Rethinking my strategies on self-control

Have you ever had a week where there have been a plethora of articles, links, and thoughts all tied to a common theme that pop up? This week I keep coming across articles and posts like this one by Seth Godin about self-control. At the same time I have, as a parent, being struggling with getting my son to do two distinct but time-related tasks, go to bed on time and go to school on time. Seth’s post asks a good question. why do we necessarily assume that obedience leads to a gradual shift to self-control? If I can get my son to do as I say and go to bed on time and leave for school on time will he eventually start to want to do it himself? And why for that matter does it even matter to me so much that my three (almost four) year old obeys these time bound rules? Taking it out of the home what does this say about my view point about self-control and what I expect from other people?

Now I know that I hate being told to obey and follow the rules. I frequently share a story about how I was late for work 2 minutes on Christmas day while working for NOVA and heard about it at all of my performance evaluations up until the day I left. After the first evaluation I basically stopped caring or exercising self-control as long as I didn’t get in trouble. After 18 months I moved to China in part because I wanted to go to a country where being late by a couple minutes wasn’t viewed as key criteria for access to training, pay raise or promotion. That’s right, I physically moved from one country to another because being told to obey certain rules and being punished for not following the rules led to me hating my job.

So why do I assume it will work with anyone else, much less my son? Particularly when he is basically a pint sized version of me when it comes to rules? That may well be what is bothering me most, I know what doesn’t work and I do it anyway and that makes my frustration all the greater. Particularly as I realize that he has a lot more ahead of him in life with people and organizations asking him to follow the rules so that he will internalize the rules in some approximation of self-control. Clearly my frustration isn’t just with him it’s that I am trying to address a situation with what is in fact a completely wrong strategy.

With messages like these in our life is it any wonder that we have crazy ideas about obedience?

So does this mean that I give up on getting him out of the house on time or in bed on time? No, I still believe he ought to be in pre-school when they start (they do these really cute morning exercises and have breakfast both of which are great social opportunities, which is why he is enrolled in pre-school) and a regular bed time is important for little growing kids. It does mean that I have some thinking and experimenting to do to see what helps him decide the he wants to get involved in these two projects. Teaching him to tell time on a clock seems to be a first step, at least he won’t think that being timely is purely arbitrary.

I have a upcoming leadership workshops in October and November and I feel like this is a topic I am going to get paid to let other people discuss. I am fairly curious to hear what comes out of the Chinese system when pressed on this point. The education system here is based around following rules and fitting into a testing system. One could argue that Confucianism (which influences the Chinese education and civil service systems) is at its heart a doctrine of obedience and rules, promoting strict testing and clear definitions of rank and responsibility. In other words a healthy chunk of Chinese culture relies on the idea that self-control and proper behavior follows clear rules.

I have probably mentioned before that we see this turn up in personality testing in China. Frequently in leadership training we administer the MBTI to help people better understand themselves. Now the MBTI has it’s issues with reliability in China due to being a direct translation of the English version (in other words no cultural adaptation) but regardless we see that of the 4 sets of pair choices four of them E,S,T,J all get over 75% of the respondents answers. That doesn’t mean everyone comes out as an ESTJ but we see a lot of them or type closely matching with two or three similar functions. Why? Because all of the traits we associate with these mental functions are culturally valued and taught in traditional venues of home and school. Largely these behaviors are taught as models that should be obeyed and what we are seeing is that on a surface level they are being absorbed.

At the same time the rules-lead-to-internalization model is being used in people management by leaders from around the world in China, I heard a Belgian general manager tell a group of Chinese supervisors the other day, “don’t be a part of the problem, be a part of the solution.” In other words do as we say to be a part of the group that is behaving properly, other wise you will be viewed as a problem employee. Isn’t there something fundamentally disturbing to think that we as adults treat other adults the way that I treat a three year old?

Among young leaders and managers I find a rising tide of young people who are emotionally distressed because of all the things they feel they “need to do.” In other words when we ask people to internalize something that doesn’t work for them we start to hurt them often in ways that are beneath the surface. Is it a risk we want to take when we go with the easy way to get people to act like we believe they should?

So here is my last thought here: it’s time to rethink old strategies on creating self-control, they clearly aren’t working like we hope they will.


Friends don’t ask friends for discounts…

I have noted in previous posts a strong uptick in my cross cultural training courses in recent months which has primed me to pick up on some interesting ways that cultural filters show up time and again in business. One of the things we always talk about is how western cultures (particularly the US and countries like Germany) are heavily influenced by criteria decision making while in China things are influenced by relationships. The average tourist in China who was gone off the grid and gone shopping in a market where haggling and fake goods are predominant has undoubtedly run into one of the most common business manifestations of this cultural filter, “the friend discount.”

