Archive for October 2009
One consulting project took place in a very remote corner of South East Asia. We were there to do an employee survey whose aim was to improve organizational effectiveness. There were several thousand employees at this remote location and the employee base was a mixture of local tribes, tribes from other parts of South East Asia and American expatriates. This location was probably the closest I would ever come to living in a small American town circa 1950, as the company had reproduced a facsimile complete with schools, infirmary, bowling alleys, theater, golf course, grocery stores, and barber shop with a stripped pole in front, country club with Olympic sized pool and cafeteria/mess hall. There was street after palm tree lined street of bungalows in which families lived and there were guest bungalows for visitors. Each bungalow had a screened-in front porch in which you could rock in comfortable wicker chairs as the day winded down, cooling off and watch the world go by. There was also a hotel for short term visitors which reminded me of the days of Howard Johnson or Holiday Inn drive-up-to-your-door kind of places. The place was immaculate with a large gardening staff continually maintaining the grounds, trimming the fast growing tropical plants that seemed to thrive in the hot humid conditions and in general keeping things in top form. Occasionally a troop of monkeys could be seen meandering through a neighborhood.
The quaint, perfect American dream right? Well just as in the 1950’s the American dream was not so perfect, underneath the surface this place was not paradise for some of its residents either. As it turned out the pool was for the use of “certain” residents on certain days (segregated by occupational level, which was also strongly related to which tribe you were from). The mess hall had a cinder block wall about 2 feet high running down the center. One side was carpeted the other cement and just like the pool certain groups were relegated to certain sides. (The food available to everyone was identical). Other conditions hinting at class distinctions abounded – seemingly driven to some extent by your tribal affiliation. I made many friendships that I still cherish during this period, but I was taken aback on more than one occasion when a local would give me some friendly advice about not getting too close to another person as they came from a group that as little as twenty years ago were cannibals. The previously cannibalistic tribe was at the bottom of the social structure. I developed a good friendship with one member of this tribe and I heard many jokes made at his expense about being careful if he wanted to have me over for dinner.
As part of my work to get to understand this organization and to help develop the appropriate questions to use in an employee survey aimed at improving effectiveness, I along with my team, conducted focus groups with people from all areas and occupational levels of the company. To get to some of the focus groups, I vividly remember a ride I took in a Vietnam-era Huey helicopter with no doors during which I gazed at mile after mile of palm-oil plantations, covering a vast area that used to be tropical rain-forest. In general during the focus groups there was little to no mention of the class system that had developed in the organization. When I discussed this with the American expatriates (who were generally in management or very technical positions) they told me that advice given to them (typically by locals residing at the top of the social ladder) on how to sustain a harmonious environment was to allow the class distinctions to flourish – don’t rock the boat, the standards by which all employees expected this game to be played. Except it was not a game, it was real life. These standards had become ingrained enough that they were not often mentioned as discussions were held regarding how the organization could improve its performance. It seemed not to occur to employees that the social structure was something that could change.
I was in a bit of a quandary. I was retained to work on organization effectiveness. Do I try to improve the organization within the parameters, the conditions that they themselves have set and were used to or do I try to impose my own standards of conduct and attitudes that had developed from my own background? Did I have any right to try to impose my own convictions on others? And should I attempt to gather the data from the survey, using the data as a lever to try to change attitudes, how various groups perceive themselves being treated, or should I immediately suggest some changes in behavior? The immediate decision revolved around which approach would have more impact, try to change some attitudes and with that some resultant behaviors or should I try to immediately change some behaviors?
What comes first? Do attitudinal shifts lead to changes in behavior or can you have more of an impact on attitudes if you first change behavior? It was very clear to me that many in management were uncomfortable with the situation as it existed but were unsure at how best to proceed for their charge was the operation of a major installation for their company and not necessarily social engineering in a land and culture in which many of them were strangers (as was I). Could an argument be made that even though this operation was very successful by any standard that further success and efficiencies could be gained by beginning to change the social strictures by which they operated? But again how should that be approached, through educational efforts aimed at changing attitudes or by going directly for behavior change?
We began with a little of both. First we put together a survey task force that consisted of about 50 people, while much more than we needed, allowed us to reach out to people from all areas of the company and to people with a diversity of backgrounds. We spent weeks over the course of the project with this group having them work together to accomplish jointly held goals, so that they got to know each other just a bit better. They were empowered to make decisions and they drove the project we simply advised along the way. Also management did away with the regulations at the swimming pool, the wall in the cafeteria was torn down and the entire place was made to look uniform. Superficial? Yes, but it was a start.
If you can get people to immediately start behaving differently day-to-day in their interactions with others that will support your efforts around attitude change. And if you can change attitudes, behavior change (or additional behavior changes) can be easier to accomplish. If you don’t work on the attitudes though, even with changes in behavior, eventually the old behaviors will reassert themselves. And if all you do is work on attitudes without corresponding changes in behaviors the old attitudes are reinforced by the undesirable behaviors. We made a conscious decision to attack both the behaviors immediately and through the use of the survey/feedback tool the attitudes and then additional behaviors in our attempt to modify the way this organization operated.
This project was repeated 3 times over the course of 4-5 years and each time actions were taken to improve organizational performance (e.g. they moved from a centralized support structure to a decentralized one more in tune with their geographic dispersion).
During each iteration of the project a different group of 50 project coordinators were chosen to help implement, striving for a large impact on people which we directly touched. Each manager receiving results received extensive training on discussing the results with their respective staffs and on change implementation to provide assistance to those whom we only indirectly touched. The implementation team tracked the actions and assisted managers with their efforts. At the end of that time the organization apparently was pleased with the changes that had been wrought.
Were imbedded prejudices or class distinctions erased by what we accomplished for this organization? I think it was unlikely that in the period of time that we were working there that we made changes that fundamental. However, did we move the dial a bit in the positive direction for this organization and the people living within? I certainly hope so.
© 2010 by Jeffrey M. Saltzman. All rights reserved.
Bumble bees can’t fly; so goes one of the urban legends that continually seems to float around, popping up here and there when someone wants to make a point and never seemingly to die the death that it should. Recently one presidential candidate likened their campaign to that urban legend. He said, “Well, I compare my success to the Bumblebee. Scientists maintain that, based on its wing-size & the size of its body, it is aerodynamically impossible for the Bumblebee to fly. But the Bumblebee, being ignorant of the science, flies anyways …” Bumblebees of course can fly and science has no problem with their aerodynamics. While I would question the viability of a presidential candidate who can’t get the basic science right, for do I really want someone who can’t get the basics right making decisions on stem cell research, nuclear issues or global warming, I am more concerned with a bigger picture and that is the critical need for science to become ascendant in our societies. Our societies, organizations and the individuals within them need to make better more informed decisions based on real knowledge, not urban legends, pseudoscience or take-it-on-faith rationales. It is critical and rapidly becoming more important to our long-term well-being.
That quote from the presidential candidate illustrates an issue that is quite troubling and unfortunately fairly widely embraced. The notion that the Bumblebee flies anyway, in spite of the science is not only untrue, for while we as humans may be ignorant of the principles that allow the Bumblebee to fly, (which we are not) the fact the Bumblebee can fly is due to scientific principles and not in spite of them.
For a time in the USA as we reacted to Sputnik, the first rocket sent into space by the Soviets, science was ascendant. We were a society, however briefly, where science was front and center in our decision making. Children widely aspired to become scientists and engineers. More recently we have seemed to have lost our way with respect to science. My concern is that unless science once again becomes front and center in our decision making, becoming once again ascendant, including how our organizations operate we are running some very big risks.
