The Laughing Buddha

A.K.A. The Collector of Good Questions

Happiness @ Work = Myth?

Mechanical Happiness
Mechanical Happiness

Is ‘Happiness’ the goal that companies should actively seek for their employees, and that employees have at the front of their minds when they think of work? This is a perennial debate that keeps popping up on various forums, and Messrs Andre Spicerand Carl Cederström have made their contribution – again drawing some fervid responses – in the Harvard Business Review this past week. (The article prods a droll suspicion that they put hands to keyboard to let out steam following a session of Happiness-inducing workplace activities run by a ‘consultant’.)

But could it be that we don’t really need reams of text, and shovelfuls of research, to address this ancient question, seeing that the centuries have not really produced a satisfactory answer, mainly because the concept at the heart of the matter is so amorphous?

The relentless push for Happiness at Work is the Gemini twin of Passion for Your Job,forming a two-pronged mantra that transfers the locus of productivity – that all-important goal of all economic players – largely into the employee’s inner engine, when such ubiety is, even intuitively, illusory.  (This somewhat cardboard cut-out view of employees is prevalent among at least some senior managers, accounting for the virality on LinkedIn, some months ago, of the simplistic formula, ‘Be Happy, Be Awesome, Help Others with 1 & 2’, which was deflated somewhat by others. See cartoon above).

The organisation itself, by which I mean senior management which forms the stable cultural core of the entity even as most other staff change over time (in our age), is where the energy is drawn for creating an enriching environment. This may or may not produce something sharply defined as ‘happiness’, but would touch something deep and strong within individuals for which the apt words do not seem to exist in the dictionary. And this would drive them to do greater things for the organisation. (Google’s Project Oxygen has been among the few prominent recent initiatives attempting to attain this elusive state). The things that might help? Some of them go back far: fairness, a well-communicated vision, exemplary leaders, empathetic managers, a sense of contributing to something truly important. Also, the sense that the employee is not merely a square peg carefully selected to slide snugly into a well-chiselled square hole in the organisational machine, pre-designed by unseen hands – but rather that the employee has at least some agency in the evolution of a living organisation, and recognition that they can contribute in more than one way. These are not new things to ponder; they’ve been around long, except when Western organisational science was in the thrall of the regimented, militaristic culture of the two big Wars of the 20th century.

Of course, it would be a stretch to think that this sort of environment could be realistically created for someone operating a supermarket checkout all day. But even for supermarket checkout operators, a sense of fairness would go a long way (which at least partly accounts for the push for fairer wages in the US lately, taken up by the likes of Walmart now).

As I hinted at the outset, this debate is unlikely to die down anytime soon. But there do seem to be some organisations that have made efforts to cut through the flood of words spinning around Happiness and Passion and their ilk, and go back to some basic organisational values that have been sitting under the streetlight all the time while we have been searching for answers in the surrounding dark bushes. Google, of course, is a standout example; Zappos is another, although its approach is far more experimental.

(This post has been simultaneously published on LinkedIn Pulse).

Is Billionaire Yuri Milner Starting a Trend of Tycoons Getting ET-Ready?

This quick post resulted from some rumination last night during an hour spent with my new friend, who insists on going by the pseudo-moniker R. Osterling Pessoa.

The chat was sparked by the big new financial boost of US$100 million to the search for extraterrestrial intelligence (SETI), injected by Russian billionaire Yuri Milner. (Astrophysicist Stephen Hawking made the actual announcement, presumably because he is a globally-recognisable personality, in addition to being a leading scientist). The massive expansion of the SETI program because of the new funding, which will be used to buy time at two giant radio telescope facilities in the US and Australia, means we moving closer to picking up intelligent signals from elsewhere in the universe – if they exist – than ever before.

Our conversation veered towards the possibility that Milner might have an actual business interest in positioning himself as the first tycoon to potentially make contact with ET businesspeople, rather than merely being a nostalgic science philanthropist (he has admitted to being a failed astrophysicist). He might even be starting a trend, ROP suggested only half-jokingly.

Is Yuri Milner starting a trend of tycoons getting ET-ready
Is Yuri Milner starting a trend of tycoons getting ET-ready

Discounting the Fermi Paradox – which uses cosmic size, timespans, and the development of intelligence on Earth to conclude that if ET intelligence exists elsewhere in the universe it should already be here (and perhaps they are) – Milner, Hawking, and like-minded leading-lights appear sanguine about the possibility of making interstellar contact.

