Archive for November 6th, 2009
Zhang Shuhong killed himself due to stress. The Chinese executive made toys for export as a contractor to Mattel. Millions of the toys were found to contain lead paint, paint that could cause mental retardation in children if ingested, and were recalled. His factory lay idle, his workers left. The Washington Post (August 14, 2007) reports that it was thought that his company was about to go bankrupt.
Interestingly the closest word to stress in Chinese, according to the American Institute of Stress, is a two symbol pictogram translated as “crisis”. The first symbol in the pictogram means “danger” and the second symbol in the pictogram means “opportunity” – taken together they are used to indicate a crisis – literally a “dangerous opportunity”.
(An aside: My guess is that China is a country awash in lead, from gasoline exhaust to paint to a whole host of other sources. (Not to mention other severe pollution). You can only wonder at the squandered opportunities represented by the aggregated cumulative loss of intelligence in the next generation of children growing up there exposed to high levels of lead as China industrializes.
As a further aside: I believe we are kidding ourselves if we think that the current issues surrounding impurities or contamination in Chinese exports are new issues. I think it is safe to assume that this has been an on-going problem and its impacts on us are completely unknown. For instance, there has been tremendous concern about the increased levels of autism to be found in children over the last several decades. The mercury used as a preservative in childhood immunizations has been pointed to as a potential culprit by desperate parents only to be denied by research saying that the evidence is just not pointing in that direction. But I have to wonder what other exposures our children have had to unregulated and uninspected and potentially contaminated imports? We can’t even guess.)
Rolandas Milinavicius, a US car dealer who exported cars to Lithuania was also facing stress. His Georgia based car dealership was floundering and his finances were shaky. According to CNN, two of his employees, a 28 year old and a 25 year old, came to him and asked for a raise. His response? He shot them dead on the spot.
Alexandra Scott a 4 year old cancer patient faced stress as well. Upon learning of her diagnosis and until the age of 8, the time of her death, “Alex” dealt with her stress by helping to raise money for finding a cure for childhood cancer though her lemonade stand. She like the other two had to feel like there was little hope, no way out of their predicament. Yet she reacted very positively to her stress while the other two clearly did not. What can we learn from a 4 year old about how to deal with stress? I think quite a lot.
We all face stress, and we all respond somewhat differently to that stress. Yet I would make the argument, as I have done elsewhere, that People are People©, so why do we react very differently depending on the situation?
In its purest form and definition, stress is absolutely natural; it is with us every day. In fact you would die without it. There is a certain amount of stress when you are hungry or thirsty that makes you go in search of food or drink. The drive to reproduce is a “stressor” and the New York Times (July 31, 2007) in a story titled “The Whys of Mating: 237 Reasons and Counting” describes research done cataloging the reasons people gave for engaging in sex. Reducing stress was one of those listed. Stressors are pressures that drive you to action, but sometimes those stressors are such that we simply freeze, unable to act, or we take action that is by anyone’s definition inappropriate.
The perception of stress and the reactions to it can be modified based on societal, community, or work group support. Science News (July 7th, 2007) in an article called “Trouble in Paradise” describes some of the hypothesized causes of schizophrenia in Palau, a Republic in the South Pacific. The incidence of schizophrenia there is higher than in other parts of the world and this hereditary disorder tends to first appear as young men and women deal with the stress of moving from childhood into adult roles. A woman showing signs of the disorder will receive support from her family and clan. A man showing signs of the disorder will tend to become an outcast with little support, unable to find a job or fulfill traditional roles. The combination of stress and rejection is thought to turn their schizophrenia into a much more difficult to deal with illness, when compared to the women suffering from the disorder, than it otherwise would be.
It is very clear that reactions to stress are person specific, but can also will be moderated or not by the environment in which the person is surrounded. Things that can seem trivial to one person can be extremely stressful to another. A child’s fear and associated stress of being alone in the dark, or worrying about a monster under the bed, is just as real to that child, at their stage of development, as getting into a “good” university can be to a teenager, finding your first job as a young adult, losing your business and your future to an adult, as is the death of a spouse to a long-time married couple. They can all be experiencing equal levels of stress as they react to very different issues. While the causes of stress can be different for different people, the experienced stress levels, the physiological reactions for those people can be exactly the same, even when to an outside observer the issues casing the stress are felt to be at quite different levels.
