhances organizational performance and confirms the value of guanxi networks on firm performance in greater China.

Smith et al. (2014) proposed that there are three related attributes that characterize a guanxi relationship between subordinates and their supervisors: strong affective attachment (an emotional connection to care for one another), inclusion of one’s personal life within the relationship (the degree to which supervisors and subordinates include each other in their private or family lives), and deference to the supervisor. They developed measures for each of these attributes and collected data from managers in eight nations (e.g., Brazil, India, Russia, and the United Kingdom) including two Chinese cultures. Their results indicate that both affective attachment and deference demonstrated “metric invariance” across the eight nations sampled, while the personal-life inclusion scale (as they predicted) did not. While guanxi is indigenous, aspects of it do indeed exist in other cultures.

In the Philippines, the concept of utang na loob also describes a web of reciprocity and exchange of favors. According to Hunt et al. (1963, p. 62):

“Every Filipino is expected to possess utang na loob; that is, he should be aware of his obligations to those from whom he receives favors and should repay them in an acceptable manner … One cannot measure the repayment but can attempt to make it, nevertheless, either believing that it supersedes the original service in quality of acknowledging that the reciprocal payment is partial and requires further payment.”

Here are two key take-aways for global managers. First, the good news. The concept of reciprocity seems to generalize across cultures, and universally everyone at least in the work place seems to understand and acknowledge the importance of fairness. For managers supervising others from different cultures, applying basic management principles such as treating people fairly and using a matching style of interaction would seem to work well. In addition, a taker style is not likely to win you many friends nor help you become successful, regardless of the culture where you are working.

I say this in spite of what Pfeffer (2015) recently wrote about the norm of reciprocity. In his book, Leadership BS, Pfeffer claims that “when people are in an organizational as contrasted with an interpersonal setting, they feel less obligation to repay favors and, in fact, are less likely to do so.” (p. 177) He cites a couple of studies he has conducted where people felt less likely to return favors when these favors were in the context of the work place. He concludes that in work settings people view others strictly in terms of whether they can be useful to them in the future. However, many do view work places as not simply a place where they can earn a living and where every day is a Darwinian, win-lose struggle. People do form strong bonds in the work place, not just with their peers and colleagues, but also with their bosses and with the companies they work for. In Japan and other non-Western cultures, especially, people’s identities are very much tied to their companies and the lines between transactional, market-driven norms and social norms do get blurred.

Second, at the same time, the basis for how such exchanges can lead to trust and effective working relationships with others seems to be influenced by culture. In particular, using Ariely’s distinction, non-Western cultures rely more on social norms while Western cultures rely more on market norms in these exchanges. While guanxiutang na loob and similar concepts imply a kind of matching, they are not based strictly on transactional terms. Ariely acknowledges that it is challenging when you mix social norms with market norms.

While a giver style might be preferable, global managers still need to understand the specific cultural context and cultural norms in the different cross-cultural settings in which they may find themselves. In particular, recognizing that in non-Western cultures the intention of these exchanges is to build relationships and not necessarily to get something back in return quickly is an important distinction that Western global managers need to be aware of in succeeding cross-culturally.


Ariely, D. (2008). Predictably Irrational. New York: Harper.

Dearlove, D. (2014). Give and Take: An Interview with Adam Grant.

Grant, A. (2013). Give and Take. New York: Viking.

Hunt, C. et al. (1963). Sociology in the Philippine Setting. Quezon City, Philippines: Phoenix Publishing House.

Keysar. B. et al. (2008). Reciprocity Is Not Give and Take. Psychological Science,19 (8), 1280-1286.

Luo, Y., Huang, Y. and Wang, S. (2012). Guanxi and Organizational Performance: A Meta-Analysis. Management and Organization Review, 8 (1), 139-172.

Pfeffer, J. (2015). Leadership BS: Fixing Workplaces and Careers One Truth at a Time. New York: Harper.

Smith, Peter B., et al. (2014). Are Guanxi-Type Supervisor–Subordinate Relationships Culture-General? An Eight-Nation Test of Measurement Invariance. Journal of Cross-Cultural Psychology, 45 (6): 921-938.

Improving Your Performance: Through Performance Reviews or Deliberate Practice?

Recently, Goldman Sachs again made the headlines in the business news, but this time for something different than the usual financial news about the company. It has decided to move away from its 9-point system for performance evaluations to providing employees with more timely and frequent performance feedback. It will still keep its 360-degree feedback process as well as have managers rate employees as outstanding, good, or needs improvement. However, it will create an online platform whereby employees can get feedback at any time. Dozens of other companies, such as Apple, Netflix, Accenture and even GE, have been moving away from these annual evaluations and rankings in favor of providing more timely and more frequent feedback.

