Do Nice Guys (and Gals) Finish Last?

Over the past year I feel I have been co-opted (or perhaps co-opted myself) to be a “cultural relativism” iconoclast intent on examining many of the business models taught here for their resilience under the disintegrating hammer of US-centric assumptions. That “allowing for cultural differences…” sort of perfunctory acknowledgement by the researchers who create these models is perhaps perfunctory precisely because a more genuine engagement with the importance of how things are done differently elsewhere in the world, might otherwise thoroughly destroy the published (in HBR, no less!) triumph of such researchers’ models. This idol of glitter and gold would perhaps crumble if one were to direct attention to the culturally relativistic clay feet on which it has been erected, as is my intention in commenting on Barbara Tannen’s “The Power of Talk: Who gets Heard and Why.”

“The Idea at Work” précis which helpfully summarizes her argument in the form of useful advice points to a list of Donts (with the associated unintended consequences for those who engage in such career-assassinating behavior): don’t share credit, don’t act modest, don’t ask questions, don’t apologize, don’t “sandwich” negative feedback with positive reinforcement buffer, and some Dos: do aggressively challenge others’ ideas, do toot your achievement horn with your superiors, and do bluntly give orders to those below you.  Her paper (and complementary video) operates on a simple binary, one which is familiar to all of us if only as a simplistic stereotype of the aggressive Gordon Gekko man and the “feelgoody” Pollyanna woman. Women, in particular are victims of their innate feminine “niceness” that apparently emerges from their childhood instincts to “talk” while their masculine counterparts learn assertiveness from childhood instincts to “fight.” Apart from the benevolent sexism inherent in such positioning, it will no doubt come as a surprise to my daughters whose inherent instinct is to fight one another over toys (or primacy or whatever), that my wife and I are trying to socialize out of them by encouraging them in more civilized behavior and attitudes.

On the contrary, I propose that we view the evidence of her anecdotally, confirmation-biased, data through a different lens, one that doesn’t view men (or masculinity) as rude, self-promoting and selfish, or women (or femininity) as weak, unassertive and conflict-averse. The same objectives of being credited for ones work, being confident in one’s abilities (and enjoying that same confidence from one’s colleagues), and being clear in one’s feedback can also be achieved by BOTH men and women through friendly, civil and self-confident behavior. Yet, especially in North America, self-confidence is often considered an external attribute that if one does not already have, can be remedied by enrolling in “Assertiveness Training” courses in which machismo (rather than masculinity) is beaten into poor Pollyanna souls on their journey up the corporate ladder.

Interestingly enough, these sexist stereotypes of both women and men gave rise to a backlash in popular culture in the 1970s but were never properly explored for their specious assumptions. Thus, Carol Gilligan, Camille Paglia, and later John Gray (of Men are from Mars… fame) seemed to tacitly imply that on some level if women were to shed their “submissiveness” the only option open to them was to engage in chest-pounding machismo in all its glory. Consider an example from the popular culture: the popular entertainment of that period in the stand-up comedy of Eddie Murphy in particular. This feminine=submissive and masculine=aggressive underwent an interesting transformation in the sphere of sexual orientation, where the butch-and-femme or pitcher-and-catcher slang assigning sexual roles for homosexual women and men respectively began to be associated with this aggressive vs. submissive behavior.  It is also about this time that ethnic stereotypes began to enter the popular discourse associating aggressive behavior with African Americans, and submissive behavior with Asians (think of TV & Media of the time like A-Team, Shaft, etc). These stereotypes existed long before featuring in the pop-psychology books, in entertainment (including pornography), and sometimes in scholarly research from the 1980s onwards, which may have been responsible for their entrenchment in the North American popular imagination. However, with the increasing crossover of cultures through the economic development (e.g. Japan, Korea, India, China etc) Western researchers have had ample opportunity to examine how other cultures do things differently, and if these differences may be a useful opportunity for us North Americans to revisit some of our most deeply held sub-conscious assumptions about preferred social behavior.