There are 4 main causes of stress (according to work by the University of Michigan):
- Social stressors – finding yourself in and having to deal with new and potentially uncertain social situations, workload and deadlines, financial pressures, dealing with a death, changing intimate relationships (e.g. divorce or marriage), starting a new job or leaving an old one etc;
- Environment – changes within the physical environment in which you familiar, dealing with crowds, noise or traffic, lack of privacy;
- Physiological – illness, injuries, hormonal fluctuation or inadequate sleep or nutrition;
- Your thoughts – the way that you think about the situations in which you find yourself, for instance always thinking that the worst will happen (catastrophizing), by living with extremely rigid self-imposed rules, perfectionism, or degrading yourself.
Reactions to stress include physical symptoms (e.g. headaches, ulcers, tense muscles), emotional symptoms (e.g. depression, anxiety, anger), and cognitive symptoms (e.g. unwanted or repetitive thoughts, lack of ability to concentrate). Long term exposure to stress can be contributing factors to major illnesses such as heart attach or stroke.
What can an organization do to help employees reduces stress? People make their worst decisions if stressed, and react poorly when they can see no way out of their predicament, when they feel that they have lost control. To the extent that the organization can give people a sense of control, and to help them see a way out of the stressful situation the organization can help them reduce stress levels. Can employees for instance take control over their schedule? Can they flex and work from home as possible? If they are to be held accountable for a process ensure that they have authority over that process. As a manager, ask yourself what you can do to enable your employees, to make it easier for them to do their jobs. The chief responsibility of a manager is to provide employees what they need to get their work done, not to oversee work. The best managers are those that can create the conditions that allow their fellow employees to excel. I have to wonder if one was to do linkage research on stress whether we would find solid evidence for optimum stress levels which would maximizing business performance. I would that that either too little or too much would not optimize performance.
After a major organizational catastrophe, those employees who were involved with fixing things, with getting the organization up and running again, while they may be working hard, have been shown to be more positive about the situation than other employees who are sitting on the sidelines. In fact, sitting on the sidelines can be a stress inducing factor, as has been demonstrated in organization after organization. Those employees who indicate on survey results that they are overworked are much more positive about the organization than those employees who report that they do not have enough to do. Not having enough to do or not having what is perceived to be meaningful work makes the employee feel that their potential to contribute is not valued by the organization and hence that the organization does not value them as a person. Among the worst managers are those that simply let their employees wither, leaving them to their own devices. By not engaging their employees the manager avoids situations that may be uncomfortable for them but is inducing added stress onto their employees.
Other steps organizations can take to help employees reduce stress include education about stress and to provide mechanisms for relieving stress. Realize though that people may have as many ways of dealing with stress as there are types of stress. You may have seen the recent commercial (playing in the New York market) about that organization that is wondering how they can improve productivity? One person suggests to the boss that they remove the half-pipe skateboard ramp located in the office; he says “No, the half-pipe stays”. They are trying to be funny (not too successfully) but the subordinates miss the underlying notion that the half-pipe is not necessarily a productivity killer; it may actually enhance productivity by helping people deal with stress.
Can old rocks reduce stress? Hyderabad, a city in India is growing at a phenomenal rate. Its population has doubled in the last 25 years and is projected to keep increasing. Hyderabad has rocks. Not pebbles, not cobblestones, but big, huge boulders that rest in odd places, sometimes stacked on top of each other in strange positions (New York Times, August 17th, 2007). These boulders were placed there by the forces of nature millions of years ago when the diluvial plain on which Hyderabad is located was underwater. As developers do what they do, develop, these rock are in the way. They blast them, crushing them as no more than mere obstacles, in the way of progress. People see their environment, the familiar landscape changing. The growing population and the corresponding lack of privacy, and increased noise levels are likely driving increased levels of stress. Along comes the Society to Save Rocks, an emerging citizen’s movement. The society, as its name implies, wants the developers to spare the rocks arguing that the billion year old rocks can never be replaced and are part of the city’s heritage. But I wonder if there is an added benefit to having these old familiar rocks kept in place and in giving the citizens of Hyderabad some sense of control over what form future development of their city will take. I wonder if the citizen’s movement, possibly unbeknownst to them, is helping all located in that city reduce their stress levels.
There are many factors that can cause us, many times rightfully so, to be stressful. There are many other factors to which we are not even aware, that were we, our stress levels would be even higher, in fact might approach an unmanageable level. Given that, where we can reduce stress in our lives, it is likely a very good thing.
