“So convenient a thing is it to be a reasonable creature, since it enables one to find or make a reason for every thing one has a mind to do.”
A teenager with a motorcycle is racing another motorcycle down a two lane road in the countryside. He loses control when he hits 90 miles an hour around a curve and wraps his bike around a tree. He breaks both legs, fractures his skull, scraps off a good portion of his backside, he is lying on the ground bleeding heavily and writhing in pain. One can’t help but notice the long skid marks which show exactly where the motorcyclist began to lose control and went off the road. His racing partner takes off, not sticking around to see what becomes of the injured biker. Luckily, no one else is injured by their behavior. It will take him months and months but he will recover.
After delivering the injured biker to the emergency room, still in pain but alive, the two workers on the ambulance stop at the hospital coffee shop for a break and discuss the case. “Too bad about the kid” one says to the other. The response is “he got what he deserved, he is lucky to be alive. What did he think was going to happen racing on a back road that fast?” Did he get what he deserved?
A young woman falls in love and marries a man who, after a few years of marital bliss, and a few children, begins to abuse his wife. While not physically abusive, this man because of his own insecurity has a need to control every aspect of his wife’s life. In order to establish a greater degree of control over her, he denigrates her and her accomplishments, which leaves her feeling more and more dependent on him for her own survival and to provide for the children.
Always a social drinker, after a few years of her husband’s abuse she begins to drink heavily and becomes an alcoholic. As her behavior deteriorates, she is not able to hold onto a job, which simply gives her husband more fodder for his abusive behavior. Her behavior becomes more erratic and the police are regularly called. She finally moves out of the house with her children into a friend’s apartment when she can no longer stand the abuse.
Even though she is now removed from the situation, her drinking does not stop. The husband has no interest in taking care of the children and so they are eventually placed into foster care. One social worker on the case describes to the judge how the woman is an alcoholic, how she has been unable to become sober and because of her behavior she cannot hold onto a job and can no longer care for her children. The mom wants nothing more than to get her children back. Is she culpable for her behavior in this situation? Should she get her children back?
A well-paid executive assistant in a fairly non-descript small town observes what she believes to be unethical behavior on the part of her supervisor. She regularly fills out the expense reports for her boss and notices that he submits receipts that to her appear to be questionable. Meal receipts at expensive clubs with unsavory reputations and with her boss paying for what appears to be a large number of people are routine as are other questionable items. Her boss’s supervisor keeps signing off on the expense reports, but she just does not feel that it is right so she voices her concerns to the head of finance.
Two weeks later she is let go from her job for unsatisfactory performance with 8-weeks of severance. In order to get the severance she has to sign a form indicating that she will not press any legal action against the company. When she complains publicly to the newspaper, the company calls her a disgruntled ex-employee who was let go because of performance issues. She now finds it impossible to get another job in her town at the same level. Is this her own fault, should she have either just kept quiet about her ethical concerns or should she have just quit her job? Is she culpable for her situation?
Benjamin Franklin did not know how right he was, or perhaps he did. Whether you think of our decision-making as Jonathan Haidt’s Elephant and Rider, or Daniel Kahneman’s System 1 and System 2, it seems pretty clear that we often make decisions or judgments and then after the fact rationalize those judgments. While it is tempting to think of oneself or one’s species as rational and logical, we very often rush to make judgments and decisions in less than a blink of an eye and then rationalize the judgment with more deliberative thought after the fact. We grossly underestimate how our biology affects our judgments.
In each of the fairly complex stories above you were able to come to a judgment quickly, likely almost instantly about whether to blame the various players in the story for what befell them. If I were to now press you about why you felt one way or the other about each participant’s state you would pause, think, and then rationalize your judgments. The point being is that you reacted, judged without much thought and then only later when pressed on why you came to the conclusion you did, do you pause and rationalize your decisions.
In Haidt’s terminology the elephant (human emotions and reactions) produces a quick judgment and only later does the rider (higher thought processes) rationalize what the elephant has done. The elephant is in control, even though it may take advice from the rider. In Kahneman’s world, System 1 is reactionary thinking, or rules of thumb by which we navigate through the day-to-day decisions we must make, and then System 2 kicks in when we have to pause and really think about something.
