Archive for the ‘Perception’ Category
Daniel Kahneman coined the acronym WYSIATI which is an abbreviation for “What you see is all there is”. It is one of the human biases that he explores when he describes how human decision-making is not entirely based on rational thought. Traditionally, economists believed in the human being as a rational thinker, that decisions and judgments would be carefully weighed before being taken. And much of traditional economic theory is based on that notion. Dr. Kahneman’s life’s work (along with his co-author Dr. Amos Tversky) explodes that notion and describes many of the short-comings of human decision-making. He found that many human decisions rely on automatic or knee-jerk reactions, rather than deliberative thought. And that these automatic reactions (he calls them System 1 thinking) are based on heuristics or rules of thumb that we develop or have hard-wired into our brains. System 1 thinking is very useful in that it can help the individual deal with the onslaught of information that impinges on us each and every day, but the risk is when a decision that one is faced with should be thought through rather than based on a knee-jerk reaction.
System 1 decisions are easy, they are comfortable, and unfortunately they can also be wrong. But wrong in the sense that if one learned how to take a step back and allow for more deliberative thought prior to the decision, some of these wrong decisions or judgments could be avoided. A simple example from Dr. Kahneman’s book “Thinking Fast and Slow” will illustrate the point.
“A bat and a ball together cost $1.10. The bat cost $1.00 more than the ball. How much does the ball cost?” Fifty percent of the students who were posed this simple question, students attending either Harvard or Yale got this wrong. Eighty percent of the students who were asked this question from other universities got it wrong. This is System 1 thinking at its finest and most error prone. It is fast, easy, comfortable, lets you come up with a quick answer or decision, but one that is likely wrong. Knowing who reads this blog I’ll let you figure out the answer yourself.
WYSIATI is the notion that we form impressions and judgments based on the information that is available to us. For instance we form impressions about people within a few seconds of meeting them. In fact, it has been documented that without careful training interviewers who are screening job applicants will come to a conclusion about the applicant within about 30 seconds of beginning the interview. And when tested these initial notions are often wrong. Interviewers who are trained to withhold judgment about someone do a better job at applicant screening, and the longer that judgment is delayed the better the decision.
This notion of course flies in the face of Malcolm Gladwell’s best seller “Blink” in which he talks about the wonders of human’s ability to come to decisions instantly and a whole generation of manager’s have eagerly embraced his beliefs - including a few CEO’s I know. Why? It is easy, it is intuitive, it is comfortable and it plays to the notion that I am competent and confident in my work. The only problem is that when put to serious scientific scrutiny, it is often wrong.
A few months ago I introduced this concept to an HR group I was talking to. I explained how untrained HR people in a rush to judgment will jump to conclusions about someone, perhaps too rapidly. One 30-year HR veteran insisted that this may be all well and good but of course did not apply to her. After all, with her 30 years of experience her rush to judgment was of course going to be accurate. She “just knew” who were going to be good employees. I let it drop, and I think I was labeled a trouble-maker by the group. That is a label I can embrace.
We tend to develop stories based on the information at hand; piecing the information we do have into a narrative, often without asking the question, “what information am I missing”? In the area of survey research I have often seen researchers confidently presenting the “drivers” of one type of behavior or another. Say for instance, the drivers of employee engagement. But since the analysis is based on a “within” survey design, the only drivers that can possibly emerge are those that you asked about in the survey in the first place. So the researcher, in designing the 30-50 item survey, is limiting the drivers to those items that they decided to ask about in the first place. The researcher likely has in their head a model of what is important in driving engagement when designing the questionnaire, a model that was designed based on another 30-50 item or fewer questionnaire. It becomes a tautology, it becomes true because I tested it and it came out as true, but the only thing I tested is what I already believed.
There are techniques that can be applied that lead towards more deliberative and better decision-making processes. If you were walking briskly down a busy road and someone asked you “how much is 17 x 24?” you would do what every other human would do to figure that out, you would stop and think.
“Recognition is based on knowledge, familiarity is based on feeling”
Oliver Sacks – The Mind’s Eye
I was reading Dr. Sack’s latest book over a recent vacation and when I got to this sentence I had to pause for a while and really think about it. “Recognition is based on knowledge, familiarity is based on feeling.” Recognition in this context is being used as when someone recognizes a location, a person or an object. Some people have trouble in varying degrees, for instance, to recognize the faces of people they know. The inability to recognize the face of someone who should be familiar to you is called prosopagnosia and there is a growing body of evidence that the incidence of prosopagnosia in the general population is much higher than previously thought, and that it is based on a normal distribution in terms of severity. This affliction is not binary, you don’t either have it or not, but rather you can have prosopagnosia to varying degrees, as is exists on a continuum of severity.