“Stress: The confusion created when one’s mind overrides the body’s basic desire to choke the living daylights out of some jerk who desperately deserves it”. – Unknown
“Stress is when you wake up screaming and you realize you haven’t fallen asleep yet” –Unknown
“In times of great stress or adversity, it’s always best to keep busy, to plow your anger and your energy into something positive.” – Lee Iacocca
“Stress is nothing more than a socially acceptable form of mental illness” – Richard Carlson
“The time to relax is when you don’t have time for it”. -Attributed to both Jim Goodwin and Sydney J. Harris
“The mark of a successful man is one that has spent an entire day on the bank of a river without feeling guilty about it”. – Unknown
“There is more to life than increasing its speed”. - Mohandas K. Gandhi
“Tension is who you think you should be. Relaxation is who you are”. - Chinese Proverb
© 2010 by Jeffrey M. Saltzman. All rights reserved.
“How many ears must one man have before he can hear people cry?”
– Bob Dylan from song “Blowing in the Wind”
The New York Times ran a photo as part of a story that I can’t get out of my head. The story was about a priest who has been traveling around the Ukraine, documenting the deaths, the extermination, of 1.5 million Ukrainian Jews. Gathering and documenting the story in the Ukraine is more difficult than in other parts of Europe where concentration camps existed. In Germany and Poland, Jews were rounded up and exterminated in concentration camps and the remains of the camps after WWII stood as evidence to what happened there. In the Ukraine the Jews were simply lined up and shot and then buried in mass graves, graves that were often dug by those about to be shot.
The black and white photo, which was a bit grainy, shows a man, kneeling at the edge of one of those mass graves; other just shot bodies clearly visible lying in the grave. A German solider is aiming his revolver a few inches from his head about to pull the trigger. Once shot his body will tumble into the grave piling on top of those just shot before him. Other soldiers can be seen in the photo straining to get a good view as though at a sporting event. A woman dressed in a military uniform stands behind the soldier who is about to pull the trigger, her hands sit impatiently on her hips, her posture one of bored indifference. The article describes how the soldiers were only allowed one bullet per Jew and sometimes they fell into their graves still alive, waiting for the immolation to follow as gasoline was poured over the bodies and then set on fire. Some witnesses describe how the graves sometimes remained open for days with dying people struggling for breath within the pile, the mass of bodies pulsing as people tried for one more breath.
Who was this anonymous man in the picture? What was his life like before it was so horrifically ended? Did he have a wife and children? What was his occupation? Did he have hobbies? How did he spend his leisure time? If I could magically reach back in time and talk to this man, what would we say to each other? Both sets of my grandparents were from the Ukraine or within its immediate vicinity and this picture hit me harder than the thousands of others I have seen like it. I blew up the picture looking at the about to be murdered man’s face. It was emaciated, shrunken down to skin and bones. His eyes looked dull, no emotion that I could detect visible in the image. It was a face that had no expectation of a future, a face of no hope. What horrors had his eyes borne witnessed to and what had this man and his family been put through? Part of me says I need to know in order to bear witness and part of me doesn’t want to know. I continued to examine the face closely. It is very unlikely but perhaps I could be looking at a relative of mine, was there any hint of a resemblance?
The Saltzman men tend to have a trait, certainly not a trait unique to just us, but not an extremely common one either. We have a detached earlobe, which gives the ear additional length. My father and his two brothers had it, as did my grandfather. I blew up the picture some more. It turned grainy as I continued to look for a resemblance. I am not sure but as I continued to examine this man’s face I became more and more convinced of a possible link. I think I may have this anonymous man’s ears. Maybe a spurious link, maybe real, maybe not. Maybe I am hoping that if I do in fact have this man’s ears and there is some link that he might take some comfort in knowing that some of his kin, however distant, survived the horrors of the extermination.
Over the years a simple two word phrase has been used to not only bear witness to the horrors, but also to try to move forward from the horrors, that phrase is “Never Again”. It has been the rallying cry not only for the generation that immediately followed the aftermath of the war but for succeeding generations as well. “Never Again”. How could anyone argue with that? Yet in the back of my mind, I know that humanity has not somehow evolved to a higher state in the 60 some years since the Holocaust. We are still who we were. There are people walking around today, some of whom you may pass on the street today, who are completely capably of carrying out similar atrocities against their fellow humans. And that greatly saddens me. “Never Again”. These individuals are not limited to one country, one ethnic group, one political persuasion, one religious group, one gender or some other demographic. How can we move forward?
