Question and Answer

Handling an Unreasonable Demand

My company has a contract with another corporation. For this business, the other company needs to send documents to my boss every now and then. At first, there was no problem. My boss always got the documents without involving me. Lately, a person in that company insists that I should be the one to go there and pick up the documents. I am a manager and I found this insulting to my position. But since the person is technically a client, I cannot just refuse. What should I do to make this stop? – M

Dear M,

Assuming the person is not someone who enjoys showing power by making others do menial errands, there could be several possibilities behind the request (or as it seems from your side, demand). For example:

  • The person might use it as an excuse to meet you so he/she can speak face-to-face with you. Why the person could not say this directly is a different question.
  • For some reason, the person wants to be able to say to his/her superior that the documents have been handed directly to you as a representative of your company/your boss.

Whatever the actual situation is, you need to take control. Talk to the person and find out the urgency behind the request. You don’t need to wait until the next documents need a pickup.

Invite the person to meet. Before the meeting, make a list of any possible solutions you can offer. Anything that comes to your mind. This will help you see the situation from a wider point of view, and will give you greater confidence.

In the meeting, express your appreciation for the business from his/her company. Say that you would like to give them better service. Yet as a manager with responsibilities, there are limits on what you can do yourself. You want to give your best in your position, and doing something outside that will be a disservice to them. Try to say something along the line of, “Ask me anything related to my expertise and I will gladly be at your service. On the other hand, asking me to do something less than my capability is like having the most advanced phone and only using it for text messages. Don’t you agree?” It is akin to saying, “I’m a manager and I don’t deserve to be your errand person,” but with a twist. Whatever you say, try to put it in terms of their interest.

From this point, you can ask probing questions to know the reason behind the request. “I understand that previously documents from you reached us without a problem and without involving me. May I know what changed so now you need me to come and get them?” Clarifying the reason can open doors for discussion and negotiation. However, as much as you can, avoid proposing anything until all cards are on the table. Understanding the situation from every angle can help bring an agreement that is profitable for both sides. Good luck!


Responding to Questions that You Cannot Answer

There are times in our careers when someone poses a question that we cannot answer. It could be in a meeting, in a business presentation, in an informal conversation, in a class, in an interview, or in a sales call.

What to Bear in Mind While Handling Questions

  1. Take every question as a learning opportunity for yourself.
  2. Be as curious as the person asking the question.
  3. Put yourself in the position of sharing what you know and your experience.
  4. You don’t have to know everything. But…
  5. If you don’t know something because you didn’t do your homework, then it is better to humbly accept the correction than to defend your mistake.

Why You Cannot Answer

  1. You don’t know the answer because you have not gathered the information on the subject.
  2. You only know the answer partially, and you don’t want to cause a misunderstanding.
  3. You know the answer, but it is not in your authority to divulge the information.
  4. You have never been in the situation.
  5. The question is outside your field of expertise.

Ways to respond

1. If you don’t know the answer, you can candidly say, “I don’t know,” or you can use the diplomatic version, “I am afraid I don’t have that information right now.” Being honest is better than making up an answer which could later be proved to be wrong. But don’t stop there. Keep your credibility intact by taking responsibility to find out the answer. Add, “But I will contact [name a specific person or department] today, and I will give you the information at [give a deadline].”

If you’re in a face-to-face situation, feel free to pick up your phone and shoot an email or message right there and then to ask for the answer. This will demonstrate that you take the matter seriously and win rapport with the person.

2. If you only know the answer partially, it is better to not answer directly. You can say something in the line of, “I am afraid I don’t know the whole story. Let me check with [name the person] and I will get back to you at [set a deadline].” Or if you don’t want to appear to be out of the loop by saying that you don’t know, you can give a disclaimer. “As far as I know from the last time I spoke to Bill, the situation is [tell the little information that you have]. But that may have changed in the past three days. Let me give you an update at [set a deadline].”

3. If it is not within your authority to give the answer, you can say, “I am afraid I cannot answer that. Please wait for [name the authorized person] to brief you.” Out of respect to the organization, it is advisable to avoid answering this kind of question yourself.

4. If you have not been in the situation that is in question, you can offer an example of a similar situation. “Unfortunately I have not taken part in such projects. But three years ago I was involved in a so-and-so project, which is in principle similar to the one you’re asking. From that experience, I can share that…” If it happens in your presentation, to make the discussion even more valuable, after sharing your answer, you can ask the rest of the audience to contribute their experience.