In 2001 I came back to China for the first time since 1997 (which in turn was the first time since 1989) and spent a fair bit more time sight seeing on my own than I had in previous trips. One of the more exciting places I ran into (and would go back to frequently until moving to Guangzhou in 2005) was the Xiang Yang Market. For those of you who missed out on this experience the Market was THE PLACE to get fake goods ranging from CK underwear, to Columbia Gore-Tex, to CDs and DVDs. This was a great place to learn your numbers and your haggling skills in Chinese because no price was really fixed and if you tried hard enough you could get some “really good deals” on practically anything.

Xiang Yang Market Circa 2004

In 2001 one of the things that most impressed me about the shop keepers was that they all seemed to know some key English and overwhelmingly they new how to give me a “friend discount.” To my understanding all these years later friends will try there hardest to knock at least 10% off of whatever price they would give to just any sucker walking by. Friends would also continue with some protesting to come down on that price and additional 10-70% depending on what you were buying. But to really get you into the shop and get you to “taste the goods” so to speak they would throw that friendship discount out early and fast to let you know they were reasonable. There might be a vague hint to some criteria based haggling (“look how well this underwear is made”) but the underlying theme was deals were being made because they liked you and only because the shop keepers were willing to sacrifice to keep our relationship in good standing were they willing to keep bringing the price down.

Good hagglers knew how to play off this dynamic. Failed bargainers would point out defects in quality and demand a discount, skillful bargainers would point out how their friend over in stall 35 had such and such rate and since you were good friends you were sure they had the best deal, this put the onus on your haggling partner to prove what kind of a good friend they were. Of course the longer you stay in this kind of culture the worse you would feel if you didn’t take some of the deals your new “friends” were offering.

In business dealings the friend discount is still alive and well even in business to business negotiations. Recently I began working with Siemens again had made an initial offer to Siemens Management Institute based on an existing friendship and had concluded that the friend rate was already given and all hunk-dory vis-a-vis relationship based negotiations. Not only was I wrong I actually adopted the e-mail that came in between workshop 2 and 3 asking for a discount as a case study for future cross cultural training as address to points in business negotiations: 1. discounts are never asked for at the beginning of the letter 2. the friend discount is alive and well.

So I now take it upon myself to quote a little higher with Siemens on anything. The reason? So that I can afford to give a friend discount when it comes up. I recently introduced a colleague to them to deliver an intensive business writing course and central piece of advice. Charge them at least 1,000 RMB more so that you can give that 1,000 RMB away as a friendly gesture when they ask about it. You might say, “John, does this mean that you just charge more to anyone because you’ll just give them a discount later?” This answer is, “It depends.”

Depends on what? Well here is where it gets interesting. A few months ago during a TTT we held here with Dr. Greenaway we tried out an activity called “have you ever?” and the question was had a business negotiation in China. We then split off into quadrants of those who had or hadn’t and by whether you did or didn’t like the experience. A fair number of us (including some of our clients) wound up in the have and don’t like it side of things. When asked why we said none of us liked running the risk of damaging a friendly relationship. So what does it mean? Let’s try and wrap our heads around this a minute…

When you have someone who is effectively just a cog in the machine or a vendor friend discounts are pretty common. As you begin to build up friendships with decision makers you will find those friend discounts slowly decreasing. Why? Because it is seen as risking the friendship to ask for a discount particularly if the rate seems fair. So the paradox here is that friends give strangers “friend discounts” but friends, for the sake of the friendship, don’t give discounts. I do however give freebies frequently. Why? Because it shows a commitment to the friendship and if I have the time and interest then all the better.

Anthropology 101 introduced the notion of reciprocity. China business 101 ought to put serious business negotiations and reciprocity hand in hand.

The Impact of Training on Dogma

Last week we hosted Dr. Roger Greenaway ( to help deliver a program on reviewing skills and a starter for learning transfer here in Shenzhen. This is the first time Roger has been in Canton (unless you count Hong Kong) so it was a real treat to have him visit. Roger’s methodology has had a big impact on how I view experiential training and much to my surprise the way I was indoctrinated into that methodology is not exactly how he would frame it himself. There are some roots to this that go back about ten years, but this is something I only learned last week.