Such contact would be the biggest civilisational acceleration in history (or even pre-history). Cosmic aliens, especially intelligent ones, don’t even need to contact us – merely proof of their presence would be enough to drive an unprecedented race for being the first nation/corporation to decipher their communications (assuming they are indecipherable when first encountered), and move towards making further contact if deemed safe. However, it would require quite a massive amount of technological smarts to communicate meaningfully, considering we can’t even ‘communicate’ meaningfully with our own ancestors, such as the ancient Minoans and Cretans (Linear A/ Linear B scripts), or the Indian Subcontinent’s Harappan script from the Indus Valley civilisation, let alone communicating meaningfully with contemporary fellow large-brained mammals who appear to have elementary ‘languages’.

Evidence of unintelligent life, even microbial life, while not quite as exciting a prospect as the discovery of intelligent life on other celestial bodies (and not the focus of SETI programs, by definition), would still be a business propellant in multiple ways. Especially if such evidence is found within the solar system, nation-states might soon be investing heavily in research and infrastructure to work out how to reap economic benefits from the discovery. This would, in a way much bigger than the space program race stretching roughly 25 years, starting in the 1950s, have a cascading effect across many areas of the global economy by throwing out new technologies, materials, processes etc. that might be reusable spinoffs elsewhere.

The only other potential event comparable in the scale of its impact would be the creation of rapidly self-improving artificial intelligence on Earth.

Of course, as many commentators (including Prof Hawking, and Elon Musk of Tesla) have made us aware in recent years, both these possible events – contact with extraterrestrial intelligence, or creation of AI on earth – carry extinction risks for our species. The history of European contact with other cultures in the Americas, Australia and elsewhere has a potent lesson for the first eventuality. The second is comparable in some ways to the creation of ‘superintelligence’ here on earth when Homo Sapiens emerged, and, after aeons of relatively slow blundering along, began blundering along much faster over the past 200 years or so, scything through most other large life-forms, with the consequence that we are now in the thick of what is being described as an Anthropecene mass-extinction event. Why? Our hunger for resources to further our own ‘ends’. Any Extraterrestrial Intelligence, or earth-bound AI superintelligence, may well have similar consequences.

What we are betting on, it seems, is that it won’t. (See this post, especially point 8.)

That’s the risk-taking instinct built into our DNA, and which caused, in the dim dawn of our race, some of our ancestors to gamble playing with fire, move into dark dens for safety, and ride other animals to extend their hunting range or escape from predators.

Of course, as ROP ribs me again, there will also be the opportunity for MBA courses with the title “Developing an Interstellar Mindset”, to replace the “Global Mindset” courses that are now all the rage.

(ROP has asked me to write a longer post, to capture more of our chat. May do so at a later date.)

Bubbles, Booms, and Busts: 10 Things

“Booms end in busts.” Surprise.

Three macroeconomists caused a bit of a stir this week by coming up with this seemingly absurdist reiteration of a commonplace opinion/hunch.

The good times never last forever. Bubbles go pop. Every process traipsing along just fine, stumbles. Things and thoughts in the universe are cyclical, slaves to time’s attrition. (All right, you physics types: perhaps not in the quantum universe).

Bubbles and Busts
Bubbles and Busts

Ever since the GFC fried large swathes of the global economy, the fear of market bubbles forming and then bursting cataclysmically has prospered. The Australian housing market is an alarmingly/exhilaratingly notable example at present.

But what is a ‘bubble,’ really, aside from the obvious thing that makes up foam?

In deference to current online practice, I address this question below as 10 Random Thoughts About Bubbles. Here goes.