We all spend our days recognizing the objects, people even the tasks that surround us. For instance, you can recognize a specific person or just some artifacts about the person such as young/old, female/male. You can also recognize the foods you eat, the cars you drive, the pen you write with, or the tasks you undertake to carry out your job. But when those things we recognize seem “familiar”, they evoke emotions or feelings. I recognize the face of my mother and she evokes certain feelings in me which makes her seem familiar.
Recognition and familiarity are independent and are processed by two different portions of our brains. This becomes evident in people with Capgas syndrome. These are people who can recognize a face, such as a spouse or child, but because the face does not evoke the emotions of familiarity, people with Capgas syndrome assume they are imposters A man can see his wife and recognize her as being the face of his wife but assumes that it is not really his wife because the face is not evoking the feelings he normally would associate upon seeing his wife. The person must be an imposter!
In the work environment you might recognize a task you have to carry out, but independent of that recognition would be a sense of familiarity that the tasks might generate. You might recognize for instance the steps you have to undertake to perform a tune-up on a car, but it is not until you have done it over and over that the task achieves a sense of familiarity. The same could be said of a surgeon removing a gall bladder, an accountant preparing a tax return, a taxi driver heading to the airport etc.
The question that this posed to me was regarding the measurement of employee perceptions of the workplace. Employees can recognize tasks to be performed very early on in their training for a job. But when does a task feel familiar? And is employee engagement dependent on a task generating an emotional component of familiarity or merely the recognition of the task? Can someone be engaged in their work if the work does not carry a sense of familiarity? We know that normatively the most engaged employees tend to be the ones you just hired, those who would have the least amount of familiarity surrounding their tasks, which might seem odd given the above. And that employee engagement declines, sometimes precipitously at about the 12-18 month mark of employment. It often continues its decline, hitting bottom at the 3-5 year mark, with a corresponding spike in turnover. The 3-5 year mark is also when many organizations report that the employees are really beginning to significantly contribute on the job.
But here is some speculation for you. An employee gets hired, is very engaged from day one, with that engagement being driven by the excitement of a new activity, for some a new beginning. They begin to learn the tasks associated with the job and over a relatively short period the tasks and the work environment begins to generate feelings of familiarity. Short-term engagement, driven by excitement, gives way to long-term engagement, driven by familiarity. At this point the work environment can live up to expectations generating positive emotions surrounding that sense of familiarity, or it can fall short generating negative feelings. And by-and-large it is very difficult for each and every work environment to live up to everyone’s individual expectations, and so the norm on employee engagement is that it declines as people become more familiar with their jobs and often have to deal with the day-to-day frustrations that newer employees tend to be shielded from.
We don’t have to be satisfied with the norm though. And there are certainly benefits to be gained by those organizations who understand how to buck the trend, maintaining or creating a sense of positive familiarity with the work environment as the employee’s experience with and contribution to the organization grows.
© 2013 by Jeffrey M. Saltzman. All rights reserved.
Visit OV: www.orgvitality.com
“You are going to have to help me with this people thing.” That was what the ex-McKinsey consultant turned CEO of a major Fortune company told me years ago. He was the nicest guy. He explained to me how he could handle all of the financials to run his company but this whole people thing, what motivated them, what concerned them, he just couldn’t get his arms around that. He was baffled. What to him seemed like simple business decisions, trim here, reorganize there, in order to fine tune his company’s financial performance resulted in all sorts of emotional morale issues. “Why didn’t people see the obvious?” He thought that there should be no emotions involved in financial business decisions, that if he did what was best for the company, to ensure its survival, that people should not mind (or at least not get emotional about) being moved around like pieces on a chess board, even if it meant losing their jobs. While this company had solid financial performance, it also had a fairly high degree of turnover, with some employees after a pretty short period of time feeling burned out and not being able to continue with the firm. Yet this company also had a high degree of employee commitment and employee loyalty. How was that possible?
I participated in a graduation recently. A group of MBA student’s to whom I taught a leadership class were graduating with their degrees in hand. It was extremely emotional in a positive way for the students, their families and friends that were present. The students were smiling from ear to ear and the parents were beaming. As each student came across the stage, amid the flashing of cameras, I rose shook their hands and congratulated them on their achievement. As each student passed me, I wondered “what direction will their lives now take?”
Sense of Direction. Having a clear sense of direction, a sense of mission regarding what the organization (an organization can be anything from a poker club to a nation state) is going to accomplish, and how people can personally and meaningfully contribute to that goal will affect one’s overall sense of well-being and happiness. It helps to increase a sense of purposefulness which in turn can greatly impact people’s sense of commitment and loyalty to the organization. Most people struggle with this, looking for a sense of direction and purposefulness for at least a portion of their lives, others struggle with this for most of their lives. For the newly-minted MBA’s, they are at an inflection point, where they will be examining the decisions they have made so far and will be reflecting on a host of choices they now have which will affect their own sense of direction and sense of purpose.
