Posts Tagged ‘Human Behavior’
Suppose you worked in a company that had 20,000 employees and was overall very successful, but had a dirty little secret, one that was widely shared by most of those in its employ. Those who worked in marketing, accounting, sales, human resources, treasury, logistics, engineering and most of the other departments were well treated. They were often described as being well paid. They were treated respectfully and had generous benefits. They enjoyed development opportunities, so that they could stay sharp and employable in their various professions. The company had never experienced a layoff and people felt secure in their jobs. In general people liked what they did and they liked their immediate supervisors. It was a very collegial atmosphere and after work people would often get together and visit socially. What was the dirty little secret?
Deep in the bowels of this organization’s headquarters there was one worker who did a job that was critical, more than critical, it was essential to this organization’s manufacturing process. Without this one person doing this critical job, this organization’s product could not be produced and the organization would cease to exist. It would have to shut its doors and layoff its entire staff. To say that this one person’s job was mission critical was an understatement. Unfortunately, this one job had a nasty side effect. After working at this task for 6 months the worker would perish. You see this job was 100% guaranteed to be lethal. Being on this job was a death sentence, no ifs, ands or buts. And no one could prevent, reengineer, modify or otherwise change this task from its ultimate lethal consequence. Every six months the one person who worked at this task died so that the rest of the organization, the 20,000 others could flourish. Now, also suppose that workers were hired from the outside for this job and were not told about the ultimate price that they would have to pay after working on the job after six months. They worked in ignorance, happy, well paid, until exactly on the six-month mark they would drop over dead.
How would you feel about working at that company? Would you? Supposed now that instead of one person dying every six months to ensure happiness for 20,000, it was 5, no make it 500, no let’s make it 5000. Supposed every six months, regular as clockwork, 5000 people had to die to ensure the success of the organization, so that 20,000 others could lead their lives in a secure fashion. Would you work at this organization? Would you let someone else pay that price for your security? What if it ensured the security of 20,000? Do you feel any differently about the death of one, so that 20,000 could be secure vs. the death of 5000, so that 20,000 can be secure? Should you? If you happen to be the “one” hired into this position you are just as dead after six-months as if you were “one of the 5000”. Is your one life any less valuable than the lives of 5000? Your shortened life was as meaningful and as full of happiness as anyone else’s until you took the job. What if the person toiling at this lethal task was an informed volunteer? Someone who knew the price that was to be paid, but for the sake of the 20,000 decided to pay the ultimate price. Does being a volunteer, someone willing to die at a task, so that others can live pleasant lives change anything?
Suppose instead of the total organization being 20,000 it was 20,000,000. Yes, 20,000,000 people could live happy harmonious lives, if only one-person performed a task that every six months led to their death. How would you feel about being associated with that organization now? Is one life too much to ask for the happiness of 20,000,000?
Now suppose instead of six-months carrying the death penalty for this task it was 5 years, no, let’s make it 10 years, no, let’s make that 25 years. Now, to-the-day, after 25 years on the job, each and every worker who performed this job would drop over dead. Does that make you feel any different about working for this organization?
What variables matter when it comes to paying a price as an individual so that society as a whole can benefit?
Let’s twist this just a little bit more. Suppose instead of the consequence of death being the price paid, it was that the workers on this mission critical task simply had to toil away at an assembly line sixteen hours a day, six days a week for a salary that barely allowed them to put food on the table. Instead of a quick death, after six-months, it was a very slow death, allowing them to toil away for their entire lives, barely able to stay alive at starvation wages, never able to get ahead or exit the harsh realities of their low pay world. The idea being that this group of workers being paid as little as they were allowed the organization to stay competitive globally, allowing the larger organization to flourish and all the other people within it to live happy lives. Does that change the picture? Does that make it any better?
Now, suppose you were the leader of this organization. You have the ability to decide where to locate jobs, how much to pay your workers, how to compete in the marketplace, what conditions you were going to allow some in your employ to suffer in order for the others to flourish. What would you do?
The notion of “first, do no harm” arises from the world of medicine. While that exact phraseology is not part of the Hippocratic Oath the intent is certainly there. From the original oath, “I will prescribe regimens for the good of my patients according to my ability and my judgment and never do harm to anyone.” Late in the 1800’s medical professors began to use the phrase in writings and in their lectures to students. The notion was further refined to have health care providers “consider the possible harm that any intervention might do…and recognition that human acts with good intentions may have unwanted consequences.”
As an example of good intentions having unintended consequences, it has been reported that Libyan rebels who where supported first by the United States air bombing campaign, and then NATO, overran weapons depots of the Kaddafi government, selling the mustard and nerve gas shells they obtained from those depots to the terrorist organizations Hezbollah and Hamas, through Iranian channels and funding. As the materiel was being transported through Sudan’s well known arms smuggling routes on its way to the Gaza Strip, the individuals responsible for the arms transfer mysteriously had their car hit by a missile. The good intentions of supporting the overthrow of a dictator, resulting in the unintended consequences of putting extremely lethal mustard and nerve gas into the hands of those who would not hesitate to use them on civilian population centers. Protecting civilian population centers as an ethical standard seems to apply to the Libyan rebels only when those population centers are theirs.
First, do no harm, and its implication of perfect knowledge, when taken to the extreme of unintended cause and effect has the potential of resulting in greater harm through paralysis and inaction. What are the longer term consequences, if for instance I was running a company that had expenses that were greater than income, and I chose to do nothing about it? I freeze because the consequences of the potential actions (e.g. forcing early retirements, layoffs, freezing or reducing salaries, forced part-time, cutting benefits, eliminating expenses) will result in harm to a subset of individuals, the harm however, will be greater in terms of the number of people affected when the company subsequently fails.
What if a rapidly spreading disease kills 50% of those afflicted, and I choose not to distribute a vaccine that will save the lives of 50 out of 100 afflicted people, but will result in the deaths due to allergic reactions of 5% who otherwise might survive, am I guilty of greater or lesser harm? By distributing the vaccine I can save a substantial number of lives, but by acting I will knowingly kill people, but not as many as would otherwise perish. Most choices are not easy and often have unintended consequences. But what about when people act, not taking the unintended into account at all?
