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Rashid Shariff

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Throughout history, empires were erected, revolutions were staged and science flowered. Yet, the colossal mould of these events, in our minds, could have easily dissolved the sheer fact that they were orchestrated by specific people. It is easy to forget the Tunisian whose self immolation coupled with zealous activism by influential citizens, spawned what would later be the Arab spring. By the same token significant incidents that ever happened gathered momentum through relationships built by leaders . Relationships lubricated fulfillment of their interests. And on a closer look influence was at their nexus. It is a constant that stretches its tentacles into various relationships existing in organizations from corporations to social movements. What strategies can one use to gain influence, better still how can one wield it effectively?

Studying Law was a rather insipid experience for the young Hungarian, Ignaz Semmelweis. His distaste for the subject culminated into a switch to medicine, a field that indulged his passion eventually leading him to a job at the obstetrics department in the University of Vienna in 1846. Working as an assistant at that department meant tackling the challenge of childbed fever which was prevalent in maternity wards in Europe at that time. Dissecting corpses of patients that died from the disease, doctors would find puss and large amount of putrid flesh. Some Medical practitioners believed childbed fever was caused by “polluted air” known as miasma while others thought it was a result of pus, which they mistook for milk. Breast milk was then thought to be a product of menstrual blood under the belief that there was an anatomical relationship between the upper uterus and the breast. It would not be long before Semmelweis discovered that mortality rates were higher in the clinic attended by medical interns compared to the second one attended by midwives within the department. What was even more startling was that women who gave birth in the streets never caught the disease. He suspected that interns spread the disease during childbirth after handling corpses. His suspicions were confirmed when his colleague died of the illness after accidentally pricking himself with a scalpel while conducting a postmortem on a woman who had childbed fever.


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Without haste, Semmelweis commanded those in his ward to wash their hands with chlorinated water before attending to mothers giving birth, a practice that significantly reduced mortality rates. It was now clear that there was only one cause of the disease which he termed as “cadaveric contamination”. As soon as he revealed this theory to his senior, Johann Klein , it was refuted. The idea was radical and went against the medical zeitgeist at the time. Rather than carrying out experiments and publishing his findings, Semmelweis became entrenched in political battles with Klein. His battles with Klein almost resembled those of Thomas stockmann and Peter Stockmann in Henrik Ibsen’s An Enemy of the people; where Thomas was the politically inept scientific genius battling Peter, a shrewd politician with clout and a knack for manipulation. Simmilweiz’s close friends urged him to write papers on the discovery, he would hear none. In fact he had an such an aversive attitude towards writing that would later cripple his career. Consequently Semmelweis lost his job , the medical community in Vienna turned against him. He subsequently left Vienna for Budapest where he got a job at the University of Pest. There too his seniors disbelieved his theory. As a last resort, the vexing swamp of skepticism compelled him to write the only report on his findings, Die Ätiologie, der Begriff und die Prophylaxis des Kindbettfieber (The Etiology, Concept, and Prophylaxis of Childbed Fever). Unfortunately it did not fully explain the logic behind his theory and attracted even more vehemence. Semmelweis’s behaviour grew aberrant and his wife thought he was insane, he would eventually die miserably from blood poisoning after incurring a gangrenous wound in 13th August 1865 at the age 47. It was several years later that Louis pasteur promulgated what we know today as the germ theory. A discovery that could largely be credited to Ignaz Semmelweis.


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Many a times we find ourselves in circumstances that command voicing suggestions or instituting executive decisions that may not settle well with our colleagues. Just like Semmelweis most of us choose the quick path of shoving instructions at subordinates if we happen to be in a position of power, or rebelling with a panache that borders tyranny if we are not. Yet others will altogether swallow back their reservations to avoid conflicts at all costs. Solving this classical problem commands that we understand the primary ways through which we generally gain influence. The first path to influence is power which often involves control of resources while the second path is status which derives from positive social judgements of others. Ignaz Semmelweis could only implement his findings in the ward that he had control over. His position at the ward gave him power. On the other hand convincing those beyond his reach of power would require that he earned status.Social psychologist Edwin Hollander formulated a an insightful process through which we earn status. He promulgated the concept of idiosyncrasy credits, the freedom to differ from a group’s expectations. Idiosyncrasy credits are earned whenever a person contributes towards a group’s goals. Subsequently, one earns enough idiosyncrasy credits to the point that deviating from the crowd expectations does not trigger any negative reactions. Had Semmelweis properly conducted experiments and formally published his findings, he would have earned credits that would have seen him earn status amongst his peers making them more receptive to his findings.