5. If the question is outside of your field of expertise, you can invite a more qualified member of the audience to give their view on the subject. Say, “That question is very relevant to the financial side of this project. Cathy, since you are in charge of the finances, would you care to take this one?”

If you are asked this question in an interview, it is better to honestly admit the truth. But you can add value to the interview by sharing your own experience related to the question. Say, “Unfortunately in my past jobs I am more involved in the user experience design and I am not trained in programming. However, from what I learned during the app development projects, challenges that programmers often face are…”

Please share in the comments if you know other tactics in handling questions you cannot answer.

Relations, Workplace

Why Is It Difficult to Remember Names?

A few years ago, I was invited by a salesperson to go with her to visit a prospect. Once the introduction, hand-shaking, and business card exchange were completed, everybody sat down. I saw the executive of the prospective client put our business cards neatly in front of him. During the meeting, I noticed that he peeked at the cards before addressing one of us. What an ingenious way to make sure that he would not call someone with the wrong name, I thought.

Let’s be honest: who never once forgot the name of the person to whom they have just been introduced?

There are at least two reasons why that happens.

We simply are not interested enough in the person. This is often the case when are simply making polite conversation with someone that we don’t believe we will see again. Or when the person we are seeing is taking someone who we did not expect to the meeting. We came to meet Wayne the purchasing manager, and not Penny his staff. Naturally, most of our attention is paid to Wayne. In that situation, we might forget her name.

We often don’t realize the great effort it takes to remember names. Our brain has many functions that it must fulfill at all times other than memorizing. With so much going on, hearing a name once is not enough for the brain to remember. This is especially true when we are making conversation with someone we just met. Our mind is so focused on finding interesting facts to say, paying attention to the person’s reaction, and reacting to what they say, we neglect to submit their name to memory.

Therefore, we need to make a conscious effort to make the name stick. Some ideas:

Ask how it is spelled. This is useful when the name is not familiar, or when there are alternative spellings to it. My name, for example, can be spelled with a v or a ph. This can help you put greater attention to the name, and make the other person feel they are important to you.

Repeat their name by using it during the conversation. This helps you commit the name to long-term memory. For example,

  • “So Mike, how long have you been with the organization?”
  • “I see where you are coming from, Mike.”
  • “That reminds of of a story, Mike. Two days ago I went to see my doctor…”

Saying their name also increases their attention to you.

Please remember that you don’t have to use their name in every sentence. That will sound superficial and make them uncomfortable.

Associate the name to the face. We often remember faces better than names. To help your brain tie the two together, turn the name into an image that you can associate with the person’s face. To make it stands out, exaggerate it. For example, let’s say you met a person whose name is Brad. Brad sounds similar to bread. So to stick the name to the face, imagine Brad is eating a huge loaf of bread. The next time you see Brad, that image will pop up in your mind and you can quickly remember his name.

The next time we meet a new person, let’s give them the attention they deserve!

” A person’s name is to that person, the sweetest, most important sound in any language.”

Dale Carnegie, “How to Win Friends and Influence People”

In English, Workplace

I don’t have time to hang out. How do I maintain a working relationship without looking like a leech?

You’ve probably met a ‘leech’ at work. Somebody who is nice to you and will talk to you only when they need something from you. Some call them fair-weather friends. Some others went as far as calling them ‘parasites’ because they are the only ones benefiting from a relationship.

To be honest, most people don’t want to be a leech. At least not on purpose. On the other hand, with so many things to do and so little time to socialize, you cannot escape the fact that there are people who you will only talk to when you need something from them.

So how can you stay on good terms with people who you rarely talk to?

1. When you interact with them, ask questions to get to know them. You can use a lot of topics to start a conversation. Let’s say you are discussing a project with a colleague and you see some pictures of kids on his desk. Ask him about the kids in the photos. Are they his children? How old are they? What are their names? What do they like?

Let’s say she’s just back from a two-week holiday. Invite her to talk about it. How was their vacation? Where did they go? Anything fun? Or, you can ask work-related questions. How are they doing with their projects? How are they progressing?