Contrasting the role of behavioral expectations in the roles of medicine vs. business, Jonathan Baron of the University of Pennsylvania writes, “the positive obligations that stem from ethical codes are almost always contingent on voluntary promises and agreements. Likewise in business, almost all positive obligations arise from contracts, even if the contracts are only implicit.” His point of view would conclude that the obligations that arise from an ethical moral code are voluntary, while those that arise from business are legislated through a contract. Therefore, using this logic, obligations that arise in business cannot be assumed to be executed in an ethical manner unless they are contractual and/or by extension regulatory.
The number of and types of scandals that have been evident in American business recently seems to support this notion. In the Forbes Corporate Scandal Sheet they actually state that “ we’ll follow accounting imbroglios only–avoiding insider-trading allegations like those plaguing ImClone, since chronicling every corporate transgression would be impractical–and our timeline starts with the Enron debacle.” It then goes on to list scandals that hit 21 major companies from 2002 alone. It is easy to be cynical about ethics in corporate America when you could pick up the Wall Street Journal from virtually any day and read about some ethical scandal or another.
What are the obligations of those working for or supporting organizations that are involved in unethical or immoral practices? Should workers follow some sort of code of conduct, an oath to uphold business ethics that they take upon being hired by a company? And maybe once a year they renew their vows? Should workers be able to point to an outside moral code of conduct when an organizational leader asks them to do something that crosses the line? How could a company object?
In one study Dan Ariely, MIT professor and author of Predictably Irrational found lower levels of cheating on a test when the participants were reminded of a moral code just prior to the test. Organizations cannot actually be unethical or immoral, only people can. People are the only ones who can behave ethically or unethically and it is people who direct organizations. That is why organizations are very rarely charged with a crime, but people within organizations can be. Organizations tend to be charged only when the illegal behavior has been systematized across the institution.
The challenge will be in the definition of ethics itself. And with some of the miscommunication/varying definitions that stem from incongruous meanings of the term ethics, depending on where you sit in the organization. For a typical worker, ethics often revolves around relationships, trust, being true to your word. If the management of an organization changes the workers benefits, work schedules, overtime requirements, staffing or workloads, the management runs the risk of being seen as in violation of voluntary promises and agreements which can be deemed as unethical. Meanwhile those in management can look at those same changes and deem them as lawful and not in violation of any contract and therefore see no ethical issue. Managements see ethics as related more to following the legal letter of the law and based on this standard of ethics, if there is a legal way to break a contract that would be ethical ehavior, as would be a legal way to reduce headcount etc. Ethics is a word that holds somewhat different definitions depending on whom you are asking to define it.
But if we as a nation can derive a universal standard of business conduct, say the 15 Commandments of Business Ethics, no lets shorten it to 10 (thank you Mel Brooks), and have every worker (management as well as non-management) subscribe to those standards we may make a positive impact on what we view as ethical behavior.
Ariely, D. (2009) Our Buggy Moral Code, TED Talks, http://www.ted.com/talks/dan_ariely_on_our_buggy_moral_code.html
Baron, J. (1996). Do no harm. In D.M.. Messick & A.E. Tenbrunsel, Codes of conduct: Behavioral research into business ethics. pp. 197-213. New York: Russell Sage Foundation.
Debka, (04/07/2011) Special operations team hit top Iranian-Hamas arms smugglers in Sudan, http://www.debka.com/article/20821/
Forbes.com, The Corporate Scandal Sheet, (08/06/2002) http://www.forbes.com/2002/07/25/accountingtracker.html
Hippocratic Oath (4/17/2011) http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hippocratic_Oath.
Jolton, J. & Saltzman, J. 2008, Preventative Maintenance: How Industrial/Organizational Psychologists Can Build and Maintain an Ethical Culture, SIOP annual convention.
© 2011 by Jeffrey M. Saltzman. All rights reserved.
Visit OV: www.orgvitality.com
How things get presented is just as important as to what is being presented. People in marketing and sales have known that for a long time. Others of us have to be constantly reminded. I keep hoping that people will find my content interesting for the content’s sake and not because I have a gratuitous graphic or have surrounded the material with slick marketing. (I have nothing against graphics that add clarity). And while marketing and packaging can certainly make the product more attractive, sometimes the buyers find out that the only thing that was actually there was the marketing and packaging. But regardless, the context of how things get presented can drastically alter how they are perceived and decisions based on that perception. In all aspects of our lives how a situation is presented can dramatically impact choices made, pushing people in one direction or another, perhaps sometimes taking actions that they normally would not consider.
Many businesses are working to increase internal efficiencies and improving business processes as a survival technique during this recession. They the data I have collected suggests that they are tending to shy away from offering potentially lucrative new products and services in favor of increasing internal efficiencies and cost cutting. On the other hand, some may shy away from offering new products and services for good reason. For instance, new juxtapositions of unusual product pairings or unexpected service associations can be humorous, can give one pause, and sometimes can be alarming or even revolting. But in the spirit of helping organizations squeeze a bit more cash out of their operations, I have come up with some business expansion opportunities that perhaps with a little bit of marketing and packaging may just take off.
First imagine you were driving around in a car, reading the signs appearing in the front of storefronts and other buildings.
- You pass by a funeral home with a sign out front, “Now Serving Lunch and Dinner, Early Bird Special – No Reservations Required”. Umm…Yummy.
- You then come across a nuclear power plant that has decided to go into healing baths business and has opened a water immersion spa on its grounds. Right next to the cooling towers. Appealing right? (If you look at this one historically there is an interesting story about “healthy” radioactive waters).
- You spy in front of a road repair and paving company not a Russian, but a sign saying, “Now seeing dental patients, get your cavities filled, no waiting”. Yes I would imagine that there would be no waiting.
- Your stomach turns at the banner fluttering over the toy manufacturing company, “Try out our new line of caskets”.
- And your queasiness continues as you come across a deep water oil drilling company who has opened a fish wholesaler operation at the docks with the sign, “Cheap fish to the trade, come by and sample our deep fried fish and chips”.