For an organization, clarity on this subject allows members to self-select, for if I don’t agree with the goals of the organization (stated or otherwise), or what the organization perceives as my role in helping it to achieve those goals, it is pretty clear, that if I can, I should leave. Over time, with a clear sense of direction (stated or otherwise), what an organization can achieve is a fairly tightly knit core of people who are extremely dedicated, ferociously loyal to helping the organization achieve its goals. And yes, there is a risk that too tightly knit of a group will put goal achievement and gain for this core above all else including societal or customer well-being, potentially bending or breaking various articulated operating standards, societal rules, regulations or laws. An inner core can arise, and as C.S. Lewis pointed out a long time ago, people will do almost anything to become part of the inner circle. As with everything there needs to be a sense of balance, swinging too far in any direction is generally not good for people, the organization or society at large.
Knowing where an organization is going, what it stands for and the values it will employ while getting there can be critical to actually getting there. Each person having a sense of direction and knowing how they can contribute to that direction is a fundamental building block for organizational performance and morale.
One aspect of sense of direction having a positive impact is movement, or the direction of the sense of direction. People tend to get frustrated with stagnation and get unhappy pretty quickly about what is perceived as a backward slide, even if that slide is relatively small and from a very high place or performance level. People notice and feel positive or negatively about the direction things are headed, oftentimes more than the absolute level of the measure suggests that they should.
For instance, as we have measured Employee Confidence over the years, what we see are increases and decreases in Employee Confidence on a national level that are related to the direction of a nation’s economy and not the absolute level of economic performance. Employee Confidence goes up if conditions (e.g. unemployment levels, GDP growth) are seen as improving and it declines if conditions are perceived as dropping, regardless of the absolute levels of those conditions. Employee Confidence can be very high in rapidly developing economies as people feel that conditions are improving and that their economy is on the rise, even if the absolute economic standards are pretty low. Likewise, Employee Confidence can be low in highly develop economies with high standards of living if economic performance is seen as in decline.
As humans, we tend to perceive events and make judgments on a relative basis and not on an absolute basis. What tends to becomes normal is relative to what we routinely experience. But every once in a while we are able change the standard dramatically when a critical mass of organizational members compares what they are experiencing to other extra-organizational standards.
Let me illustrate relative decision-making in a simple fashion. Say you needed a pair of shoes and had your eye on a pair that normally costs $300. You are prepared to spend $300 on those shoes. You open the Sunday paper and see that a store 40 minutes away across town has those same exact shoes that you have been thinking of purchasing for half-off or $150. Would you be motivated to drive across town to buy your shoes at half-price? Many people are inclined to do that. Now say you needed to purchase a new car. You are looking at a car that costs $27,900 at a new car dealer near your house. You are prepared to spend $27,900 on that new car by financing it with the bank and paying it off over 5 years. You open the Sunday paper and see that same exact car for $27,750 at a new car dealer 40 minutes away on the other side of town. Would you drive across town to buy that car? Many would say no. Yet in these two examples in each case the buyer would save $150 on the purchase price. You could use that $150 to purchase the same exact things, regardless of where the savings came from, 2-tickets to a Broadway show (partially obstructed view), or a hot dog at Yankee Stadium. Yet there is a tendency for people to be more willing to save $150 when it represents a larger portion of the purchase price, rather than when it represents a smaller percentage. We make relative and not absolute judgments on how worthwhile the savings are.
The same holds true at the organizational level. If organizational performance is seen as improving relative to where it currently is, employees tend to be more upbeat regardless of the absolute starting level of that performance and if it is perceived as in decline, employee spirits will also be in decline (even if you are still the best in your industry). So how could the CEO I mentioned lead a company that achieved high levels of employee commitment and loyalty, even as people were burning out? The answer is that it was an exciting place to be, they were cutting edge, an industry leader with rapidly rising levels of performance, beating the competition and with a clearly articulated vision of where the company was going.
© 2012 by Jeffrey M. Saltzman. All rights reserved.
Visit OV: http://www.orgvitality.com
“He did not know how to make sausage, but he did know how to give freedom, and if someone believes that the former is more important than the latter he is likely never to have either.” Pravda on Mikhail Gorbachev
It seems like each day in the paper or on TV we are inundated with politicians or leaders of various nations and other organizations trying to deflect blame for their poor performance or misdeeds. If they can point the finger at anyone else, at any other group or organization it seems that the temptation is just too great to accept blame for their own failings. The question that springs to my mind is whether these leaders consciously try to deflect blame in an attempt to retain or ascend to positions of power, or are they truly unable to see that they are the cause of the strife or the misdeeds that surround them?