Here is an illustrative example. Pharmaceutical makers were once one of the most respected kinds of organizations that existed. They were trusted and when they put out a product is was pretty much a sure bet that it was a good product. In a report titled “Recapturing the Vision, Restoring trust in the Pharmaceutical Industry…”, PwC describes how that respect was lost and makes suggestions to the industry on how to recapture it.
Take for instance Vioxx, the pain reliever and Merck. Merck for a very long time was one of the most respected companies in one of the most respected industries; it was also one of the most profitable. Science was king and that science was by and large the source of that respect. If Merck said it or put it on the market you could count on it. Historically, the founder of Merck, George W. Merck, created the flowing vision for the company.
“’Our shared vision is to discover, develop and deliver innovative pharmaceutical products that meet a true need and make a real difference to people’s lives.’
‘We strive to put medicine before profit and to continue to seek better ways of improving health and meeting our responsibilities as both a research-led company and a caring employer.’
‘We try never to forget that medicine is for the people. It is not for the profits. The profits follow, and if we have remembered that, they have never failed to appear. The better we have remembered that, the larger they have been.’”- George W Merck, 1950
But in the case of Vioxx and Merck’s subsequent reaction to it a picture somewhat different from George Merck’s original vision emerges. “For years, evidence mounted that Vioxx might increase the risk of heart attacks or strokes. For years, its maker, Merck, disputed such findings. In many ways, the short but highly profitable history of Vioxx may prove to be a story about the triumph of marketing over science.” (NY Times October 1, 2004)
“At a fraction of the price that analysts initially estimated it would pay, Merck, one of the largest American drug makers, hopes to put one of the most troubling episodes in its history behind it. The settlement, $4.85 billion, represents only about nine months of profit for Merck… Two years ago, some analysts estimated that Merck would have to pay as much as $25 billion to settle Vioxx claims.” “Besides Merck, the biggest winner in the case may be the plaintiffs’ lawyers. They will split nearly $2 billion in fees and expenses…” (NY Times November 10, 2007).
The episode has been characterized as the triumph of marketing over science within Merck. Extremely damaged by the episode are the stroke and heart attack victims, the Vioxx users (who on average will get $120,000 before the lawyers take 40%) and the reputation of a once respected organization. One medical expert estimated that only 5-10% of the people who took Vioxx should have been on Vioxx but due to the exceptional marketing of the product that demand greatly increased. While hindsight is a wonderful thing, one can’t help but wonder if this would have happened if science was ascendant at Merck.
R. Barker Bausell a biostatistician at the University of Maryland reviews in his book “Snake Oil Science” what is called complementary and alternative medicine, which as he puts it is the scientific term for “something you heard about from your hairdresser, who thinks she saw it on Oprah”, (Newsweek, December 10, 2007) and includes in his review acupuncture, homeopathy, healing magnets and assorted herbs and supplements. All of these “treatments” are extremely popular today and have no evidence of actually benefiting, other than through the power of suggestion, those who partake of them. People who are in need reach out to any source of comfort and begin to practice wishful or magical thinking. But what concerns me the most about the popularity of these treatments is their growing acceptance into the mainstream, using urban legends, pseudoscience or take- it-on-faith rationales to justify their use. The continual rise of pseudoscience or take-it-on-faith rationales is contributing to a decline in the use of real science in not only our health products but in our everyday personal and organizational lives and we should all be greatly concerned about this.
Repeatedly humanity has been challenged by threats or perceived threats to our existence. Malthus in his 1798 essay predicted that our population growth as a species would outrun our food supply. He did not foresee advances in agriculture including new fertilizers, technology that mechanized farming and vastly improved strains of food crops. Huxley in his 1938 novel “Brave New World” envisions a humanity that must give up it’s essence in order to live in his version of utopia. He did not foresee the new frontiers of space or deep water exploration or the other new challenges that we would make for ourselves, the new frontiers we would choose to explore. Explosive population growth, pollution, shortage of clean drinking water, disease, energy shortages, climate change, deforestation, desertification, sustainable development, the elimination of biodiversity, poverty, hunger, abuse, displaced populations, war and terrorism, we have an extensive list of challenges facing us today and unforeseen even more complex and more difficult challenges will arise in the future.
Our lives and our societies are rapidly getting much more complex and much more interconnected; our organizations are following the same trajectory. Decisions made in one place, one organization or in one area of specialty have wider ranging ripple effects than ever before. The multiple interconnections mean that many of our decisions will cut across social structures, industries, borders, economies and individuals like never before.
Historically solutions to these challenges have been technological and scientific in nature. As our societies and structures become more complex as our challenges become more intricate we must forego the pseudoscience, the take-it-on-faith approach that is so popular now and we must one again make science ascendant.
While these ideas are vast and cover a broad range of topics it may be helpful to take it down to the more mundane concept of the employee life-cycle within an organization to help illustrate the point of a more scientific approach to organizational decision making. The employee life-cycle is the total career time that an employee spends within an organization. Roughly the cycle consists of recruitment, assessment and selection, on-boarding, early-career, mid-career and late-career retention and finally either through the employee’s choice, the organization’s choice or nature’s choice, exiting. In the vast majority of organizations today these activities exist as unconnected, disjointed activities and events, and some organizations use nothing more than the seat-of-your-pants decision making to navigate these waters.
As organizations strive to compete in this ever more complex world, a competitive advantage will be gained by inter-connecting these employee life-cycle events through a rigorous scientific research program aimed at maximizing the organization’s performance at each stage. This life-cycle research can be greatly enhanced by utilizing the vastly improved information systems available today in organizations, for now you can actually track the same individual through these various stages, creating feedback loops from later stages back to earlier stages that enables organizations to improve methods, policies and procedures at each life-cycle stage to enhance performance. Organizations that do this first and do it well will find themselves outperforming their competitive laggards. This scientific approach to the employee life-cycle while perhaps illustrative is merely the very tip of the iceberg in terms of how science can become ascendant in our organizations.
More broadly, taking a rigorous data or fact-based approach to individual decisions, organizational decisions, and societal decisions will help us to literally better weather the storms that are approaching. There will always be some who will be tempted by the quick and dirty, or take-it-on-faith approach sold by others, but the real long-term winners organizationally will be those that do the hard work. And as interconnected societies we have no choice, we need to do the hard work associated with fact-based decision making, founded on scientific principles, not pseudoscience, in order to help assure our long-term success and survival.
© 2010 by Jeffrey M. Saltzman. All rights reserved.
The key to long-term organizational and managerial success is transparency. It will sound somewhat contradictory to some, but transparency around processes, products, and procedures can take the organization to higher levels of performance than those organizations and managers that shroud their activities in mystery.
One challenge I often discuss with senior management groups is the necessity to pick and choose which aspects of performance they will excel upon. As a planning activity when responding to survey results, the organization should not simply have a knee-jerk reaction to the lower or more average rated items, and likewise they should not have a knee-jerk reaction to those items that are simply highly correlated to some outcome. Survey results are a snapshot of what is, at this moment in time, and senior management’s role is not only to manage for what is, but to put into place what can be, what needs to be, to achieve long-term organizational success. Surveys are really good at predicting the future only if the future is a static state – not a likely situation. However, surveys can give you a very good grounding as to where you are now and that forms a stepping off point into the future.