Other signs make you stop and think about the larger picture. For instance, there is a sign that I always enjoy reading that is part of the artwork in a restaurant I frequent. The drawing is of an old city scene with various signs hanging in front of old stores. One sign on a lower level store front says “Lawyer 5¢ an Hour”. Above that sign is another, pointing to a second floor office and that sign says “Honest Lawyer 10¢ an Hour”. I think the assumption is that you get what you pay for.
It has been shown in the laboratory that how problems, issues or options are presented can dramatically alter the reactions that people have, how they perceive it and the choices they will make. For instance, Kahneman and Tversky developed the Asian disease problem to study how people make decisions. Say a choice had to be made between two different approaches to fight a life-threatening disease. One approach helps fewer people, but has a 100% cure rate, and the other helps a greater number of people, but has a significant mortality rate even among those helped.
When the choice has to be made between the two approaches and the choice is described in terms of how many people would be saved by each approach, the program that helps fewer people is preferred by decision-makers. When the decision is described in terms of how many lives would be lost decision-makers tend to choose the program that helps more people, even though a significant portion of those helped will die regardless. This is the case when the two approaches are matched in terms of how many people in total actually survive the illness, meaning the same number of people are either saved or die regardless of the approach. So attractiveness of these decisions is contextual, meaning how decisions get considered and made is dependent on the how the situation is presented.
Now suppose that we apply that principle to business decisions in organizations, say layoffs. Our example organization of 1500 people, 150 in management (10% of the workforce), 1350 non-management (90% of the workforce) is feeling pain, business is down, the recession is taking its toll. Customers are delaying or cancelling orders. Management is presented two options on how to cut staff that no longer has work to do.
Option one lays out a course of action which is to cut back 20% across all occupation levels. The resultant organization has 1200 employees, 120 managers (10% of the workforce) and 1080 non-mangers (90% of the workforce).
Option two is to cut the rank and file by 22% leaving management untouched. The resultant organization has 1200 employees, 150 in management (12.5% of the workforce) and 1050 in non-management (87.5% of the workforce).
In both options the same total number of people are employed and the same number will lose will lose their jobs. If someone wanted to potentially influence the course of action taken how might they go about it? Research suggests that the options will seem more attractive when presented from the standpoint of how many people will remain employed, and less attractive if discussed in terms of the number of those to be laid off. If option one was discussed in terms of the number of jobs saved and option two discussed in terms of number of jobs lost you can make option one appear more attractive than option 2 and vice versa. Is it possible that business decisions are influenced by the context in which they are presented? Now this example casts a rather simplistic light on how a serious discussion like laying off workers should unfold, but the point is how the argument is made will affect the attractiveness of the approaches and options described. Knowing this and being aware of how arguments can influence you by the way they are presented can help you make better decisions.
© 2010 by OrgVitality, Jeffrey M. Saltzman. All rights reserved.
Visit OV: www.orgvitality.com
The advertisement, sitting in the front window, visible to all passersby was attempting to lure potential customers into the store. “Don’t see what you like?” “Come on in.” Makes you scratch your head a bit, until you find out that the store was an optometrist shop. Context. Context can take some information or behavior that might seem very odd to you and by giving it some perspective have it make perfect sense.
There is a parasite, a protozoan, which lives in the stomach of rats. At a certain point in its life cycle, it will cause the rat to become less wary of cats and to become attracted to cat smells. The infected rats search out cat smells and when found the cats tend to oblige and eat the rat. What could drive the parasite to induce this fatal behavior in its host? The parasite can only reproduce in the stomach of cats.
It has been shown that children infected with Malaria are more attractive to healthy mosquitoes. Why? The malaria-causing protozoan, Plasmodium falciparum which spends part of its life cycle in mosquitoes and part of its life cycle in humans, does not leave its reproduction, and hence the spread of malaria, completely up to chance. Once it has infected its human host it somehow (exact mechanism still unknown, but smell seems to be a possibility), makes its human host more attractive to mosquitoes so it can complete its lifecycle and reproduce.
There is an old joke where two mothers are talking. One mother says to the other, “My son”, says the mother proudly, “has two Ph.D.’s, one in psychology and one in economics.” “You must be very proud of him,” says the second mother. “Yes I am,” replies the first. “He can’t get a job, but at least he knows why.” Context.
Seemingly strange and odd behaviors abound all around us. We would be remiss to think that these behaviors occur only outside of the working environment. We interpret co-workers behaviors each and every day and yet we often have very little context to base those interpretations upon. We, as humans, have a tendency to jump to conclusions and to quickly categorize what we observe as a way to reduce the amount of information processing we need to do. This has both beneficial effects, we don’t get paralyzed with analysis, and negative effects, we may be jumping to inappropriate conclusions based on our lack of context. Next time, as an experiment, before you quickly categorize what you observe try to place additional context around it and see if you draw the same conclusions.
I was driving home the other day and in a neighboring town I passed a stately funeral home that was located right next door, so close they were almost touching, to a self-storage facility. No, couldn’t be….
© 2010 by Jeffrey M. Saltzman. All rights reserved.
I was in Las Vegas for a business meeting that finished on a Friday afternoon and needed to be in Lincoln, Nebraska for a Monday morning meeting. Instead of heading all the way back to NY for an abbreviated weekend, I decided to spend the weekend in Lincoln. I was up early Sunday morning, and after reading a story in the New York Times about a reporter who went looking for gang members in Salisbury, North Carolina, and ended up getting arrested himself, I decided to head out and look for gang members in Nebraska.
I made myself a peanut butter sandwich to take with me for lunch, not being sure about the food that would be available to me in jail. I stopped at the front desk and told the clerk that I was researching information about gang activity in Nebraska and could she tell me where to find the nearest gang members I could talk to. She tilted her head at me and her jaw dropped a bit, clearly she was not going to spill the beans. These gangs must have had her so terrified that she wouldn’t talk to me about where to find them. I took off on my own in search of Nebraska’s gangs.
I wanted to learn more about the attributes of gang membership. Why do people join these organizations, what makes membership attractive, what do members get out of the organization and what do they put into it and importantly how can we get people out of gangs and into productive endeavors?