Over the years, there has been considerable research on performance management; despite all this research, managers and employees, as well as HR professionals, continue to be dissatisfied with its failure to achieve the goal of actually improving performance. I will not go into all the reasons why performance management is broken (see Pulakos and O’Leary, 2011 for a comprehensive review), but would like to focus on the specific issue of how to improve individual performance.

In organizations where I have been involved in revising and helping to implement new performance management systems, I continue to be surprised at the intense attention paid to the forms and the rating systems that will be used, despite the fact that one of the greatest pay-offs from performance reviews is with the coaching and feedback that the employee receives. Of course, I have to remind myself that since these ratings are often used to allocate rewards, such scrutiny is understandable.

Many critics of performance management systems identify organizational or managerial issues as root causes for their failures. For example, Pulakos et al. (2015), in their excellent review article, ask: what can organizations do or not do to fix performance management? In their earlier article they summarized research that indicates that the quality of the manager-employee relationship is a key driver for maximizing performance management. There is no doubt that managers’ behaviors, particularly their coaching and listening skills, are important.

But what I find missing in much of these discussions is the role of the appraisee, or the employee. To be fair, Pulakos and O’Leary do mention that “Depending on employees’ personalities, they will be more or less open to feedback and more or less willing to accept it.” (p. 158) I believe that most individuals working in organizations want to improve their performance, whether they are CEOs of the company or brand-new workers who have just joined the company. Even those who have many years of experience working in a discipline – such as a surgeon, a truck driver, a professional athlete, a musician, or a jeweler – recognize that they always have something more to learn (except for an arrogant few, of course).

So one could reframe this issue of fixing performance management by asking instead, what can individuals do to improve their performance? I am adapting a concept from Marshall Goldsmith who wrote, in his recent book Triggers, that companies tend to ask passive questions when addressing the issue of employee engagement. Here’s how Goldsmith describes this:

“When people are asked passive questions they almost invariably provide ‘environmental’ answers. Thus, if an employee answers ‘no’ when asked, ‘Do you have clear goals?’ the reasons are attributed to external factors such as ‘My manager can’t make up his mind’ or ‘The company changes strategy every month.’ The employee seldom looks within to take responsibility and say, ‘It’s my fault.’” (pp. 192-193)

Anders Ericsson is a professor who has done considerable research about what it takes to improve performance. Most of his research has been with surgeons, musicians, athletes, chess players, and other individuals who want to improve their specific skills (e.g., memorizing strings of digits). In his new book Peak (Ericsson and Pool, 2016), Professor Ericsson writes about three myths regarding performance improvement. One is a belief that our abilities are limited by our inherited or genetic characteristics. The second is that doing the same thing over and over will make us better. The third is if we try hard enough, we will get better. Ericsson and his colleagues have studied the differences between those who are the best in their field (e.g., musicians, chess players) and those who are good but not outstanding. One variable that was not a differentiator was the number of hours spent practicing. Gladwell (2008) has suggested the 10,000-hour rule – that for someone to be an expert, one has to practice for about 10,000 hours. There has been quite a bit of debate about the 10,000-hour rule and the role of aptitude or natural ability. There is no question that to be good or expert at something, you have to practice and put in the time. The 10,000-hour rule is an average so there will be some variability depending on a number of factors, including the natural ability of the person and the nature of the endeavor. Someone who already has an aptitude for math will more than likely spend fewer than 10,000 hours reaching a certain level than someone who does not have the same aptitude.

However, according to Ericsson, the key to improving performance lies in deliberate practice, which he and his colleagues (Ericsson et al., 1993) refer to as “activities defined … for the sole purpose of effectively improving specific aspects of an individual’s performance.” And an important element in deliberate practice is mental representation, which is “a mental structure that corresponds to an object, an idea, a collection of information, or anything else, concrete or abstract, that the brain is thinking about.” (p. 58). Ericsson claims that much of deliberate practice involves developing efficient mental representations. His examples include expert chess masters with their skill in seeing the board many moves ahead and surgeons who conceptualize complex contingency plans before going into surgery.