2. Follow up on what you learned about them. For example,

  • When you went to Claire for her help, you got to talking and you learned she had kids in high school. The next time you see her in the pantry, you can ask about how her kids are holding up in last exams.
  • Bob is a proud owner of a daschund. You know this because there are pictures of Sparky, his dog, everywhere in his cubicle, and because he spent 10 minutes telling you about Sparky’s favorite food. At the next meeting with him, you can bring a treat for Sparky.
  • Matt is fan of running. He’s been in more races than you can count on all fingers and toes of yours and of your family’s combined. When you see a friend posted about a running event on his social media, you can ask Matt about it. “Hey Matt, my friend signed up for this race. Have you heard about it?”

Maybe all the time you have to interact with your co-workers is only during work hours, and only work-related. Make that little time count. Ask questions, and be interested in their lives. In turn, they will be interested in you.

“You can make more friends in two months by becoming interested in other people than you can in two years by trying to get other people interested in you.”

Dale Carnegie, “How to Win Friends and Influence People”

In English, Personal Reflection


I have been blogging on and off for decades. I’m sure you’re not so keen to read my renewed intention to write faithfully. All you want is to see that my blog is regularly updated with new posts. Trust me, so do I. Why on earth is it so difficult for me to keep blogging? To be bluntly honest, because :

  • I am not confident that you want to read what I post
  • The perfectionist in me thinks my post sucks
  • I have no ide what to write.

Maybe some of you (or not) have similar experiences. Some of you may have given up blogging. The funny thing is, I believe that this is something for me. I love to write, and blogging is a great channel to express it.

So here I am, yet again picking up and dusting my blog. Thank you for bearing with me all this time. Let’s start a new journey in 2022.

In English, Opinions, Personal Observation

What to Avoid when Making Resumés

I once read an article titled “10 Ways Your Resumé Irks Hiring Managers.” Back then, I had just read through hundreds of resumes myself as I was looking for candidates for vacant positions. Naturally the title is of great interest for me.

The article listed 10 mistakes applicants make in their resumés. I tried to find the article again with no luck. Luckily I had copied the list. After comparing some of the points with my own experience, here’s what I came up with (my comments in brackets):

1. Spelling Mistakes and Grammatical Errors. (This is a big red flag. This could be an indication of the applicant’s lack of attention to work quality and thoroughness in completing a task. There are tons of resources to check anything for grammatical and spelling correctness, such as, or the spell checker in the latest word processing app.)

2. Opening Objective. (Some applicants found it necessary to include an objective in applying for the position. I personally think it is not necessary. Most of the time it is obvious what someone wants to get when applying for a job. Skipping this won’t be a bad idea, because the real chance to put the best foot forward is in the interview.)

3. Personal Attributes. (Recruiters don’t need to know that a person has a black belt in karate. Unless they are looking for a club bouncer.)

4. Interest and Hobbies. (Some interests do add value to a resumé. Some are better to be kept to yourself. I remember one applicant wrote in his interest, “I hate the government.” Yes, you guessed it. I immediately put it on the “reject” pile. A better strategy to display interests and hobbies is to put it on social media or blogs, and list the link in the contact information. Recruiters love it when they can dig out more information about an applicant.)

5. Details of every task you’ve ever performed in every job you’ve ever had. (Some descriptions of past responsibilities do help to illustrate capabilities. But there is no need to use 10 pages to detail them. This is even evident if an applicant held similar jobs in different companies. A better strategy is to list completed challenges in pervious job posts. This would make it easier for the hiring manager to see if the applicant is a good fit with the challenges of the vacant position.)

6. Excessive Bragging.  (Point 5 can escalate to showing off if one is not careful in describing his/her past achievements. For example, listing all the VIPs or celebrities an applicant had previously worked with or the dollar amount of bonuses he/she had won may come across as bragging. Keep the information about job achievements relevant by focusing on what was done in one sentence. The “how” can be discussed in the interview.)

7. Outdated Information. (There is no use to list skills that are no longer in demand just to make a resumé long and impressive. Considering the very small amount a manager can give in reading resumés, it is a better strategy to list the skills that are relevant to the job being applied to, and keep the rest for the interview.)

8. False Information. (One applicant had a suspicious name for his college. I googled it, and I found out the school was banned by the Indonesian Ministry of Education because it sold diplomas. In the era where information is highly accessible anytime, lying on a resumé is downright stupid.)

9. Unexplained gaps in  work history. (Some applicants thought they only need to list impressive past job positions and to skip the three-month job probation that went wrong. This may create gaps in a resumé that would raise questions in the mind of the hiring manager. It is best to be honest and write down job experience as it is.)