Tannen mentions an Air Florida airline crash, whose black box recordings indicate that the co-pilot did discreetly indicate a few times of possible danger to his captain, but was ignored. Tannen’s response to a Japanese student who pointed out that perhaps a good learning objective from the Air Florida disaster would be to “train pilots to pick up on hints” is delivered in ringingly reprimanding tines that “people in powerful positions are likely to reward styles similar to their own” which is a not-so-subtle assertion that in the US (which is assumed to be the pinnacle of business power) if one were to get ahead, one had better ape the typical obnoxiousness of typically male business leaders. Really? Consider an interesting counter-example. In 1989 following the burst of Japan’s economic bubble, Lawrence Summers visited Japan on numerous occasions where he hectored away his opinions at Japan’s government and entire financial industry. They politely listened but essentially ignored him, for his whole personality and behavior was perceived to be immature, ignorant and fundamentally uncivilized—a conclusion many of the Harvard faculty came to over a decade later. Howell Raines in the New York Times debacle is equally instructive.

In many of the cultures of Asia, Africa, South America, and Europe substantial emphasis has been placed on modesty in describing oneself, and courtesy to others often through a sophisticated use of language to convey one’s meaning without giving offence, and thus to participate in society as a mature individual. Such people are neither considered aggressive boors, nor are they unassertive doormats: one only has to look at respected leaders to have emerged in history from Julius Caesar, Jesus, Ashoka, and Tokugawa Ieyasu to Nelson Maldela, John Paul II, Meg Whitman and Aung San Suu Kyi. Their self-confidence was an internal attribute and achieved through learning, experience and self-actualization, not through an assertiveness training seminar that timid souls might hasten to join to ease their discombobulating dismay arising out of reading Tannen’s article.


Tannen, Deborah. “The Power of Talk: Who Gets Heard and Why.” Harvard Business Review OnPoint. Product Number: 9977.

The Power Dynamics of Dad

Treading that fine balance between authoritative coercion and empowerment of our children is a challenge for most parents. On the one hand there is the deployment of coercive power (“Do it because I said so!”) and the reward power (“There is ice cream for you if you do so!”), but at some level both options are fundamentally disempowering the children, as well as encouraging undesirable future behaviour (possibly encouraging lying to the parent: “Yes, of course I did it,” and demanding the reward as payment “I’ll do it if you give me an ice cream” respectively). While I have been often tempted to resort to coercive or reward techniques simply out of convenience and comfort, I have at some level felt a sense of failure as a parent when I did so. After much trial and error, I did develop a system with my daughters to get them through chores they were unwilling to do, which I call the “good and better” system.

To illustrate by way of example, our daughters have to brush their teeth and get into bed at a certain time. The going-to-bed rituals also involve ONE of the following:  reading a bedtime story, playing “I spy,” making a jigsaw puzzle, picking out clothes for school the next day etc. Sometimes when they are unwilling to brush teeth and go to bed, I offer them the “good” or “better” option, where I get to frame the “better” option and they can frame the “good” option. So, my option would go along the lines of “A better idea is to brush teeth, and do X (where X is one of the ritual activities) because … (and give a reason why it is particularly fun to do X today instead of any of the other ritual activities).” They can each choose a “good” option which is along the lines of “A good idea is to brush teeth and do Y because….” Thus we agree on if they want to do a “good” or “better” activity, both of which are deliberately worded in positive rather than negative language. In either case the desired outcome for me (them brushing teeth & getting to bed) has to be a part of the options. If they skip out on the “brushing teeth” then it cannot qualify as a “good” option. Having run through this system for a number of tasks my daughters now use it with each other as well when they have to negotiate options as they play. They also occasionally use the system with me to negotiate in special cases a desirable result for them which I may not be inclined to accede to under normal circumstances e.g.  buying an ice cream for them after we come back from the park.

I prefer this system to the coercive/ rewards approach because it not only empowers them to make decisions, but also makes them engage in an analytic process and provide sound reasoning for why they choose either option X, or Y. While my wife and I can use reward & coercive power in addition to legitimate power, to get them to perform certain actions, we run the risk of reducing their sense of power in the relationship. If, in the interests of convenience (or frustration) we engage in coercive procedures, we run the risk of causing them to feel a sense of “increased threat, punishment, and social constraint, and [which] thereby activates inhibition-related negative affect, vigilant, systematic cognition, and situationally constrained behaviour” (Keltner, 265). To a certain extent one can argue that both the “good” and “better” options are manipulated by myself and thus reinforce the power dynamic under a different guise, but I would argue that the children perceive themselves to be in a position of power: first, to frame a “good” option and then, second, to exercise the right to choose between a “good” and “better” option. Furthermore, the children are encouraged into systematic cognition when they are framing their reasons for their option Y, as well as when evaluating the merits of my option X, before making their final decision. Such systematic cognition is not such a bad thing (especially when compared with automatic cognition that arises out of elevated power positions, despite the supposedly “heuristic” convenience implied there).