Here are three specific strategies that you can use to improve your performance. First, periodically conduct an in-depth self-assessment. This is not always easy for we have a tendency to hold a cognitive bias called the “better-than-average-effect.” For example, over 90 percent of drivers believe that they are in the top 50 percent in driving ability. In his workshops, management consultant Marshall Goldsmith (Goldsmith, 2007) sometimes asks people in the audience (most of whom are managers and executives) to raise their hands if they believe they are in the top 10 percent of performers in their company.  Typically, over 50 percent of the audience raises their hands (of course, it is possible that Goldsmith’s audience is not a random sample, and that it is likely that his audience may indeed be among the top performers in their organization). In a study of prisoners, even this population rated themselves better than the average inmate and better than the non-prison community on a number of traits, such as being moral, trustworthy, honest, and compassionate (Sedikides et al., 2014).

We need to acknowledge that we all have this tendency to view ourselves in a more favorable light than we should. While such a tendency may be good for our self-confidence it may prevent us from doing what we need to do to improve ourselves, especially if we start believing that we are better than average and therefore don’t really need to change. It is important therefore to seek feedback from others. You want to be able to approach someone who has your best interests at heart, and who does not have a personal agenda. According to Stone and Stone (2002), those who seek critical feedback tend to get higher performance ratings. They point to at least two reasons for this. One, when you’re getting feedback, you find out what you need to do better. You can ask questions that will help your understanding, and you can start to work on how to get better at something. Two, you send a message that you are not only interested in what others have to say but that you are humble enough to listen to critical feedback. This can influence others’ perceptions of you as someone who is open to change and willing to listen to others.  Goldsmith and Morgan’s (2004) research involving more than 11,000 leaders and 86,000 of their co-workers from eight major corporations concluded that leaders who ask, listen, learn and consistently follow up are seen as more effective leaders.

Second, and this is what Ericsson emphasizes, is to focus on a specific skill. He says that you have to be engaged and focused in what you are doing. Don’t just go through the motions; you have to concentrate, and this is hard work. “If your mind is wandering or you’re relaxed and just having fun, you probably won’t improve.” (p. 151). Also, you try to do something you cannot do and practice it over and over. The author says: “As a rule of thumb, I think that anyone who hopes to improve a skill in a particular area should devote an hour or more each day to practice that can be done with full concentration.” (p. 169) Newport (2012) describes this well: (Deliberate practice) is “… where you deliberately stretch your abilities beyond where you’re comfortable and then receive ruthless feedback on your performance.” (p. 101)

Many years ago, I visited the Chilean National Museum of Fine Arts in Santiago on a weekend after spending several days working with several Chilean executives. The museum had a special exhibit on Picasso’s works. One of his most famous paintings is Guernica, and it was indeed magnificent, seen close up. But what impressed me were the hundreds of small sketches alongside this enormous painting. They were sketches of different characters in the painting, and showed the hard work that Picasso did to perfect the final product. I had assumed that Picasso was a genius who could paint something from scratch without much effort. As Ericsson states: “… research on the most successful creative people in various fields, particularly science, finds that creativity goes hand in hand with the ability to work hard and maintain focus over long stretches of time.” (p. 205)

In an article about Serena Williams, the sportswriter Jason Gay (2016) watched her one hot afternoon in New York in 2015 as she hit serves for an hour and a half with her coach in a practice court. For a while, there were quite a few spectators, but they soon got bored. Serena kept hitting and hitting “… until she felt she’d gotten it right.” Gay has observed that the greatest athletes work the hardest, and that Serena has a reputation as being one of the hardest workers in the sport. He quotes her coach, Patrick Mouratoglou: “The number of hours is one thing, but (more) impressive is the effort.”

What about improving your performance as a manager? For example, Rosenzweig (2014) points out that deliberate practice may be more suited to some types of activities, like hitting a tennis ball with your forehand or playing a short musical piece on the piano. When the activity is of short duration, when feedback is immediate, when the order of the tasks in the activity is sequential (versus concurrent), and when performance is absolute (versus relative), then deliberate practice tends to be more useful than not. Rosenzweig gives the example of a cosmetics salesperson going door to door, where deliberate practice would help because these conditions are present.

On the surface, deliberate practice might not apply to improving your performance as a manager. After all, the duration is long, the feedback is slow, activities can be concurrent, and a manager’s performance is almost certainly always being compared to others’. Nonetheless, it is important to identify those specific leadership skills you want to improve, rather than simply having a goal to become a better leader. By breaking a manager’s tasks and activities and focusing on specific sets of activities, global managers could benefit from deliberate practice. Take Youseff, a global manager I was coaching who wanted to improve his ability to lead global meetings (an important set of tasks for global leaders).  We broke down his overall goal into specific sub-tasks, such as developing clear agendas and running meetings effectively. He identified the specific meetings where he wanted to practice his meeting skills, and solicited feedback from the team both during the meeting and after the meeting (in one-on-one discussions). We designed a short checklist of questions for him to ask team members about their satisfaction with the meetings, and so he was able to measure short-term performance. Over time, Youseff was able to pinpoint areas where he could improve, and through coaching and practice, was able to improve his meeting skills. While deliberate practice may have its limitations, setting aside the time to practice, along with getting feedback, will help you improve your global leadership.