  1. A simple definition of a bubble (metaphorical) would be the build-up of errors in any closed system – for whatever reason – until that system becomes dysfunctional and collapses. And then picks itself up in a changed way, and the cycle starts anew. Differences between any two cycles would result in different time-spans from bubble formation to bubble bursting.
  2. From our perspective as humans with limited lifespans, it would be best – as economic beings – to live out our entire lives between the beginning and end of a happy bubble period, without having to encounter the harshness of the bubble’s end, or even the sharp uncertainties of its beginning. (‘The long run does not matter, because in the long run we are all dead,’ to paraphrase John Maynard Keynes). However, things rarely work in this fortuitous way for the majority of us, despite strenuous efforts by ourselves and our elected (or not) representatives to make the bubbles within which we are happy and content last and last, or to neatly deflate a shaky bubble and glide comfortably into another one. Complexity, cranked by random, pullulating variables, causes messiness.
  3. The metaphor of the ‘bubble’ comes, of course, from foaming liquids. The aptness of the metaphor is apparent even at a cursory glance of scientific papers on bubbles:
    1. Bigger bubbles thrive: “… large bubbles grow at the expense of small bubbles.”
    2. Bubbles are hard to size up, especially given increasing complexity over time: “… as the foam ages, further error may be expected to develop in bubble size measurements at the surface.”
    3. Efforts to manage bubbles can be fraught (as we are seeing in the Sydney and Melbourne property markets): “… at the retaining wall of a liquid foam…the bubbles get distorted.”
  4. Economic bubbles are really distorted information bubbles. As Robert Shiller points out, “We would like to pool the information that others use to arrive at their opinions, but we cannot know where they received their information. In certain circumstances, we may assume that more information underlies their pronouncements than actually exists.” Efforts to be ‘sensible’ about deciphering information may simply end up being ‘conventional’ – and in this lulling conformity with the comforting majority is where the risk lies.
  5. A hard-to-change quirk of human nature that is known to create friction in societies – our tendency to trust those we perceive as more like ourselves than those we see as different from us – can actually reduce the risk of market bubbles forming. To quote from the seminal paper by Levine et al, “Across markets and locations, market prices fit true values 58% better in diverse markets… [while] in homogenous markets, overpricing is higher as traders are more likely to accept speculative prices.” The subconscious devils of cultural/gender/race suspicion can, then, occasionally do a good deed! However, this may, still, result in simply stretching out the time needed for bubbles to form and burst, as the sense of discomfort over diversity and intercultural suspicion tends to decrease over time within a (relatively) closed market.
  6. The explosion in computing power and AI systems has raised hopes that the persistent problem of inadequate and incorrect information that afflicts efforts to predict bubbles and busts may be solved in coming years and decades. (Jean-Pierre Laplace once hypothesised a ‘Brainy Demon’, a being of limitless intelligence, who would be able to see all of the past and present, and so unfailingly predict all of the future). However, these hopes may come a cropper in the face of the limits of physics – just as Laplace’s Brainy Demon was done in by the Uncertainty Principle and Quantum mechanics. “…there are insurmountable limits on what we can know of a physical system’s past, present or future state as long as we are a part of that system,” says David Wolpert of the Santa Fe Institute.
  7. Disorder Increases Over Time in a Closed System
    Disorder Increases Over Time in a Closed System

    While the common perception of bubbles is that of market distortions, bubbles – in the sense of increasing disorder in a system (good old Entropy from the Second Law of Thermodynamics) over time until it goes kaput – are everywhere, from our ageing process (build-up of errors) to the eventual crumbling of civilisations. (This latter triggers a thought: our civilisational-level difficulty of sorting out the ‘sensible’ from the ‘conventional’ was quite apparent last week, in a droll way, when the media reported research that predicted the potentially early ‘End of the Human Race’, only to have the news item pushed way down the Most Read lists, which were salaciously headed by the latest rumoured affair between Mariah Carey and James Packer!)

  8. Steven Pinker’s bestselling book The Better Angels of Our Nature traces the decline in violence in recent centuries, accelerating dramatically in the 20th However, as the study mentioned in 7 above suggests, this prolonged period of relative peace may well be a bubble formed by the temporarily pushed-aside detritus and jetsam of our ‘effluent’ society, only to have it all collapse on us in the looming future. Yes, I realise that the thing is: the ‘us’ above is not really us, but other people somewhere in the foggy future. Keynes’ observation is tenacious. We are happy to bet on living out our entire lives within the confines of this largish bubble in which we have found a sense of eternal order. The future beyond our life-horizon be damned.
  9. To end these frothy thoughts on a highfalutin note: the universe itself is a bubble, as explained to us by the likes of Carl Sagan, Dr Karl, and Bill Nye the Science Guy. (At least the universe in which we exist; now they have suspicions about other universes that exist alongside each other without so much as a hello). But even before the universe ends, Ann Druyan reminds us that “most of what we all hold dearest and cherish most, believing at this very moment, will be revealed at some future time to be merely a product of our age and our history and our understanding of reality.” And whether or not the bigger story will end as memorably as imagined by the great Isaac Asimov in the classic The Last Question, we shall never know.
  10. All right: 7-10 above stray way too much into territory under the shadow of Keynes’ ‘in the long run’ dictum. 1-6 are more LinkedIn-friendly – so apologies, dear reader, if you’ve read up to here already, and are set to accuse me of overindulging in thought bubbles.

(A version of this article was originally published on LinkedIn Pulse).

Business and Child Labor: A Response to Vijay Govindarajan

This post is in response to the recent blog post on, titled ‘Business Can Help End Child Labor’.