No organization has infinite resources, so no organization can simply say that “we will be the best in the world at everything we do”. Organizations need to choose, for their market niche, for their industry, for their state of organizational evolution, what aspects of performance will give them a competitive advantage and enable them to succeed. Will we become the most customer focused, the most innovative, the highest quality, the best value, the most trusted, the most transparent? If you take a look at the top performers across a standard set of employee survey items, you will find a somewhat different list of top performers across the items, an indication that there is variance in the list of top performers by area, and one key to success is to pick the area(s), the thread that you will pull that will lead to across-the-board organizational success.
I would argue that for many if not all organizations transparency is one of those keys. Transparency not only conveys confidence, fairness and quality, organizational transparency forces quality and fairness to occur and hence creates confidence in the organization and its management; transparency is a linchpin. When the organization operates in a fashion that clearly demonstrates that they have nothing to hide, the only path to long-term success is in fact to have nothing to hide. When your customers and your employees have the ability to look within your organization and to see how the work is getting done, how day-to-day processes are being handled, how decisions get made, in an open and clear fashion the organization is forced to do many good things regarding how it runs the various components and processes that make up its business.
Humans though have a tendency to have secrets, to keep some information close to the vest, as it is often viewed as giving a competitive advantage, even if it is only for the short-term. For instance, we build many of our games around just such thought processes. Having a “poker face” means that you don’t telegraph the cards you are holding in your hand to your opponents. Football teams don’t shout out what they are going to do on the next play, they huddle to share that information in secret. The pitcher on the mound during a baseball game will give the barest of nods to the catcher, as signals between the two get secretly shared regarding what the next pitch to be thrown will be, or if the pitcher should throw over to first base instead of home plate. How good does a pitcher have to be though to be able to say, “here comes my fastball or slider, just try to hit it”. If you are a really good pitcher you might get away with that, the more average ones can not. Will your organization step up to the plate and be really good, saying to the competition “here is what we are doing, just try to do it as good as us”, or will it settle for average? The natural tendency of course is to be secretive.
Going beyond our games, other examples abound. Lawyers and prosecutors will stake out positions prior to a trial regarding what sort of plea deal would be acceptable to a defendant or to the state, treating the court room as a version of a high-stakes poker game, trying to get the best “deal” for their client or for the state. They stake out almost absurd positions at times in an attempt to get the most advantageous result. (A comedic interpretation of this can be found in “Liar, Liar” a film in which Jim Carrey plays a lawyer who can not function when he is forced to tell the truth, to be transparent, for 24 hours). Businesspeople behave in a similar fashion when negotiating with suppliers or customers, during an acquisition or when two organizations decide to merge together, behavior that does not lead to long-term trust and relationship building. Purchasing agents from the company side and sales people from the supplier side have made lack-of-transparency into an art form. There is a tension that arises from keeping secrets, from hiding things a bit. From the world of fashion it is well known that a woman who desires to dress somewhat provocatively, realizes that is often more effective and provocative to cover some things up, to keep some things hidden.
It may be viewed, regardless of whether you are an organization, manager, lawyer, prosecutor, pitcher, quarterback, sales person, or purchasing agent, that you need to keep secrets, because the other side is keeping secrets and you will be at a disadvantage unless you compete in the same fashion. So now we regress to the lowest common denominator. Is that what being human is all about? Is that the noble end state to which we should strive?
Magic black boxes that have secret processes and information contained within abound all around us, but I am not a black box kind of guy. For instance, when I present survey results back into an organization, I want to point out in the data what is intuitively obvious to any thinking person, what they themselves could easily see if they knew to look at the data in a certain fashion, in other words to be transparent. When I buy a product at a store, I want to know where it was made, what it is made of and what it will do, not simply relying on the marketing information splashed across the label in advertising-like fashion.
I find that a lack of transparency in organizations is often a cover up for lack of robust, high quality processes. The logic is something like “I can’t show you how something is actually done because then I might have to justify why it is done that way, that it is not arbitrary, and that is something I can not do”. I find I have to bite my tongue in meetings when someone says “we have a terrific way of doing this, or figuring out that, better than anyone else has”, but they are often very short on details – details that would point out that in reality they are simply flying by the seat of their pants.
Scam artists play on the natural human tendency of some to trust the word of others. Trust me, take it on faith, believe me, or believe in me…this week in the Wall Street Journal there was an article that described how some organizations are getting around the national “Do not call” list by sending out flyers to the elderly that have a scary warning about how they could lose their house and that they should send away for more information on how to avoid this potential tragedy, a card that is designed to look like it is coming from a federal agency is included. By sending in the card the elderly are opening themselves up to all sorts of sales gimmicks by those they should trust the least – something that is conveniently not mentioned in the flyers sent out. This lack of transparency will last only for a short while, as these organizations operating in this fashion will be ferreted out and stopped. They have nothing real, nothing of value, and nothing substantial to offer people and hence need to rely on a lack of transparency for their short-term survival. Others however will soon rise to repalce them for there is no shortage of dishonest or scheming people out there.
Imagine a fawn bending its head downward at the edge of a pond in order to sip a cool drink of water. Suddenly the leaves on the edge of the pond, a short distance away from the fawn, rustle. The fawn bolts and runs away from what it perceives as a potential threat. The fawn did not know if that rustling was simply the wind or a coyote looking for its next meal. But by making the assumption that it was a coyote or similar threat, the fawn, while missing out on its drink, helps to assure that it lives to see another day. This assumption by the fawn of intelligent intent by something that may simply be the wind has evolved as a survival mechanism and exists in humans as well. I have a picture that shows a gorilla holding a book in its hands in a position that any human would use if we were reading that book. When I show that picture to an audience, they are drawn immediately to the conclusion, at least momentarily, of intelligent intent or purpose behind the gorilla holding that book in such a fashion. It is only upon further reflection (maybe only a second or two later) that one realizes that gorillas can’t read. By the way the title of the book that the gorilla seems to be reading is “The Origins of Man”. The point here is that when humans find themselves in situations where there is a black box, a lack of transparency regarding how things work or what is going on, there are plenty of mechanisms available to help us fill in the blanks and many times what we come up with on our own will not necessarily reflect reality.
In The New York Times (October 28th), there is a story about how everyday Russians are taking on the local traffic police because of seemingly arbitrary stops as they drive around. These stops are characterized as done by police who are actually looking for bribes rather than for any real infraction of the traffic laws. One citizen who has repeatedly pointed out the law to the police and refused to pay the bribe was hauled away and beaten to the point where for the next several months he will be in the hospital. While there are a multitude of causative problems, such as the low pay for the police force, the fundamental lack of transparency as to how they enforce the law and why they are enforcing the law in the fashion they are, is indicative of severe systemic underlying issues that will eventually come to a head. Meanwhile confidence and trust in the system is eroded, the sense that the system protects the average citizen, and citizens should work through the system is nonexistent. The lack of transparency of the system is creating conditions whereby unless rectified, the system itself can collapse.
Sarbanes-Oxley was initiated in direct response to a lack of transparency on the part of organizational processes and procedures, a lack of transparency that was felt to be so severe as to require a legislative remedy. However, Sarbanes-Oxley is just scratching the surface of what an organization can be transparent about. Sarbanes-Oxley is viewed as very onerous and costly by many organizations, so what is the benefit of this increased transparency to the organization? How about long-term success. The real benefit to the organization will occur when they can be transparent in such a way that it is not burdensome to the organization, but rather enhances organizational functioning. Image for instance, if a client for a professional services firm could see their work progress through its various stages, in real time, throughout the organization. How much more attractive would that be to other potential customers? Imagine if you could track the history of the items you buy from source to store, so that you knew exactly what it contained, how it was handled and whether it had any defects. The list could go on and on.