Third, push yourself out of your comfort zone and try to do things that are not easy for you. Ericsson recommends getting a teacher. For managers, I would recommend getting a coach or a mentor (more on this in a subsequent blog post). Of course, the organizational context matters, as does your relationship with your manager. But there are things you can do independent of these factors that can make a difference to your own performance as a manager. As Ericsson has pointed out: “In the long run it is the ones who practice more who prevail, not the ones who had some initial advantage in intelligence or some other talent.” (p. 233)


Ericsson, A., Krampe, R. and Tesch-Römer, C. (1993). The Role of Deliberate Practice in the Acquisition of Expert Performance. Psychological Review, 100 (3): 363-406.

Ericsson, A. and Pool, R. (2016). Peak: Secrets from the New Science of Expertise. New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

Gay, J. (2016). She’s Got Game. WSJ, The Wall Street Journal Magazine. July/August.

Gladwell, Malcolm. (2008). Outliers: The Story of Success. New York: Hachette.

Goldsmith, Marshall. (2007). What Got You Here Won’t Get You There: How Successful People Become Even More Successful. New York: Profile Books.

Goldsmith, M. (2015). Triggers: Creating Behavior That Lasts – Becoming the Person You Want to Be. New York: Crown Business.

Goldsmith, Marshall, and Howard Morgan. (2004). Leadership Is a Contact Sport. Strategy + Business, 36: 70-79.

Newport, Cal. (2012). So Good They Can’t Ignore You. New York: Hachette Book Group.

Pulakos, E. and O’Leary, R. (2011). Why Is Performance Management Broken? Industrial and Organizational Psychology: Perspectives on Science and Practice, 4 (2): 146-164.

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Rosenzweig, Phil. (2014). Left Brain, Right Stuff: How Leaders Make Winning Decisions. New York: PublicAffairs.

Sedikides, Constantine, Rosie Meek, Mark D. Alicke, and Sarah Taylor (2014). Behind Bars but Above the Bar: Prisoners Consider Themselves More Prosocial Than Non-Prisoners. British Journal of Social Psychology, 53 (2): 396–403.

Stone-Romero, E., and Stone, D. (2002). Cross-cultural Differences in Responses to Feedback: Implications for Individual, Group, and Organizational Effectiveness. Research in Personnel and Human Resources Management, 21: 275-332.

Mastering Change Fatigue

During a strategy update with the top 100 executives of a Fortune 500 corporation, the CEO discussed each of the thirteen “strategy initiatives” that the company had recently launched. They ranged from changing the sales model, introducing new product categories, expanding to new markets overseas, partnering with other firms in alliances and joint ventures, and restructuring the staff functions. He stated that rather than shirking from these challenges as other companies might have, he was proud to be leading a company with such dedicated people who embraced these changes. A year later, the CEO had retired, many of the changes had stalled, and the company’s stock price had dropped by a few points. Have you heard this story before?

As we all know, the scale and pace of changes in business are accelerating. Long-term trends, such as changing demographics (e.g., the rise of the middle class and the growing population of those sixty-five and over) and the rise of emerging markets, are impacting organizations in dramatic ways. In addition, there have been unexpected short-term events, such as the recent Brexit vote and the concerns about unfettered globalization, that have significant implications for organizations.  And in a few organizations where new CEOs have been brought in to make their mark, they are expected to make changes quickly. The average tenure of CEOs has been declining, and many CEOs have perhaps two or three opportunities to increase shareholder value within a short time frame.

As a result, many executives have initiated change efforts and programs in their organizations. Some of these change efforts are truly revolutionary, such as transforming an entire business model (e.g., Amazon’s move to cloud services), acquiring or divesting (e.g., GE’s getting rid of GE Capital), or expanding to new customer segments (e.g., Hyundai’s move with the Genesis and Equus to compete with luxury brands). There is extensive research to demonstrate that the majority of change initiatives do not succeed.