10. A lack of professionalism. (I got this a lot, especially from first time applicants. They simply type their resumés with no additional formatting. There are many free templates available online, or in Microsoft Word. Again, hiring managers have to go through piles of applications. A professional look can make one resumé stand out from the rest, and improve its chance of being read in full.

Here are a few things that I would add to the list:

11. E-mailing resume to multiple companies in a single send. As soon as I see addresses other than mine in the “To:” field, I either perceive the applicant as being cocky (it’s like he’s saying, “hey, just  to let you know I’m not applying just to you,”) or simply as being too lazy to send each application in a separate mail. Cocky and Lazy. Those are two things in a person who I am so keen to keep as far away from being part of my company.

12. Wrong addressee. Some applicants sent too many resumes that they forgot to change the name of the recipient in the cover letter. I got that several times. Since it might  be just an honest mistake, I sent a reply pointing out the error, and ask for the applicant to send me another e-mail with the correct name in the address. When the applicant didn’t do what I suggested, I knew the person was just not worth my time.

13. Pictures Not Perfect. In Indonesia, especially in service industry, we do ask for pictures of the applicants. We do not mean to discriminate a person by physical appearance. We can learn about a person’s personality from the way he/she presents himself/herself in a picture. Also, it is a good security measure to know how a person looks like before inviting him in for an interview. Unfortunately, some applicants do not see this as an opportunity to sell themselves. Instead of a well-groomed image, they sent a selfie photo, or a very miniscule graphic representation of themselves, or a photo so blurred it’s hard to identify the person. They took themselves for granted. Why should the hiring managers treat them differently?

14. Too Little Information. This is so true for fresh graduates applying for their first jobs. They thought that resumés can only contain work related experience, when they had none. Since they could not come up with anything they thought worth saying, they simply let their resume to be half a page long. This left very little room for conversation. And even the weather cannot make up for it. I had awkward interview moments when I really did not know what else to ask, and the candidate had nothing else to say! When hiring new graduates, I like to probe for some activities in school that they are particularly good at or at least they love doing. Anything that contributes to work capability discussion is worth noting. If there is little to say in job experience, be more informative on the part of the resumé related to school or social activities.

15. Sending In Multiple Resumés from Different People in a single e-mail. Email accounts are free and very easy to make these days. There is no room for excuse such as “I don’t have an email address so I asked my friend to help send it along with his.”

The way we make our resumés speaks volumes about the way we do our work and, most importantly, about ourselves.

Edited and updated on January 10, 2021

Current Issues, In English, Lessons, Opinions

Embracing Another “New” Normal

The security guard watched closely as I unhooked my backpack from my shoulders and placed it on the x-ray machine. I was sure I already put my gloves, my cap and my phone in there, and I was about to continue my entrance into the Smithsonian Air & Space Museum when she stopped me. “Your cold pack too, sir,” she said, pointing at my winter jacket. Of course. I could have hidden some dangerous item inside my jacket.

It was December 2002, just shy of 14 months after a group of 19 terrorists hijacked four passenger jets and crashed two them into the World Trace Center towers on September 11, 2001. America was in high alert.

Special scrutiny was given to passengers going to the US or flying on US airlines. Flying on Northwest (now Delta) Airlines from Singapore to DC, we had to go through a screening interview by the airline security at Changi airport. “What is the purpose of your visit to the US? May I see your invitation? Is this your luggage? Who packed your luggage? Have you ever left your luggage out of sight? Has anyone approached you and asked you to bring something for them?” It was pretty jarring to be confronted with those questions at 4 in the morning. No amount of caffeine could ever give you the same jolt.

Post 9/11, there were more attacks by different groups and individuals on various targets in different countries. Some of targets were night clubs in Bali (2002), a school in Beslan, North Ossetia (2004), underground trains in London (2005), a hotel in Mumbai (2008),a Sikh Temple in Wisconsin (2012), a shopping mall in Nairobi (2013), a magazine publisher in Paris (2015), a church in Texas (2017), and a mosque in Christchurch (2019).

As possibility of violent attacks is ever present, nowadays security checkpoints are common sights almost at every public areas: airports, office buildings, music concerts, shopping malls, theatres, theme parks, schools, even in houses of worship. We have accepted security threats as a daily possibility, and security checks as part of our lives. Being subjected to searches, scans, dog sniffs, even body frisks has become routine. We no longer see it as overreaction. It is what our normal has become.