Today, right now, as you are reading this, somewhere on this planet, a human is striking out against another human, a life is being taken. That life may be forfeit in order for another to achieve personal gain, for political or religious beliefs, for reasons of jealously, for perceived slights or humiliations, for revenge or for simple intolerance of differences. “Never Again”.
Can mankind learn to practice humanity to mankind? Can we tolerate differences among us or will we forever view differences as a source of discomfort to be stamped out? Can we tolerate different points of view, different lifestyles? Can we learn to listen, but not simply listen, can we learn to hear? Not one of us is perfect and our creations are not perfect, but unless we continually strive to improve who we are, what we are, and our creations we run the risk of falling backward into a downward spiral and run the risk of history once again repeating itself.
These are massive issues and we may legitimately look at this big picture and say “what kind of role could I possibly play in moving mankind forward, for I am just a small cog in a very big wheel”? “Never Again”. Each of us, though, has a part to play. And while each of our parts is relatively small, each one of us is critical to the whole. Our society and our organizations are made up of an accumulation of small parts. By developing societies that have no tolerance for intolerance, by embracing and celebrating the richness of our diversity and by developing organizations where each and every individual is treated with equal respect and dignity, we can begin to do our part. It is up to us. Each of us alone can do nothing to prevent the horrific events that happen around our world, but together we can’t be stopped. Each of us alone can do nothing to improve our organizations, to make them models of performance and behavior, but together we can achieve anything we desire. “Never Again.”
The numbers are horrific. Six million in the Holocaust, 200,000 in Darfur, 800,000 in Rwanda, 1.6 million in North Korea, 800,000 in Indonesia, 1.7 million in Cambodia, more than 30,000,000 in China during the cultural revolution and 13,000,000 in the USSR during Stalin’s purges. The list of other atrocities where hundreds of thousands or millions perished goes on and on. The numbers are so large that they simply become a statistic, losing their meaning in human terms. Each and every one of those people represented by those numbers had a family, an occupation or vocation, interests, maybe a hobby, a desire to make a better life for themselves. Each one of those people represented by those numbers was not simply a number, a statistic to be totaled up; each and every one was a person with a rich life with diverse interests and desires, a life that was cut short. “Never Again”. I looked back at the picture from the NY Times and I don’t simply see a man kneeling by edge of his about to be grave, sent there by people that I am loath to call human. I see a life, a life that as it was unfurling in it’s fullness was ended. Then I multiple that life by the numbers above and I reel.
I look at the picture again, but this time I look closely at the trigger man, the executioner, the murderer. He looks to be in his late twenties or early thirties. Was he enjoying himself as he murdered person after person. Did he have a wife and child at home? Maybe children who were the same age as the children of the man he was about to kill? Did he have an occupation prior to putting on his military uniform? Did he have hobbies? Was he ever brought to justice for his actions? If he survived the war, was he able to sleep at night? Was he able to justify his actions in his mind? Did he feel that he was just “following orders”, was that his excuse?
I have lost sleep because of this picture and the story in the paper. I have a hard time shaking these things off. For me it is not just a picture from a long ago war. For me it is personal. In another time, in another place, I could be the one being forced to kneel by the edge of that pit, waiting for a bullet to enter my skull. By potentially sharing this murdered man’s ears I feel a responsibility. I feel a responsibility to hear people when they cry out and to do what I can, my part, to help. “Never Again”.
© 2010 by Jeffrey M. Saltzman. All rights reserved.
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Here is an interesting notion; we humans and this moment in time which we occupy are nothing special. Some would consider that to be heretical.
Galileo in his support of the work of Copernicus faced lifelong house arrest for simply asserting that the Earth moved around the sun and that the Earth was not the center of everything. There is a strong tendency on the part of humans to see themselves as the center, as critically important to the greater scheme of things; to be told that the Earth on which we humans reside was not central to existence upset this world view, the notions that some have regarding humanity’s, and hence the Earth’s, centrality to the scheme of things.
Darwin also faced much criticism for his work on evolution much of it, continuing even today, by people who feel that it diminishes mankind’s special place, our centrality and novelty of our existence. It would make us no different than any other animal out there, similar to a cow, a goat, or a worm. We would be considered simply a link, an evolutionary quirk, in the greater scheme of how life naturally unfolds on the Earth. How much different are we truly from other life forms that inhabit this planet?