In addition to the above there is another force that is making transparency so key to future organizational success. And in one word that is information; the amount of information that is available to us is growing at a phenomenal rate. In one study it is estimated that the amount of information we humans produce is growing at 50% per year! (I am making no judgments on the quality of that information). With the amount of information available and with people more and more used to using tools that allow them to access that information in a comprehensible fashion, it will become much more common for people to expect more information about the organizations they interact with, and about the products and services that they purchase. Those products and services couched in mystery, those organizations with obtuse practices and procedures will become less and less attractive entities with which to interact either as an employee or as a customer. Those organizations that continue to operate in mysterious fashion will be less likely to survive and hence organizational evolution as to the normal standards for transparency will occur.
The question is do you want your organization to be ahead of the curve? So throw me your best pitch.
© 2010 by Jeffrey M. Saltzman. All rights reserved.
“If you pick up a starving dog and make him prosperous, he will not bite you. This is the principal difference between a dog and a man.” – Mark Twain
We all make errors, it is part of life. I have made more than a few, and some of them were big ones. When an error occurs by an employee inside an organization, there can be a concern on the part of the employee that the over-riding motivation on the part of management when investigating the error is not simply to learn from the error and put into place corrective actions, but that there will be some form of retribution taken against the employee. This can often be the case no matter what words are coming out of the organization regarding their motivation to find the cause of the errors, and to learn from mistakes so that they don’t reoccur.
One clue that brings you to this conclusion is seen in emails that inform everyone that an error has been discovered where the identity of the person who committed the error is kept secret. A sure sign that not everyone is operating, or has everyone else convinced that the organization is operating with a no retribution lets learn from our mistakes kind of philosophy.
It seems like some organizations are constantly trying to learn from the same kind of mistakes over and over again. It is like having 1 year of experience 20 times. One approach that can get organizations out of that rut is to employ an organizing framework. An organizing framework allows errors to be examined systematically within that framework and for conclusions to be drawn regarding what needs to change to prevent the error from occurring once again. But, it is however like the old joke – “How many psychologists does it take to change a light bulb? Only one, but the light bulb has to really want to change.” Organizations when they examine and properly conclude the causes of their errors still have to really want to change. Knowledge of the cause, in and of itself, does not fix the problem. (See Is Grandpa going to be ok, for a discussion about the role of wishful thinking and organizational change).
First there is the issue of whether the employees are capable of doing the job from a basic knowledge skills and ability standpoint. That issue is a selection issue and for our immediate purposes lets put that aside and assume that the people who have been put into the job, if the conditions were right, could actually perform it. (See There is Something Fishy about Employee Selection). With the framework that I use there are then just a few questions that help get at the heart of the matter.
First do the employees know how to do a good job?
A failing grade on this first question could be due to issues of messaging within the organization or perhaps performance. From a messaging standpoint has it been made clear what the definition is of a good job? Do the employees know what criteria levels are defined as good or error free? From a performance perspective have employees been given the training they need so that they know how to perform in an error-free fashion?
Second question: Do the employees have the resources needed to do a good job?
The best messaging is for naught if employees don’t have the resources they need to perform error free. Resources can be thought of very broadly in three main categories.
- Physical Environment
Information includes knowledge about how to do the job, including the relevant training; it also includes information flows that enable a job to be performed correctly. For instance a production report is an information flow that allows an employee to predict accurately when an item might be shipped.
Physical Environment includes the needed equipment, staffing levels, organizational structure etc. If one person is put on a 3 person job you can be pretty sure it will have problems. Or if one person is simply not given the appropriate amount of time to do a good job it just won’t happen. Likewise if needed computer equipment, or other equipment is not provided it is difficult to get the job done. Remember the old adage – the right tool for the right job.
Processes cover administrative issues, engineering and science. Administratively for instance, can a bill be sent out correctly and within an acceptable period of time. When a customer calls can they get through to someone, preferable someone who can help them? From an engineering perspective are the business and manufacturing or service processes ones that make sense, do they optimize resources? What kind of person with what background and skill set do you have doing what job? Does the work flow make sense? Are needless processes eliminated? Etc. From a science standpoint, are the basic business products or processes based on sound science. For instance, if you are in the oil industry but you can’t get the geology right and hence keep digging in the wrong spot, the rest doesn’t matter.
Third question: Do the employees care enough to do a good job?
The appropriate information and resources may be in place but if the individual employee just does not care, or is rewarded for the wrong behavior then it is again unlikely that you will achieve the desired outcome. We all know you get what you reward so examine what you are rewarding. If you are rewarding X don’t expect A.
The other aspect of just not caring is potentially one of the most complex. It involves the entire culture that the organization has set up and that is why it can give an organization an unbeatable edge. Processes and products can be reverse engineered, prices can be even more easily matched, but duplicating a culture and the resultant ways the individuals within your culture interact with your customers and care about their work can be very difficult to match to a successful competitor. It involves the whole gestalt of how the organization is viewed by the employee (is the place effectively managed, does the organization really care about its people, do people get a fair shake here etc.) and at the individual level what is in it for me? Why should I stick around this place? And do people have a sense of future that if they stick around good things can happen for them.
When errors occur, systematically working through these questions can help the organization determine the correct course of action so the organization can implement lasting improvement, thereby reducing the number of errors and to learn from its history.
“An error doesn’t become a mistake until you refuse to correct it.”
-Orlando A. Battista
© 2010 by Jeffrey M. Saltzman. All rights reserved.
“From June 23rd to June 30th, I have retreated to a corner of the Grand Teton mountain range for a period of quiet reflection, an examination of my life situation and a rejuvenation of my spirit. I am available by email and by cell phone if you need to reach me.”
What has happened to work/life balance? Did we ever really have it? Almost every one of the technological improvements that have recently come our way, the things that were supposed to improve our quality of life and make our work loads easier have resulted in more connectivity and the feeling that you can never get away. I wonder if the best answer is that we should stop trying to have a work/life balance. Work/life balance implies that there is work and then separately that there is life, as though work needs to be kept in a separate box and not impinge on what is really important, namely life. A second aspect creeps through here, that life is good and work is bad, and that the good must be balanced with the bad. Of course that is not accurate.
When I have been asked about my workload and the hours that I work I find it very difficult to answer. A long time ago I came to the realization that what I do for a living is a large part of who I am. What I do for a living is not kept in a separate box, only to be brought out between 9am and 5pm, or 7am to 7pm as the case may be. What I do for a living is integrated into my being. I can work early on the morning or in the evenings, or on weekends and not feel like I am working. What I am doing is what I do. As the saying goes, it is not an occupation it is a lifestyle.
A conversation I often have with CEOs revolves around work/life balance. The conversation usually revolves around the unrelenting pace that their organizations face and what can they do to help people cope with the pace of change and work/life balance. This conversation is almost always prefaced with a caveat: “the workload and pace of change are not going away, in fact they are likely to increase, so don’t tell me to not drive the organization as hard as we do”. (See “Out of the Organizational Crucible” for more on this topic.)
A common question on employee surveys is, “I am able to maintain a good balance between my work and my personal life”, again the notion of separation. I wonder if the definition of normalcy around this topic has already changed but that we are still asking about it according to the old mindset. What if the question was reworded to, “I am able to effectively integrate my work and personal life”. It takes what was a negatively connotative item and puts it into a positive framework. The goal of the organization is not to help the employee balance (which most were not really doing or doing very poorly anyway), but to provide the employee with the tools and environment where an effective integration of the two is possible – creating the notion that working here is not a job, it is a lifestyle and a pretty good one at that.