I’d like to focus on one aspect or barrier for their lack of success, and that is “change fatigue.” Change fatigue is different from resistance to change; the former suggests that organizational members are worn down due to the intensity, frequency, scale and volume of changes with which they have had to cope. Under these conditions, efficiency and performance begin to suffer and employees lose their enthusiasm and begin to shut down, start making poor decisions, and in some cases decide to leave the organization. Resistance to change suggests a lack of willingness or commitment to go along with the change; in change fatigue, the willingness and commitment may still be there. To put a twist on an old saying, the flesh is willing, but the spirit is weak.

There has been a lot of research on what happens to individuals who become fatigued. In their now quasi-famous study, Danziger et al. (2011) examined 1,112 judicial rulings made by eight Jewish-Israeli judges over a 10-month period. The judges presided over parole requests by prisoners convicted of all sorts of crimes. While 64% of prisoner requests were rejected overall, they found that favorable rulings (that is, when a parole request is accepted) tended to happen at the beginning of the work day or after a food break – even after controlling for all kinds of variables. The severity of the prisoner’s crime and prison time served, sex and ethnicity were not predictive of the favorability of the rulings. Why was this? For the authors, rejecting requests is an easier decision when judges are mentally depleted. Favorable rulings take much longer to discuss than unfavorable rulings, and written verdicts of these rulings are much longer than written verdicts of unfavorable rulings. This depletion can be restored somewhat by short rests or increasing glucose levels in the body. Other research on consumer behavior has shown that those who are ego-depleted (e.g., under stress, had a tough day, coping with many problems and crises) tend to spend more money and purchase more impulsively than those who are not.

The underlying theory here is that of self-regulation. Our executive function is the agent that makes decisions, initiates and maintains actions, and regulates the self. The research suggests that many of the self’s activities require a common resource, similar to energy or strength. In other words, since we are drawing on the same resource, this resource can be depleted. Baumeister (2002), who has been studying self-control failures for years, particularly as they relate to consumer behavior, states that “when people are emotionally upset … restraints break down, so that people become more likely to eat unhealthy foods, procrastinate, seek immediate gratification, and engage in aggression.” (p. 672). Furthermore (and there has been a lot of additional research to support this), performing any act of self-control “depletes” one’s resources, which operate like some kind of energy or strength.

Fatigue or depletion can also lead to stress, which as we know from research, also causes unfavorable outcomes both for the individual and the organization. At the individual level, there has been considerable research that chronic psychosocial stress at work is highly correlated with elevated risks of depression (Siegrist, 2008), especially when the following conditions are present: when the work is demanding, when there is a lack of reciprocity between efforts and rewards, when there is a lack of control or autonomy, and when there is is a lack of social support especially at work. In a study of 109 business executives, Teixeira et al. (2014) measured their chronic stress levels and performance on various cognitive tasks, and found stress levels to be associated with performance on these tasks. Other research has also shown that coping with stress requires self-regulation and making some tough choices – both of which are ego-depleting.

Some management theorists have argued for assessing an organization’s readiness to change. For example, Conner (2004) categorizes change readiness into three areas: change history (employees’ experiences with previous changes), capacity and demand (the amount of resources available versus the requirements for the change), and the people risk involved (the extent to which the human impact of the change is being addressed). Weiner (2009) describes readiness for change at the individual level, and views its two aspects as change commitment (employees’ willingness to make the change) and change efficacy (their belief in their collective capability to implement change).

Here are four strategies that organizations can use to address the challenge of change fatigue. First, communicate an exciting vision of the future, and how the change efforts are aligned to achieving these objectives. As the motivational speaker Simon Sinek has articulated so eloquently, start with the why. Organizational members need to rally around a purpose that will inspire them, and having this sense of purpose will help combat change fatigue. Furthermore, organizational leaders need to help employees connect the dots among all the different change initiatives. What I am advocating is not necessarily to reduce the number of change initiatives, but to help organizational members understand the synergy and relationships across these initiatives as a starting point.

Second, monitor the balance between capacity and demand. It is possible that objectively the resources in place (capacity) may not be sufficient for the requirements (demand). When I ask managers and students, how many of them are doing more with less in their organizations, about 9 out of 10 respond that they are. In many companies, employees who leave are not being replaced, and hiring freezes have been implemented. Yet, as many managers have told me, the work does not go away. The solution may not necessarily be to provide more resources, for at least three reasons. First, often this sense of an imbalance between capacity and demand is a perception, and not necessarily an objective reality. Second, managers can help by prioritizing and streamlining the work so that unnecessary work is removed from these requirements. And third, we know that many employees are not fully engaged in their work. If managers could increase levels of engagement, imagine what this would do to improve the balance!