If someone from the 80’s had traveled through time and landed in 2020, they would have been dumbfounded at having to go through security just to stop by a hotel to use the restroom. “What do you mean you need to check my bag? Keep your hands off!” They would have been even more surprised when the security guard pointed a infrared thermometer at their forehead and asked them to sanitize their hands!

But that’s the new reality today. As terrorism and gun violence changed our world, so has Covid-19 pandemic. To stop the virus from infecting more people, governments imposed various rules that affected the way we live and work. Some believe that until  a few of those changes will stay for good. 

As the virus started to widespread, starting on January 23, 2020, authorities issued lockdown on Wuhan and other cities in the Hubei Province, China. People were ordered to stay home. Public transportation, airport and highways were closed. Some non-essential companies were ordered to shutdown. It took the cities nearly 3 months to be declared free of new Covid-19 cases, and finally the lockdown order was lifted on April 8, 2020. 

Bloomberg reported, when Wuhan workers slowly returned to their jobs, they are faced with measures that the companies have put in place to minimize risk of infection. In Lenovo tablet and phone factory in Wuhan, before returning to their work site, staff members had to pass tests proving that they were free from the virus, and they had to wait for the result in a special dormitory. The meeting rooms that used to accommodate six, now could only be used by three people. The cafeteria had partitions put on tables with reminders to avoid conversations during meals. Rooms were disinfected regularly, with the last cleaning date posted on signs. Robots were used to deliver parts to reduce the number of interactions between people. The elevators were shut, and everyone must take the stairs. 

Yes, Wuhan is no longer under lockdown, but infection risk is still present. The way people live there is no longer the same.

As some governments, including ours, begin to completely lift or ease restrictions, either due to its success in controlling transmission of Covid-19 or to economic pressure, the virus is still with us. There is no guarantee that the absence of new cases means that the virus has been completely eradicated. Some people will remain to be carriers although experiencing no symptoms. In turn, they may infect less healthy people in the slightest way possible.  

In 2010, there was an episode of a popular TV show on Discovery Channel called Mythbusters, where the hosts conducted an experiment to see how far snot from a person with a cold could transfer to others in the same room within an hour. Similar experiment was also done by NHK, the Japanese public broadcaster to see how far germs from a sneeze that was covered by hand could be picked up by people eating a buffet on a cruise ship. The answer was grim: in a short time, the germs landed on everyone in the room. Imagine if the sneeze was from a person with Covid-19. 

This realization will change in the way we conduct our day-to-day lives. We must be aware not to touch surfaces with our bare hands. We must keep our faces and hands covered. We must wash our hands often. We must keep a minimum of 6 feet from others. Much of our life will move online. Some of us may have to keep working at home as companies reduce their space. We no longer hold meetings in person, but online. Our children learn at home while the teachers give lessons through the internet. 

For many of us, it will be difficult to accept these changes to our way of life. The bad news is, this won’t be the last time it would change. Some experts predict that there will be other pandemics in the future, and that crisis will be our continuous mode of thinking.

The good news is this is not the first time our normal has changed. We have survived previous changes and we will survive more changes, as long as we have the right mindset. For myself, here are some that I am learning to internalize.

  1. Stop hanging to the past. When my father passed away nearly three years ago, I was having a hard time accepting his absence. I thought of the many things that I could have done with him that I didn’t, and the regret was bearing down on me. One thought that consoled me was my Dad was already happy where he was, and nothing in this world could make him happier.  If we wanted to move on into the new normal, we must stop thinking about how good our lives were in past. Who knows, this new situation can also bring good things.
  2. Accepting the new normal. It wasn’t easy to adapt to working from home. There were things that I could not do from home. But as time went on and my team and I began to find ways to make it work, I realized that it is not that bad. We found that we did not have to print everything on paper. There were resources that we could use to stay in touch and communicate. For me, being apart from the others give me the space to think without feeling pressured. 
  3. Enjoying the new normal. There are things that I could do now that I couldn’t in the past. In the office, I often got invited to meetings where I did not have much to contribute. It was almost always a waste of time. But when it is online, I could move my attendance from my laptop to my phone, put on my earpiece, turn off my microphone and camera, and spend the time doing something else while listening, and making occasional comments. 
  4. Taking advantage of the new normal. Now that many people will spend most of their time online, there are opportunities to exploit. It is now easier to learn anything as there are now many free webinars and online courses. I found it easier now to attend community meetings since many of them are now online. Some people decided to make more social media content since they have so much free time now that they don’t have to fight traffic to work. For me, the opportunity is to expand my online presence by writing articles and blog posts. 