Buddy Christ

Similar to the source material but not really

In short Roger delivered training to IWNC and later delivered training for PWL when I was there. What’s really interesting though is that Roger’s workshop with PWL in 2001 had more impact than the training I actually joined there in 2004. The story goes something like this… In 2001 Roger decided to experiment with “Clean Language” during his workshop with what was at the time the core facilitators. In short clean language has zero content, it basically reflects back everything that the listener says as a question. So if you say “I had a crappy day today because Mr. X was a jerk.” I would say “What did he do to make you feel/ choose to feel that way.” By scrubbing content it leaves the interpretation up to the listener or in this case training participants. For whatever reason this part of Roger’s workshop really stuck, for years even after being trained by Roger my debriefing was largely reflective or a mirror of this “clean language” format taught three years before hand. A lot of the lessons from both 2001 and 2004 stuck in the organization but this one became sticky and rubbed off from a group of trainees who left the company before I started working there and stayed to some degree after I left.

Good training and learning events should be sticky, they should rub off on the participants and rub off on other people they come in contact with afterwards. The ideas should linger inside an organization even after the initial learners have left. In this sense the training in 2001 was so sticky it took me ten years later (remember I wasn’t in the training) to become consciously aware of how I still thought of debriefing (at least partially) as an exercise in clean language. Even being fully aware of the impact of this style of training there are also some deep rooted behavioral conditioning that I became aware of and actually consciously adopted when I became aware of it.

In recent years I have, thanks to the solid effort of Michael Nelson at ALTEC, been working on my sense of drama and spectacle in training. That said I try to make the drama about the event and less focused on me, I realize the reason for this comes from the model of facilitation that had been sticky enough to reach across from Europe and 30 years time to affect how I view learning. In this model of facilitation the emphasis is on the learner taking central stage and being highly involved in doing something during the process of learning. The trainer or educator fills a minimal roll to reflect action back onto the learner. This flies in the face of a lot training in China which is often about the educator and being lectured to. Even the “Western education” model here actively adopts terms like “Entertrainer” and “Edutainer” to put the emphasis up front and on the trainer. Yes the quotation marks indicate that I think this kind of training is less substantial and has less impact. Very likely this belief stems from the Dogma I absorbed and still to some degree adhere to.

David Brent Models Excellent Entertraining Behaviors

Training, as it was modeled to me, followed the four basic requirements laid out by Kolb for experiential learning. Ironically at the time nobody ever told me that was what I was absorbing, experiential learning with highly dis-associative facilitation is basically incapable of modelling theory and purely emphasizes the experience and deduction. It wasn’t until I started designing my own TTT and adding a touch of theory to explain how experiential learning works that I realized it was what I had been doing all along. Interestingly I felt a bit cheated when I figured that there was a theory tied to the dogma I had rather unknowingly internalized for the better part of a decade.

The learning point for me from all this has been about the importance of planning ahead to make learning sticky in your organization. Training that sticks stays with the trainee and that is great but to make it really worthwhile plan to make sure that the ideas and behaviors stay around long after the training is done. It is probably a bonus if what turns out to be sticky is what you really want to rub off on your team and future team members though…

If you would like to see some of the pictures from Roger’s workshop here in Shenzhen go to

Underpants Gnomes Ahead!

A few years ago I got to catch up with a friend of mine from high school who served in the initial invasion of Iraq as an Army Ranger. He told me that the term for the invasion as dubbed by the rangers he served with was Operation Underpants Gnomes. For those of you who didn’t watch South Park in the late 90’s you might have missed this particular cultural nugget. To summarize the boys from South Park meet a group on entrepreneurial gnomes with a simple business equation 1. Collect Underpants 2. ? 3. Profit/We all get rich.

What the rangers in the Iraq invasion were saying was that step 1 = Invade Iraq, step 2 = ?, step 3 = Freedom in the Middle East. Clearly 8 years later we are still in the “?” phase that the rangers had identified on the ground in very short order. From my experience though Underpants Gnomes Thinking is a danger that falls into a lot of our lives ranging from business decisions to personal matters. I see no shortage of people with a clear step 1 of “let’s set up production in China” leading to step 3 “then we get rich.” Not a lot of step thinking happens until they get on the ground and have to actually implement step 1.

I work in a highly labour intensive field and it is real tendency to watch companies in my industry look for a silver bullet. Or in underpants Gnome thinking a really good step 1. Luckily we don’t see many people trying to actually steal underwear, but we do get a lot of “If we can get one great idea,” or one great event, or be the first to be licensed to distribute such and such product. I see a lot of people believe that a strong e-mail database, a good flier, and good idea equal a must win marketing strategy. Eg instant sales through e-mail or web hits to the homepage. They miss the middle step of making phone calls and knocking on doors and spreading word of mouth. I’ve been thinking about this as I wrap up a marketing drive for an open workshop next week. I think I might have been succumbing a bit to Underpants Gnome thinking. The result is that the past couple of weeks I have been sucked into a lot of last minute hard sales and negotiations I should have already done more than a month or two ago.