If we can create this notion that work and personal life can be effectively integrated, rather than needing to be kept separate, a number of interesting workplace and homeplace options arise, some of which are already being utilized by organizations. The homeplace is an extension of the workplace and the workplace is an extension of the homeplace. There are certain activities that are better suited to the workplace and there are certain activities that are better suited to the homeplace, but there is also overlap. Some occupations and jobs have more and some have less overlap than others, but that overlap almost always exists in one fashion or another.
I will be doing some rafting and canoeing on this trip. I wonder if I’ll be able to respond to emails from a canoe on the Snake River?
© 2010 by Jeffrey M. Saltzman. All rights reserved.
Quite a few years ago I visited a number of car dealers as I debated about which new car to buy. When I pulled into one dealer’s lot for the first time I saw a large sign hanging in the large plate glass window in front. “Ample parking in rear” it read. Given the difficulties in finding parking at times in the metro area, having a sign telling you where to go to find some I initially thought of as being very helpful. After the usual painful negotiations, with my trade-in being worth next to nothing and some kid at the dealer telling me I was being foolish if I did not take out a large loan to finance the car, I ended up buying one. (Note to dealers, having your finance person tell your customers that they are being foolish is not a good tactic, and they may begin to question whether they are really being foolish in dealing with you at all.)
A few weeks after I had possession of my new car, I received a survey in the mail from the manufacturer wanting to ask me about my car buying experience. The very first question on the survey was “Was there ample parking when you visited the dealership”? I was taken aback slightly. Was it a coincidence that the dealer was making a big deal of his “ample parking” and that it happened to be the first question in a survey evaluating my car buying experience?
A few more weeks later I visited the dealer again for service to my new car. As I approached the service counter, where the service manager was to complete the paperwork on what kind of service I needed, I noticed a note tapped down to the counter. The note said “shortly after being serviced here, you will receive a survey in the mail asking about your service experience. If you can’t fill out the survey this way (and a completed survey was attached to the note showing the customer how they should fill out the survey) please let us know now”. Ok, now I wondered “are they proactively trying to head off any service issues, or are they trying to cook the books on how customers respond to the survey”?
The cynic in me said that the pattern of behavior I was seeing was an indication of a dealer who wanted to have good survey results and was trying to lead his customer down a path to insure that it was so. My guess was that he would achieve a performance rating that he could then use to his advantage in his marketing campaigns if he achieved certain scores.
There are many organizations out there that strive very hard to have exceptional survey results. When they are achieved celebrations ensue, especially when the results are tied to performance or incentive plans. I would argue though, that there should be an equal celebration when results come back that are just average. Why? If the results on a survey come back and are outstanding, you can’t learn as much regarding additional improvement as when average results are achieved. In highly performing organizations when average results are achieved it means you are asking the tough questions, questions that if properly constructed can point the way towards additional improvements. Asking feel good questions that achieve high results only accomplish what the name implies, they make you feel good, but they don’t give as much insight into improving performance.
Additionally, when you see a more average response, what you also usually see is more variance to the questions within the organization as your begin to drill down. This variance in responses means that some parts of the organization were able to achieve better scores that other parts of the organization. And that means that the organization now has an opportunity to learn from itself if it so chooses. The variance within the organization presents a potential learning and improvement opportunity by which to take organizational performance to new heights. If the organization achieves a very high score on a survey item, as I drill down deep into the organization I am much more likely to find similarly high scores, a uniformity of responses. This sameness in responses constricts the organization’s ability to compare differing responses and see which differences in actions or behaviors led to those differing response patterns. Uniformity means that the organization has less potential to learn and improve from itself.
Of course if an organization is uniformly low on an item – scoring poorly, that can be a sign of fundamental issues that cut across the board and the processes represented by that item may have to be reinvented on an organization-wide basis.
The underlying question though is why is an organization doing a survey in the first place? Is the desire to do a survey part of a genuine effort to improve performance? If so average responses should be celebrated for the opportunity they represent. If the desire to do a survey is “monitoring” or measuring managers on their scores then there is a risk that the managers will find ways to achieve exceptionally high scores so they can say we are doing well. Somewhat self-delusional behavior – but remember organizations get what they reward – if they are rewarding self-delusional behavior they should not be surprised at what they accomplish. Instead of rewarding the absolute scores themselves, achieving a high benchmark on a survey item that may limit the amount of learning that can occur, organizations should consider if it can be more productive to reward the learning behaviors, the continuous trek towards improvement within the organization that it desires to have demonstrated. In other words reward the behavior not the number.
A new twist on benchmarking; organizations may want to benchmark those survey items that allow them to achieve somewhat average responses. In other words which are the best survey items that give them mediocre scores – and enhance an organization’s ability to improve?
I think that an organization that asks the tough questions in the spirit of actually wanting information the help drive performance, which celebrates average responses for the opportunity they represent, that rewards improvement behaviors rather then absolute scores, will outperform. And isn’t that what it is all about anyway?
© 2010 by Jeffrey M. Saltzman. All rights reserved.
Visit OV: www.orgvitality.com
“Remember when the music
Came from wooden boxes strung with silver wire
And as we sang the words, it would set our minds on fire,
For we believed in things, and so we’d sing.”– Harry Chapin, Remember When the Music
Sometimes I wonder why many of the musicians that I really like seem to be dead. I wonder what that means. Poets and musicians as well as other artists sometimes have incredible insights into what we are as a species. The refrain from the song above “And as we sang the words, it would set our minds on fire” might be quite literally correct if not simply artistically correct. Music, and the emotions that it can stir, plays an incredibly important part in the human makeup. Some music can literally drive you to tears, evoke warm and wonderful memories, stir the spiritual side in us or bring forth nationalistic tendencies. When I am driving in a small convertible I have, there is nothing quite like ZZ Top songs, “Born to Run” by Bruce Springsteen, or “Hotel California” by the Eagles to make the time fly by on a trip (and hopefully not lead to a speeding ticket).
Some insight into music’s place in our brain is made more evident by stories about people who have illnesses or accidents that affect their relationship to music. Oliver Sachs, the noted neurologist, author and educator, in his book “Musicophila” describes a man who had no particular affinity out of the ordinary for music, but a few weeks after being struck by lightening developed an incredible urge to listen to and write piano music. While the etiology of the change is unknown, the man described events and memories from the strike that led Sacks to state that the emotional parts of the brain, the amygdala, the cortex and the brainstem may have been involved. He further speculates that the lightening strike may have set off temporal lobe seizures. This short circuiting may have effected the higher functioning centers of the brain like the cortex (responsible for self, language, thought, consciousness, memory etc.) and the core components of the brain like the amygdala where emotions seem to germinate and the brainstem responsible for autonomic functions like respiration, sweating and maintaining homeostasis in the body. In other words the higher order functions of his brain were put more directly in touch (my speculation) with the basic core components of the brain and the result was an urge to listen to and create music. Is that a reason why music is sometimes so powerful, so moving, because it more directly connects our higher centers of thought processing with our elemental core components – a sensation that many of us might find pleasurable?