From my hotel, I turned right onto 70th Street and headed to the north side of town. Along the way I passed a VA medical center which looked like it had quite a crowd, perhaps a gang gathering place. Upon investigation the cars belonged to members of the medical staff, no gangs here. I then passed a large YMCA, which has a reputation as a gathering place, perhaps I could find gang members there, but as it was early Sunday morning its parking lots were empty. I continued on my way and then spotted two very large windmills, a logical meeting place on a rise as gang members would be able to spot trouble coming from a long way off. By the time I got there though the gangs had likely seen me coming and had melted away. I turned around, winding my way through town and headed south on Route 2, the Nebraska Highway, towards a town called Nebraska City, population 7,228, as it has been rumored to be troubled by gangs. About half way there I came across a burnt out pickup truck on the side of the road. Based on my experiences in the Bronx this definitely looked gang related, things were looking up.
Youth gangs and criminal gangs are an ongoing and terrible problem, not just in the USA but world-wide. We need to look carefully at the motivators of gang membership and do what we can to disrupt the cycle, the reasons that people, especially the young join gangs. A good number of gifted young adults have their potential lost to a life of entrapment in gang membership – a lifelong dead-end. Interestingly, one of the attractors of gang membership is that the gang provides attributes and an environment that the person otherwise can not get. Some of the attributes are strikingly similar to what other kinds of organizations strive for. In other words people are once again similar and are looking for certain attributes in their lives and if they can’t get it from one source they will get it elsewhere, from where it is available. The National Gang Crime Research Center, in a massive study on gang behavior including data from North Dakota, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Massachusetts, New Jersey, North Carolina, Florida, Georgia, Tennessee, Mississippi, Texas, Louisiana, California, Ohio, Illinois, Indiana, and Iowa found these characteristics (an abbreviated and slightly edited list) of gangs and gang member in those areas:
- Members were more likely to have close friends within the gang.
- Over half utilize special codes (somewhat like acronyms).
- Two thirds have written rules and procedures regarding behavior.
- Four-fifths report leadership has long term tenure.
- Half have taken action to create financial gain for their gang.
- Half report regular weekly meetings in their gang.
- A common reason they joined was to make money.
- Another reason was to seek protection and security.
- About half were recruited, and half applied to join the gang.
- Many said they would quit given the right circumstances.
- Most of the gangs have female members.
- About half of the gangs have female members in a leadership capacity, but in a more supportive or middle-management role.
- About two-thirds felt that the gang has kept its promises to them.
- A third report they have never met the top leader.
- A new twist on unrealistic expectations: Two-fifths felt they would someday be the top leader.
- About half agreed that they feel protected and loved by their gang.
- Most report wearing special articles of clothing or clothing of certain colors.
The list produces a somewhat eerie feeling, as it could be a list of any organization’s attributes and why people tend to join or leave them.
I got to Nebraska City and found a cabin on the side of the road dating back to the mid 1800’s. An historical placard indicated that it had been a stop on the Underground Railroad, a place were slaves fleeing for their freedom found welcoming refuge. The sign next to it indicated that John Browne, the abolitionist, had been there about a half a dozen times. It lifted my spirits as clearly this was a spot where people were used to secret signals and hidden gatherings. I was on my way to finding gang members.
I continued onward into Nebraska City and followed the signs to Lied Lodge and Convention Center and Arbor Farm, an organization devoted to planting trees. Upon parking and entering their building, I was struck by how beautiful it was. The building was graceful and well designed with soaring ceilings, massive stone fireplaces surrounded by massive tree-trunk sized supporting beams holding up wood beamed ceilings. Large leather overstuffed couches and chairs filled a reception area and a piano player was stroking the keys of a grand piano in the corner. I sank into one of the chairs to listen for a while to the soothing music. This was nice. I looked up and saw a sign draped high over the reception desk saying “sign up, become a member”. A gang of tree lovers, I could definitely get into this! I immediately went over to the desk and began to ask questions about the requirements to join this group. I then went for a walk through the trails munching on my peanut butter sandwich, as I had yet to see a police officer during my searching.
On my way back to Lincoln, I pulled into Eagle, Nebraska population 1,105. I passed a dirt track raceway where people gather to see races, I suspect gang members among them. In town I saw a older guy standing on the corner next to the post office, cane in hand. I flashed him the secret hand signal indicating that I wanted to talk to him about his gang. He gave me a blank stare. Boy the gangs here are tough, not willing to recognize the secret signal for having a conversation.
In general, people want to belong, they want to feel they are part of something and it is very compelling when that something makes them feel valued, makes them feel that are doing something special, it can make them feel proud. One reason that gangs have been so hard to break up is because many times gang members feel like they have no alternatives, they are driven into the gang by a sense of helplessness with their life as it existed. The gang, however awful, provides an alternative. The same parallels could be drawn for many terrorist organizations as well.
In Philadelphia the Chief of Police is calling for 10,000 men to help police patrol the city to reduce the crime wave that is drowning that city, presumably a portion gang related. However, while it is a start, it is generally recognized that putting people on the street will not solve the issue completely. “Amid the weed-strewn lots and boarded-up buildings of North Philadelphia, one of the city’s toughest neighborhoods, the six men who gathered to talk, drink and play cards say the young people who pull guns and deal drugs need jobs, recreation centers, after-school programs and, most of all, parents who care for them.” (New York Times, September 29, 2007).
On Monday morning, I headed to my business meeting. It was just a gang of us getting together to do some sales planning – of course I can’t tell you what we discussed, it was a confidential, secret meeting.
“Bloom where you are planted”
Anonymous sign at the edge of a corn field on Route 34
© 2010 by Jeffrey M. Saltzman. All rights reserved.
Visit OV: www.orgvitality.com
“We are what we repeatedly do.” – Aristotle
The other day I tried to track down the origins of the joke “How do you get to Carnegie Hall?” My recollection of the response was “Practice, Practice, Practice”. I had thought that it was an old Jack Benny joke. To my surprise I found many different potential origins to that joke but the one I liked and settled upon was the version that had violinist Jascha Heifitz being hailed by a man on a New York street. The man asks Heifitz, “How do you get to Carnegie Hall?” And Heifitz replies, without missing a beat, “Practice!”
There are two important components to the response of “Practice”. One aspect of practicing is that you know the piece and can play it correctly. The better violinists can also play with emotion, giving the piece “life”. A second component of “Practice”—one much less talked about—is that you deliver the piece in a consistent manner time after time. When the audience lays down the dollars to see you play at Carnegie Hall they get what they pay for. Again, from Heifitz: “If I don’t practice one day, I know it. If I don’t practice two days, my critics know it. If I don’t practice for three days, everyone knows it.”