There are challenges in the future, that is a given. We have gone through changes in the past, and we have prevailed. As there are crisis so there are opportunities. Our choice will decide how much better or worse off this situation make us. 

Have a great New Year!

In English, leadership, Lessons

Don’t Stay In The Dark

Yesterday was the 11th session of our Dale Carnegie Live Online Effective Communication and Human Relations class. In the second part of the session, one participant gave an inspiring talk on how he recovered from depression after an accident. “Everyone said that even if I was able to recover, I would walk with a limp. That crushed me because that could mean I would never be able to work again. I was so dejected I did nothing but stay in bed,” he retold his darkest hours while holding back emotion.

“One day I read a quote that said, ‘Do not stay in the dark, because in darkness even your shadow leaves you.’ That quote snapped me out of my self-pity. I asked for a pair of crutches and started to learn to walk again.” he said. “Finally my legs healed. I was able to finish my school and get back to work. Now I can walk normally.”

The speech won him an Outstanding Performance Award.

The quote he mentioned haunted me. I looked it up, and I found that the actual quote was different:

“Do not depend too much on anyone in this world because even your shadow leaves you when you are in darkness.”

Ibn Taymiyyah

But the essence is there. Sometimes we lock ourselves inside a terrible situation because we either wait for someone to get us out or because we blame it on somebody and refuse to take responsibility to get ourselves out.

Regardless of which way see it, we lose. Nobody benefits from our staying in a rut. We might as well stop relying on and stop blaming others, pick ourselves up, and walk away.

Previously published as a Facebook post.

leadership, team

Seven Ways to Help Your Team Stay Focused and Motivated while Working from Home

When you read this article, chances are you are at home, and are taking a break from your work. Many companies assign employees to work from home as a form of participation in government efforts to curb the spread of the Covid-19 virus.

For those of us who are accustomed to working face-to-face with our team in the office, this condition may feel unfamiliar. If usually we can invite them to meet to discuss a problem, now we are forced to communicate with them through telecommunications media.

Some of us have experienced this reality as part of our daily work. We must work with teams that are in several locations, and we have no choice but to use e-mail, text messages, telephone and video conference to communicate with them.

The distance between us and our colleagues can cause several problems:

Disconnection from the team. When working in the same location, we feel comfortable because our team is close. It’s easy to ask for information, and we have friends with whom we can chat. When working in a different location, solitude can make us feel isolated. Although in theory we can interact with our team through digital media, but not infrequently we receive late responses. WhatsApp messages that are not read, phones that are not picked up, emails that are not answered, these can increase stress on remote workers.

Slow decision making. In the same location, teams can gather immediately to find solutions to problems and make decisions. When working in different locations, synchronizing time to meet digitally is sometimes not easy. Instead, we rely on WhatsApp group or Slack or Trello as a place to exchange ideas. Again, not everyone is quick to reply to messages sent through the group.

Getting lost in digital media. Today there are many communication media that we can use. When a colleague said, “I already sent the information.” Then the response would be, “What did you send it through? Email or WhatsApp?” If the answer is WhatsApp, there will be a follow-up question, “Did you send it in a group or directly to me?” If the answer is in a group, then the response is, “Which group?” Although in some aspects digital media made a lot of things easy for us, but in others they may complicate our life a little.

Digital miscommunication. Written messages cannot replace direct communication. Communication between people is more than just words. It also involves non-verbal factors, such as tone of voice, facial expressions, body language, and so on. Therefore, text messages that are written in disregard to the correct use of punctuation can cause the recipient to understand the message in a totally different way. What is meant as a neutral message when typed with excessive number of exclamation marks may be perceived as emotional message.

Video calls cannot substitute direct interaction either. First reason is technical obstacles. We may receive sound that is not in sync with the picture, delay in transmission, etc. These technical glitches may cause conversations to be fumbled and unclear. Second reason is the McGurk effect. This effect occurs when there is a mismatch between the words we hear and the lip movements we see. The brain tries to process this mismatch and came up with a different word.  Unclear video images can have this effect, where we seem to hear the word “tomato” when the speaker says the word “potato”.