Every once and in a while a leader, like Gorbachev, comes along with the ability to see through the current situation to a better future, but more recently it is the people themselves who rise up to secure what they hope to be a better future for themselves. Gorbachev’s actions 20 years ago, which recognized the reality of the collapse of the Soviet Union ushered in a period of uncertainty in Russia, as it laid the groundwork for a period of freedom that has since been methodically undermined by Vladimir Putin, the former head of the KGB. The Russian people knew a “spring” but spring gave way to fall and the first chills indicating the onset of another winter. The Russian people are now beginning a struggle to reclaim some of Gorbachev’s and Boris Yeltsin’s heritage to them.
This week Mikhail Gorbachev recommended to Vladimir Putin that he step down from power in Russia. This was amid the growing demonstrations about the rigged election that was designed to prepare the ground for Putin to once again ascend to power in Russia as its President, having taken a break after 2 terms due to term limits. For his part Putin has been claiming that the demonstrations against the election were due to “outside agitators”. The claim was that citizen protests were due to external factors, rather then what people feel internally.
Locus of control research has shown that when a person fails they are likely to blame external factors, but when they see someone else fail they are more likely to place blame on that person’s lack of innate abilities. When a person succeeds, locus of control research indicates that there is a tendency for that person to attribute their success to their own innate abilities. However the tendency when someone else succeeds is to attribute it to luck.
When the person who is under the sway of locus of control tendencies and other influencers happens to be the head of a country or the leader of a major organization the implications can be profound. Compounding this tendency is the well-known sociological effect of increasing cohesion in a population by having an external enemy to blame for the hardships being faced or as a means to hold onto power. These two tendencies have shown up time and again recently in all different kinds of venues.
- Newt Gingrich when he failed to get enough signatures to get on the Virginia ballot cast around for where to place blame and settled on “Virginia’s failed system”, the external cause, rather than his own lack of organization in Virginia.
- A whole host of Arab leaders, Assad of Syria, Mubarak of Egypt, Gaddafi of Libya, Saleh of Yemen, each in their turn has blamed external agitators or terrorists rather than the conditions within their own countries for the attempts to throw them out of power.
- Scott Walker, the Governor of Wisconsin, having signed a law eliminating collective bargaining rights, set off a series of protests that now has him struggling in a recall campaign, blamed “outside forces” for the unrelenting protests that occurred within the state capitol building. Were there outside forces at play on that contentious issue? Yes, of course on both sides, but outside forces cannot sign recall petitions, you must be a citizen. But the point is that he found it easier and more pleasing to look outside rather than within for the agitation that he stirred up among the citizens of Wisconsin.
- Anthony Weiner indicated that his email account had been hacked and that the pictures circulating around the web and sent to various females of a certain part of his body was not done by him but by mysterious “others”.
- Herman Cain first blamed a left wing conspiracy, then a right wing conspiracy then some unknown others who must have been giving a large sum of money to the woman who indicated that they had an affair stretching out over 12 years. Each time he made these accusations he stated that he had no evidence, but that it must be so. He seemed to truly believe that his ills came from some external power rather than emanating from his own behavior.
- A different kind of illustration of the same principle comes from the area of climate change. And while the science is much more complex, there are groups that find it easier and more expedient to blame external effects (e.g. natural cycles), rather than mankind’s own action for the period of global warming and more extreme weather we are going through. And the point is these groups make these claims with absolutely no evidence, but it must be so they state. One congressman even stated that it was evidence of hubris that mankind would think that they could affect the world’s climate. Have you ever wanted to reach though the TV and tell someone that they are a complete idiot while you throttle them?
While of course not new, the number of times that the excuse of externally forces being at play as the rationale for dismissing accusations, crimes, violence, murder, the taking away of rights, and in general bad behavior seems to me to be more plentiful now than it has ever been. I have to think that some of the leaders dismissing these activities are simply looking for a convenient excuse for their actions and are knowingly lying, but that others may be truly incapable of seeing the world accurately, always seeing sinister forces of some sort working against them or external forces controlling them. I am not sure which is worse.
© 2011 by Jeffrey M. Saltzman. All rights reserved.
I was leafing through an issue of an astronomy magazine I happened across. One story in the front of the magazine was about the most common elements around us. Hydrogen of course was number one and right behind it was helium. The author of the article branched off into some interesting facts, which he stated he uses to spur children’s interest in astronomy and a few of which surprised and delighted me (I am nothing more than a large child after all). For instance, the most common element you breathe when you take a breath is nitrogen, an inert gas which doesn’t do much for you and which most people with a high school education will get right. The second most common element you breathe in is oxygen, which again would be on most people’s list, but the third is argon which if I had known (at some point I likely did), I had forgotten. Some other factoids he let loose with included that half of our moon is made up of oxygen and it has very little hydrogen, the most common element in the universe elsewhere. H2O, water, is most dense at 40 degrees (the reason why ice floats), exists mostly in the areas of the universe we have studied as either a solid or gas and very rarely as a liquid due to the limited range of temperatures and pressures at which it will take the form of a liquid. Anyway you get the idea, interesting tidbits that you think you should know, likely did at some point, but have filed away and forgotten.