The above article’s author, Prof. Vijay Govindarajan of the Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth, sent me an email earlier this week with an invitation to read the post. In the article, VG – ranked among the world’s leading management thinkers – argues that the persistence of such slavery in our time is a business issue, in addition to the myriad other questions it confronts us with. The motivation trigger for the article appears to be his meeting with 2014 Nobel Peace Prize co-winner Kailash Satyarthi, who has spent decades battling slavery, and especially child slavery, in India. (Satyarthi maintains that slavery is an economic issue, besides being a human rights issue, as it perpetuates illiteracy and poverty).

Child Labor

So what’s VG’s proposal?

‘Corporations and consumers can single-handedly or cooperatively refuse to do business with suppliers that employ children’, and thus effectively supplement government regulations and NGO efforts, VG suggests.

While I laud the principle behind the proposal, it likely has only limited potential for far-reaching change at the pace this still-gargantuan ethical wound requires. (VG’s example of the big cigarette industry players, who have agreed to abide by international child labour laws, has the symptoms of a case of redirected guilt management – especially seeing some of the caveats they have placed around their move – and so gets only very grudging respect from me).

Here are the key reasons for scepticism about meaningfully rapid change in this area.

– The massive employment of children in India’s unorganised sector – a problem that extends to other countries in the region as well, albeit on a smaller scale. According to the last Census of India, there are still tens of millions of children working in grindingly difficult conditions across the country.

– A far more intractable problem: the widely unacknowledged compartmentalisation of empathy in Indian society along religious/caste/class/linguistic – even racial – lines. In my experience of Indian society, this deficit in the ability to put oneself in different ethnocultural shoes (on which the likes of Stephen Quintana in multicultural North America have shone a light), is frustratingly obdurate even in the face of what one might think are compelling local religious and/or cultural principles. Commonly, the children employed by families for domestic work, and by farms and small businesses, belong to different caste/religious/linguistic/racial groups than the employers, and attempts to elicit empathy with a view to their emancipation run up against a wall of indifference and even contempt. (For example, underage domestic or farm workers in North-West India are often ‘renamed’ using generic labels such as ‘Bahadur’ for ethnic Nepalese, ‘Bhaiyya’/’Ramu’ for Biharis, etc. – thereby slotting them into semi-derogatory categories and diminishing their status as individuals worthy of full empathy). Without the propulsive force of empathy, there is little impetus to act.

When I think of the failure of much-hyped moral principles rooted in a society’s culture to wrestle down problems whose existence on such massive scale should be unconscionable, I am reminded of a dazzlingly insightful passage from Susan Sontag’s At The Same Time:

“The perennial destiny of principles:  while everyone professes to have them, they are likely to be sacrificed when they become inconveniencing. Generally a moral principle is something that puts one at variance with accepted practice. And that variance has consequences, sometimes unpleasant consequences, as the community takes its revenge on those who challenge its contradictions — who want a society actually to uphold the principles it professes to defend.”


The estimated 250-million-strong urban, educated middle class is the segment of the population in India which one would expect to be the most receptive to one part of VG’s suggestion that ‘corporations and consumers can single-handedly or cooperatively refuse to do business with suppliers that employ children.’

However, a recent article in the New York Times gave me pause for thought.

In the piece, Steven Quartz and Anette Asp posit that the increasing ‘diversity of status-seeking’ activity in the 21st century consumer culture in the United States makes income inequality ‘less emotionally salient’ for many Americans, setting recent generations quite apart from their early 20th century Gilded Age predecessors.

But why would one expect this attenuation of ‘emotional salience’ to be restricted to just the existence and growth of income inequality in a society? It could well extend to areas such as labour exploitation. This NYT article appears all of a piece with the narrowing of ‘mental bandwidth’ identified by Sendhil Mullainathan and Eldar Shafir, and appears to be afflicting not just the poor, with their multiplying worries hogging mental space, but also middle class millennials in the US (at least).

With consumer culture in largely-young middle class India mirroring American consumer culture, it is difficult to be very sanguine about the active involvement of this large and key but constantly distracted swathe of the Indian population in battling child labour. At least not in the visible time-horizon. The need for greater, effective government intervention remains important.

This post was originally published on LinkedIn.

Should Business ‘Master Geo-Economics’ Like Government?

How persuasive is this advice?

At the methodology level, the WEF report is based on a ‘Risk Perceptions Survey’ of 900 individual members of the forum, and while the report flags the possibility of the Availability Heuristic affecting the responses, the mitigation of such cognitive biases does not appear robust enough. Did they, for example, consider using relatively simple mitigation approaches such as Dialectical Bootstrapping? More than this, the bizarre similarity, in terms of graphical prolixity, of the two visualisations on pages 5 and 6 of the report to the much-maligned Medusa’s head Afghanistan strategy map presented at the Pentagon in 2010 rings some alarm bells about the traps of strategic distraction and ‘analysis paralysis’.