Does this look like anyone you work with?

It’s worth sitting down with your team to analyze what constitutes a well formed step 2 and what qualifies as part of step 1. Ask yourself bluntly do you have a step 2 that constitutes a plan on the ground that will save stress and headaches later or our you just sending in your troops hoping for best results with sheer numbers? As the underpants Gnomes can attest having a great step 1 can only get you so far.

Fitzgerald and the Fourth Person Perspective

The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function.

F. Scott Fitzgerald, “The Crack-Up” (1936)

I like this quote quiet a lot. Since I don’t have much time to write this week I want to use it as a jumping off point.

A few years back I used to run a networking event in Guangzhou called Oriented. is or was a social site for people living in key cities abroad or in the US with an interest or background in Asian culture. In the Summer of 2005 one of my attendees dropped into my hands a copy of the Harvard Business Review with an article on Action Logic aptly titled Seven Transformations of Leadership. A year later I went to the UK to get certified by Harthill UK in the administration of the psychometric assessment that looks at how to measure those seven stages. If you would like to know more about Harthill you can check out their website here are you can go online and take their snapshot evaluation. If you feel intrigued enough to take the whole assessment you can contact me directly and I can arrange that.

To me F. Scott Fitzgerald isn’t really just talking about intelligence he is using the language he had available to him at the time to describe the ability to see a situation from a fourth person perspective. Fitzgerald is here labeling “a first rate intelligence” where what he is actually looking at in my opinion is development stage. It would make sense though given his social circle that he would also associate the traits he saw as being bright and capable with being further along on the spiral development track. If you would like to spend a bit of time looking at what spiral development is check out this presentation from a couple years back.

This all comes to mind this Monday morning after watching a few debates play out over the past couple of weeks. There is a tendency by people to think that answers are either one way or the other. Actually debate is founded on the idea that when we have two different ideas one has to be right and the other can be proven to be wrong. Some people who make it to the later stages in life might point out that there are shades of gray and that context affects most arguments so that it is hard to make sweeping statements.

What Fitzgerald is proposing and what a fourth person perspective provides is that in many cases there are no shades or grey and that it isn’t in fact a “sometimes” or “on occasion” world. In fact, things exist in a plurality rather than singular point of view. In other words what can be black can also be white. Not just in context or sometime, but always and in fact they aren’t two ideas but actually one. Fitzgerald wouldn’t be the first person to point this out either. Kierkegaard points out that we can only truly be “free” when we accept paradoxes (his specific point of view as a Christian existentialist is the paradox of death and rebirth) and in that same vein of Saint Augustine in 400 AD made similar points.

So my challenge to readers this week is to push for the paradox. Don’t accept the idea that it has to be either or this week. To use the language behind Action Logic, get post-conventional this week. Challenge yourself that there isn’t one singular point of view and try to see the other side which arguably is the same side. Then make Mr. Fitzgerald proud by continuing to function while fully embracing the paradox…

Thinking, still not as popular as you might think…

My good friend Dennis is going through a life a change. It is not the first one that he has gone through. I understand that before I met Dennis he was the Mayor of a tow in his home province. When I met him he was VP of HR at one of China’s largest manufacturers and designers of TV’s, Phones, and white goods (that’s household appliances to the rest of us.) He is an interesting guy and a real free thinker. I understand that his boss hired him to help challenge the way they do things there. I also understand that Dennis did exactly that. His boss apparently regretted the decision and moved him to VP of white goods in China’s interior and recently let him take paid time off to pursue his interest, helping parents and children grow into future leaders through a new style of pre-school/kindergarten.

Dennis’s idea is a cool one and rather revolutionary for China. What if you actually took the time to involve parents in their kids pre-school education and turn those moments into teachable leadership lessons? He is taking a rather creative step to helping solve the perceived shortage of leadership in private industry in China by getting parents involved in thinking about what their kids are doing. I sent him link to a great article from last week’s Geekdad blog that I thought he might enjoy in his pursuit. That link is here for those of you interested in the source material.