It did make me stop for a second and think if there was a similar list I could put together about people’s behavior in organizations. Facts that perhaps we knew, filed away and forgotten or interesting pieces of information about what people want from an organization or how organizations behave that are less well known. Anyway I thought I would see how hard it would be to put together a list and see how controversial it would be. Here are 10 of my favorites:
- Much of the differences that are talked about between people of various generations, genders, ethnicities etc. and what they want from the work environment is a myth. People, of any generation, age, ethnicity, nationality, gender, etc. fundamentally want the same things out of the work environment. There are larger differences to be found within any demographic category than across demographic categories (e.g. larger differences in the expression of an attribute (risk tolerance for instance) can be found within the male population than looking at the gap between the average male vs. the average female tolerance for risk.
- If you are not measuring it, you can’t manage it. While measurement is good in the right circumstances there are plenty of things we manage quite well without measurement. (Thank you very much!) When is the last time you took out a ruler and measured the length of your hair before getting it cut? (Excepting those who are growing their hair to a specific length for donation purposes). How often to you rate your hunger, plotting your findings on a chart before deciding to raid the refrigerator? How many people gather the opinions of professional sniffers, measuring their reactions, before deciding on whether to bathe?
- Everyone in an organization is biased. Bias is built into our humanness. It arose as a way to help us process information efficiently. We develop heuristics or rules-of-thumb to speed our decision-making. Some people are not very good at developing rules-of-thumb and then these people have a tendency to apply inaccurate rules inappropriately. People using inaccurate rules inappropriately may judge a person by superficial characteristics and not the essence of their character. This is one source of bigotry, but this tendency also helps to give rise to superstition. For example, let’s suppose one day a baseball player takes a piece of rope, ties a knot in the two ends of the rope and places it over his head as a necklace. Perhaps he used up the soap that was on the rope, but being a saver could not bring himself to discard the rope itself. That day as he is wearing his soap-on-a-rope, sans soap, he hits a home run and feels really good. The other players wanting to know his secret to success notice the rope and determine that this soap-on-a-rope, sans soap, enhanced his performance. The next day there is a run on soap-on-a-rope at the local drug store and all the players take long showers, using up the soap so they can wear the rope. A few of them have an outstanding performance that day and attribute it to the rope. Those who did not have a good day think that the rope simply has not had enough time to work yet and so wear it another day giving the rope another chance to work its magic. Word gets around. The next thing you know every player wants to wear a rope which is now selling for $125 or more instead of the $1.99 that soap-on-a-rope normally goes for. A tendency to categorize, in this case, what leads to good hitting performance, can lead to superstition.
- Perhaps due to an optimistic tendency, people tend to be poor judges of their own abilities. Ninety-five percent of us think we are in the top twenty-five percent in driving ability. Twenty-five percent of us think we are in the top one percent on leadership ability. This applies even in street gangs where on average forty percent of the members think that one day they will be running the gang. In general, there is a tendency to overestimate one’s ability. Evolutionarily, if you did not overestimate your ability, your chances of success, you might have given up on the next day’s hunt even before you started.
- The least informed among us are often the ones who are most sure of their positions. And when confronted with facts that clearly contradict their position, the tendency among these people is to dig in and proselytize others to join with them in their ill-informed point of view. After all, the thinking may go, if a lot of people believe in and have the same point of view that I have it can’t really be wrong can it? Or if we are all wrong together does that make us right?
- People tend to put intelligent intent behind what are somewhat random or spontaneous events. Again evolutionarily, if you are at the watering hole drinking your fill and the wind rustles the leaves next to you, you are better off assuming that it might be a tiger so that you can live to drink another day. If you assume it is the wind and it turns out to be a tiger, the situation has the potential to just ruin your morning. The same thing holds true in organizations with people assuming that someone higher up has a master plan and knows how everything will work out. They are just keeping it close to the vest. This is especially true during reorganizations, mergers and acquisitions and other organizational changes.
- Wishful or what is termed magical thinking is often seen in people and hence organizations. Again the perception is that some higher power or some magical bullet (e.g. the latest management fad) will take care of problems, will resolve issues. Recent research has been looking into the origins of superstitions and belief in magical powers. For a very long time we have known that people have superstitious beliefs, that certain illogical behaviors are thought to lead to desired outcomes. And other work clearly shows that these superstitious behaviors are not limited to human beings. It appears though that the brain may be hardwired for a tendency towards superstitious behavior. “The appetite for such beliefs appears to be rooted in the circuitry of the brain, and for good reason. The sense of having special powers buoys people in threatening situations, and helps soothe everyday fears and ward off mental distress. In excess it can lead to compulsive or delusional behavior.”
