Towards understanding self-deprecative behaviour in a consulting relationship: My White Face in Asia


Rei’s boss, Alex, had forced Rei to work with me after a survey indicated that Rei’s management style was “totally unacceptable”. Attrition is Rei’s group was 47% a year! Yet Rei was an outstanding marketer, salesman and technical whiz.

For one year, I shadowed Rei for 5 days a quarter; every four hours we would have a feedback session, over lunch or supper.

During the initial two visits, the shadowing was a learning process for us. Rei and I did have a few things in common, and we “leaned” on them heavily at first.  Both of us are history buffs, read voraciously, and follow boxing. Naturally, it was not easy for Rei to accept my presence which at first undermined his authority, and both Rei and many of his direct reports speak poor English with a very heavy accent, which made the listening process very, very tiring.

A huge change occurred  during my third visit. We met for breakfast in a hotel in Bangalore, and he told me that “all this work with you is very humbling”. This was very much unlike Rei, who had been very reserved with me. I shadowed him for two days in India and we flew off to Bangkok on a punishing night flight. During the flight, he asked for my opinion on many issues in which I felt that he had a higher level of expertise. (For example, he asked me how I thought Mao had blended certain elements of Confucianism to drive communism into the Chinese countryside! At 3 am!)

As the week progressed, he continued self-deprecating ever so slowly, giving me more and more “face”. When he introduced me to his staff in Shanghai, he told them to watch the way they speak about me, because Professor Allon “may” understand you, which greatly exaggerates my ability to understand spoken Chinese. (I am not a professor, nor do I have a doctorate.)

On the fourth and fifth day of the third visit, Rei was more engaging with me than usual, and actively spoke with me. He stopped writing down my feedback, and started frank discussion. He told me that “we do not share the same understandings” about the motives of  team members”. He also told me that “although you are not naïve Allon, may I suggest that you re-examine the way that you read Paul’s behaviour.”

From then on in until the end of the project, a pattern emerged: Rei self-deprecated, praised me, thanked me, and then engaged me.

Rei’s self-deprecating was (and remains) to be a strategy he uses which allows him to open up to Westerners in positions of power and influence. Rei creates “credit” by self-deprecating and piling face onto the person he is dealing with, and this credit provides Rei with a springboard to actively engage without showing lack of respect.

Rei, 谢谢 .Thank you for reading this, commenting on this, and allowing me to publish it.

PS-For more on the westerner and OD, read this.


Using a wow experience to enable change

Here is a sad but true story. The names have been changed to “protect the innocent”.The story illustrates the victory of form and wow over content.

Paul Wight is the Head of  R&D, is based in Denver. Paul oversees several development sites in Brunswick, NJ, Vancouver BC, Quebec City and Manchester UK.

Sales are slow, profitability is down and the management has  to cut costs. Paul has been asked to close down one development site as well as downsize his whole organization by 30%. Paul will convened all his site managers in Denver to execute this plan.

The biggest issue facing Paul  is which site to close. He plans to discuss this issue at the Denver meeting. Paul has asked his HR manager to prepare a short team building activity to facilitate trust to kick off the meeting.

The head of the Manchester UK  site is Chester who  really mistrusts Paul to make the right decision; Chester believes Paul does not like the time zone difference, the late night and early morning con-calls as well as the management overhead of flying to Manchester once a quarter in coach class.

Denise Thibadeau  leads the Québec site. She believes Paul will close the Quebec site due to a hidden agenda stemming from communication difficulties.  Paul always shows lack of patience on calls when he cannot understand what people say “the first time around”.

Denise and Chester have been speaking informally as of late on how to “throw a block” at Paul’s attributed attempt to close one “of the remote sites”.

Denise and Chester have agreed to form a coalition. Despite the technological animosity between Denise and Chester, they will agree to cooperate and assume joint responsibility for continuous engineering of a profitable legacy product, and jointly commit to develop a new platform in record time and very low costs. They have agreed to lie about how long the new platform development will take and “clean up the mess” later on.