It has been documented that elephants will return to the site at which a relative perished, the gravesite, and spend hours running their trunks over the bones of their fallen brethren, clearly recognizing the individuals who those bones now represent. We can only speculate what is going on in their heads, but to my point of view it certainly looks like they are remembering those who came before them, and should I dare say mourning? Hippos gather round a deceased comrade in the water, protecting the carcass from crocodiles, reluctant to depart from it, even though it bestows no benefit upon them to do so. The list of creatures that seem to show emotion or intelligent thought, at least from a human point of view, can go on and on. Are we humans the only one who can mourn? Why would we limit certain emotions and thoughts as being unique to our species? Should we consider ourselves so unique as to think that we are the only animal that can have complex thought or emotion? Are complex though and emotion unique attributes of humans, or are they simply helpful survival tools courtesy of Darwin’s survival of the fittest, and those species that would benefit from those traits have developed them over time?
The well documented notion of ethnocentricity is when your world view is based on the notion that your culture is the center of everything and is the yardstick by which all other people are judged. The more similar others are to your culture the more positive the view, the more distant the more harshly they are judged. Maybe a new concept needs to be added to that notion. Our commonly held belief that our species, Homo sapiens, is the center of everything is just as much a fallacy as cultural centricity. Specicentricity (a word that I don’t think you will find in any dictionary) is the notion that humans are the center of everything and the yardstick by which all other animals are judged. Is the only concept of intelligence one in which other animals need be similar to our version of intelligence to be considered smart? Is the only concept of morality or emotions one in which other animals must be like us to be considered as exhibiting those traits? Can a dolphin, a whale, or an elephant be just as smart, just are moral, just as emotive as us, but in a different way?
When people feel that something is wrong morally but can’t explain why, the term moral dumbfounding has been used by Jonathan Haidt, a psychologist from the University of Virginia to describe the sensation. He tested people’s reaction to certain situations as a way of measuring the phenomena. One scenario he looked at, for instance, was the reaction that people had to a hungry family that cooked and ate its pet dog after it had been struck and killed by a car. In general, people felt strongly that something was wrong with that but they could not explain why (New York Times, Sept. 18, 2007). Dr. Haidt describes his view that certain aspects of morality within humans are evolutionary in nature. Morality evolved, in his view, to help us become more successful social animals and to help ensure our survival as a species. If us, why not other animals as well?
Irene Pepperberg is a psychologist who worked for 30 years with Alex an African gray parrot which died a few weeks ago. Alex responded to all of the visual cues and words that you would expect a well trained bird to do, but Alex had something more, a realization regarding what the training was all about. When Dr. Pepperberg developed a system to test color recognition in Alex, “what sound is green?” Alex would respond appropriately. When instead of getting the reward for a correct response, Alex got another question; he chimed in with “want a nut” and refused to cooperate. Alex was more than trained to respond to a stimulus, in operant conditioning fashion, he knew what was going on – he was thinking – he was thinking that he wanted a nut. When Alex was bored, he stated that he was going away now and refused to cooperate with further experiments until he was in the right frame of mind. Alex’s last words to Irene the night of his death were “You be good, see you tomorrow. I love you.”
Richard Gott utilizes what is called the Copernican Principle to make some startling predictions about moments in time. In addition to how much longer humanity is likely to survive the Princeton astrophysicist has used his technique to forecast the longevity of Broadway plays, newspapers, dogs, and likely tenure of politicians pretty successfully (New York Times, July 17, 2007). His predictions are based on the notion that there is nothing special about the particular moment in which you are observing a phenomena and how long that phenomena has already lasted.
Say you live in a country that has been around for 230 years. What is the chance that it will survive the next year? Given that there is nothing special about the 231st year, as compared to the 99th or the 64th for instance, the Copernican Principle states that the likelihood of the country failing in its 231st year is 1 in 231 or .43% likelihood. We can also say that the likelihood of the country failing over the next 6 years is roughly 2.5% (6 x .43%=2.58%). If you now think of a time line with a line vertical line drawn at the bottom 2.5% and the top 2.5% there is a 95% certainty that the country would exist for the duration within that which is represented by those lines. For a country that has already existed for 230 years there is a 95% likelihood that it will continue to exist for at least another 6 years but not as long as 8970 years, the upper and lower bounds on that timeline. The chances of being wrong on the low end – the country surviving less than 6 years is roughly 2.5 percent, and the odds of being wrong on the high end – the country surviving more than 8970 years is roughly 2.5% for a total potential error rate of 5% (the standard for scientific judgments).