- Organizations don’t really exist. Maytag never came to your house to repair your washer; it was the Maytag repair person. Organizations are nothing more than an amalgamation of their people. Yet, people will hide behind the organization as a power or a decision-maker, using the “organization” to obfuscate whom within the organization actually made the decision to do what. And yet somehow the organization can do things that no one individual within the organization can bring themselves to do. The “organization” can lay off 25% of the workforce for instance, even if you were to interview every single manager and they insisted that they would not. Yes, people hide behind the “mysterious” organization as an all-knowing entity.
- Even the best of us, in certain circumstances, are capable of doing horrible things. The experiments that have been done on this prove it out beyond question.
- Even the worst of us, in certain circumstances, are capable of reforming their behavior.
This list can go on and on, was fun to generate, and I hope you feel free to add to the list, but please no superstitious beliefs or inappropriate heuristics.
© 2011 by Jeffrey M. Saltzman. All rights reserved.
Everyone and their brother is out there trying to make predictions regarding what will happen in 2011. Will the economy improve, will jobs finally begin to appear, will various wars and conflicts resolve themselves, will I get a promotion, will gasoline prices go up or down, what about the stock market, will Elvis put in an appearance, will I win the lottery, etc.?
“Psychic wins multi-millions in lottery.” I am quite certain I have never seen a headline like that. Have you? So if you were truly psychic would you waste your time doing card tricks in a lab, or spend time predicting another’s future on some side street in a second floor walkup shop or would you go for the gold, so to speak? Why waste time providing services to others if you could truly predict what was going to happen?
Why are hawkers of get rich quick schemes not getting rich on their own schemes, but are getting rich by getting others to buy into their schemes? Was P.T. Barnum right? If I could truly buy foreclosed houses and sell them for tremendous profit, why aren’t you doing that yourself rather than trying to convince me to give you my money for your secret to success?
If genius stock brokers are so good at making money, why do they need my money? Why is it not a full time job just managing all the gobs of money they are making for themselves?
I was doing work for a large Fortune 50 company. They had assembled a cross section of consulting firms to tackle an issue they wanted researched and resolved and I was invited to participate. One of the other consulting firms kept vigorously pressing their solution as the one that would resolve all of the client’s business issues, all they had to do was adopt it and pay them a lot of money. Success was guaranteed. The very large and extremely well known firm that was so strongly promoting their concepts was on the verge of bankruptcy at the time. I had to ask, in as gentle way as I could, why weren’t they employing their own magical solution in order to save their own company. I mean if it was good enough for their clients why aren’t they taking their own medicine?
As a teaching assistant in grad school, I had a question posed to me about Nostradamus that has bothered me enough that 30 years later I still remember it. A freshman student asked me if I believed in the teachings of Nostradamus. I immediately responded in the negative without giving it much thought. I knew who Nostradamus was, but my tendency was to dismiss such nonsense out of hand – it was not something I wasted time upon. The student then followed up with “Have you ever read Nostradamus”? I had to answer that “No, I hadn’t.” (I also have not read Scooby Doo or Josie and the Pussycats). Then came the obvious next line – then how can you dismiss it? I needed to have a more thoughtful reply rather than simply dismissing what to this student was a real belief. I am still kicking myself for not having a better reply handy with perhaps some facts and figures. The issue is that you can’t possibly have facts and figures at hand to reject every charlatan’s claim as there are simply too many charlatans with false claims out there. In order to deal with the flood of claims you need to develop your own heuristics that allow you to evaluate the claims one at a time in a logical fashion.
The bottom line though is that if these kinds of approaches did not work with at least some regularity with people and organizations they would no longer be used. The fact that they are not that hard to find in our day-to-day world means that they do in fact work often enough that the perpetrators of these solutions/hoaxes continue to use them.
There are a few factors that make us susceptible to these come-ons including a human’s tendency towards biases, such as confirmatory bias (accepting only information that confirms your existing beliefs and rejecting information that does not), the bandwagon effect (a desire to go along with the crowd, to fit in by believing what others believe). There is even a bias that you have, which makes you assume that you are less biased than others (well of course you don’t have that bias, only others), along with a host of others. There is also a human tendency to assume intelligent cause of an action. So that noise in the woods is more likely to be assumed to be a bear rather than just the wind, which has obvious survival benefits. And the human tendency to want to believe in higher powers, that someone at the top of the organization (no matter the size) knows what they are doing, can give the fortitude to persevere in the face of adversity. Of course each and every bias which developed because of its survival benefits also has a downside, and can make us susceptible to manipulation by others.