We do not leave these thinking patterns at home as we trudge off to work each day. They come with us. Many of the decisions that get made in the work environment are driven by System 1 or the elephant and then rationalized later on when justifications must be found. And as Benjamin Franklin knew we are very good as finding our justifications for whatever point of view is taken.
Our quick judgments and then robust defense of them through our rationalization processes can get in the way of deliberative thought. One only has to turn on the TV news, or watch politicians to see instant judgments being rendered on events, well before the facts are known and then those judgments are rigorously defended by some even if the later on evidence contradicts the initial judgments. In fact it has been shown that the more “expert” the TV personality or politician is perceived or perceives themselves the more often they are wrong in their predictions and judgments once all the information is known. These experts, you see, must stake out positions that keep their visibility high, that they are providing insight that others don’t have, that maintains the sense of “expertise”. They can only stand out from the crowd by staking out more extreme positions. The only problem with more extreme positions that they are more likely to be extremely wrong.
Can we modify our rush to judgment and make better decisions? The evidence clearly suggests that we can.
- Understanding how decisions often get made, the processes at work within your mind, is a good first step.
- Second, practice deliberative decisions. Research has shown that those who practice activating System 2 or listening to the advice of the Rider can improve performance on standardized cognitive assessments.
- Third, realize that you will make instant judgments; you can’t help it, but also realize that as more information is available your initial judgment may need revision. Be open to revision.
- Fourth, be aware of the cognitive traps we all fall into and practice avoiding them. Cognitive traps include:
- over-generalizing based on small samples,
- a tendency for overly-optimistic assessments of outcomes,
- underestimating the likelihood of small probably events from happening (if a complex machine has 100 parts and only 1 part in 100 fails, one part of that machine will fail simply because of the number of parts),
- giving undue credence to vividly described events,
- making your choice only from what is right in front of you at the moment or what comes more readily to mind.
There are a host of others, but if you lick these you have made a very good start. Want to know more? Pick up Thinking Fast and Slow by Kahneman or The Righteous Mind by Haidt.
©2013 by Jeffrey M. Saltzman. All rights reserved.
Visit OV: www.orgvitality.com
Why is change so difficult? We don’t do it very well that is for sure. In spite of a whole industry that has sprung up called change management, the way change is implemented in organizations is very often one of the lowest scoring responses you see on employee surveys. Along with a low score on the way change is handled overall, roundly criticized also is the sufficiency of resources being devoted to successful implementation of the change, as well as doing sufficient planning around the implementation of the change. Another part of the answer is that there are so many moving parts when it comes to change, and many of those parts are unseen and unknown.
For instance, I recall a friend telling me about a change he was helping to implement in the US military. It involved some new software that would speed things up and provide better information to decision makers. The installation was going very well and the benefits were obvious to everyone, except to the secretary of a general who was going to have to learn a new way to do her job. She did not want to do that, and she was in a position where she could sabotaged the system, not damaging it per se, but making sure that it produced less accurate results more slowly than the current way she did her work. The system was never implemented.
Change of course is constant. Nothing is for sure except change. It is the state of the world. So if it occurs so regularly and we have so much practice at it, why do we do it so poorly? I would lump the difficulties around change implementation into 2 big buckets.
- Structural Blockages – things that have to do with poor execution of a change such as poor planning, resources devoted to change, not fully understanding the implications of what the change will impact, poor design of new systems, poor communications and training on the change etc.
- Human Blockages – things having to do with our very nature as humans, our limitations and how we react to changes in our environment.
Structural blockages are relatively easy to overcome, if you have the resources to do so. Human blockages, which are often not considered in change management, are much more difficult to compensate for or overcome for it can be very difficult to unwind a few million years of evolutionary tendency. Some of these human blockages arise from fear, some from inertia and some from bias.