I would hope that beyond the issue of leadership that he could help young parents with a shortage that is, in my opinion, a greater risk for business in China than a lack of leadership. A lack of thinking skills. Getting involved with your kids is a great time to start helping them think in critical ways and develop logic, but it also helps us to test some of our false assumptions and beliefs that limit our thinking skills. For my part our son is merrily rounding the bend at 3 and a half and full of questions. I understand that a lot of kids are into “why” at this age, but not my boy he is into “what does x eat?” or “where does x or y live?” He is busy sorting information into the filing cabinets in his head about how the world ought to be working. The challenge at this stage is to keep up with his information demands but also to get him to think about what logical connections he can make about these things. After all if airplanes and cars both drink petrol there ought to be a reason why…

A few years ago I was promoting assessments for hiring practices and at a marketing event someone asked me what I thought was the single most important factor in hiring that could be assessed. I said in all honesty, and still believe so today, that the answer is Critical Thinking Skills. Having watched people I hired and having watched countless other people in the workplace in China succeed and fail I can say with all honesty that it is more important than your personality type, EQ, or whatever idea du jour is sweeping management thinking. It is a luxury of a developed economy to say that EQ matters more than critical thinking skills, and it is a luxury honestly that is costing companies more than they realize.

A few years back I hired several recent graduates and had differing levels of success. The first hire tested on a critical thinking test at the 35th percentile, the second in the 95th percentile, and the last one at the 55th percentile. In other words I had a range from the bottom third to the middle to a top tier thinker. This was before I instituted a strict no one below the 70th percentile rule. Within the probation period I had let go of the bottom rung hire, the stories I can tell about those 90 days range from funny to sad in both reflect his inability to comprehend his job and my inability as a manager to figure out how he needed to here about his job to succeed at a basic level. The other two stayed for both more than a year with the mid-range employee staying on long after I left. The key difference between these two remaining employees was how long it took to learn information and really the ability to question what they were learning.

The top tier employee within 18 months became the top sales person and had her own group of clients that she was working with. She had changed the way our HR system worked and had also by asking tough questions made it some interesting break-throughs. In strategic HR terms we would call her a “super-keeper.” The mid-range thinker could support a host of training programs and became over the 2 and half years I worked with a reliable and consistent performer. But what colored our relationship was a discussion after she had been a part of my team for 11 months. After a workshop I reminded her that she had one month left to make her first sale. She looked at me and said, “I don’t understand what do you mean.” I reminded her that in her contract it explicitly said she had to bring in one sale valued at 30,000 RMB within her first year or her contract wouldn’t be renewed. That earned me “I had no idea sales were important.” This is despite the fact that we discussed sales figures at the beginning of every sales week. This taught me a lesson about not relying on the implied importance of something we say over and over again. A lesson my 3 year old has refreshed for me time and time again.

To be honest there are some areas of critical thinking that I find statistically are very good here. The Watson Glaser critical thinking battery (used in the USA) divides critical thinking into five areas inference, recognition of assumptions, deduction, interpretation, and evaluation of arguments. I have found using a culturally assessment that the average test taker does well with recognizing assumptions and interpretation in China with a balanced result in evaluation of arguments. In other words something here works very well in the education and parenting model in China. But what about inference and deduction what is happening here.

We can think of “Inference” in terms of Hume’s Law or best summed up in the English maxim, “you cannot get ought from is.” Any other words just because it is this way today by no means does this indicate it must be the case tomorrow. We see barriers here in the emphasis of absolutes in the Chinese education system.

What stumps many young thinkers here about deduction is the ability to go through the three stages of deduction (e.g. if x is true and y is true then z must follow) or even creating a converse negative (if x is NOT true…) but the ability to obviate personal prejudice. For whatever reason I see even the brightest and most talented young people unable to separate moral imperatives and political brain washing from the thinking process. Below is a real example of introducing deduction to participants in a training program. I should thank Freeman for creating this example a couple of years ago as I still use it today.

Me: So as we look at this slide with this lovely young lady “Ayawawa” we see her quote here, ““Anyone who is prettier than me is not as smart as me; anyone who is smarter than me is not so pretty as me.” What possible conclusion can we make according to logical deduction.

The source of much debate...

HR Manager in attendance: she is a bitch!

Me: that is possible, but let’s try using critical thinking!

Here is the good news, critical thinking skills can be taught. I would argue that you should hire for them first, but if you can’t go that route then as a leader you are stuck emphasizing thinking skills. That means putting away a tendency to solve problems for others no matter how tempting it may be. One of the first things we teach in coaching is stop solving other people’s problems. That is the same lesson I offer leaders who want subordinates to think. Secondly start facilitating instead of directing. Set-up discussions that require critical thinking and offer support on getting team members to think about things. This keeps things from getting to the 11th month and having an employee say, “you mean sales matter?” Never mind that your office or team is explicitly labeled as a sales office or team… explicit labels kill critical thinking right? So ask and challenge and don’t get frustrated.

The rewards for having a team that asks questions and can think about how to solve them are great. While you’re at it though encourage the parents in your life to get their kids thinking, it will save a lot of work for the next generation, and maybe they can worry more about hiring for EQ instead of thinking skills.