You can learn something about this by not only looking at “normal” people who develop issues, but by also examining the other end of the continuum – “abnormal” people and how the issue around music might play out with them. Paul Babiak and Robert Hare are the authors of “Snakes in Suits, When Psychopaths go to Work”. A psychopathic person is someone without conscience, unable to empathize with others (seeing things from another’s perspective or understand another’s feelings), incapable of guilt and are loyal only to themselves. They as a group are responsible for some of the more horrific crimes that get described in the media and generally are not able to show any remorse for their actions as they lack the ability to be remorseful. A significant portion of those in prison are psychopathic. And while many of us may not be surprised that there are psychopaths in prison, we may be somewhat more surprised by some studies that suggest that psychopaths are also found in corporations. The authors repeatedly warn in their book that just because an individual may exhibit a single characteristic that could be labeled psychopathic, without a whole series of other corroborating psychopathic characteristics, you are in all likelihood not dealing with a psychopath. However one study of corporate managers in the UK put the percentage of psychopaths in management at about 3.5% as opposed to 1% in the general population. There is currently no effective treatment for psychopathy.
Hare states in an interview with Fast Company (July 2005), “There are certainly more people in the business world who would score high in the psychopathic dimension than in the general population. You’ll find them in any organization where, by the nature of one’s position, you have power and control over other people and the opportunity to get something.” Babiak as a rationale states, “The psychopath has no difficulty dealing with the consequences of rapid change; in fact, he or she thrives on it. Organizational chaos provides both the necessary stimulation for psychopathic thrill seeking and sufficient cover for psychopathic manipulation and abusive behavior.” Entrepreneurs almost by definition are not psychopathic. Entrepreneurs want to build, want to create something that outlasts themselves, psychopaths tend to take advantage of and abuse what already exists.
One very interesting quote from Babiak and Hare’s book jumped out at me. It stated, “Some researchers have commented that psychopaths ‘know the words but not the music’, a statement that accurately captures their cold and empty core”. So, from Sach’s work we now have a situation in which the brain when injured or due to some other circumstance, has some of the higher thought processing areas more in touch, better connected with the emotional core, the result is a desire to listen to, or create music (some experience musical hallucinations). And from Babiak and Hare the notion that psychopaths (including those at work) don’t seem capable of connecting their higher thought processes with the understanding that an emotional component brings, often times at great detriment to the organization or society as a whole.
I have to wonder, and I have seen some research that confirms this, that one marker of psychopathy would be people who when shown disturbing pictures can process the content intellectually but an electroencephalograph (EEG) of the brain would show a lack of response in the emotional centers of the brain. Either they were born with or due to injury or other circumstance their emotional centers of the brain appear to be somewhat detached from the higher thought processing centers. And of course this condition would not be binary but rather would reside along a continuum, meaning that being psychopathic is not necessarily an all or nothing condition. Like almost all other things that effect humans in comes in varying degrees. At some point the person would be far enough away from the average to be considered pathological. Another thought crossed my mind, “Do psychopaths enjoy music as much as the rest of us”? Psychopaths certainly can create or listen to music, Charles Manson for instance who is certainly psychopathic, was an aspiring musician prior to the Tate-LaBianca murders by the Manson cult, but was there any enjoyment, any emotional connection by him out of the musical experience? My guess is that it is unlikely.
Some managers within organizations can be emotionally challenged, lacking empathy or the ability to see things from the perspectives of others – they literally do not understand the pain they may be causing others or may view it simply as a necessary condition for the businesses to function or thrive. (This does not mean that they are psychopaths). They may understand the business consequences of their actions but be unable to understand the emotional impact on those affected.
While I don’t think of it as a particularly rare case, I remember that a number of years ago I had a fairly senior manager, prior to doing a really terrible thing within his organization, describe to me that what he was about to do was “just business” and had to be done because of, from his perspective, “lost opportunity”. His actions would disrupt and possibly destroy the lives of many employees. He showed only a surface level of concern to those that would be affected by this event. The “just business” component of the rationale may have been a rationalization within his own head to justify how he could do what he was about to, or it could indicate a real lack of ability to emote with others, a lack of conscience, and a lack of loyalty to those so effected. On the surface what may appear to be a lack of ethics, may actually indicate a deeper pathological illness. I wondered if after the event whether this particular manager felt any remorse, or guilt? My guess is that he did not. And while it is unlikely that this particular manager was psychopathic he was certainly emotionally challenged, most likely narcissistic, and unable to understand how others would “feel”.
“It is just business”. Is that a rationale that should be rewarded? The investment community seems to cheer at times when callous leaders are put into place to shake up an organization. Do you remember what Al “Chainsaw” Dunlap did to Sunbeam or Scott Paper? (His lack of emotion may be epitomized by the fact that he did not attend either of his parent’s funerals). How about what Paul Bilzerian did to The Singer Company? (He is also known for serving time in prison on charges of corporate fraud.) Did the “Queen of Mean”, Leona Helmsley deserve the title for being emotionally disconnected from her employees or was she simply misunderstood? (She was so emotionally unattached to other humans that she left millions to her dog – the dog being one of the few who stood by her). And of course there is the litany of more current plunderers by executives at places like Enron and WorldCom. Did the executives of those organizations feel remorse or guilt at the employees who lost their life savings or retirement pensions? Is it “just business”, or is it something more than that, maybe something more sinister?
It has been a very long time since I worked in the area of employee selection and in my rather limited, dated knowledge of employee selection, I wonder if anyone has looked at musicality as selection criteria (not for just musicians). Would there be a benefit in evaluating a candidate on whether they can emotionally connect to music? Rather abstract and there are certainly more direct ways and more conventional ways to measure psychopathy or other emotional issues, but never-the-less the results of a study in this area would be fascinating and would potentially tell us a lot more about who we are.
There are some terrific work places out there. All sorts of places strive to get on the “best of this or that list” and it would be interesting to see if we evaluated a list of some of the best places for the role that music plays in the work environment. An organization where people literally “whistle while you work” may be a signpost of an emotionally healthy workplace, one where the environment has been created that allows people to connect their higher thought processes with their emotional cores. A not uncommon phrase is that “this place really hums” or a manager stating that “this place can really sing”. That simple phrase may be taping into a very deep construct imbedded into the very wiring of our brains and be intimately connected with our emotions.
© 2010 by Jeffrey M. Saltzman. All rights reserved.
Visit OV: www.orgvitality.com
“Maybe she sat on the couch, on the same exact spot he had sat upon and that is how she got pregnant”? So hypothesized my young daughter on discussing how one person she knew may have conceived. What is very interesting about her comment, after the smile that is brings, is that she knows it is not possible to conceive that way. She is an avid fan of the Discovery and Science channels and watches all shows that have anything to do with how babies, whether human or another animal, are conceived and born. So why would she have responded that way?
Prior to making that hypothesis she had a conversation with my wife regarding this pregnancy. She was curious how it was possible since this person she knew was not yet married and so did not fit her definition of when babies were to be conceived. In her world babies were conceived when two individuals got married and began living together. Her notions did not fit this new situation and hence she was looking for a new answer as to how it might have happened, even if the answer was one she knew was incorrect.
Cause and effect, what causes what? That is a sometimes very difficult question to answer, especially when the answers staring at you may not fit your preconceived notions or cherished beliefs.
Did you know that there is a relationship between going to the hospital and dying? Yes, there is a tendency for those who are rushed to the hospital, especially by ambulance to die. The casual observer to this relationship could conclude that the last thing you want to do, especially if you are really sick is go to the hospital. Because people who are really sick and go to the hospital have this nasty tendency of expiring. Does going to the hospital in and of itself cause the expiration? No of course not, but the potential to draw erroneous conclusions from that causal relationship is there. There is a concentration of very sick people in hospitals, who have a greater chance of expiring due to their various illnesses and not do to their physical location. I could look at another relationship, the percentage of very sick people who go the hospital and recover vs. the percentage of similarly ill people who don’t go to the hospital and recover and draw very different conclusions.