One of our human biases for instance is to search for and give credence to only information that supports our already held positions and to reject information that undermines them. Supporters of this position or that will gleefully hold up a case study, with an “n” of 1 or 2 and say “see, I was right all along”, and they will ignore those hundreds of times or the overwhelming majorities of times when their position was refuted by the experience of others or by hard, scientifically grounded, data. This method is often intentionally used by those arguing for a position and along with the sister method of the slippery-slope argument nonsensical positions are taken. This is over-generalization at its worst.
I am reminded of a story about a blade of grass on a golf course. The odds of any one particular blade of grass being struck by a golf ball are very low, but the odds of a blade of grass being struck are 100%. It all has to do with how you frame the questions and how you go searching for answers. And humans are very very good at finding the answers that they want to find.
One piece of research asked those with a certain position on a hotly debated social issue whether they, if presented with irrefutable evidence that the basic premise of their position was wrong, would change their minds. While the group thought that others should change their opposing position to mirror their own, if presented with evidence that they were in error, the members of this opposing position could not bring themselves to say that they would change their position if irrefutable evidence against their point of view was given. In other words, I’ll accept the science if it supports my point of view, but will not accept it if it does not support my point of view.
Another aspect of change that makes change so difficult is that it requires an expenditure of energy, and organizations want to operate with the lowest expenditure of energy possible. As I have written elsewhere, in Organizational Entropy, organizations build systems and bureaucracy to reduce the amount of energy they need to expend. That type of energy is represented by all different types of resources such as finances, time, effort and talent. In the balancing dance between maximizing current performance of an organization and building its future potential, future potential represents a greater degree of change and a larger expenditure of organizational energy and resources and so there is a natural push against change and for the status-quo that must be overcome.
One of my earliest vivid memories is one where my older sisters took me to march in a Vietnam protest. It must have been 1967-1968 and I don’t recall it all that well as I would have been 7 or 8 years old. But I do recall the turbulence that society went through as the war was played out nightly on the evening news and the difficulty of getting change to occur with respect to that war. The difficulties we have with change play out in our organizations, in our politics and in our society at large. And I am not so sure our ability at creating, accepting or implementing change is going to get better any time soon.
Scott Brooks and I recently published this article which we thought you would enjoy. Jeff
Daniel Kahneman coined the acronym WYSIATI which is an abbreviation for “What you see is all there is”. It is one of the human biases that he explores when he describes how human decision-making is not entirely based on rational thought. Traditionally, economists believed in the human being as a rational thinker, that decisions and judgments would be carefully weighed before being taken. And much of traditional economic theory is based on that notion. Dr. Kahneman’s life’s work (along with his co-author Dr. Amos Tversky) explodes that notion and describes many of the short-comings of human decision-making. He found that many human decisions rely on automatic or knee-jerk reactions, rather than deliberative thought. And that these automatic reactions (he calls them System 1 thinking) are based on heuristics or rules of thumb that we develop or have hard-wired into our brains. System 1 thinking is very useful in that it can help the individual deal with the onslaught of information that impinges on us each and every day, but the risk is when a decision that one is faced with should be thought through rather than based on a knee-jerk reaction.
System 1 decisions are easy, they are comfortable, and unfortunately they can also be wrong. But wrong in the sense that if one learned how to take a step back and allow for more deliberative thought prior to the decision, some of these wrong decisions or judgments could be avoided. A simple example from Dr. Kahneman’s book “Thinking Fast and Slow” will illustrate the point.
“A bat and a ball together cost $1.10. The bat cost $1.00 more than the ball. How much does the ball cost?” Fifty percent of the students who were posed this simple question, students attending either Harvard or Yale got this wrong. Eighty percent of the students who were asked this question from other universities got it wrong. This is System 1 thinking at its finest and most error prone. It is fast, easy, comfortable, lets you come up with a quick answer or decision, but one that is likely wrong. Knowing who reads this blog I’ll let you figure out the answer yourself.