The team building activity prepared by HR VP Gloria Ramsbottom was a cooking class, followed by a short webinar of a horse running faster and faster, albeit eating less and an interview with the horse’s trainer. After an hour, she told Paul the team has “loosened up” and serious discussion can begin.Gloria described the team building activity as wow.

The Denver meeting was superficial, rambling and indecisive. Two weeks after the meeting, Paul closed the Vancouver site. Denise and Chester grew their respective sites by 20%.


Culture and knee jerk reactions to crisis

In a crisis, the cultural assumptions of staff often play a role in shaping their knee jerk, initial  reactions.

Lets’s look at the following case and see how culture impacts the initial reaction of Fred from the USA, Som from Thailand, Humi from Israel, and Mitsumi from Japan.

Mitsumi, the Key Account Manager for an unhappy Japanese client went straight to the CEO and stated that all business could be lost “unless we show a road map within 48 hours to the customer of corrective action”   Mitsumi knew the clients’ demands were unfair but Mitsumi sees her role as the advocate of the client whose role is to slavishly amplify customer demands because the customer is God in Japan.

An internal meeting was convened with all parties to deal with this crisis , led by Fred, the US based head of Product Delivery.

Product Manager Humi from Israel paid no heed to the “moaning” of the Key Account Manager Mitsumi. “These new product releases take time to stabilize so  let’s roll up our sleeves and start working. I’ll fly to the client site tonight and give a detailed explanation; the clients’ expectations need to be managed. Fred, please ask Mitsumi to come with me to the customer to translate exactly what I explain. ”  Humi places a premium on action, and believes in talking straight to the customer, which are very Israeli characteristics.

Fred from the US said that “an overall high level comprehensive plan” is needed-then “you can fly wherever you want, Humi”. Fred believes than plans and planning enable more control of the environment, which is a frequent American assumption.

Engineer Som from Thailand smiled during the entire meeting-her team had developed a major component and she was very embarrassed. “What are you laughing at, Som? What is so God damn funny, asked Fred. Som was smiling the Thai smile of shame.

Hans, the German PMO wanted “more detail before we “mof+ forward”. And he started delving into detail which drove the other team members to distraction. Hans believes that without details, the team cannot make proper plans or appease the fuming customer. Fred told Hans, “look at the forest Hans, not the trees”. Som smiled and Humi checked flight schedules.


One of ways to avoid situations like this is to have an apriori discussion with your team members about culture and crisis. This provides team members insight about knee jerk reactions of their peers.




Read this if you work with the Israelis (or Chinese)


                                                     At the post office  בדואר

This morning when the postman came, I was in the shower. So he left me a “Package Waiting Stub” which read, “You were not home when we came to deliver package number 12345. Your package will be available from next Monday, and we will hold  it for 10 days”.

I  put the stub in my pocket,  traveled to Tel Aviv to meet with 2 clients and then returned home to walk my dog, Georges. We walked over to the post office, although the package will only be available in 6 days. The post office was closed. (There is also a sign saying no dogs allowed).

I walked to the back door of the post office, where postmen return after their rounds. I showed Ziad the stub, and he said, “Why are all of you so impatient. Your package is probably not here, but go up to the 2nd floor and ask for Diane. Are you a professor? What a nice dog. Make sure he does not piss in the corridor.”

I found Diane sorting mail and showed her the stub. “I need your help,” I said. Dianne asked “who sent you here to drive me crazy. Do you have thorns in your ass?” ( i.e, Why is this so urgent?)

It was very very very hot, and I ask Diane why the union has not arranged for air conditioning. She cursed the union.

Diane then went to a huge bag, emptied it, and after 20 minutes of searching, I got my package. She told me Georges was cute.

So, what can be learnt from this?

1-Formal systems may have a work around via parallel systems.

2-Don’t jump to conclusions when people are not polite.

3-Question the limits, build relationships and negotiate everything.