The need for consistency
The need for consistency is pervasive. People are looking for consistency in their personal lives; organizations are looking for consistency as they deal with other organizations. Customers are looking for consistency as they interact and purchase either products or services. The attainment of consistency is a very powerful organizational tool—a tool that can greatly increase organizational performance; a tool that I believe is underutilized.
The philosophy of consistency is at a unique crossroads. It is one place where personality theory and organizational theory merge. Let me explain. There has been much effort expended on trying to understand people—what makes them tick. How do we classify their personality and abilities, from a personnel standpoint how do we select for certain characteristics that are more likely to lead to success on the job, how to develop them, etc. The desire for consistency is a characteristic that can be used to describe people. In fact, a Consistency Theory dating back to the 1950s utilizes a concept called cognitive dissonance. (“The discomfort of cognitive dissonance occurs when things fall out of alignment, which leads us to try to achieve a maximum practical level of consistency in our world” – Festinger 1957). The theory states that people have a strong innate desire for consistency.
Organizations have a strong need for consistency as well—after all organizations are nothing more than a group of people. An organization that makes maximal use of consistency in its performance from a product standpoint (uniformity of product—zero defects), from a customer service standpoint (customers have a similar experience each and every time they interact with your organization), and from an employee management standpoint will outperform the competition. At the same time, consistency is not some magical elixir that will solve all our problems. We live in a real world which is complex and has many critical, complex interactions for us to deal with and no single solution works for all problems. Consistency, though, when viewed correctly can become part of a larger whole, a piece of the puzzle that helps organizations maximize performance.
Managers within organizations are constantly faced with challenges. Oftentimes they need to produce more with fewer resources while maintaining quality. This requires a constant evaluation of processes and procedures to increase efficiency. (One coping mechanism that some managers use is to simply put in more hours. While this may work for the short term, over the long term real efficiency will only be obtained by rethinking processes and procedures.) What is a manager to do within an organization when faced with the real need to constantly change, to innovate in order to stay competitive in today’s fast changing world—especially when the natural tendency of many is toward consistency”?
The customer viewpoint
If you examine some of the most successful organizations, one thing stands out very clearly— their customers get what they expect. Consistency of performance helps drive that success. Some of these organizations even work it into their slogans and sales mantras—having, consistently, the lowest prices in a retail environment, or in a hotel chain having the same comfortable bed in each room have become mainstays of advertising campaigns. For other organizations it simply becomes part of what customers expect. People don’t go to some of the fast food shops for exquisite cuisine, they go because they know what they are going to get—fast food at a good price. The philosophy of “location, location, location” is critical in the retail (and many other) environments but you could add to that “consistency, consistency, consistency”
This is not only true at the end user consumer level but is also true for business to business customers. Can you imagine if an airplane manufacturer turned out planes of the same model that performed inconsistently? Some flew better at 5000 feet and some flew better at 30,000 feet? Or if a chemical plant could not deliver a consistent chemical composition to their product?
People and organizations are not only looking for consistency of performance to help deal with the world in which we live; it is crucial for success. Consistency is closely tied to predictability, and predictability is what organizations depend upon and what helps individuals cope in a complex world. This is the whole crux of the billions of dollars that have been spent on quality programs over the years. Six-Sigma has focused on the removal of variance from our products and from work processes, making them more consistent. The consistency of a product or the employment situation also helps organizations build trust, the trust of the customer and the trust of the employee.
The principles of Six-Sigma can be applied successfully to help improve organizational culture, creating a more performance oriented culture. In order to know if the performance of the organization is indeed consistent it helps tremendously to have consistent performance measures and to aggregate those performance measures in a consistent fashion across geographies and business units. Displaying that information in a consistent fashion to help in corporate decision making is also very powerful and can be a challenging effort.
The employee at work
So what about the employee at work? Do these concepts of consistency hold within the working environment? I would argue that they do.
What if you walked into your place of employment each day and were met by inconsistency—a quantum mechanics of unpredictable behavior if you will. One day being late was measured by being at work at 5 minutes past the hour, the next day it was 1 minute. One day you walk in and your boss is helpful in all aspects, helping you manage your workload and the next day the boss is extremely difficult to deal with. One day your job is to perform task A by procedure B and the next day it changes to procedure C, only to change back to B the following day for no apparent reason. What is an employee to do? Any attempt by employees to develop coping mechanisms to deal with what is expected of them would be futile and because of the changing standards by definition they would end up failing. In a situation like this trust would also fall by the wayside.
I am not advocating the blind adherence to a rigid set of rules for organizational decision making. That would be a disaster. Good decision making may require setting up systems that allows managers to be consistently flexible (often within a framework), rather than adherence to a set of fixed rules. The consistency here is that managers are allowed to exercise their judgment, and given the appropriate tools so that good decisions can be made. As the environment changes (and it will need to change), employees need to be brought along—informed as to the rationale behind the decisions—and the consistency of the decision processes and outcomes desired need to be pointed out.
Is everyone really looking for consistency? What about dare devil thrill seekers? Certainly they are not looking for consistency or boring routine. Well in fact they are. Take for instance bungee jumping. One aspect of what they desire is the adrenaline rush, the thrill, associated with jumping, even though most of us would be more than a little reluctant to try it. If they lost the adrenaline rush my guess is that they would move on to other activities. They have different needs than many of us, a different threshold for what they are looking for—to satisfy those needs, but it does not mean they are not looking for consistency in those more dangerous pursuits.
Psychologists have relatively recently created a theory of personality called “The Big 5”. It consists of five dimensions of personality that are supposed to be overarching in describing people and their personality. One of those dimensions is “openness to new experiences”. A group of people, if you measure them on this trait, would differ on where they fall along the scale of being complex and open to new experiences to being conventional and uncreative. I am not implying in this work that people are not different. People are different and selecting the best fit for the various positions within your organization is critical. However, taking into consideration the various differences between people, there will be a fairly strong tendency for people to look for situations that delivers to them consistency—the consistency that they need.
