Employee Engagement Summit 2011
Organised by A-Performers

“Staff Engagement in the Time of Volatility – All We can Learn from the Movies” — Speech by LAM Woon-kwong, Chairperson, Equal Opportunities Commission (只備英文版)


As a starter, I introduce Stanley Kubrick’s classic, “2001: A Space Odyssey”. This is an amazing movie, based on science fiction. Now, 43 years after its first release, you can still sense its power of imagination and provocation.

The movie offered an inspiring speculation on where human wisdom came from. But that is not what I propose to discuss in this forum. Today, we focus on the apes.

Humans are the product of evolution. We sit at the top of the 5 billion year old evolution tree. We belong to the family of the great apes. Our DNA bearing a 98% similarity to that of chimpanzees, our closest relatives.

What does that say for our behavior traits? We are communal beings. We need to be social. Our survival and well being are dependent on being part of a larger community. We give up some of our individual freedom for the greater good of the community where we belong. In return, we expect trustful and productive bonds among communal members, and mutual support in difficult times and in crisis. Turn the word “community” into “company”, and you know what I am driving at.

Being social also says that we seek to be communicative, for trust can only be built through effective communication. Humans have immensely larger capacity for communication, compared to other great apes in the same family. Spoken language began some 50,000 years ago. Written language began much later, only some 5,000 years ago. Now, nearly half of the world’s population can communicate with each other through the internet, without ever seeing each other. It is within these 5,000 years that humans manage to manipulate the external environment and to dominate life on earth.

As our language faculty develops, so has our brain which is much larger than those of others in our family tree. Again, if you draw an analogy between human’s brain power development and the sophistication of communication within your own organization, you can well see why it is so important for organization to be communicative.

Humans are undoubtedly social beings. What more does that say for our behaviors? It says that we long for and seek positive emotional experiences in our relationships with others, in the communities we belong. We seek appreciation, joy and love in these relationships. A partnership or a communal relationship that does not offer positive emotional returns often end up in break-ups or even hostilities.

Again, once you think of that in terms of staff relationships within your own organization, you can surely see why it is essential that your organization must be able to provide the positive emotional experiences in order to recruit and retain a worthy workforce.

What more can we learn from the short excerpt from this classic movie? Have you noticed that among the group of apes woken by the sudden appearance of the mysterious metallic slab, only one dared to touch it first, although they all jumped about in excitement and made lots of noises around it?

That is the kind of “ape” you want to recruit and keep in your organization. The type that may be unorthodox, but is always alert, curious, has the guts to act, and the mental capacity to turn seemingly insignificant findings into immense assets for the organization. So don’t just go for conformity in the choice of your team. Go for someone who can make a difference.

It is your team’s heart and mind, their passion and brainpower that counts when it comes to profitability and sustainability of your business.

To nurture such a team, I suggest a few rules of thumb:
Don’t push aside the working mothers for they can be as loyal and as creative;
Don’t find it burdensome to have to work with colleagues who may not master the home language as fluently as yourself for they may excel in other aspects, to your organization’s advantage;
Don’t alienate those who may happen to have sexual inclinations different from the majority, for talent has got nothing to do with it;
Remember that ethnicity reflects no more than the color of our skin pigments, not the capacity of our brains; and Don’t write off candidates lightly even though they may have permanent disabilities, for you risk missing out the fine brains, since their disabilities would largely be capable of accommodation with modern day technology.

It has taken more than 2 million years for us to move on from being able to use the animal bone as a hand tool to the space age, much of that were taken in great strides in the last two centuries.

When the then US President, John Kennedy, announced in 1961 that the US would land man on the moon, he captured the public imagination of the entire world. In 1969, the first successful landing mission was accomplished.

It was followed by successive landing missions. But the rule that if an accident may happen then it will happen unfortunately did apply. In the Apollo Program’s third landing mission, the spacecraft Apollo 13 got into a serious accident, out in space where external rescue was impossible.

This movie was made in 1995, based on the real accident that took place back in 1970. It was a miraculously successful rescue operation, with all three astronauts safely returned home. The case had been exhaustively studied and turned into lessons for many management training courses throughout the world.

What are the key lessons that we may learn from it? The suggestion that turned out to be vital to the entire rescue operation was to shut down all non-essential electricity uses in the spacecraft so as to conserve sufficient power to return the spacecraft back to Earth.

That came from a junior member of the Mission Control Team. While others were busy figuring out how they might get the damaged spacecraft home, he alone noticed that if the crew didn’t cut down on the electricity being used, they would be dead long before they get home, let alone how.

Such ability to manage major crisis cannot possibly come by luck. It has got to do with years of training and working together. It has got to do with an open work culture that encourages every member of the Team to speak their minds, irrespective of seniority and experience. It has got to do with organizational values that promote equality when it comes to exchange of ideas and proposals, values that reward honesty rather than flattery.

Of course, the successful rescue operation had got to do with capable leadership and inevitably an element of luck too. But the professional quality of the Team, their feeling of togetherness, and the confidence of communication without fear must count as essential elements. That, I suggest, is the lesson we may all learn from this spectacular journey of near death.