Observers to causal relationships have been drawing erroneous conclusions for millennia. The phenomenon is exacerbated tremendously when we are observing things that are beyond our comprehension. Arthur C. Clark, the noted science fiction writer and physicist stated that “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic”. I would add “for those who do not understand the technology or the naturally occurring event they are witnessing”. The implication for his statement in this context is that erroneous conclusions could be draw from an observer to an event, attributing the event to “magic”, rather than understanding the advanced form of technology being observed.
A casual observer to an oil drilling platform, one who is completely ignorant of geology, upon seeing the oil rushing out of a newly drilled well, might assume that the Earth, under it’s top layer, is floating on a sea of oil. All you have to do to get at this oil is drill a sufficiently deep hole. If this observer needed some oil of their own and had the resources, based on that limited knowledge, they might conceivable rush around drilling holes here and there, wondering why the drill holes were not gushing with oil.
So how can we draw correct conclusions from the events we observe? One approach is the scientific one which involves using experimental design with control groups to try to tease out cause and effect, but even then the room for various interpretations, partly due to the limitations of field vs. laboratory experimental design, can be large. For instance, cigarette companies for years put up a strong defense based upon their own “scientific” studies, arguing that the evidence that smoking caused cancer was just not there, was not proven beyond a shadow of a doubt. Meanwhile millions of people died.
Today similar debates rage around global warming. Do mankind’s activities have enough of an impact on the Earth to cause global climate change or are the changes we are currently seeing simply natural patterns? Part of the flaw in asking the question that way is that it assumes that the answer is one way or the other. Either humans are having an effect or they are not and either we are seeing a natural pattern or not. Maybe we are seeing a natural pattern that is exacerbated by human actions, or humans are having a tremendous impact that is exacerbated by a natural pattern. The question in my mind is largely irrelevant (see Virtuous and Deleterious Cycles) and by the time the definitive answer is known it will likely be too late to prevent a looming catastrophe regardless of the cause. In this case it would seem to be only prudent to limit to a minimum the emissions we as a species emit.
In the world of business cause and effect are often just as muddied; sometimes on purpose to serve a political agenda, sometime due to the limitations of the person doing the interpretation and sometimes due to legitimate differences of opinion. Upon entering a situation where the cause and effect must be divined in order to solve issues, the very first step in helping you draw conclusions is to put off drawing hasty conclusions. Often times in the rush to judgment (I am talking about a real rush to judgment, not the people who want to take a wait and see approach to climate change), people take positions before all or enough of the information is in, positions which may simply become hardened if those people are challenged by differing opinions (after all if I change my opinion I am admitting that I made an initial error, something that cognitive dissonance makes difficult to do).
I remember an experiment that described how many interviewers, when interviewing candidates for a job, made up their mind about the potential employee within 30 seconds of beginning the interview (that is a rush to judgment). The most effective interviewer training was to train the interviewer to delay their decision making and judgment calls about the candidate for as long as possible into the interview time period, the longer the delay the higher the quality of the final decision.
The human tendency to rush to judgment, to quickly categorize and our sometimes gullibility has been utilized by others, in fact has been counted upon, to shape our opinions. Advertisers count on it when they imply in their ads that all you have to do is use their product and you too will look like the models they employ, or become more attractive, lose weight, or make money on real estate, or advance your career, or never have to buy another kitchen utensil etc. Politicians count on it when they imply that the effects we desire in our nation can be achieved by signing onto their cause and voting for them.
One trend that I have noticed is the increasing use of “scientific studies” to create credibility around the cause and effect relationship, scientific studies that are anything but. The notion of simply labeling something “scientific” is that it gives instant credibility (however at the same time it can give legitimate science a bad name). Even in the world of survey research I come across work that makes broad generalizations about populations, about cause and effect without proper design or sufficient “n” to justify the conclusions drawn.
The list of individuals and organizations who try to manipulate our understanding of cause and effect goes on and on. I wonder then, given the assault we are constantly under is our ability to determine what is really going on diminished? So maybe she did sit on that couch, on that exact same spot that he did, but that is not how she got pregnant. (I am pretty sure.) Better not touch any dirty door knobs, you could have twins.
© 2010 by Jeffrey M. Saltzman. All rights reserved.
I really like people who can make things with their hands. Always have. People who produce goods like cars, homes, planes, clothing, food and their underlying components, steel, lumber, bricks, cotton, energy etc. these are people who hold a special place in my heart. Farmers as well are truly special in my mind for they wrest a living from the very earth itself, allowing the vast majority of us to lead a more comfortable existence. I have more than once given serious thought to buying an old farmstead and attempting to rehabilitate it. Here in the Hudson Valley of New York there are old apple orchards, vineyards and smallish farms that people buy to raise exotic animals such as alpaca and lamas for their wool, as well as various kinds of goats and other livestock whose milk is used in making unique cheeses. (I am not sure any of them actually makes a profit.) We like to go to shows where there are craftspeople plying their trade, and I can watch for hours as a bowl takes shape from the blows of a skilled hand holding an adze, or as a blacksmith hammers iron into splendid forms. These craftspeople as well as the others who produce products add value directly to our society by making things that others can use in their daily lives.
In my attempt to feel somewhat connected to people like this I built a greenhouse in my backyard as well as a small shop where I try out various crafts. I tried a garden but the deer and raccoons were cleverer than I on when to harvest, usually getting their crops in the day or so before my own harvest. My most ambitious project to date was to assemble a reproduction of a 18th century Adirondack guide boat which cost me a small part of a finger (so much for skill), lost to a jointer as I straightened an edge on a plank. I take nothing away from doctors, dentists, teachers, biologists, chemists, and a whole host of others for they too are critical to our existence and they add great value, but people who can create high quality objects with their hands, that is something to behold.
When I decided to go to graduate school for Industrial/Organizational Psychology my first choice was a school in Ohio, the industrial heartland. I decided that if you were going to do Industrial Psychology what better grounding than to be in a location where there was a lot of heavy industry and the fact that they were going pay me to go to school there simply added to the attractiveness. Continuing with my logic stream the first job I took after school was with a steel and roller bearing producer. I was to be a generalist working across a broad swath of my field with my new graduate degree in hand. I took part in developing employee selection systems for new bearing plants in the south and the first green field steel mill built in Ohio in decades as well as other tasks such as an employee survey and succession planning.
“They never taught us what was real, Iron and coke and chromium steel”
The words from Billy Joel’s tune Allentown memorialize the decay of the industrial heartland. And while I am positive about the resulting cleaner environment as these industries have been diminished, it breaks my heart to see the pain that is has caused those who worked in these noble professions. I have pain for those who have lost their jobs, have lost a part of who they are and wonder where they are now. I wish them well. I would expect that given the more advanced technologies available today, if we wanted to build cleaner versions of these industries that we certainly could, but I am not so sure we can rebuild the industrial base that once was. Allentown is just one location where this pain was felt, for there are literally thousands of Allentowns across the USA.