As for the supposed ‘mastery’ that governments have of geo-economics, how robust is their skill? To use a metaphor employed in the article, do they waltz well around the globe? Even a cursory glance at any week’s headlines would seem to suggest that, in many matters of global import, our governments appear congenitally hobbled by two left feet. But, rather than appearing to suggest that governments are by their nature malformed, let me summarise some key observations made by many analysts in recent years.

The First World, as the developed West and Japan were known in the pre-Soviet-collapse era, now accounts for less than 15% of the population of a new world of demographic heft seemingly bursting with both rapid economic growth and cryptic, unpredictable risk. (To quote Andrew Haldane of the Bank of England, ‘If the history of [economic] growth were a 24-hour clock, 99% would have come in the last 20 seconds.’) The number of variables that forecasters of all stripes – including governments – need to keep track of in their attempts to look into the future is exploding bewilderingly all the time. Governments, even the most powerful ones, with their ‘sensors’ deployed in unlikely places (as suggested by the Assanges and Snowdens of the world), failed to detect so many of the big seismic events in global society in recent years. Remember the confusion of most Western governments when the Arab-Spring-that-wasn’t broke out? And the largely unforeseen Global Financial Crisis is still managing an ominous Cheshire-cat smile, even as the worst of it seems to disappear. What hope do corporations, even giant corporations, have of looking into crystal balls that have been opaque to powerful governments? Probably vanishingly little, unless one of the tech giants has a near-AI forecasting machine buzzing away somewhere out of sight, being fed all the data in the world to process for prediction. (Although even they would face challenges of oversight, not to speak of technological limitations.)

Snarly Siblings: Comparison of  Visually Prolix Maps
Snarly Siblings: Comparing the WEF risk interconnections map, at left, with the derided 2010 Afghanistan strategy map, at right (presented at the Pentagon in 2010) triggers alarm bells on account of thick visual prolixity.

As Daniel Kahneman, among others, has found, ‘experts’ are able to most reliably predict outcomes of actions only when their expertise is built upon actions that have relatively quick outcomes. Anaesthetists/anaesthesiologists are more likely to be ‘expert’ in this regard than radiologists, for example. So it should not be too surprising that some of the world’s most feted intellectuals have suffered ignominy when they tried their hand at long-term, or even medium-term, forecasting. Remember Francis Fukuyama’s now-risible ‘The End of History and the Last Man’following the collapse of the USSR, where he made the bold prediction that liberal democracy and benign capitalism would sweep the world from then on, and remain in place forever (when will we grasp the magnitude of this freely-used word)? The book was actually a bestseller, happily devoured by academics and leaders, among others.

Despite the vast output of such professional forecasters, who among them foresaw the arrival of the China Express with such ferocious momentum? Or the financial crisis; the bogging down of climate change discussions in labyrinths of accusation and doubt and biases; the turmoil in the Arab world; the perplexing rise of ISIS; the oil price fall; the resurgence of religio-cultural ‘pride’ across large swathes of the globe; the transformation of multiculturalism into problematic ‘plural monoculturalism’ in the West (as the Nobel laureate Amartya Sen describes it); the recoil from globalisation? The few who might have predicted correctly were drowned out by the better-heard words of those who were wrong but safely managed to be forgotten. I recall a sardonic comment by an East Asian classmate at business school: “China is now manufacturing most of the world’s ‘things’, while the West is mostly left manufacturing words.” Not entirely inaccurate, I thought sadly.

Unpredictability seems to be on steroids. In addition to the most-discussed risks, what are the likely implications of, say, the arrival of full-fledged Artificial Intelligence (fears about which, aired by Stephen Hawking and Elon Musk, among others, are often portrayed as somewhat droll in the media)? Or of the progressive shortening of attention-spans in the ‘connected’ world in the last few years, as we struggle through our modern days of constant electronic distraction, seeping out through the now-porous shells of our ‘individuality’? (Haldane, in his recent speech, has dwelt on the implications of these distractions as well). Does this accelerating trend cut so deeply into the available ‘mental bandwidth’ of billions of individual ‘economic players’ that they are exposed to risks similar to that afflicting the poor, as Sendhil Mullainathan at Harvard has described?

And these trends don’t travel on lonely trajectories; they have mysterious conversations with each other. Who really knows what they are up to together?

To quote from WEF report: “At the heart of the problem is a risk-management approach based on responsive measures that assume things go back to normal after a crisis – an approach that falls short with complex or slowly evolving environmental risks such as climate change. Stakeholders have been slow to address the underlying causes of environmental risks or to address their economic, social, political and humanitarian consequences.”