Likewise, it is always prudent to place yourself in positions that allow you to exercise your strengths. This way, you will be able to make contributions and consequently earn status among your peers. Semmelweis’s profession required him to carry out experiments and consequently publish research papers on his findings. Sadly, writing wasn’t his strength as he abhorred it to the core of his being. As a result he could not bring himself to influence his superiors and peers alike because the germ theory was too novel in that era. It smashed the expectations of those in the medical field which vastly rested on misinformed theories. He never earned enough idiosyncrasy credits to deviate from his colleagues’ expectations.


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As a manager, you will be tempted to use your powers on a frequent basis but this approach quickly breeds resentment and may hurt productivity in the long run. Instead you must coalesce the exercise of power with status building. In fact studies conducted by organizational behavior researcher Adam galinsky and colleagues have shown that individuals occupying high power roles with relatively low status end up having more conflicts with their colleagues in lower ranks. This in effect results into a vicious cycle where those with power frustrate those under them because of their resentment and vice versa escalating conflicts further. Thus you might want to earn the highest qualifications in your field or even occasionally take part in basic technical work as your juniors to demonstrate your capabilities as some executives do which yields massive respect in the long term. With hope that Einstein will not have been offended, we can safely conclude status without power is blind and power without status is lame.

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Ever since I learnt this word, sometime back in primary school, a visceral vortex of guilt sends my conscience on its heels, whenever I think about it. Not in a scary way, just in a puritanical way. In a thou-shall-not-let-this-vice-afflict-you-kind of way. So warns my esoteric, philosophical-bullshit laden mind. And who’s being warned over here? Haha those morons; instinctual impulses to be precise .They’re often calm as well bred poodles. And then there are those days they’re hard to leash like sex starved mongrels at the sight of a bitch . Not that they (impulses) listen anyway.

You know that guy you expect to have a great conversation with, only to find yourself gasping amidst their verbal diarrhoea? You know how you listen to that guy right? You assume an attentive facade at first. They notice how keen you are . That’s a great incentive, by the way, for them to go on and on. Your mind drifts, your presence ebbs away like the glow of lifeless ambers. Soon pretence becomes tough and the only rescue is a phone call that will, just, never happen.

That’s how my impulses would listen to some quixotic warnings from my mind . And now it admonishes me against this evil

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It’s a hot afternoon. The sweltering heat cuts right into the flesh so that you feel like a piece of red hot charcoal. There’s a piece I’ve been meaning to write. But what’s one to do wading through a swamp of mind numbing heat? And now I hear familiar sounds. They reverberate through me shaking some sluggishness out of me. I scan for the source. My eyes fall on Tamara. She’s sitting at the far end of the coffee bar . Her animating presence is enticingly sketched out by the sporadic shrills of her laughter. Hell no! I’m, not going to write this piece now. I grab a caramel macchiato, a perfect concoction of expresso, foamed milk and caramel that conspire to produce a heavenly aroma. My attention was long ago sacked by her seemingly; spellbinding story (not quite sure she is narrating a story or arguing). She is with two other friends. They’re all exhausted from laughing. It’s written all over their faces. “It’s the usual jibber-jabber” I think to myself. It’s ordinary but juicy. Today she’s all righteous about how heartless it was for one Abdi to post sarcastic remarks about “Mr. and Mr. blah-blah beauty pegeant. Mind you the other “Mr” is the miss whom he thought didn’t deserve the title. Anyway our madame is taking a swipe at Abdi today . She has turbid brown eyes that are always on to something; illustrating this, pointing at that with the help of the mouth and nose as though she’s about to throw a flying kiss. Her bronzed skin matches well with her dusky curly hair that neatly tucks a buldged forehead underneath the bangs. She acknowledges my presence with a rather, indifferent nod as she always does when shes not yet done with an arguement only supported by her feelings. She’s a creative working with some international ad agency. She abandones her half baked argument to bitch about a project she’s been putting off. Fuck no! She’s reminding me of my unfinished piece.

But wait a minute, I’m growing ecstatic. Adrenaline is coursing through my veins. Suddenly there’s more clarity in my thought . I know this feeling all too well. It means I’m having an ‘ahaa’ experience. It’s as if an angel were revealing scripture. When this happens, as it often does, know that I’m about to piece some obvious stuff into a dry logical explanation. In my previous life, I should’ve spitted a theory. But no, I keep mum. As I was saying, I’m about to uncover that I’m postponing my writing as she’s doing with her project. Similarly, I can recount 3 more, 4 more, no! It’s a multitude of people who postpone stuff. Here’s the interesting bit. They’re all creative or at least most are. What does this mean?