A simpler example can be found by looking at a company that has been around for 5 years. The lower and upper bounds of its continued existence would be 1 ½ months (.125 of a year) on the low end to 195 years on the upper end (with 95% confidence). Here is how you calculate it. If you take the 5 years and divide by 40 (1/40th being equal to 2.5%) you end up with .125 of a year. Now if you take the current length of time of the company’s existence and multiply by 39 you end up with 195 years (based on the assumption that the company is not in the first 2.5% of its existence). The span (.125 to 195 years) represents the likely life of the organization with a 2.5% error rate on the low end and a 2.5% error rate on the high end, or a total error rate of 5%, according to the Copernican Principle. The company has a 50% chance of making it to about 100 years, having survived its first five.
So with these examples you can make the argument that we humans and this moment in time we occupy are nothing special, our highest talents subject to simple evolutionary pressures and statistical patterns. That is both the strength and the flaw with this kind of reasoning. Our highest talents, our complex reasoning, our morality, and what we create may be subject to and driven by evolutionary pressures and statistical patterns, but what we ultimately decide to do with those talents and abilities, how we apply them, is completely up to us. We do in fact have free will.
The Copernican logic is simply playing the odds, no different than the slot machines in Las Vegas which are of course designed so that over the long term you will lose and similar to how psychologists validate employee selection procedures or determine linkage results of employee attitudes to business performance metrics for instance. We are looking for patterns, for broad tendencies to demonstrate that following these procedures or building these kinds of organizational cultures will lead to the desired outcomes. It is not possible for instance to state that we know with certainty how any single person will perform, but rather that we know as a class that a group of people who exhibit these traits tend to be more successful, hence lets hire more people who exhibit those traits. It is not possible to say that if an organization does this and this, that its performance will definitively improve, only that there is a tendency that if you do this the likelihood of improvement is greater.
I am struck by one fundamental difference that humans have from our co-inhabitants of this planet. We build on such a scale that we actually shape the planet – in general we are a species of builders. Yes, you can say that ants build, bees build, birds build and of course the beaver, but no other animal builds on such a scale and for a multitude of purpose as humans. We have impact. We build monuments. Whether that impact is beneficial or harmful, and whether our monuments will be of lasting duration or fleeting as a moment is up to us. Our monuments can be physical, or they can be meta-physical, such as building optimal societies and organizations. What monuments will you choose to build?
Our organizations will evolve, people will evolve, our awareness and our understanding that people around the world are more similar than they are different will evolve and we will hopefully become more enlightened. I would count on evolution continuing, not because of any change in what we are fundamentally, but because of a change in our knowledge base of what we know about societies and organizations, and what we know about the people and the other inhabitants of this world in we all live.
Here is an interesting notion; we humans and this moment in time which we occupy are special, as are all the other creatures with which we share this planet. Some would consider that to be heretical.
Are you proud of the company you work for? What makes you proud? Are you proud deep down inside internally or are you bursting at the seams proud wanting to tell everyone you meet about the great company you work for? What are the potential benefits to the organization if in fact the employees of an organization are extremely proud to work there? Is it more than bragging rights? Does it carry any weight; have any impact on how the organization actually performs?
When you look at organizational survey results inevitably the senior management group shows the highest levels of pride in the organization. As you move through the ranks the most common finding is that pride declines, but not always. Some organizations are able to maintain high levels of pride throughout the ranks. Why do the senior managers typically exhibit the highest levels of pride? Let’s examine what is often different about them, as a group, compared to others within the organization.
- They have more control over their own future and generally have more latitude in decision making; therefore, they are in some respects giving a self-rating and hence cognitive dissonance sets in. If you are the one calling the shots, how can you not be proud of what you have created or accomplished? If you are not, what does that say about your own perceptions about yourself and your own capabilities? The human mind facilitates the path of least resistance;
- They generally have a clearer understanding regarding what the organization is about and what it hopes to accomplish down the road. And what the organization is about is generally very congruent with their own personal beliefs and values, since they are setting the agenda; What the organization is about then, is of course of great importance, further generating feelings of pride;
- They generally can get what they need to accomplish their work, (at least more so than others) and can often leverage their efforts by enlisting others;
- They often feel more positive about their future within the organization;
- And, they are made to feel very valuable, critical to organizational functioning. Pay and fringe benefits are much more lucrative at the senior ranks and senior managers have people following their lead and doing what they say, an ego stroking that can go to almost anyone’s head;
- Interestingly, it is not unusual for senior managers to score more poorly in the area of receiving performance feedback. Senior managers are often not moved into position because they are the best “people person” for the job. Most of the time other characteristics and capabilities takes precedence. And while some are good people persons, others are not, and find it very difficult to relate to or give constructive feedback in a helpful manner to their direct subordinates.