This brings us to the third strategy, which is to engage and involve employees in the change. As Grant (2016) has argued, getting people excited versus asking them to calm down actually helps performance. However, are there unintended consequences for organizations that ask employees for their involvement and input, and seek to increase their autonomy? Will this tend to increase ego depletion and therefore contribute to change fatigue? For the answer to this, we turn to research by Deci and his colleagues, who have shown that on the contrary, the experience of autonomy increases intrinsic motivation and energetic behavior. The reason for why others have found opposite results, according to these researchers, is that those studies involved controlled regulation while Deci’s studies focused on autonomous regulation. When people have a sense of autonomy with making choices, especially when the choices they are being asked to make are important, relevant and meaningful to them (autonomous regulation), then they do not necessarily experience ego depletion. In fact, they will feel energized. For Moller et al. (2006): “… autonomous choice is accompanied by the experience of volition, whereas controlled choice, which involves selecting an option under pressure, is accompanied by the experience of control. In other words, choices that are accompanied by demands or obligations involve a very difficult phenomenological experience from those that simply offer opportunities.” (p. 1034) These studies suggest that change fatigue may be dissipated at least partially by involving employees and having them participate in the process of change. Such empowerment, rather than being ego-depleting, can in fact be quite energizing.

Fourth, perhaps as important as the other recommendations, is that individuals need to pay better attention to their health, and organizations can play an important role here. A recent article in the McKinsey Quarterly (van Dam and van der Helm, 2016) for example argued that sleep deprivation and mismanagement are linked to adverse effects on our mental capacities, such as our attention, concentration, learning, and emotional reactions. Many of us believe that we have to work in a 24/7 world, and adopt a macho attitude towards our work lives. Fortunately, some organizations are recognizing the toll this takes. For example, the Boston Consulting Group has a strict time-off mechanism policy, where everyone on a project team has to take a full day or night each week away from work (Perlow and Porter, 2009). The McKinsey article provides other examples: blackout times on work emails, staying out of the office from 9 p.m. Friday to 9 a.m. Sunday, and mandatory work-free vacations. Other companies such as Google have been experimenting with mindfulness training. Those of you who have ever tried running a long-distance race know that pacing yourself is crucial. Sprint too fast at the beginning, and you will end up regretting this. In a recent article in Sports Illustrated (June 27, 2016), the writer describes total energy (power multiplied by time) as critical in a bicycle road race: “Whoever can conserve the most energy over the duration of the race or stage will finish first.” A stage in a race might have a series of short climbs, then a 10-mile climb with a 7% gradient. If a rider did not conserve his energy during the first part of the stage, he or she would not be able to push for that climb. This analogy holds for many other endeavors, and certainly is appropriate for organizations going through change.

These strategies will help improve organizational resilience. The dictionary has two meanings for resilience: the ability to become strong, healthy, or successful again after something bad happens, and the ability of something to return to its original shape after it has been pulled, stretched, pressed, bent, etc. There has been relatively little research on the impact of resilience on organizational change. In my experience, organizational resilience refers to the capability that the organization has to adapt (Denhardt and Denhardt, 2010). It is the responsibility of leaders to build this culture and to lay the groundwork so that, as Hamel and Valikangas (2003) argue, resilience becomes like an autonomic process. They point out that organizations should build strategic resilience, and not just operational resilience. This requires that an organization be adaptive, and constantly in a learning mode, becoming more organic and nimbler. In a prescient article, they state that “an accelerating pace of change demands an accelerating pace of strategic evolution, which can be achieved only if a company cares as much about resilience as it does about optimization.”

How to do this? Research suggests that resilient individuals have three common characteristics: a firm acceptance of reality, a conviction that life has meaning, and an ability to work with what they have (Coutu, 2002). Ramo (2009), in looking at resilient eco-systems, points to four elements: an ability to constantly reconceptualize problems, to generate a diversity of ideas, to communicate with everyone, and to encourage novelty (instead of waiting for a big, unanticipated collapse). Engaging employees in change will lead to leaders having a firm acceptance of reality, communicating an exciting vision will help give employees more meaning, and balancing capacity and demand will help with employees working with what they have.

Since the pace of business life and change is unlikely to decelerate for many, having an effective strategy in place to proactively deal with change fatigue is imperative for companies today.


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Conner, D. (2004). Developing Resilient Teams for Managing Change. Unpublished manuscript, Conner Partners.

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