Don’t fall into the trap, though, of thinking that consistency of performance means stagnation—little growth, no innovation, no increase in organizational effectiveness. That is absolutely not true. To be successful a company can be, needs to be consistently innovative and nimble (among other things) and organizations can absolutely create an environment allowing that to occur.
How to create consistency in the work environment
There are many things companies can do to create that environment. For instance, some of the data I have seen over the years strongly suggests companies with stronger diversity programs are able to deliver more consistently on business outcomes such as innovation, customer service and other performance metrics. It seems that the very act of organizations being diverse and allowing diverse people to feel that they have equal opportunity to excel and achieve allows for greater differences in thinking to occur and hence spurs innovation. It does not mean that your product or service is delivered to your customers in an inconsistent fashion. If that is occurring it has nothing to do with diversity, but rather poor process control – inconsistency.
Another aspect I have studied over the years is whether there are generational differences in what employees are looking for out of the employment situation. While the entire answer of what employees are looking for is somewhat complex, the bottom line is that there are larger intra-generational differences than inter-generational differences. In other words, within any particular generation you will find a range of people with differing desires and those differences within generations are larger than cross generational differences.
The fundamentals of what people are looking for in the employment situation are extremely consistent. How you deliver on those fundamentals is what may change. I have looked at this from gender, geographic, ethnic, cultural and generational perspectives and always come to the same conclusion.
However what I have also seen is that there are no magic silver bullets. Simply putting in a diversity program or a Six-Sigma program, or any other program in a vacuum, standardizing it regardless of the situation, without looking at what is going on in the organization as a whole is another recipe for disaster. You are likely not to address root causes and are likely telling your managers “here is the silver bullet – the magic” (at least for the next 6 months until it fades away).
There are additional sound practices that can be followed and implemented by organizations that can greatly help them achieve consistency. Let me focus on a few elements, the elements that I believe are most critical.
The fundamentals of creating consistency for employees in the work environment first centers around content and consistency of “organizational message”, describing for employees what the organization is about and their role in achieving that goal and then sticking to that message. I am making the assumption that the organization gets that original message right. This is critical. You don’t want to stick to the wrong message.
I am not talking about mission, vision and value statements, though at times those can help, I am talking about strategy and goals, but I mean strategy and goals not only at the corporate level but also down at the personal level. What do I need to do in order that my department, division, BU etc. be successful? (Together these 5 components are often called an organizational charter.) The organization needs to understand who it is and what will make it successful in its market, and needs to convey that to its employees in a way that makes them feel like they are doing meaningful work. Secondly, the organization needs to provide the employee what they need to get their own jobs done – done in congruence with the organizational goals. Thirdly, the employee needs to feel appreciated for what they have accomplished and see a future for themselves within the organization. Message, Performance, Future (MPF) is an action focused framework that can be used to guide organizations. Three questions should be kept in mind as a manager thinks through this framework:
- Message: Am I sending the right message in a consistent fashion throughout my organization?
- Performance: Are people getting what they need (in the broadest sense) to be able to deliver on that message – to get the job done?
- Future: Do people feel recognized and feel like they have a future with this organization?
I recall presenting the results of a culture survey to a high level executive of a very large firm. In comparison after comparison to other firms on similar items, his company was scoring well above average and in fact was benchmark on a number of items, until we got to pay. When I went over the pay items with him the results for the organization were rather average. He was perplexed about how his organization, which scored highly on many items could be so average on pay. I asked “what is your pay strategy”? The response was without hesitation “to pay about average”.
The point is that you get what you work towards and if you looked at a list of the top performing organizations on different aspects of performance and culture, you would be looking at lists of different organizations. Who is the most innovative, the most nimble, provides the fastest service, the best customer service, who has the best prices, the highest quality, the most dedicated employees? No organization has the resources, the time or the energy to do everything at the level of “the best in the world”. Management may feel it is a requirement to strive for that, but it is simply not realistic. Mission critical then for each individual organization is to figure out what it needs to excel upon, to be first in its industry upon, the “best in the world” and to concentrate on those objectives.
Organizations need to do most things at a minimally acceptable level, to be competent (the price of admission) and I would argue that the minimally acceptable level can be a changing target over a relatively short period of time. You need to get the “engineering” right, to have good products, you need to be able to send out bills correctly, provide good customer service, you need to have effective sales and marketing etc.
Picking the items to be the best in the world at, constantly improving your delivery on those items, monitoring your performance so you know how you are performing is what will give an organization an unbeatable competitive advantage.
Delivering on that list of “we will be the best at….” requires that you get all of your business processes focused on those objectives, making sure that they are in alignment. All processes that effect all constituents should be examined, the processes that impact your customers, your suppliers, and those that affect your employees. It will require that the organization create and managers can work in a consistent environment. That environment can be consistently creative, nimble, innovative, diverse, customer focused, etc. I have seen organizations and managers operate this way successfully and you can too, but it will require plenty of “practice, practice, practice”.
© 2010 by Jeffrey M. Saltzman. All rights reserved.
Visit OV: http://www.orgvitality.com
Phillip Zimbardo did some of the most interesting, depressing work ever done by a psychologist. He showed how just how easily one person or group can dehumanize another. His experiment was called the Prison Experiment and was conducted at Stanford in 1971 (see http://www.zimbardo.com/zimbardo.html for more information). In this experiment a group of college student volunteers were randomly split into 2 groups. One group became “prisoners” and the other became “guards”. After a short period of time due to the situation the “guards” and “prisoners” found themselves in, drastic changes in behavior began to occur; behavior that demonstrated that situational cues, rather than actual differences in people, caused one group to behave very poorly to another. In fact the situation became so dire that the experiment was concluded ahead of schedule. From Dr. Zimbardo’s website: “At this point it became clear that we had to end the study. We had created an overwhelmingly powerful situation — a situation in which prisoners were withdrawing and behaving in pathological ways, and in which some of the guards were behaving sadistically. Even the “good” guards felt helpless to intervene, and none of the guards quit while the study was in progress….And so, after only six days, our planned two-week prison simulation was called off.”