Because the relatively short duration for which leaderships – both government and corporate – are normally at the helm of their respective ships restricts their focus on nearer horizons, and voters as well as shareholders tend to be more concerned about short-term results for personal economic reasons. (I don’t really want to drag out the worn quote, but it’s inevitable at this point. ‘The long run is a misleading guide to current affairs. In the long run we are all dead’ – John Maynard Keynes). Consequently, there remain numerous prominent players looking to dubiously benefit by exacerbating, through their actions or conspicuous lack thereof, at least one of the global risks discussed in the WEF paper. The problem, therefore, lies in the nature of the decision-making structures that we have inherited from history, which now appears far less complex both in the nature and the magnitude of the problems it grappled with.

Given these complex realities, would adopting the WEF suggestion of ‘mastery’ of geo-economics – rather than simply everyday-news awareness and a judicious level of cooperation with governments and institutions – be either a prohibitively costly exercise of uncertain benefit or an unnecessary distraction for most companies?

And what exactly is meant by this ‘mastery’? The ability to influence geopolitics/geo-economics? Access to ‘inside’ knowledge from governments? Cyber-espionage? All of these? Mastery of this sort at anywhere near government-level is a game that only a few may hope to play, at least in Western democracies.

Only those positioned at the most favourable spots along the rivers of information sloshing around the world may have some advantage. Large corporations located relatively advantageously, geopolitically speaking, are able and likely to use a variety of means to influence the trajectory of national and international politics as they seek to mitigate the adverse impact of unforeseen events or trends. This approach, setting aside ethical debates or its potential impact on democratic institutions within nation-states, has its limits, of course, especially at a time when there is sometimes little clarity even to nationalistic governments about whether a particular company is ‘national’. Medium-sized companies, or those operating in relatively smaller economies, would have even less hope of success at such influence, especially if they have global growth ambitions. The best strategy for them may turn out to be analogous to that of sailors, who, as the popular (and somewhat misogynistic) old legend goes, hedged against the loss of their progeny in volatile times – where wars, plagues and murderous robbers were never too far away – by having a family in every port. Building resilience against an uncertain future by intelligently spreading risks is a sound and robust strategy over the medium-to-long term, despite its costs.

Awareness of visible risks, fuelling a judicious level of co-operative engagement, may then be the reasonable course of action for business in seeking to ameliorate risks at a national/regional/global level. Spreading business risks should be a sound strategy. Perhaps it is time to veer purposefully towards the conglomerate/keiretsu/chaebol model. Google appears to be moving in that direction. And Asian conglomerates, Bain & Company have noted, ‘consistently outperform their peers in developed markets and pure plays in their markets’.

Originally Published on LinkedIn.

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Employee Engagement, Emotional Intelligence … and Poetry?

(Originally published on my LinkedIn Blog)

Corporate Poet Laureate

High levels of employee engagement are widely considered to be a valuable indicator of organisational health. However, numerous Gallup and other surveys over recent years continue to report obdurately slow progress in engagement, and in stanching the bleed of hundreds of billions of dollars in costs suffered by organisations annually.

Emotional Intelligence (EI) – and empathy in particular – plays an important role in employee engagement. Despite Adam Grant’s recent controversial blog post, the ability to successfully understand, express, and engage with the nuances of emotion remains valued by many, if not most, people connected with organisations (including, unsurprisingly, Daniel Goleman himself, and also others.)

Events or personalities triggering, or even vaguely suggesting, negative emotions can play havoc through the ‘emotional contagion’ effect within a low-EI organisation. According to Neal Ashkanasy of the University of Queensland, ‘emotional contagion’ is an affliction that can spread pretty rapidly within a group of people, infected by the smallest of alarming/elevating emotional cues. Carnegie Mellon economist George Loewenstein puts moods and fears among the ‘visceral factors’ that “have a disproportionate effect on behavior and tend to ‘crowd out’ virtually all goals other than that of mitigating the visceral factor.”

While, following famous articles by Goleman and others, a robust books-and-consulting industry has grown up around EI, studies by researchers such as David C. Kidd and Emanuele Castano have latterly begun to suggest that readings of literature (Chekhov and Dickens, for example) may be better at lifting component measures of EI such as empathy.

Other researchers have employed poetry – the earliest, purest, and arguably most emotionally rich form of literature – in helping develop EI. (See here and here).

As the late Jacob Bronowski once said, all that we constantly learn during the course of our lives is “an unending adventure at the edge of uncertainty.” But not all uncertainty is adventure; so, perhaps, within our organisations, we could partly deal with the vicissitudes of uncertainty using the greater emotional certainty of poetic beauty.