Mon chien




Responsiveness to email and culture

Astrid from Munich, Neta from Tel Aviv and Harry from Newark are on the same team.
When Astrid (Germany) gets an urgent request via email from Neta or Harry she puts together a detailed and full answer and gets back to the sender within 3-5 days.
Harry (US) regards Astrid’s email replies to urgent requests as too long and detailed. He would have preferred a shorter answer, in “a bit less time”. Harry thinks that 48 hours is “enough grace for something urgent”.

Neta (Israel) expects a daily update by email from Astrid as to the status of her urgent request. She views Astrid’s approach as “totally non-responsive”. “By the time I get her answer, “I forgot the question”. When Neta gets an urgent request via email, she puts everything aside to provide the answer, often backing up her email answer with a text that the urgent request has been answered.

Harry “puts time aside” for urgent requests, but does nothing after 7pm and nothing on holidays “unless the world is coming to end”. Harry believes that were people to plan better, some of this urgency could disappear.
Neta does not like to plan at all and believes that planning is an empty ritual.
Astrid could spend all her time planning and wishes that Harry and Neta were more orderly.


The dangers of “organizational utopianism”

A major component of organizing is balancing mutual dependencies between people and functions.

The fulfillment of mutual dependencies is the very essence of successful organizing, yet the dependencies which enable organizing always create anxieties. I am fully aware that people skim articles, but the stuff in italics is really important! 😉

There is no way whatsoever to eliminate the inherent anxieties of organizing; they can only be mitigated. Any attempt to “cure these anxieties” is organizational Utopianism.

Political utopianism, be it communism or nationalism, has bred disaster. Bread lines, racial hatred and massive use of force are the direct results of ideologies which purport to have all the answers. (I will avoid discussing the “salvation” promised by religious Utopians.)

In the realm of OD and change management, there is plenty of Utopianism, which expresses itself in stylish one size fits all models, universal truths and so called shared values. Utopian solutions come along with high priests who implement these total solutions.

Organizational utopianism is no less dangerous than political utopianism. Utopian organizational solutions breed cynicism, disengagement, sloganeering (which castrates communication) and exploitation. Total solutions for organizing end in disaster.

Organizing is very complex at the emotional level. There are no quick fixes, none whatsoever. An awareness of the inherent anxiety bred by organizing itself is probably the most important tool in the arsenal of organizational practitioner.


Chronic Diseases of Organizations

1 Opening Comments

Very much similar to people, organizations tend to have chronic diseases.

These diseases are a function of

  • life cycle of the organization,
  • CEO’s who have lead and founded the organization,
  • domain in which the organization operates,
  • degree of regulation,
  • random factors that we do not understand.

The goal of this post is to illustrate some of the more frequent chronic diseases and suggest ways that OD can be harnessed to address (not cure) these ills.

Many of the chronic conditions listed below may appear in all organizations, yet only a  constant recurrence of the same ailment make it chronic.

2-Chronic Diseases, Symptoms and Possible Causes

  • Constant Reorganization

Symptoms-the organization is always preparing for a reorganization, implementing a reorganization, or after an unsuccessful reorg

Possible Causes– Incompetence, buying time, creating a cloud of uncertainly to enable blaming.

Example-K has a product that is no longer competitive, although they still have one legacy product which will make them money for decades. New technology initiatives are killed on arrival. The organizations has had 7 reorganizations in three years.

  • Processes Nazism

Symptoms– constant clarification of process, roles,  responsibilities, charter and the constant pursuit of clarity as the ultimate elixir.

Possible Causes-a desire to define away complexity; inability to implement teamwork

Example-P has technical presales in Holland, Sales in each geography and Product Management in Texas. All 3 functions mistrust one another. They have been defining roles and responsibilities for 12 years.

  • Measurement-ism

Symptoms-measure everything, if possible on line

Possible Causes-mistrust, IT-gone-mad, efficiency as strategy

Example-C has been loosing 200,000 end users yearly for five years due to a change in regulation. Performance indicators of the service team have been updated 33 times in the 4 years “to find out why people are opting out” of the service.