This experiment sadly demonstrated how poorly people can behave toward other people using situational cues, peer pressure and expectations to drive their behavior, cues that often have nothing to do with the persons themselves. This pattern of dehumanizing behavior has occurred repeatedly throughout human history and is sadly, certainly to be repeated once again in the future.
Africa, the birthplace of humanity, has certainly seen is share of suffering and inhumanity over the ages. It is both very poor and very rich at the same time. Very poor in terms of how groups treat each other, leading to some extremely violent, really terrible behavior, very poor in it’s history of human rights, in it legendary corruption and constant vying for power by some dictator or another; and for some reason poor in the willingness of the world to lend a hand in a way that can make a lasting difference. Africa though is rich in mineral, timber and oil resources and in today’s world it was only a matter of time until China with its growing thirst for resources cast an eye towards Africa. When I first read about this I have to admit to feeling a ray of hope. Maybe the Chinese can succeed where everyone else has failed. Maybe the Chinese can help lift that continent out of the pattern of almost perpetual bad news. The Chinese were able to turn a huge country that was essentially poverty stricken into a growing economic juggernaut. Could some of what they learned work in Africa?
China for a long time had been among the have not’s in the world; taken advantage of and looked down upon by others. In one instance, the opium wars (also called the Anglo-Chinese wars) were fought to ensure the British right (in the second opium war the French fought along side the British) to import opium into China (opium had been outlawed within Britain, but was apparently ok to import into China). The opium trade in China had very serious negative consequences on individual health and the economic health of China, consequences that the British chose to ignore, as their main concern was balancing their trade deficit. Additionally, China was forced to cede control of Hong Kong in perpetuity to Britain. (The New Territories were ceded for 99 years and over the years the New Territories became crucial to Hong Kong’s ability to function; water, food and other resources came from there, and the British were forced to give Hong Kong back as well as the New Territories when the term expired as Hong Kong was not viable without the New Territories). The Japanese during World War II treated the Chinese very poorly (as well as a host of others), looking down upon them as somehow something less than human. In Nanjing China, the Japanese army it is estimated killed over 300,000 civilians and POWs, and raped at least 20,000 women during a two-month period. The means used to kill these people are almost beyond description. There is virtually no country in the world, some to a lesser extent, and some to a greater extent, which does not have versions of these sordid acts in their own history – including the USA. The point is not to single out any one country but to paint a general pattern that describes how mankind can be inhuman to mankind.
China is now rapidly becoming one of the world’s haves. And given its history, the trauma that the Chinese have suffered over the years would it be possible that the Chinese would take a fresh approach in their dealings with Africa and other have not’s? Can they break the mold of “situational judgment”, whereby certain characteristics are ascribed to a person because of the environment they are in and not who they really are? Have their own personal experiences prepared them to interact in a more positive fashion with today’s have not’s? The verdict is still out, but there are some troubling signs emerging.
Appearing in the International Herald Tribune (February 17th, 2007) is this excerpt from the opinion page. “China’s president, Hu Jintao, recently completed a 12-day, 8-nation African tour in which he dispensed billions of dollars’ worth of debt relief, discounted loans and new investments….Beijing’s huge purchases of oil and other resources have made it the continent’s third-largest trading partner…China’s oil appetite has drawn it into an ugly partnership with Sudan, which is waging a genocidal war in Darfur that has already killed at least 200,000 people. Chinese mining investors in Zambia, as focused on the bottom line as any capitalists, have drawn complaints from workers and environmentally minded neighbors. China’s lending banks do not subscribe to the international guidelines, known as the Equator Principles, that are used to monitor and manage the social and environmental impact of major outside investments. And a flood of cheap Chinese manufactured goods has pushed some of the poorest and most marginal workers deeper into poverty and unemployment…China isn’t the first outside industrial power to behave badly in Africa. But it should not be proud of following the West’s sorry historical example.”
And appearing on the on the cover of The Wall Street Journal (February 2nd, 2007) is the story of Chambishi, Zambia. “Set amid rolling hills in Zambia’s copper belt, Chambishi was supposed to be a showcase of Sino-African friendship. China’s state metals conglomerate…bought the mothballed copper mine here in 1998, bringing plenty of jobs and investments. Initial gratitude, however, quickly turned into seething discontent, as the new Chinese owners banned union activity and cut corners on safety. In 2005, dozens of locals were killed in a blast at the Chinese explosives facility serving the mine – the worst industrial accident in Zambia’s history. Then, the following year, protesting Zambian employees were sprayed with gunfire. ‘The Chinese, they don’t even consider us to be human beings…They think they have the right to rule us’”, says a former miner who says he was shot by a Chinese supervisor.
Sometimes extreme events accentuate behavior patterns and can serve as a magnifier of experiences we have in our day to day lives. Lessons learned from extreme events can bring clarity to how more common situations can be successfully worked through. For instance people face traumas as organizations merge, acquire, downsize, and reorganize. Some organizations do a much better job than others in dealing with these traumas and the employee’s associated stress. These organizational traumas are no different than larger traumas that people would experience when facing the death of a spouse, child or parent, or living through a terrorist attack, the degree of the trauma is the difference. Larger traumas can magnify human reactions and allow us to see more clearly our needs and shortcomings.
Some organizations over the years have created “classes” of people that are somehow looked down upon, not part of the team. In organizations with poor labor/management relations, militant unions can arise. What is management’s typical response to the rise of unions? Is it to look inward and say what have we done that has created conditions where our employees (often called our most valuable asset) felt the need to form or join a union? And how can we correct this situation? Some management’s will respond appropriately, others will seek to dehumanize the employees and the unions, just as the “guards” in Phil Zimbardo’s experiment did to the “prisoners”.
A case in point comes from a story appearing in the Wall Street Journal (February 9th, 2007), about the US Air Marshall Service. After 911 the Service greatly expanded but grueling schedules, lack of advancement, onerous rules affecting one’s ability to get the job done, lack of identity protection have resulted in “many” (in the words of other Marshalls) quitting the Service. What was the response from the head of the Service? He called the complainers “disgruntled amateurs, insurgents, and organizational terrorists” – and the response of the Marshalls? They joined a union. Luckily there is now a new head of the US Air Marshall Service.