Man is by and large a rational being, for otherwise it would
not have been possible for big communities to function and to prosper. Our achievements have indeed been amazing, but we are unfortunately not such a masterpiece of creation that we may think we are. For these rational beings are at the same time full of contradictory behaviors.

With the space age also came the nuclear age. Throughout the entire period of the Cold War which lasted for more than 40 years in the last century, we lived under the threat and fear of human extinction by our own acts.

That scenario came real close in 1962 during the Cuban missile crisis when the then USSR stationed ballistic missiles carrying nuclear warheads in Cuba, which is only 5 minutes’ flight away from Washington. During the 13 days when the US and the Soviets stared each other down to see who might blink first, a single mistake in judgment on either side could have wiped out our entire civilization.

This movie was made in the year 2000, based on the personal account, in his book of the same title, by Robert Kennedy, brother of President John Kennedy and a core member of the crisis management team that dealt with the biggest threat to human existence ever.

Again, the book and subsequently the movie “Thirteen Days” was turned into a serious case study for many universities’ public and business administration schools, to try to distill what wisdom we may get out of this mega crisis.

So what may we learn from this real “story”? There are too many. But for the purpose of this forum, I would just quote what Robert Kennedy said to his brother on how to formulate options in response to the Soviet threat: “We got hold of the smart guys. We lock them into a room until they come up with some solutions”.

Indeed, John Kennedy’s way of handling the crisis was unorthodox. Not sure what the Soviet’s motives are, fearful that a pre-emptive air strike against the missile base in Cuba would provoke even bigger military response, and determined not to repeat the mistake made in 1914 when European powers tumbled into the First World War, he chose to play for time and keep all options open. Hence, he asked for a range of options instead of going for the advice that the majority of his cabinet, including the Military, had counseled.

He took his brother’s suggestion and picked a diverse team, with a number of trusted advisers from outside the cabinet. The team dutifully went over all options, and presented them to the President in a matter of days.

Time was tight. The cloud of uncertainties didn’t get clearer. The choice remained hard. In the end, he took the advice from the most unlikely quarter, Adlai Stevenson, the US Ambassador to the United Nations, a beyond-his-prime politician who was regarded by the majority of the Team as weak and lightweight. His solution was to compromise: to strike a secret deal by pulling out US missiles in Turkey, to trade for the Soviet’s retreat from Cuba.

We are not here to judge the rights and wrongs of that decision. The important thing is that the world didn’t come to an end in 1962.

The key I would highlight here is that President Kennedy had consciously chosen to enlarge his group of advisers from the standing cabinet members to a more diverse team, some of whom, while they might be lightweight in terms of authority and status, did have the expert knowledge of the Soviet Government and how they operated.

In the face of major crisis and heavy responsibilities, the decision maker chose to go for the maximum brainpower that he could master, so that he may have enough options at hand. That could only happen in organizations that command the genuine loyalty of its members and staff. That again flags up the importance of members and staff being able to communicate frankly without fear and with no thought for flattery.

Moving on, and in order to give my talk a touch of modernity, I now leave the movies for a moment and turn to a few familiar figures, indeed the three most prominent personalities of the 21st century, so far. Steve Jobs, Sergey Brin & Mark Zuckerberg.

How great it would be to have anyone of them in your team! Even a grade B version of them would do, you might even think. They would have been the “ape” that dared to touch the mysterious slab in the first movie we saw today. They are the ones who have “made a difference”, a BIG difference indeed to our lives.

I would venture to speculate that, had they not been in an environment where they can enjoy considerably more equal opportunities for open and fair competition, for deploying their brainpower and creative capabilities to the full, for not being kept out of the race track in the business world because of their humble family, race or even academic background, had they not been operating in such an equal opportunity environment, we might never see the Steve Jobs, Sergey Brin and Mark Zuckerberg of our days.

Now, I at last come to the finale of my presentation: the recent movie “127 Hours”.

The storyline of the movie is very simple: it is one desperate man’s struggle for survival. Aron Ralston, an American mountain climber who is known for having survived a 2003 canyoneering accident. What struck me, as I closed my eyes to the screen when the protagonist slowly and painfully cut off his own arm in order to escape from the trap by the immovable piece of rock, what struck me then was his sheer determination to live on because, and only because he reflected on his whole life during those 127 hours and came round to realize how his life would matter to so many others.

The Director of “127 Hours”, Danny Boyle said, “This is a film about how precious life is…… And it is only precious because of other people."

That brings us back to our earlier point about us being communal and being social. Indeed no man is an island and no man can afford to survive Robinson Crusoe style for long. But being communal doesn’t mean that the community has the right or should demand conformity in behaviors for all. To do that in any organization would be to stifle imagination, to choke off creativity, and in the end be suicidal both to the organization and to the individuals therein.

Here lies this final wisdom which I would like to share with you: that a great organization, a great community would be one that is truly inclusive. Inclusive meaning that there will always be room to cater for the minority, to cater for those of us who are born or choose to be different, to cater for those of us who want to make a difference.

Thank you.