I was born in New York City, but spent a good part of my childhood growing up in upstate New York. In one town, near where I grew up, you could stand at one end of a main street and for a good distance see one shuttered factory after another. In another small town nearby, which used to be the shoe capital of the country, you can see massive abandoned rotting factories littering the landscape. Rail lines next to the factories that once hummed with activity, bringing in raw materials and shipping out finished product now lie quietly rusting. I used to hear stories of immigrants who upon landing at Ellis Island had English skills limited to 3 words, “Which way EJ?” It has been a long time since these areas have felt real prosperity, the kind of prosperity that draws immigrants and others like a beacon of hope. A sense of prosperity that gets generated by fulfilling the dreams, the hopes people have for their lives and by being able to provide for their families, a sense of prosperity felt when people have confidence in what the future holds for them. The people who have these dreams are no different than any other people anywhere else in the world in terms of what they want out of life. And while these dreams do have variations, there are next to no differences when you look at the core essence of those dreams by generation, gender, ethnicity, or geography. Dreams are dreams and people are people.
“Every child had a pretty good shot
To get at least as far as their old man got
But something happened on the way to that place”
My second professional job was to become a specialist with a research company that studied employee attitudes and organizational culture with the goal of helping organizations enhance performance and effectiveness, while improving conditions for the workers themselves. I studied culture and employee attitudes globally for the next 18 years, examining results from hundreds and hundreds of companies across millions of people. I filled up multiple passports with visa stamps in the process and I ended up running and owning that company for a good portion of those years. In company after company the consistency of the findings was truly remarkable. There was of course variation on the absolute scores, as some companies were better run, or had better widgets to sell into stronger markets, but when you examined not the absolute scores, but the items that employees around the world used to define effective management, or the items that translated into more positive employees that gave extra effort, the results were truly remarkably similar. It did not matter what kind of employee you were measuring, from which generation or location. The data stated again that people are people wanting similar things out of the work environment and in essence out of life. We are all driven by human desires.
“Well our fathers fought the second world war
Spent their weekends on the Jersey shore
Met our mothers in the USO
Asked them to dance
Danced with them slow”
With all of the above as backdrop, during that timeframe and afterward I began thinking that while it is all well and good to have emotionally attached, satisfied or engaged employees, or employees willing to give discretionary effort helping their organizations succeed, that measuring those conditions of satisfaction or engagement was not the whole critical story for the employee or the organization. To me a missing component was Employee Confidence. In order to achieve a high level of Employee Confidence the employee needs to be engaged, but the engaged employee is not necessarily confident. The engaged employee can be working in a dying industry, for a poorly managed organization that will go out of existence or the engaged employee can see their skill set rusting away, making them less and less employable as time marches on.
I defined two distinct components or sub-dimensions to Employee Confidence, Organizational Confidence and Personal Confidence. Each of these sub-dimensions has an internal and external factor. The Internal part of Organizational Confidence focuses on the internal functioning of the organization. (e.g. Is it well managed, does it have effective business processes, can it make profits?) The External part of Organizational Confidence focuses on the environment in which the organization operates. (e.g. Is the organization’s industry robust and healthy, is it a tough competitor, does it have products that are attractive to customers?)
The Internal part of Personal Confidence focuses on the employee’s future with their current employer and is the traditional driver of how employee loyalty used to be generated from the employee’s perspective. (e.g. Does the employee have job security, is there a promising future for them and are they being prepared for that future?) And finally the External part of Personal Confidence tries to get at how prepared the employee feels to leave their current organization, should they need to, and to find a similar job elsewhere. (e.g. My skills would allow me to find a similar job, with similar pay and others are hiring people with skills like mine.)
Some of the data that I have collected suggest that this quadrant of the model, External Personal Confidence is another way to establish loyalty among employees. For if the organization can no longer supply the traditional carrots that lead to loyalty, Internal Personal Confidence (i.e. job security with a bright future) what the organization can supply is a new carrot, External Personal Confidence (i.e. transportable skill development), so that employees don’t feel that by continuing to work at the organization that their skills rust away, but that by working for the organization they are keeping themselves marketable and attractive to other organizations. While of course it is never wholly one way or the other, but rather shades of gray regarding which categories the organization can supply to the employee, my hypothesis is that if the organization is a good place to be from, the employee is more likely to stick around rather than jumping at the first offered alternate opportunity that arises. So far the data suggests that employees who are highly trained and feel capable of moving around are no more likely to do so than employees who are feeling perhaps more trapped in their jobs due to how unmarketable they view their current skill sets.
“For the promises our teachers gave
If we worked hard
If we behaved
So the graduations hang on the wall
But they never really helped us at all”
On the last line I would have to disagree with Billy Joel’s steelworkers, education never hurts. From a theoretical standpoint I think this model of Employee Confidence touches on and perhaps builds off the concepts of learned helplessness, locus of control and efficacy theories, including self, means and situational efficacy.
What do you buy when you have high levels of Employee Confidence? I believe that Employee Confidence can have an impact at the global, country, organizational and personal level and these theories are being tested out now. If for instance you take a representative random sample of employees from within a country and they are exhibiting a high degree of Employee Confidence in their respective organizations it is likely that we are looking at a healthy business climate within that country, one that is positively perceived, with well-run organizations positioning themselves for future growth and all that implies.
If the employees within a specific organization are exhibiting a high degree of Employee Confidence I would hypothesize that it would mean that they are engaged, willing to assume control over their own future and the organization’s, willing to make things happen, display higher degrees of confidence in the organizations products and/or services to its customers, resulting in increased sales. I also think that the more confident employees will likely create conditions that will drive organizations to higher levels of performance with respect to employee treatment. For if your employees are confident that they can go elsewhere you had better get your act together if you want to keep them. The results as they roll in will be really interesting.
“And were living here in Allentown”
© 2010 by Jeffrey M. Saltzman. All rights reserved.
The advertisement, sitting in the front window, visible to all passersby was attempting to lure potential customers into the store. “Don’t see what you like?” “Come on in.” Makes you scratch your head a bit, until you find out that the store was an optometrist shop. Context. Context can take some information or behavior that might seem very odd to you and by giving it some perspective have it make perfect sense.
There is a parasite, a protozoan, which lives in the stomach of rats. At a certain point in its life cycle, it will cause the rat to become less wary of cats and to become attracted to cat smells. The infected rats search out cat smells and when found the cats tend to oblige and eat the rat. What could drive the parasite to induce this fatal behavior in its host? The parasite can only reproduce in the stomach of cats.
It has been shown that children infected with Malaria are more attractive to healthy mosquitoes. Why? The malaria-causing protozoan, Plasmodium falciparum which spends part of its life cycle in mosquitoes and part of its life cycle in humans, does not leave its reproduction, and hence the spread of malaria, completely up to chance. Once it has infected its human host it somehow (exact mechanism still unknown, but smell seems to be a possibility), makes its human host more attractive to mosquitoes so it can complete its lifecycle and reproduce.
There is an old joke where two mothers are talking. One mother says to the other, “My son”, says the mother proudly, “has two Ph.D.’s, one in psychology and one in economics.” “You must be very proud of him,” says the second mother. “Yes I am,” replies the first. “He can’t get a job, but at least he knows why.” Context.
Seemingly strange and odd behaviors abound all around us. We would be remiss to think that these behaviors occur only outside of the working environment. We interpret co-workers behaviors each and every day and yet we often have very little context to base those interpretations upon. We, as humans, have a tendency to jump to conclusions and to quickly categorize what we observe as a way to reduce the amount of information processing we need to do. This has both beneficial effects, we don’t get paralyzed with analysis, and negative effects, we may be jumping to inappropriate conclusions based on our lack of context. Next time, as an experiment, before you quickly categorize what you observe try to place additional context around it and see if you draw the same conclusions.
I was driving home the other day and in a neighboring town I passed a stately funeral home that was located right next door, so close they were almost touching, to a self-storage facility. No, couldn’t be….
© 2010 by Jeffrey M. Saltzman. All rights reserved.