There is a story of an august group of scientists who scored fairly poorly on recognition received from their boss, the head of the scientific research institution in their survey results. Upon feeding back this result to the boss, the boss related that he was uncomfortable giving feedback to these brilliant people who worked for him. “Who am I to give feedback to people who have done such great things and are so accomplished? Many have them have won very significant international recognition rewards.” The boss was having feelings of inadequacy. And yet when you went and talked to the scientists they would say things like, ‘look what I have accomplished and my boss can’t even walk down the hall and say “nice job”’. People are people, (both the boss and the scientists) and they are all looking for many of the same things, recognition of their accomplishments being one of those things.
While this is not necessarily an all inclusive list, organizations that have managed to sustain pride through their ranks are:
- Viewed as having effective leadership;
- Have innovative (sometimes paradigm shifting), high quality products (dominating or with a significant share of their industry);
- Have clear messages about who they are and the roles of individual employees in supporting who they are; often seen as serving a “higher” purpose;
- Give people what they need to get their jobs done (in the broadest sense);
- Give people a sense of future, that if they stick around with the organization good things will happen for them;
- Make people feel valued and treating them with respect and dignity.
Have you ever noticed that when you visit the tourist shops in Washington, D.C. you can find t-shirts, mugs etc, with the names of various agencies emblazoned upon them? You see tourists parading around in hats and collecting all sorts of paraphernalia that say FBI, CIA, Marines, Air Force One, ATF, NSA, and Army, among others on them. But I have yet to see one hat or one t-shirt with the initials IRS emblazoned upon it, or how about one with the words Senate or House of Representatives across the chest? Not likely. Yet the IRS the Senate and the House are some of the oldest institutions of the US Government, without which we would not be able to function as a country. What gives? If an IRS employee were to meet some new people at a dinner party do you think they hesitate before answering the question regarding where they work? Do you think their first reply might be to answer that they work for the government, rather than specifically saying the IRS?
An IRS employee is just as proud as any employee working in the private sector for a Fortune company and when you investigate some of the unique drivers of pride for the organization you would find both similarity and differences to other organizations. (One website where Federal government employee survey results can be reviewed is http://bestplacestowork.org/BPTW/about/). One driver of pride in the IRS is quite noble – employees that are proud to be in service to their country. They are serving a higher purpose. Without them they feel the country would not function – and you know what, they are right. What about workers at medical institutions, what are drivers of pride there? They are in service to mankind. They are helping the ill recover. They may be using techniques that only a few can use or they may have a reputation that this is the place to go if you really need good care, both of which would increase employee pride in the institution. Teachers are proud that they are preparing the next generation and helping to shape and develop young minds – serving a higher purpose. Sanitation workers are proud that they keep our communities clean and livable. (If you have ever been in NYC during a sanitation strike you would quickly agree with them). Police and firefighters are proud that they are protecting the public.
People in all different types of occupations want to be proud of the places they work. They want to take pride in what they do specifically and what the organization accomplishes. People can be proud of what they do, even though you or I may not find a certain job particularly interesting or it may be something what we would have a hard time relating feeling proud about. People are they same, they all want to feel pride, and yet they are all different and can feel proud of quite varied tasks, requiring quite different abilities and skill sets.
Instilling a sense of pride in your employees begins with instilling a sense of meaningfulness, a sense purpose, a sense of what they are doing as being important – and you know what, it is important, or they should not be part of your organization. Many organizations take advantage of this notion and use their organizational mission to help in recruiting new employees, sometimes employees who otherwise would not consider working at the organization. The Marines in their recruiting slogan “The few, the proud, the marines” are playing directly to that notion of people wanting to be part of something that generates pride. Join us and do something you can be proud of. And even going beyond that, is the notion that only a few, a select few get in (but that will be a different blog on exclusivity).
What the drivers of pride are in various organizations is not static. It can change over time. For instance today people can be proud if they belong to an organization that is operating in a “green” fashion. And in fact being green has become so trendy that many organizations are promoting their “greenness” publicly as part of their selling proposition to customers, even those that are really not green, not even a light shade of green. Eventually I believe that people will see through the sham and that marketing ploy will backfire.
When an organization does not function in such as manner that it instills a sense of pride in the employees it can be very damaging. Turnover is likely to rise (also dependent on external economic issues) as will absenteeism, the level of quality declines, errors will increase, customer service and hence satisfaction will suffer and the organization as a whole will start a downward spiral. Organizational performance in general will decline.