Dealing with Remote Team

What can we do to create a productive atmosphere when working in different locations? In his book “How to Win Friends and Influence People” Dale Carnegie offered several principles that we can use.

1. Become genuinely interested in other people. One nice thing about working in an office is that we have relationships. At lunch, we have friends with whom we can talk about things outside of work, so we feel that we belong. Try to bring this feeling by taking a few minutes every day to ask how our off-site friend is doing and get him to talk about his condition. Encourage all team members to check on each other.

One participant in the Fundamental Leadership Program training class is based in Jakarta. He applied this principle with a colleague who worked on a site in Kalimantan. “Usually we only talk about work,” he said. “This time I called him just to say hello and ask how he was doing. From time to time we exchanged greeting text messages. We became friends, and it is now easier to work with him.”

2. Be a good listener. Make understanding the other person as your first goal in communication, before making yourself understood. When meeting via video call, take the time to check whether what you understand is in line with what the other person meant. Say for example, “Let me check my understanding. You are saying that our client has agreed to buy thirty units of this product, on the condition that the price is reduced by ten percent from the initial offer. Does it sound right to you?”

3. Don’t criticize, condemn or complain. One thing that makes people reluctant to communicate with us is when they see us as someone who is more likely to catch what’s wrong rather than what’s right. That could be one of the reasons we receive delayed replies to our text or email messages. Being critical is important to minimize costly mistake. Being critical ALL the time may cost us relationships with others. When receiving a message or listening to a colleague, instead of criticizing immediately, it would be a good idea to ask probing questions to understand the other person better.

One of our class members applied this principle to his superior. Before taking the class, he would criticize his boss for anything that he felt lacking. Later he tried to refrain from doing so and listen more. He found that his relationship with his boss was improving, and he got better support at his job.

4. Begin in a friendly way. This is the way to winning enthusiastic cooperation from your colleagues. Nobody likes to be boss around. When people are being told what to do, they feel what is known as psychological reactance.  This reaction cause people to resent instructions and become less productive. Instead of directly telling people what you want, start with a friendly tone. We can use something like, “Hey Joe. I sent you an important email yesterday. You were probably very busy and missed it. Your opinion is important to me and I would like to hear it before I make my decision. Would you mind having a look at it now?”

5. Try to honestly to see things from the other person’s point of view. Being in separate locations often mean different situations. What seems easy for us, may not be so readily implementable for our colleagues. Before implementing a plan, it would be a good idea to bounce ideas with our off-site colleagues. What risks do they see? What challenges they are facing? For this plan to succeed, what actions do they think needed to be done first?

6. Admit faults quickly and empathically. Being human, we are not immune from making mistakes. Jeff Bezos, founder of the giant online retailer, looks for people who can admit when they are wrong and change their opinion. According to him, smart people are constantly revising their understanding, reconsidering a problem they thought they had already solved, open to new points of view, new information, new ideas, contradiction and challenges their own way of thinking. Bruce Lee, the legendary martial arts actor once said, “Mistakes are always forgivable, if one has the courage to admit them.” Admitting mistakes is not a sign of weakness, but a sign of courage.

When people who are used to working in the same location are forced to work separately, mistakes are bound to happen. Being apart from the team, it is easy for someone to hide their mistakes. Hidden mistakes have big consequences. Show your team that it is not shameful to come forward and own up to one’s mistake. When you realize that you made a mistake, admit it quickly to your team, and explain what you are going to do to correct it. In that way, you lead by example, earn your team’s respect, and strengthen trust in your team.

7. Give an honest and sincere appreciation.  An article in Psychology Today recounted the experiment done by Adam Grant and Francesca Gino. They compared the performance of two telephone fundraising teams. One team had the Director of the Annual Giving visited them and thanked them personally, while the other team did not. The next week they compared the number of calls made by the teams. The first team who received appreciation placed 50% more calls than the second team. 

Being in separate locations means our team needs more support. We can take the role as their emotional cheerleaders. A simple thank you can make them feel appreciated. Or better yet, announce any achievement your team member made to the whole group. Send a congratulatory email copied to everyone in the team or use the team’s WhatsApp Group for that. How about taking them to lunch? Or if they are home bound, why not send them a dinner voucher they can use to treat their family?

When working remotely, make sure you always build a warm relationship with your team, and keep the communication channels open. This way, they feel the support and attention they need to stay focused and motivated.