In the modern organisation, periods of change and transition are constantly occurring at the personal, business unit, project, or corporate level. These may trigger emotions ranging from celebration, excitement, apprehension to consternation. These emotions do not always lend themselves to a good grip, and their significance and implications are often hard to articulate well across the broadest swathe of people.

Could poetry composed specially to mark such occasions help in easing into these transitions? I have a strong hunch that it would be good for the emotional climate within organisations, although the benefits might vary somewhat between different national cultures (the ‘we-look-down-on-emotions’ culture in some countries in the Anglosphere, for example) and industry sectors (sports clubs; national reserve banks?).

The pragmatic Classical Greeks recognised the importance of poetry by appointing a Poet ‘Laureate’ (the latter word essentially means ‘having your head adorned with a laurel wreath’). The practice was revived in Renaissance Europe, and continues in many nations and territories around the globe. According to Wikipedia, the Poet Laureate is ‘often expected to compose poems for special events and occasions’.

I propose that organisations begin appointing/electing Poet Laureates.

The nurturing of a sense of group identity is an important part of the development of a group’s EI. The ritual of electing a Poet Laureate (through an organisation-wide contest, perhaps), and of enjoying poetry to mark shared organisational experiences may well help in the strengthening of group identity.

Only a part of the whole gamut of organisational challenges related to engagement and emotional intelligence can realistically be attenuated through this proposal, of course. Modern organisations are far too complex and dynamic entities for me to have inflated expectations from any single initiative.

Responses and suggestions from you would be greatly welcome.

Opportunities may exist for using short, keepsake poems (or even limericks!) to mark events such as welcoming a new team member or bidding one goodbye, launching a new project or announcing the completion of another, acquisitions and spinoffs, major contracts inked, and the like. (Readers who know their poetics – and their organisations – far better than my modest grasp of literature may well have better suggestions.)

I tend to turn to literature during periods of significant change in life, in an instinctive bid to gain insight and perhaps inspiration from intensely and masterfully ‘condensed’ life on the page. C.P. Cavafy, for example, has in the past extended a metaphorically powerful hand to help still my sway in the face of life’s unpredictable headwinds:

As you set out for Ithaca
hope the voyage is a long one,
full of adventure, full of discovery.
Laistrygonians and Cyclops,
angry Poseidon—don’t be afraid of them:
you’ll never find things like that on your way
as long as you keep your thoughts raised high,
as long as a rare excitement
stirs your spirit and your body.
Laistrygonians and Cyclops,
wild Poseidon—you won’t encounter them
unless you bring them along inside your soul,
unless your soul sets them up in front of you.

(From Ithaca, by C.P.Cavafy, 1863 -1933)

It would be good to spread the joy and divide the discomfort of transitions within organisations through the use shared, luminous words and prosody, however brief, composed by someone who knows their craft well.

P.S. Just as I was about to publish this blog post, a friend brought to my notice that the Department of Psychology at the University of Texas has a Limerick Committee. (Art Markman, not surprised to see your name on the page!)

A New Name for Highly-Survivable Cancers? (Updated)

The original post was published on LinkedIn a few days ago. It prompted responses from one of Australia’s leading oncologists, Dr Ian Davis at Monash University. (He’s also the Chairman of the cancer trials group ANZUP). I’ve taken the liberty to paste his responses (and my reply) at the end.

As of today, the LinkedIn post has also attracted the attention of a senior Celgene executive, as well as a European pharma director.


Early last month, I visited a close friend’s father in hospital following his surgery for prostate cancer.

At the age of 65, Uncle H. had just had his prostate removed very cleanly by one of Australia’s most experienced prostate surgeons, who used the Da Vinci robot for the procedure. It was the morning after the operation, and Uncle H. seemed to be doing quite fine, taking tentative walks around the ward.

Kipling Quote

However, my chats with him over the next few days made it clear that he was very anxious and possibly depressed. He had been shocked into silence for several days following his positive biopsy after the pathology lab reported a high PSA level in his blood. Cancer had been the last thing on his mind, with preparations for a daughter’s wedding underway.

A week after the surgery, the pathology lab reported that his cancer was confined to one part of the prostate, and was fully contained within the organ’s ‘capsule’, with no evidence of spread: a Stage 1 tumour of low grade.

This was excellent news. The long-term relative survival rate for this stage of prostate cancer is well above 90%, and possibly approaches 99% because the previous survival estimates used data from some years ago, of course. And treatments have improved since then.

However, Uncle H. continues to be depressed. The word ‘cancer’ and all its grim connotations weigh heavy on his mind.