WYSIATI is the notion that we form impressions and judgments based on the information that is available to us. For instance we form impressions about people within a few seconds of meeting them. In fact, it has been documented that without careful training interviewers who are screening job applicants will come to a conclusion about the applicant within about 30 seconds of beginning the interview. And when tested these initial notions are often wrong. Interviewers who are trained to withhold judgment about someone do a better job at applicant screening, and the longer that judgment is delayed the better the decision.
This notion of course flies in the face of Malcolm Gladwell’s best seller “Blink” in which he talks about the wonders of human’s ability to come to decisions instantly and a whole generation of manager’s have eagerly embraced his beliefs - including a few CEO’s I know. Why? It is easy, it is intuitive, it is comfortable and it plays to the notion that I am competent and confident in my work. The only problem is that when put to serious scientific scrutiny, it is often wrong.
A few months ago I introduced this concept to an HR group I was talking to. I explained how untrained HR people in a rush to judgment will jump to conclusions about someone, perhaps too rapidly. One 30-year HR veteran insisted that this may be all well and good but of course did not apply to her. After all, with her 30 years of experience her rush to judgment was of course going to be accurate. She “just knew” who were going to be good employees. I let it drop, and I think I was labeled a trouble-maker by the group. That is a label I can embrace.
We tend to develop stories based on the information at hand; piecing the information we do have into a narrative, often without asking the question, “what information am I missing”? In the area of survey research I have often seen researchers confidently presenting the “drivers” of one type of behavior or another. Say for instance, the drivers of employee engagement. But since the analysis is based on a “within” survey design, the only drivers that can possibly emerge are those that you asked about in the survey in the first place. So the researcher, in designing the 30-50 item survey, is limiting the drivers to those items that they decided to ask about in the first place. The researcher likely has in their head a model of what is important in driving engagement when designing the questionnaire, a model that was designed based on another 30-50 item or fewer questionnaire. It becomes a tautology, it becomes true because I tested it and it came out as true, but the only thing I tested is what I already believed.
There are techniques that can be applied that lead towards more deliberative and better decision-making processes. If you were walking briskly down a busy road and someone asked you “how much is 17 x 24?” you would do what every other human would do to figure that out, you would stop and think.
“Childcare is a collective responsibility” – Women’s Agenda
“Keeping deserts clean is a collective responsibility” – Gulf News
“Eradicating corruption is a collective responsibility” – Nigerian Tribune
“Let’s take collective responsibility for our problems” – President Mahama – Ghana
“Safety, security of women in public places is a collective responsibility”– News Track India
It Takes a Village: And Other Lessons Children Teach Us – Hillary Clinton
“Collective punishment is when a penalty is meted out to all members of a group, without consideration of an individual’s involvement in the group’s activity. Under the 1949 Geneva Convention, collective punishment is a war crime.”
There are elements of the fields of justice and ethics that deal with the concepts of collective responsibility and collective punishment vs. individualism. If something awful happens to an individual because of the actions of a single person or a small number of people, can blame be placed on the larger society? If society as a whole creates conditions which are disadvantageous or worse resulting in physical, emotional or financial injury to a segment of that society, can punishments be meted out to individuals who collaborated, individuals whose defense might be that they were just following “orders” or that everyone else was doing it so why am I being singled out for punishment? Does society as a whole have a responsibility to individuals or small groups within that society to ensure just and fair treatment by others within that society? Protecting minority groups from the tyranny of the majority? Our founding fathers thought so.
Our society which is made up of many different and overlapping groups forces us to consider if we are collectively responsible for the welfare of those who reside within our society or organizations, or to state that it is every person for themselves. Are we a country of fiercely independent individuals who built what they have without any external help and societal benefits or are we all interdependent products arising from a culture of collaborative assistance that we have created? Does it in fact take a village, a whole civilization to allow those who reside within it to flourish? And who gets to decide if certain segments of that society get benefits or advantages beyond what others do? If we are in fact all in this together, is it acceptable to have some segments of society treated as second class members, without all the privileges that others within that society enjoy? You wouldn’t think so, would you?