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The steamy excitement is condensed at the surface of a socially acceptable exterior. I’m back on earth squeezing the last drops of attention to listen to Tamara. She’s stopped whining about her project. She’s at them (relationships) again. She will go on a tirade about how all men are dogs. It will feel like she neither has a dad nor a brother. She will reveal stuff about men who were after her. She will express disgust at the jerk,whose aggressive intentions camouflaged underneath a chivalric front. Then she will reminisce the sweetheart who fell on her feet, crying his heart out. She will compare them all to the flighty, adventurous and rebellious play boy, with a twinkle of passion in her eyes. Her voice will turn hoarse! Her manicured fingers will gracefully land on the half empty glass of Ice cold latte. With a characteristic gentleness, she will hold the glass in a way that leaves the dew intact. Her fleshy glossy lips will gather around the straw to sip the contents. She will resume, this time describing the Range rover sport driving honcho who offered to pay a year’s worth of rent in a single instalment. The only problem is that, he had two wives and diabetes. Then, she will notice how bored we’ve grown.

Meanwhile, I will be comparing her to an app on Google play store, she being the app, and the bunch of men she’s mentioned the number of downloads. The more the downloads the greater the appeal. They call it ‘social proof’ in social psychology. For a moment I will gaze into her eyes. I’ll see a young girl struggling to draw attention, perhaps sub consciously. I’ll notice how her words are perfectly weaved to dress underlying insecurities. I’ll smirk as though I’ve discovered a child’s fruitless attempt at pulling a magic trick. She will steal glances at her watch. She will rumble about pulling an all nighter on the project that is due next day. As though I woke from deep slumbr, I’ll be reminded of my unfinished piece.

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“In my tray are 4,500 words that need to be written by dusk. Things that have piled up. Things I have left to pile up. Now they are here and they are staring at me in the eye knowing I will blink first,” writes Biko Zulu. He’s describing that word, the one that soaks my mind with guilt.

Biko has a short goatee that somehow makes up for the missing hair. His moderate dose of melanin constrasts well with the dark rimmed glasses so that it easens your attempt at stereotyping him as a writer . He’s nothing close to what I expected him to be; a dread locked writer, eking out a bohemian existence in the fringes of life.

“I’m sick from procrastination!” complains Biko. And yeah the word is procrastination! “I need to have a doctor look into my eyes with a torch and see how procrastination has sucked up my haemoglobin” you must be seeking camaraderie in his words, huh? At least we’re many in procrastinating. But you know what’s cool about it?

In 1920s, a young soviet psychologist discovered that we have a better memory for incomplete tasks than complete ones. Her name was Bluma Zeigarnik. And so the discovery came to be known as the ‘Zeigarnik effect’ . When a guy is trying to be all mysterious, he wants to remain an ‘incomplete task’. He wants to plant himself in your mind and boy does he reside there with the power of this phenomenon. Ladies! isn’t it fun to act dumb and play along? That aside. When we procrastinate, the task remains in our minds. This is, especially, effective in creative tasks since the project is in your mind and it automatically pushes you to seek information until you complete it. When Tamara and Biko Zulu are procrastinating, they’re actually seeking enough information for their creative activities. So substitute ‘procrastination’ with ‘seeking information’. Notice how the guilt fades.

In yet another study by Jihae Shin a professor at University of Wisconsin, Procrastinators’ ideas were found to be 28% more creative in experiments done in companies. In other words, procrastination is a virtue for creativity. In equal measure it’s a vice for productivity and shouldn’t be extended to chronic levels. But then its not as bad as people make it to be. Leornado da Vinci, Abraham Lincoln, Bill Clinton, Aron Sorkin, Albert Einstein and Steve Wozniak are but a few, of the famous procrastinators. Next time you’re wondering why most writers are, or have to be , procrastinators you have the explanation right here!

If you enjoyed this piece, just know its a product of procrastination!


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In 2005, LEGO, the Danish toy maker, took the technology community by surprise when they cheered the hacking of its 3D modelling platform called LEGO Factory. Executives initially fancied the idea of legal action as an archetypal corporate reaction especially since the company still struggled to recuperate from near bankruptcy.