Controlling Fear

A few days ago I shared a news article on my Facebook page. The piece reported about a Tennessee man who purchased nearly 18,000 bottles of hand sanitizer. He meant to sell them online at a profit. It turned out that he managed to sell some of his stock to the tune of up to $70 per bottle. Amazon and eBay discovered his scheme, quickly shut down his listing, and banned him from selling on the platforms. He was then stuck with thousands of unsold inventory, and an investigation for price gouging. (Update: I have since deleted the post to keep a more positive tone in my timeline.)

People looking to make profit in time of panic is not unheard of. Try to find some face masks online. While looking to stock some for our class participants, our Purchasing team found the price to be skyrocketing, even more than 10 times the normal price. At that price, stock were snapped up within hours.

The coronavirus pandemic that we are living in today presents a lot of uncertainty. This is a new kind of virus that spread rapidly, though less severe than SARS or MERS. Anyone can get it, from the poorest to the richest, from the lowest to the highest. Anyone who is unguarded can get it. The worst part is, until now there is no known and tested medical cure for the sickness. This kind of uncertainty causes fear and anxiety in us.

Fear makes us do irrational things. I remember almost 20 years ago, I was on my way home from visiting a friend. It was already late at night. The traffic was jammed and I had been trapped in it for almost an hour. Suddenly I saw cars in front of me began to turn back. In my mind there must be something terrible ahead that made them do that. There could be a riot! Without much thinking, I began to turn my car around.

I knew there was a wide median separating the two directions, and there was nearly a foot drop from the top of the median to the road. But I was so scared I stepped on the accelerator, forcing my car to jumped the median. As I made the crossing into the reverse lane, my front tires made a hard landing on the asphalt. I was lucky the car was able to take that beating without damage. The fact was, those cars turned around because they didn’t want to wait any longer in traffic. Nothing else!

So how can we keep ourselves from being controlled by fear and anxiety?

There is one principle in the book “How To Stop Worrying and Start Living” by Dale Carnegie that has become my favorite, especially in this coronavirus situation. The principle says,

“Forget yourself by becoming interested in others. Every day do a good deed that will put a smile of joy on someone’s face.”

The principle encourages us to stop thinking just about ourselves, and to start taking care of others.

I read an interesting article by BBC. It tells the story of a group of Canadians who started a movement the article calls “caremongering” or care trading. Mita Hans and Valentina Harper of Toronto and others saw there was so much scary news spreading in the media. They want to spread something opposite instead.

They started a Facebook group where people can ask and offer for help. It’s somewhat like a group where you can trade stuff, but in this group you trade kindness between those who need it and those who can give it. They thought the group would gather a few dozens people. Instead, news travels fast in social media, and soon the group grew into thousands of members. People in other cities created similar groups, helping more and more people in need.

A man in Halifax who desperately needed hand sanitizers due to compromised immune system received replenishment from a donor. A single mom in Ottawa received food for her baby. A group of people in Toronto offer to cook meals for those who are unable. A community in Prince Edward Island gave grocery cards to a woman who was laid off because of coronavirus related closures. The list of kindness that people do to each other goes on into the thousands.

Fear can spread like wildfire. But kindness can spread too. Rather than be controlled by fear, why not focus on being kind to others?

Psychology Today ran an article that discusses the effect of helping others on reduction of anxiety and depression. The article concludes that by helping others, we not only make other people feel better, but we also help ourselves feel better. As a bonus, not only we relieve ourselves from depression and anxiety, we also improve our relationships with people as we show kindness to them.

You don’t have to start a Facebook group. Just look around and see if there is anyone who needs it.

  • How about the security guards in your neighborhood, who work around the clock to ensure your safety? Some appreciative smile would make it worth their trouble.
  • Why not check into your WhatsApp and see the people in your list who you haven’t heard from for a while? I’m sure in time of social distancing like now they would appreciate someone asking them their news.
  • How about scanning your Facebook timeline? Don’t just give them a thumbs up for something good your friends share. Write a heartfelt compliment. Or give thoughtful or uplifting comments for those who share some life challenges.
  • Have you shown appreciation for your wife’s cooking? Your children’s hard earned grades? Your husband’s assistance when you need him to fix something around the house?
  • Why not try to be more patient and compassionate when people make mistakes? Let them know it’s okay to make mistakes, and offer them help to do it better the next time.

Instead of letting fear driving you, why not spread joy by sharing kindness to others? You help both yourself and others by doing that.