Conversely, a rewards-based approach effectively places them in a position of elevated power, involving as the name implies, a “reward-rich environment,” which “triggers approach-related positive affect, attention to rewards, automatic cognition and disinhibited behaviour” (Ibid). Again, my “good and better” approach does give the children a sense of power which then translates into positive emotions, but which are constrained enough to discourage a sole focus on rewards, lazy cognition and disinhibited behaviour, none of which are desirable behaviours. It is important to underscore that neither option X or Y are “rewards” but simply one of the regular options that would take place under normal circumstances. Thus, by giving the children a sense of controlled empowerment, I am able to give them a feeling of the positive emotions associated with elevated power, without excessive latitude to encourage in them the negative reactions associated with such elevated power. On the other side of the coin, I am able to encourage them in the one positive attribute of reduced power (i.e. systematic cognition) without having them fall prey to the many negative consequences of reducing their power.[1]

None of my actions came from prior analysis or reflection on the scholarly research done or literature written on the subject. However, after reading Ch 10 from Pfeffer on framing, I began to see how the framing of the options for my children did have a significant effect on the desired result. I wanted this journal entry to be focused on framing until I read the Keltner article[2] which made me re-evaluate the power dynamics inherent in such framing, as well as the consequences for both myself and my children (both in the short and long term). I am not using Keltner as a scholarly endorsement for a claim to have invented the best parenting tool since (if you pardon the colloquialism) sliced bread, this being after all a mere slice and not the whole loaf. However, this reflection has made me more aware of the consequences of both elevated power and reduced power. In this particular case, it has helped me become more aware of the delicate balance between empowering someone (my children) without disempowering another (myself), being well aware that it is in the balance between them that one can reap the benefits of both. At the end of the day, one may finally argue that I never really relinquished power over my children so to speak, and that one way or another they still had to brush their teeth and go to bed, without having any real democratic choice in the matter. To this claim, I turn to the words of the incomparable Kelpner, “Dominance is behaviour that has the acquisition of power as its end, yet power can be attained without performing acts of dominance” (my emphasis, 266). My wife and I may for a short while have coercive/reward power over our daughters, but the less we use (or abuse) it, the better relationship we will have with them over our lives, and the sweeter the satisfaction I will have of hearing them say that “Daddy is cool” over the years even as they, at the ripe old ages of six and four, dexterously manipulate me with the tools of my own devising.


Keltner, Dacher et. al. “Power, Approach and Inhibition.” Psychological Review 2003. V.110.2, p. 265-284.

Kipnis, David. “Does Power Corrupt?” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 1972. V.24.1, p. 33-41.

Pfeffer, Jeffery. Managing with Power: Politics and Influence in Organizations. Boston: HBS Press, 1992.

[1] In my understanding of the reading, I feel that systematic cognition is a preferable option to automatic cognition given the dangers of stereotyping, and specious heuristics that occur in the latter, and which are well underscored by its other name, “lazy cognition.”

[2] Kipnis article while important in its pioneering work was much better contained and refined in Keltner.

A Japanese Lesson in Leadership

Popular business folklore (oxymoronic as it may seem) in Japan has it that there are only three styles of leadership, epitomized by three of Japan’s most famous leaders in history: Oda Nobunaga, Toyotomi Hideyoshi and Tokygawa Ieyasu. The three leadership styles are illustrated by the parable of how each of the three would approach the challenge of getting a silent nightingale to sing. Oda Nobunaga, the first, would threaten “Sing! Or die!” Toyotomi Hideyoshi the second, would exclaim, “Perhaps you don’t know how to sing. Very well, I will teach you.”   Tokugawa Ieyasu, the third, would simply smile and remain silent. If pressed for his response to this recalcitrant bird, he would quietly reply, “I will wait until the nightingale is ready to sing.” Invariably when this story is told, the third option is considered the most sage, with the justification that the greatest leader is one who is able to recognize the natural flow of things in the universe, and is self-disciplined enough not to force his petty will on things unless absolutely required, especially if he is ignorant of the consequences that may arise out of such a disharmonious disruption. In this context the Zhong article and the Ghosn case study provoke an interesting reflection of Ghosn’s actions in Nissan, and their subsequent outcomes.