Oliver Wendell Holmes, the Supreme Court justice, famously stated that “Taxes are what we pay for a civilized society”, and that quote is chiseled on the facade of the IRS building in Washington DC. The implication of the quote is that taxes provide the infrastructure and fulfills the basic needs of the nation which allows for civilization and individuals within that civilization to flourish and certainly takes a “we are all in this together” viewpoint.
This is a very tricky and subtle topic however, which many people want both ways. They want the benefits of collectivism when it suits and the sense of larger freedoms, or should I say the sense of carefree existence of individualism. For instance, many CEOs work to create a sense of “we are all in this together” and “everyone together is responsible jointly for our success”. And they work just as hard when something goes wrong, the London Whale for instance at JP Morgan, to characterize the misdeeds as a rogue person, a one-off event and that the organization as a whole is blameless. The US Government seems to go along with that except in very rare cases. Most often when a misdeed within a company occurs it is an individual that is charged with a crime not the company itself, unless a finding is made that the criminal activity is widespread and pervasive (societal) throughout the organization. When a company or an organization is charged with a crime and found guilty, that company or organization rarely survives.
If we are in fact all in this together, where we are collectively responsible, what about collective punishment for societal misdeeds? The Geneva Convention seems to frown on that, but that is exactly the concept behind reparations to a group that is harmed by society overall. Germany paid and is still paying reparations to Holocaust survivors and the notion of providing reparations to the descendants of slavery here in the USA comes from the same place. I was not a slave holder and none of my ancestors were, but I live in a society where that event occurred and because of that, the society I live in can be seen as having a collective obligation to those harmed. Even to those descendants of those harmed, given the degree of harm that occurred. Others reject that notion and object that they have no obligation to a group harmed by events that happened long ago and did not involve them or any of their ancestors.
The guilty finding in the Steubenville, Ohio high school football player rape case was a finding against two individuals who committed rape. But the media frenzy that the case generated was not so much about whether the 2 boys committed a crime, but about the society pressures that came to bear regarding what to do about it and how the whole thing was playing out in our new collective conscious called social media. The Steubenville society as a whole, as well as the individual members, is being judged. And there is now talk about a grand jury to determine if charges should be filed against parents or any others that allowed 16 and 17 year olds to consume alcohol at their homes and against the football coach who may have tried to squash the whole investigation, a hint at a broader sense of blame for people who created conditions that led up to the rape or tried to cover it up. What about the mom of the 16 year old girl who drunk herself into oblivion, does she have any responsibility for monitoring the behavior of her young daughter? The young woman is the victim of a crime, but there is likely enough blame to go around for the people who created conditions that allowed the crime to occur. Individualism vs. collectivism; the individual boys are being held accountable, but the next question is about whether the society, the culture of Steubenville, created the conditions that allowed this to happen. Are we collectively responsible for looking after the welfare of individuals, of our children? If so there is a much larger problem to fix there, a problem that sending two boys to detention for a year or two, by itself, will not fix.
The gun violence that permeates our society is another area where the debate is not only about guns but about the responsibility of the individual vs. society. Do individual freedoms give way to collective benefits to create a safer society? The data seems very clear that in states with tougher gun laws there is less gun violence per capita including suicides that make use of guns.
Individualism vs. collectivism is debated within work environments very frequently as well; it may just not go by those names. How many times have you heard organizations talk about the expected increase in performance they would achieve if only they could break down organizational silos and have the organization work more cohesively? I have heard it plenty of times. And in preparing for a panel discussion I am chairing at a conference in a few weeks on Steve Jobs’ leadership style, I came across an interesting tidbit. He had his company operate using only one overall P&L statement. In other words, each division, whether they were the pc group or the phone group or the software group etc., did not have their own profit and loss statement by which to judge their performance. The performance of the company overall was the benchmark of how well the individual components were doing. That increases the need to have all pieces of the organization perform well, and the desire of the individual components to help each other, if you want the organization to look good financially. Collectivism, in one of the most individualistically, from a talent perspective, driven organizations that there is. And it seems to have worked pretty good for them.