Yet, upon a closer look, it turned out that the hackers were part of a well-coordinated colony of dexterous LEGO aficionados. Discovering inefficiencies in the system brought out through the intrusion, the hackers sought to create a database that would optimize the number of exact bricks a consumer needed. The action would minimize the amount customers would spend, contrary to the original version of the software developed by LEGO whereby one had to purchase a whole bag with far more bricks than one required. Fleshing out the problem, LEGO put itself into the shoes of its ardent consumers. Instead of filing a law suit as originally intended, it switched gears and engaged the hackers.

Tormod Askildsen, LEGO’s Head of Community Development at the time was quoted saying “our lawyers were ready to go after these consumers and say, “you cannot do that.” But we also realized that there was a lot of talent and a lot of very great skills out there in the community. Yes, they are tinkering with our product, but they are improving it. So what happened was that we basically let consumers hack this, and that is the amazing thing. If you trust your consumers, then they may do something that is actually a benefit. The LEGO brand is not owned by us. It’s owned by the consumers. We own the trademark, yes, but the brand lives in the minds of the consumers.” What happened at LEGO was a classical performance of cognitive empathy in a corporate environment.

The 18th century British philosopher David Hume once remarked that “the minds of men are mirrors to one another”. In the early 1990’s, Italian researchers at Parma University made a riveting discovery. Through a series of experiments done on monkeys, they figured out that certain sets of neurons within the premotor cortex fired both when the monkey grabbed an object and also when it observed another primate grab the same object. These neurons were also recently found in human beings. They came to be known as mirror neurons. As such, they form the basis for understanding other individuals’ actions. The particular neurons facilitate empathy in that one experiences understanding of another person’s mental and emotional condition from their perspective. Thus human beings are naturally wired to empathize. Question is, why then should empathy take center stage in an organization’s efforts to turbocharge its performance?

Creativity and innovation have become the lifeblood of first-rate organizations like LEGO. Empathy serves as the engine of creativity and innovation. Business people often mistakenly think that empathy exists as a mere soft skill not taken seriously. However, empathy positively correlates with high performance. The Center for Creative Leadership analyzed data from 6,731 managers across 38 countries and found that empathy positively related to job performance. How does empathy specifically also promote creativity and innovation?

Researchers categorized empathy into cognitive and emotional empathy. Emotional empathy involves vicarious experiencing of another’s emotional state. Meanwhile, cognitive empathy entails the ability to accurately imagine another person’s feelings or thinking and even predict their subsequent behaviors. In the Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln, Doris Kearns Goodwin describes Lincoln as a leader who possessed incredible levels of empathy. He held the gift or curse of putting himself in the place of another to experience what they were feeling. It allowed him to discern their motives and desires. A contemporary of the day, Hellen Nicolay, observed directly that Lincoln’s consummate gift for “political diagnosis” that arose from his empathic nature gave him “the power to forecast with uncanny accuracy what his opponents were likely to do.” Inasmuch, it is quite evident that Abraham Lincoln’s empathic capacity gave him a competitive edge when appraising situations and people. It was a source of insights that culminated into fireballs of political and military strategy, hence his competence.

In the corporate world, cognitive empathy aids both organizational and individual competence through integration of knowledge. It helps to explain why LEGO’s executives chose to see the problem from the hacker’s well-intentioned perspective which, of course, involved suspending their own initial security and legal concerns to become open to new knowledge that enhanced LEGO’s innovation. Individuals like Steve Jobs intuitively understood the importance of empathy so much so that he suggested a single set of bathrooms in the central atrium of Pixar’s building to force more interaction amongst animators, computer scientists and creative directors, paving the way for integration of knowledge. Through cognitive empathy, cross-fertilization of knowledge took place between professionals of seemingly unrelated fields resulting in cascades of juicy innovative ideas within an organization.

Emotional empathy, on the other hand, provides fertile ground for trust to flourish amongst employees. Communication between individuals who understand each other at a visceral level is spontaneous in character. Consequently, individuals share ideas without fear of being judged or ridiculed thus encouraging creativity in solving problems. A study conducted, in a manufacturing firm, by the neuro-economist Paul Zak, found that those in the top quartile of colleague closeness were 22% better at solving a difficult problem with others. They also enjoyed working on the problem 10% more than those in the lowest quartile of closeness. Ostensibly, such closeness can only occur when an individual emotionally empathizes and therefore results in spontaneity and in turn creative problem solving.

From the Danish toy company to the Oval Office, empathy is undoubtedly an engine that powers creativity and innovation. It would help executives and businessmen in Kenya to rethink the role of empathy in their innovative endeavors.


The article was first published on: http://www.businessdailyafrica.com/Empathy-engine-powers-creativity-innovation/539444-3842124-vr7tow/index.html