Any researcher, who regularly peers into datasets to read the evidence of what is contained within, must remain cognizant of the potential biasing and other factors that can cause misinterpretation of the evidence at hand. Any decision maker who understands the factors that can influence their decisions, is on a path towards making better decisions. And any person who can evaluate information coming at them from a evidence-based basis is more likely to steer clear of charlatans. Try this next time you walk into a psychic’s shop. When the proprietor asks you what they can do for you, ask them why they don’t already know.
© 2010 by Jeffrey M. Saltzman. All rights reserved.
Visit OV: www.orgvitality.com
I am feeling somewhat cynical at the moment so forgive me if this seems a bit one-sided.
What organization has not tried to present itself in as favorable a light as possible through their marketing and promotional efforts? A question for deliberation is, how far can they go before they cross the line into what could be called deception and falsehood? And what causes them to do so? The pursuit of profit? Fear of failure? A win at any cost mentality? The need to attract organizational members? A desire to maintain a harmonious employee or customer base? Simple goal attainment? Hubris?
False statements by an organization fall broadly into two categories, those that are ignored or “winked” at by society and those that carry formal penalties. For instance, false statements made by a representative of the organization during the hiring of a new employee are generally viewed as not rising to the level of needing legislative remedy to prevent, though there is the occasional civil court case. Those kinds of errors when proven, which can be very hard to do, are usually explained away as being made by an errant individual and not routine or systematized throughout the organization. False or exaggerated statements to customers about the goods and services the organization provides rarely results in formal action. And while there are classes of products, such as pharmaceuticals, that are controlled to “protect” the consumer, there are many products sold as remedies or preventatives for this and that which are largely unregulated. Many of those are worthless, and some are truly dangerous. It certainly is a buyer beware marketplace, whether you are purchasing or buying into a physical thing, a service or a point of view. False statements made to investors or regulators are assumed to be more insidious, perhaps because they are harder to pass off as simply an errant individual, and fall into a very different category, a category which carries penalties which can rise to the level of threatening the existence of the organization itself. Arthur Andersen, LLP the accounting firm which made the Enron debacle possible found that out the hard way.
An organization’s behavior and reputation are determined from an aggregation of the behaviors that those inside the company deem acceptable. You want your company to have a reputation of honesty? Then get the employees within the company to behave in an honest fashion. Reward honesty, not those behaviors that lead to dishonesty. So many organizations miss this basic point. A organization that presents falsehoods has people inside of it that feel, for some reason (perhaps they are rewarded for it), that presenting falsehoods is ok. Organizations and their resultant reputation are, to a great extent, driven by the behavior of those residing within. You don’t interact with an organization; you interact with the people of the organization. Maytag, the company, has never shown up to repair the washer, not because the washers are so reliable, but because it is the Maytag repairman or woman who shows up to fix those unbreakable machines. It is the people of the organization that define the organization. The organization itself is an abstraction.
Some companies unfortunately it seems are looking for plausible deniability. They want to claim that one set of standards are in place, say honesty, while not looking too closely at the behaviors that actually get rewarded, say dishonesty. If they officially looked too closely at it, uncovering that the system actually promotes and rewards dishonesty, they might be compelled to do something about it.
And there are those that present false information not because they are rewarded for it, but because they simply don’t have the capacity to differentiate correct from incorrect information. Justin Kruger and David Dunning coined a term, the Dunning-Kruger effect, for when a person of limited ability comes to erroneous conclusions or makes poor decisions, and their limited abilities or incompetence also prevents them from being able to recognize their mistake. Due to this, these incompetent people tend to rate their own ability as above average and suffer from what is called “illusory superiority” and live blissfully in ignorance. This is not limited to people with lower intelligence as this effect has also been demonstrated among those with significant intellectual power. It is more about a shortcoming in perception. Lake Woebegone, where all the children are above average comes to mind.
The degree to which this is happening in our society is documented in a new book by Charles Seife called “Proofiness”. The main theme of the book is that while we are used to being lied to with words, various organizations today have taken the art of lying to us with numbers to a new level. “Proofiness” is defined as “the art of using bogus mathematical arguments to prove something that you know in your heart is true — even when it’s not.” And it is related to “truthiness” which Stephen Colbert popularized and means “the quality of preferring concepts or facts one wishes to be true, rather than concepts or facts known to be true.”
Dr. Seife documents case after case of bogus numbers being used in an attempt to persuade, attempting to convince someone to sign onto a point of view, to purchase a service or product, or to simply join an organization. Those caught in the act include Supreme Court judges, (who are supposed to be above that sort of thing), politicians (which I guess is unfortunately expected), and providers of goods and services (which is called marketing).