There are no easy answers as to when we as an organization or as a society should lean either towards individualism or collectivism. What does seem clear is that those who espouse all one way or the other have much to learn from the lessons of history and the lessons of organizational performance.
© 2013 by Jeffrey M. Saltzman. All rights reserved.
Visit OV: www.orgvitality.com
“Recognition is based on knowledge, familiarity is based on feeling”
Oliver Sacks – The Mind’s Eye
I was reading Dr. Sack’s latest book over a recent vacation and when I got to this sentence I had to pause for a while and really think about it. “Recognition is based on knowledge, familiarity is based on feeling.” Recognition in this context is being used as when someone recognizes a location, a person or an object. Some people have trouble in varying degrees, for instance, to recognize the faces of people they know. The inability to recognize the face of someone who should be familiar to you is called prosopagnosia and there is a growing body of evidence that the incidence of prosopagnosia in the general population is much higher than previously thought, and that it is based on a normal distribution in terms of severity. This affliction is not binary, you don’t either have it or not, but rather you can have prosopagnosia to varying degrees, as is exists on a continuum of severity.
We all spend our days recognizing the objects, people even the tasks that surround us. For instance, you can recognize a specific person or just some artifacts about the person such as young/old, female/male. You can also recognize the foods you eat, the cars you drive, the pen you write with, or the tasks you undertake to carry out your job. But when those things we recognize seem “familiar”, they evoke emotions or feelings. I recognize the face of my mother and she evokes certain feelings in me which makes her seem familiar.
Recognition and familiarity are independent and are processed by two different portions of our brains. This becomes evident in people with Capgas syndrome. These are people who can recognize a face, such as a spouse or child, but because the face does not evoke the emotions of familiarity, people with Capgas syndrome assume they are imposters A man can see his wife and recognize her as being the face of his wife but assumes that it is not really his wife because the face is not evoking the feelings he normally would associate upon seeing his wife. The person must be an imposter!
In the work environment you might recognize a task you have to carry out, but independent of that recognition would be a sense of familiarity that the tasks might generate. You might recognize for instance the steps you have to undertake to perform a tune-up on a car, but it is not until you have done it over and over that the task achieves a sense of familiarity. The same could be said of a surgeon removing a gall bladder, an accountant preparing a tax return, a taxi driver heading to the airport etc.
The question that this posed to me was regarding the measurement of employee perceptions of the workplace. Employees can recognize tasks to be performed very early on in their training for a job. But when does a task feel familiar? And is employee engagement dependent on a task generating an emotional component of familiarity or merely the recognition of the task? Can someone be engaged in their work if the work does not carry a sense of familiarity? We know that normatively the most engaged employees tend to be the ones you just hired, those who would have the least amount of familiarity surrounding their tasks, which might seem odd given the above. And that employee engagement declines, sometimes precipitously at about the 12-18 month mark of employment. It often continues its decline, hitting bottom at the 3-5 year mark, with a corresponding spike in turnover. The 3-5 year mark is also when many organizations report that the employees are really beginning to significantly contribute on the job.
But here is some speculation for you. An employee gets hired, is very engaged from day one, with that engagement being driven by the excitement of a new activity, for some a new beginning. They begin to learn the tasks associated with the job and over a relatively short period the tasks and the work environment begins to generate feelings of familiarity. Short-term engagement, driven by excitement, gives way to long-term engagement, driven by familiarity. At this point the work environment can live up to expectations generating positive emotions surrounding that sense of familiarity, or it can fall short generating negative feelings. And by-and-large it is very difficult for each and every work environment to live up to everyone’s individual expectations, and so the norm on employee engagement is that it declines as people become more familiar with their jobs and often have to deal with the day-to-day frustrations that newer employees tend to be shielded from.
We don’t have to be satisfied with the norm though. And there are certainly benefits to be gained by those organizations who understand how to buck the trend, maintaining or creating a sense of positive familiarity with the work environment as the employee’s experience with and contribution to the organization grows.
© 2013 by Jeffrey M. Saltzman. All rights reserved.
Visit OV: www.orgvitality.com