Coming only a few months after a close relative suffered considerable anxiety following surgery for low-grade bladder cancer – also highly survivable, although requiring a surgeon to poke around inside for any evidence of recurrence twice a year – this episode got me thinking. Was there a simple way to even partly reduce the stress of hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions, of such people around the world who now were reaping the rewards of decades of cancer research and could expect long-term survival?

This may be an important question for many employers as well, because of the potential benefits of having more confident employees when they are long-term cancer survivors with excellent prognoses.

My suggestion below is made in all humility, and with great respect for organisations doing wonderful work in alleviating the psychological challenges faced by cancer sufferers around the world. (These organisations include the American Psychosocial Oncology Society, the British Psychosocial Oncology Society, and PoCoG in Australia). I am not aware whether any similar proposal has already been made, and been comprehensively shot down by the far better-informed oncology community – a risk that I am happy to bear.

Is it perhaps time to rename highly-survivable cancers, thus subtracting the heavy weight of the ‘C’ word from the minds of numerous cancer survivors who have a greater than 95% (or better) chance of dying from something other than the disease?

Lower stages of many cancers, including prostate, testicular, breast, bladder etc. now often have relative long-term survival rates in the high 90-percents (actually approaching 100% in the most common form of testicular cancer). If the disease is redefined to accommodate survivability in the name, the new name for high-survival cancer stages would have implications not just for the mental states of millions of survivors, but possibly also for employers, insurance firms, and immigration departments.

The word ‘Aranea’, more benign-sounding Latin than Cancer (crab), is my modest suggestion, if the proposal above at all survives criticism. (Araneae is Latin for spider, which has only superficial physical similarity to crabs).

Would telling someone that they have ‘Aranea’, a highly-survivable illness, potentially make a positive difference to the patient as well as those around them?

It would be great to know your thoughts.

[The latest cancer survival statistics for common cancers have been published by Cancer Research UK here.]


Response from Dr Ian Davis, Professor of Medicine and Medical Oncologist, Monash University and Eastern Health; Director and Chair, ANZUP.

Dear Nav,

An interesting article and an interesting idea. I agree that a lot of harm is caused by overdiagnosis and overtreatment, and that some cancers are better left either undiagnosed or, if found, defused in significance in some way. Perhaps your suggestion might help. The other side of that coin though is that these pathologies are not always well-behaved, and even the percentages you use in your blog fall well short of the 100% mark. In fact, they are in the same ballpark of survival probabilities as Russian Roulette… I remember seeing a patient one day with a huge melanoma on his forehead. Impossible not to have noticed it. When I asked him why he had neglected it so long, he said, “The doctor said it was just a lesion.” I’ve had similar stories of missed cancers where other euphemisms have been used: tumour, growth, opacity, neoplasm. Kipling was right, but it works both ways.

Ian Davis.

My Reply to the Above:

Dear Dr Davis,

Thank you so much for your response – someone as skeletal an outlier in this area as I am could hardly have hoped for a reply that begins so encouragingly as the one below. The scalpel precision of the hole that you cut into my proposal is even more potent! The most conspicuous candidate for my little proposal seems to me to be Clinical Stage I Seminoma (CSI Seminoma). A former colleague was diagnosed with it last year, and subsequently proceeded to crumble to bits under the psychological distress of being struck with a cancer at a relatively young age. He is still unable to start looking for employment, despite many sessions with counselors. Dr Davis, CSI Seminoma, with its relative long-term survival purportedly ‘approaching’ 100%, appears to me to have a mortality rate not much outside the range of appendicitis, and curtails lifespan possibly by only somewhat more than Type 2 Diabetes (I may be quite wrong here, of course, as I’ve based this only on a couple of online data sources). And, from what cancer immunotherapy and other developments in the last 2 years or so seem to suggest, this ‘cure’ rate may well be replicated across 3-4 other cancers (or at least some subtypes) over the next 10 years or so. My proposal is aimed only at this quite small, albeit growing, number of potentially highly-survivable cancers. While I do understand the risk, in CSI Seminoma for example, that labeling it as something other than cancer (based on the criterion of relative survivability) may cause a higher dropout rate in surveillance – especially among younger patients with big risk appetites – perhaps this could be addressed by spacing out the surveillance schedule (to monitor for relapses) without detracting significantly from outcomes? The intention really would be to attenuate the substantial psychological morbidity that hits many men diagnosed with CSI Seminoma. Dr Davis, I apologise sincerely for any impertinence. And thanks again.

Dr Davis’ Reply:

CSI seminoma is a good example.

It’s often cured with surgery alone but can relapse, and a small proportion can go very bad. Relapses can occur very late, as well.



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