In thinking about all this, I can’t help but be reminded of the Iraqi Information Minister at the time of the American conquest of Baghdad in 2003 who claimed that there were no American troops in Baghdad, and that the Americans were committing suicide by the hundreds at the city’s gates. At that very moment, I remember seeing news feeds of Americans patrolling the streets of Baghdad, with all opposition having apparently crumbled.
Saying something simply does not make it so, which is a concept we seem to have largely forgotten these days.
© 2010 by Jeffrey M. Saltzman. All rights reserved.
Visit OV: www.orgvitality.com
In the August 23/30th issue, Newsweek magazine printed its first ever list of the world’s best countries in which to live. They reviewed 100 countries and you can see the complete listing here. Their definition of best was “which country would provide you the very best opportunity to live a healthy, safe, reasonably prosperous, and upwardly mobile life.” Knowing the dangerous waters in which they were treading they clearly state that “people practically anywhere in the world will find something to love – and something to hate” about the listing.
The listing reminded me of a study that I did in 2006, examining the responses to employee surveys across 52 countries, 49 of which were on the Newsweek list. The number of survey item responses I examined was approximately 29 million. I decided to revisit the data and looked up the press release which was put out about the study, which you can see here.
First, a brief description of the two lists. The Newsweek list rated each country on education, health, quality of life, economic competitiveness, and political environment, combining those categories into an overall score on a scale of 1 to 100, ranging from Finland with an overall score of 89.4 to Berkina Faso at 33.6. The USA came in at 85.5. My research reviewed employee ratings of their employers on a myriad of organizational variables, such as management effectiveness, pride, satisfaction, training, communications, decision making etc. Those survey items were combined and one overall score ranging between 1 and 100 on “Employee Positiveness” based on percent of employee responding favorably was calculated for each country.
As I glanced at the Newsweek list I was struck by the number of countries at the top of their list that I recalled being at the lower end of my listing, and the number of countries at the bottom of their chart that were among the most favorably scoring from an Employee Positiveness perspective, so I took a closer look.
I examined only the 49 countries that the two lists had in common. There were 22 countries from my research that scored below the worldwide Employee Positiveness average score of 64% favorable, ranging from New Zealand at 63 to Japan at 45. Among those 22 countries from the bottom half of my distribution, 20 of them were from the top half of the Newsweek distribution. In other words, 20 of the 22 countries with the lowest scores on Employee Positiveness, scored in the top half rank on the Best Places to Live list. Among the 27 countries that scored above the worldwide Employee Positiveness average of 64, 11 of them were at in the bottom half of the Newsweek Best Places to Live list, ranging from Indonesia with an Employee Positiveness score of 77% favorable to Mayasia, Argentina, and Thailand all at 64%. The USA came in at 67%.
Using Spearman’s rank order correlation I found a -.54 (negative) correlation between the two lists comprising the 49 in common countries. This means that there is a tendency for those countries which are rated as among the Best Places to Live to have the lowest scores on Employee Positiveness. What gives?
Could it be that people who live in countries that are better performing in the areas of health, safety, providing a reasonably prosperous environment and an upwardly mobile life also create a level of discontent among the workforce? Could it be that the people with the most are just never satisfied? The Employee Positiveness scores were from employees whose companies had decided to conduct employee attitudes surveys and hence represent a sub-group of people from each country, namely, those who are employed, typically by an American or European multinational. If you examine the Newsweek list for low scoring Best Countries to Live that are high on Employee Positiveness, you find countries like Indonesia, Columbia, Guatemala, Philippines, Venezuela, and India with some of the most extreme difference scores, meaning high on one list and low on the other. These are countries that have fairly large gaps between the haves and the have not’s. So if you are working for an American or European multinational in one of those countries life is pretty good, but if you are an average Joe on the street, not so much.
The interpretation is more difficult if you are from a high scoring Best Place to Live country such as Finland, Sweden, Australia, Norway, Canada, Japan, Denmark, Germany and the Netherlands that have fairly low Employee Positiveness scores. Are these simply cultures that are more cynical, more reserved, less exuberant, could they be populated by people who are just less positive about working for larger multinational businesses?
There are two countries that standout as having fairly high scores on both Best Places to Live and Employee Positiveness. One is the United States and the other is Switzerland. In the United States we rank 11th in the world as a Best Place to Live and 14th in terms of Employee Positiveness, pretty much even in terms of rankings on the two measures. Are those of us in the USA more aware of how good we have it and have the attitude to match, or is it just a fluke? Hard to say.
I do like to think that as US employers consider where to locate jobs around the world that some of this data may be indicative of the notion that perhaps there is simply “no place like home”.
© 2010 by OrgVitality, Jeffrey M. Saltzman. All rights reserved.
Visit OV: www.orgvitality.com