  • Sloganeering

Symptoms-constant window dressing and perfuming the pig to make things look better than they are, hiding and denial

Possible Causes: monopoly, government intervention, too much regulation, high level of media scrutiny

Example-a police force, loyal only to an elected official has been getting bad press for 8 years, due to racism, brutality and corruption, all which serve the mayor’s interest. Massive money is poured into internal communication and “image management”,

  • Silo-ism (the ultimate chronic disease, like back pain)

Symptoms-lack of transparency, maximization of sub systems

Possible Causes: latent or overt fear of coup, need to allocate blame, paranoia at the top, divide and conquer as a religion. measurement system, poor staffing

Example-A functional organization lacks end to end ownership of client issues. A very dominant CEO (and his father) have maintained control by “divide and conquer”. The CEO complains of siloism, although he constantly ensures that his managers squabble about ownership issues. He fires one executive every 5-6 years.

3-Guidelines for the OD practitioner

In order to address an organizations chronic illness, there are certain precautions that OD practitioners much factor into their interventions. After all, there is no need to “amputate a lung” due to chronic asthma.

Here are few guidelines that may help you treat chronic illnesses properly:

  • Understand the history of the organization
  • Understand the latent function and ongoing secondary benefit of all dysfunction, and that will be decisive in understanding if the illness is chronic or not. For example, the benefit of process Nazism is to avoid dealing with trust issues.
  • Set proper expectations, ie- mitigating the dysfunction, instead of curing it
  • Less intense care spread over time, instead of an extensive effort to drive change
  • Pain management, ie, adjustment to the pain

An OD consultant should not approach chaos like a Change Manager

When Jean invited me to work with this management team, he had prepared a few slides to brief me on what he sees as the major issues. I have worked with Jean twice in the past, so Jean was fair enough to tell me “this is how I see things, Allon; I am not telling you how to do your work”.

Jean’s slides boiled down to three issues:

  1. Role ambiguity between Engineering and Customer Service results in lack of accountability during customer deployment
  2. Lack of priorities per department and lack of shared priorities result in constant chaos
  3. Planning not accurate results in “resource allocation as a constant ongoing negotiation” between line and staff

Jean had tried to solve these issues with his (cost effective) internal change management team, consisting of industrial managers and change managers. “Every time I think of you Allon, I think of my root canal surgeon, so you can imagine I have tried everything before having you come all this way to make my life miserable.”

I spoke with Jean’s team members, 8 in number, consisting of 2 Germans, one Israeli, and five North Americans, including one French Canadian besides Jean himself. My view of things was that Jean is running a highly innovative company in a fast moving market, and all of the 3 issues Jean had pointed out are “par for the course.”  To be more specific,

1-The product is so innovative and deployment is so early that it is indeed impossible to define what is owned by Engineering and Customer Service

2-Everything is indeed urgent; there are no firm priorities because the market is moving so quickly

3-No plan, however extensive, can be useful in a market where expected quarterly revenue runs between 4 and 90 million dollars.

The problems that I noticed are:

  1. The two Germans (Finance and Planning) and Israeli (Engineering and Deployment) had totally different coping mechanisms with the chaos, the German preferring drowning in details in attempt to conquer the chaos and the Israeli preferring making an ideology out of chaos.
  2. Each senior manager managed to juggle well within their own group, but as a senior juggling team, they were useless because they were blaming one another instead of assuming joint ownership of the juggling task.
  3. Planning and control, Finance and HR were trying to fit old economy and rigid models/mechanisms onto the organization which did not match reality.

Jean promised to fix the third issue. He also told me to coach the German and Israeli, separately and as a team. I worked with them on global competencies.

Jean asked me, how we fix 2? Joking, I told him that his purchasing department had asked me for a detailed roadmap for fixing 2 as well. And thus the work began. We focused on mutual accommodation, organizational juggling skills, teamwork and delphi prediction techniques.

All in all, I made three trips from Tel Aviv to Geneva and Zurich, and the entire project took ten days. Not one single day was devoted to either role clarity or reaching agreement on one firm list of shared priorities.