In essence, Zhong argues that while, “power increases goal-directed behavior…Western and Eastern cultures differ in their salient and enduring goals,” where in Western cultures, “the experience of power leads to assertive action” and in Eastern cultures, “power may promote restraint” (55). In this context, the Japanese preference for the third leadership style discussed above makes sense, as does their typical disapproval of the first leadership style.  How does this play out in the case of Carlos Ghosn were he arguably takes an aggressive approach, and yet is hailed in Japan as one of its great corporate leaders, and is unquestioningly its greatest non-Japanese leader by any reckoning?

The key point, I would argue lies in Zhong’s astute observation that “the default orientation of an East Asian is not to take action unless the situation requires otherwise. This contrasts with the Western concept of individual agency, or tendency to take action unless the situation prohibits it” (my emphasis, 63). So, while Ghosn’s actions are radical, his underlying argument is that they are absolutely necessary (“we have no choice and the fact that we have no choice is the strength of our plan”), which is further consolidated by Nissan President Yoshikazu Hanawa’s assertion that “the plan is tough, perhaps even severe, but then our situation is severe” (quoted in “Redesigning Nissan,” 8). On the other hand Ghosn is equally insistent that no action be taken on issues that were not absolutely relevant to the task at hand: “We are not missionaries…. We are going to fix Nissan, that’s all. Any issue that does not contribute to that is of no concern to us” (Ibid, 2). Finally he clearly took responsibility for his actions, especially accepting the whole responsibility if things were to fail, and sharing the responsibility with everyone for any successful outcome.

Still, despite the resounding success of the NRP, and Ghosn’s consequent reputation, he did come under fire from the press in November 2005, when one of Nissan’s consolidated steel suppliers was unable to meet demand at one of its factories. Having cut off the majority of regional suppliers as a part of the 1999 NRP, he was unable (or perhaps unwilling) to go back to them, cap in hand, to ask for their assistance in this emergency. The bulk of the media criticism, with its proverbial 20/20 hindsight vision, castigated him for the radical policies he had instituted, the consequences of which were coming back to haunt him now.

Having lived in Japan during those tumultuous years , the figure and actions of Ghosn were enormously influential to my developing cross-cultural consciousness. While I initially exhibited the traits that Zhong suggests are more typical of a Western response to power, I learned through my mistakes that patient assessment and avoiding grandiose (if seemingly justifiable actions) was more effective in successfully achieving my goals in Japan. This insight, (which I internalized more though instinct than conscious reflection) served me well, whether in negotiating a favorable agreement when I started my own consulting company, courting the lady who was to become my wife, or even throwing an opponent in karate: no action unless required, but keeping a constant vigilance of the situation while developing a strategy based on necessity, which, when executed at the most needed moment, produced not only a successful result, but also appreciation from both the participants and observers.

The learning experience that arises from my readings this week is therefore a value judgment. While I have consciously avoided making value judgments based on cultural differences, in this case, I will go out on a limb and consciously attempt to model myself on the so-called “East Asian” reaction to power, which I find more aesthetically and morally satisfying. What is specifically useful to me about the Zhong article (and the perspective it offers on the Ghosn case study) is that I am now more conscious of exerting more patience and discipline on myself, and ensuring that my actions are more governed by responsibility to the collective, as I hopefully assume positions of increasing power in the course of my professional career and personal life.

(900 words)


Hughes, Kathryn.“Redesigning Nissan (A): Carlos Ghosn Takes Charge.” Fontainbleu, France: INSEAD, 2003.

Zhong, Chen-Bo, Joe C, Magee, William W. Maddux and Adam G. Galinsky. “Power, culture and action: considerations in the expression and enactment of power in East Asian and Western societies.” Research on managing Groups and Teams, Vol. 9 (53-73).