Think of two questions that have been fairly regularly used to measure pride. Both are straight forward. The first “I am proud to work for XYZ” and the second is “I am proud to tell people that I work for XYZ”. One is measuring an internal component of pride in working for their company the other is measuring an external component, being able to speak publicly of pride in working for one’s company. Which would you answer more positively? Are you deep down inside proud? Or are you bursting at the seams proud, just can’t wait to tell others about it? Which do you think is better for your organization?
© 2010 by Jeffrey M. Saltzman. All rights reserved.
Visit OV: www.orgvitality.com
I was asked to put together some suggestions for what a good employee survey question should be like and to illustrate some poorly written items and to make suggestions on how they could be improved. Here is what I came up with.
Among the qualities of a good employee engagement survey question are:
1) It’s actionable. The results I get back direct me to do something, rather than leaving me wondering what the answers really mean.
2) It’s specific. The question deals with one concept at a time, so separate issues are not confused with one another.
3) It’s simple. There are no words or concepts that could be interpreted three different ways by three different people.
4) It’s been proven to be effective. The question deals with issues that have historically been found to matter or are important to the business (as opposed to issues like the quality of the cafeteria food).
Here are examples of employee survey questions that have been used but might not give you what you hoped or need and how they might be improved.
- Ineffective: “What ____% of people need our protective products.” Scale choices: 81% or more; 80-61%; 60-41%; 40-21%; 20% or less
The problem: Among the issues with this item is a scale that assumes a level of precision that is just not possible for the respondent to give.
Better: Overall, rate our ability as a company in turning potential customers (people who are considering our protective products) into purchasers of our products?” Scale choices: Very Good; Good; Average; Poor; Very Poor
- Ineffective: “If I should find myself in a jam at work, I could get out of it because I’ve experienced jams before”.
The problem: This is attempting to measure personal characteristics of the worker, the ability to get out of a jam, because of experience. How would the organization improve on this if the results came back poorly? Give people more experience with jams? Organizational surveys should focus on organizational characteristics that the organization can actually improve upon. The not so commonly used word “jam” is also likely to be misunderstood and given varying interpretations.
Better: “In general when problems arise at work I have the resources I need at my disposal to get them resolved”.
- Ineffective: “I do good work”.
The problem: Come on….It is virtually impossible for someone in a normal state of mind to rate their own work negatively.
Better: “The quality of products and services that this organization delivers are among the best in our industry”.
- Ineffective: “In your opinion, how limiting are the following obstacles to your career advancement at [company]?”
“a. Stereotypes about my commitment or abilities based on my gender”
The problem: The question presumes the company has this obstacle rather than using wording to cull out potential problems that are actionable.
Better: “Advancement here is based on merit, the most deserving regardless of their background or “who they know” get ahead”.
- Ineffective: “It is easy for me to complete work assignments and projects within this company.”
The problem: This item comes with a built in bias – easy is good. It may the difficult assignments that get employees’ juices flowing. It’s more important to know whether workers are given what they need to accomplish assignments, whether easy or difficult.
Better: “I am provided the tools and resources I need to accomplish my work.”
- Ineffective: “My benefits are better here than the benefits at other companies.”
The problem: This question is setting the organization up for failure. It is extremely rare these days for a company to have as a goal “unsurpassed benefits”.
Better: “The benefits I receive are fair.” Or “My benefits are comparable to the benefits I would receive elsewhere”.
- Ineffective: “Employees are encouraged to work as a team.”
The problem: The underlying issue here is aspiration vs. actuality. The question doesn’t go far enough—is teamwork actually happening? An organization may say it encourages teamwork, but if is rewards system actually discourages it, it won’t happen.
Better: “Where I work, we act as a team to accomplish our tasks.”
- Ineffective: “The organizational structure here is meaningful to me.”
The problem: “Meaningful” in this context is a vague word that will be interpreted by each employee in his or her own way.
Better: “Our organizational structure is enabling in that it helps us get our work done effectively.”
- Ineffective: “The business policies, standards of performance and conduct here are seriously emphasized throughout the whole company.”
The problem: Too many questions being asked at the same time, so any answer will be hard to interpret. And they question assumes the employee know what is happening elsewhere, which is never a good assumption.
Better: “Where I work, the organizational standards of conduct are emphasized.”
© 2010 by Jeffrey M. Saltzman. All rights reserved.
Visit OV: www.orgvitality.com