In our final meeting, all members of the team said that the learning experience and change had been phenomenal, and they invited me out to my favourite steak house, and we ate and drank, and drank.

The greatest compliment came from the German who told me, “you did not change anything, but every”z”ing changed.

Follow me @AllonShevat and follow Gloria at @GRamsbottom


Emotional detachment and the calling of OD

One definition of a calling is simply a vocation, trade and or profession. Another dimension of a calling is a strong impulse, inner yearning and/or beckoning to practise a certain profession.

Certainly there is a lot to be said for viewing ones’ profession as a calling: enjoyment, fulfillment and self-expression, and not simply a “bag”. (old slang for a way to earn a few bucks).

Organization Development is a compatible calling for many sorts of people driven by values and the desire to make a difference: practised well, OD is meaningful, powerful, interdisciplinary and very hard to get right. Although it is sisyphic, it has a huge impact on the quality of relationships and outputs in the workplace.

Beyond the positives that can attract folks to practice OD as a calling, I want to point out one of the less discussed, obscure and counter-intuitive motivations to the OD trade: it is a profession which can provide a people-interaction platform for those of us with emotional detachment.

  • It is the very “numbing” so characteristic of emotional detachment that allows the practitioner to distance himself/herself from a situation and thus provide value-added meaning and perspective. This numbing provides value in diagnosis, intervention and monitors energy levels. 
  • The emotional detachment allows the practioner to develop a practice with a wide range of clients, all of which are contract-based and limited in time. The contract and the time limitation allow the emotionally detached consultant to give more, with less personal anxiety.

There are many reasons that I love doing OD work. First and foremost, it is because it is interdisciplinary and very hard work to do well. However, I easily admit that OD has provided a loner with a playing field to interact with people. Had I not chosen OD as a calling, I may well have had gone into a field more akin to the nerds of today. In many ways, I have made my handicap into an advantage.


OD needs to stop cross-dressing as Change Management in order to support the chaos of organizational life

Organizational life is characterized by a high degree of chaos, a chaos which creates a complex painful reality at the system, personal and interpersonal level.

Organizations pretend to deny/avoid the chaos via ERPs, structural changes and well defined processes, but the chaos bites them in the ass all the more, manifesting itself in a plethora of post-modern pathologies, such as collapse of trust, massive disengagement, toxic leadership and subjugation of common sense to grotesque IT dictated business processes.

Despite the need that exists to better cope with the brutality inflicted by chaos, OD is no longer a major player in this domain. OD sold its soul as it went through a vast array of changes and  these changes have negatively impacted  OD’s ability to survive. A few of the changes-

  • Commercialization
  • Productization
  • Dumbing
  • Crawling into bed with change management

OD rendered itself irrelevant in the very area in which it has most value. OD became a side show.

Why did these changes not position OD to move into the chaos pain mitigation domain more effectively?  Well, chaos is chaos. Coping with the complexities of chaos cannot be done by dumbed practitioners, using scalable models which promise the predefined deliverables a la change management.

The alternative to the commercialized OD product crap is not easy. Selling and practising the less structured, semi chaotic art of OD is real tough. OD that deals with coping with chaos is hard to define to the client. There is lots of artistic and eclectic improvisation on the way, and the output of such an OD effort is unmeasurable; the changes OD makes eventually creep into the system and people, alleviating a lot of the side effects of excess chaos. However, there is no “deliverable” as an output, enter-able into an ERP purchase request.

By conforming to the clients’ pathology instead of confronting it, we sold our soul.OD knows how to deliver a change in the critical underlying dynamics which sabotage flexibility. There is no need to pretend to be something else.

So where do we go from here? I believe that before OD supports clients’ chaos, we need to loosen up and deal with our own anxiety driven over-structuring. 

In the meantime, OD practitioners who want to help their clients cope with chaos would be wise to avoid all OD models, avoid the flight to spiritualism and desist from cross dressing as change managers.