Interestingly within it own borders China is passing laws that give greater protection to workers and increasing authority to unions. The enforcement of those laws is still questionable. The Chinese Embassy in the USA cites a report to the Chinese government that documented a few of the worker abuses that occur:
- According to the results of a survey, payment of 36.6 billion yuan (4.4 billion US dollars) in wages for urban workers was delayed by employers across China in 2000, and the figure may exceed 40 billion yuan to date.
- For migrant workers, mostly poor farmers, the situation is even worse. Experts put the delayed payment of wages for them at 100 billion yuan annually, and it is not unusual for them to get no pay for overtime.
- Workshop safety remains a problem for many workers, mostly those working for private or some overseas-funded plants. In Leqing city of Zhejiang Province, east China, trade union officials said about 5,000 migrant workers lost some of their fingers last year while working at poor quality punches without safety devices. Those injured were kicked out of the plants by their bosses with little financial compensation, which is against the law, the officials said.
This description of the US Air Marshall Service, the state of labor relations within China and China’s behavior in Africa are simply more severe, magnified descriptions of what happens within our own organizations on a routine basis. Organizations are made up of humans, humans that are subject to all of our nobility, all of our frailty, and our shortcomings. Can we learn from Phil Zimbardo and make our organizations truly better places to inhabit or will this lesson of dehumanizing those that are different from us, those that often times simply due to economic conditions find themselves with fewer options? Can we evolve into something more than we are today? On good days when you read about some of the truly inspiring efforts of people trying to help others I am filled with hope, and other times when I read a story of a supervisor shooting an employee to keep the others in line, or of a factory throwing out an employee who lost their fingers while working as though they were no more than damaged goods…I just don’t know.
“I am somehow less interested in the weight and convolutions of Einstein’s brain than in the near certainty that people of equal talent have lived and died in cotton fields and sweatshops”. – Stephen Jay Gould
© 2010 by Jeffrey M. Saltzman. All rights reserved.
Visit OV: www.orgvitality.com
How important are words? Do words have the power to shape our thinking or are they nothing more than a reflection of what our minds are already processing, giving substance to existing abstractions floating in our heads? That is the essence of a debate that has gone on now for more than 100 years. Think for a minute of the words we use to describe numbers, one, two, ten, fifty. Are we naturally inclined to develop words to describe numbers? Do the words themselves, the words that we have made up to signify quantities give us the ability to think both abstractly and concretely about numbers, or is the ability to think numerically built into the structure of our brain? Said another way, is the ability to think logically about quantities an inherent ability, independent of language, and the words we have developed simply an expression of that ability or do the words shape our ability to think in a numerical sense?
There is a tribe from Brazil, the Pirahã, who have no word for the number one or any other exact quantity. This is apparently the first group ever studied that has no concept for the number one. A new study undertaken demonstrates that the Pirahã can still convey quantity somewhat but are essentially using words that mean few, some and more. Other researchers contend that the words they are using mean one, two and many. In either case in Pirahã society the need for being able to quantify things precisely and hence develop a language system that allows for that was not a cultural priority.
As strange as you might find it, that there is a society without words for specific numbers, remember that the first evidence for the use of the concept of zero is from the Sumerians in Mesopotamia about 5000 years ago. From there it traveled to the Indus Valley, and was used in Hindu society. In the Indus Valley it was picked up by Arab merchants and became very important in their trade and spread throughout Arab society. The Greeks only occasionally used the concept and Romans had no concept of zero (for those of you who remember Roman numerals try writing zero). On the other side of the globe the Maya independently invented their own version of zero. The concept of zero slowly migrated around the world and did not make it into European society until the late middle ages, as Europe was stubbornly holding on to the use of the Roman traditional counting system rather than adopting new methods. So while we take zero for granted today, it is a relatively new concept for western culture.
Do words shape our thinking? One urban legend states that Eskimos who live in snowy places, and hence deal with snow more regularly than most of us have developed many more words than exist in English to describe types of snow. That is apparently not true. First off Eskimos are not a unitary people and of the many groups that consist of Eskimos, many different languages exist. Second the language structure of these groups is different, allowing for combinations that do not exist in English, making comparison between the numbers of words that exist to describe snow very difficult. They may or may not have a few more words than in English to describe snow but it is certainly not hundreds as the urban legend claims.
There are words that have been consistently used to reinforce messages of hatred, words that need no repetition here. Those words tend to be used over and over to denigrate others within societies around the world. Does the constant use of words of hatred reinforce the pattern of biased and bigoted thinking within the minds of those who use them or are they simply an expression of what is already there? Clearly some believe that words of hatred create beliefs and behaviors of hate, as there are school children in various locations who are learning the vocabulary of hatred and to hate as part of their daily lessons. But what then happens to these children later on? Can they ever put the hatred aside once it becomes part of what they are, part of their essence? The future for the majority of children who grow up on hatred looks very bleak and greatly saddens me.
There is a raging debate going on about the vocabulary of rap music. Words that denigrate are built into the lyrics of certain performers. These words perpetuate negative stereotypes but are rationalized as somehow being ok since they are coming from within a community. I can’t agree with this at all. I strongly believe in first amendment rights but people should be aware of what they are doing and the implications of the choices they make. Words of hate will have hateful results – regardless of the source. Just as yelling “fire” in a crowded theater is not protected speech, yelling out hate filled words for mass distribution should not be protected speech as well.
Stringing together words of hatred into sentences can produce what some would call jokes. Jokes made at the expense of others, jokes that denigrate others for being different or being perceived as a threat to those giving word to those statements of hatred, hatred couched in supposedly humorous terms.
Each organization also has a vocabulary, words that they use in their day-to-day operations. (I am not talking about acronyms.) How important are the words that get used in our organizations? They can be no less important than the impact that words have in our everyday lives and in our shared histories. Developing unique organizational vocabularies that allows for both abstract reasoning and concrete discussions on the issues critical to the organization’s success may give an organization a competitive edge. Unique vocabularies, ways of expression may allow the organization to consider concepts and ways of working that competitors are unable to replicate. Words are important, they have power and they have impact and they should be used with care. People when speaking for themselves need to choose their words with care. People when speaking on behalf of organizations need to choose their words with care as well.
© 2010 by Jeffrey M. Saltzman. All rights reserved.
“It is the peculiar and perpetual error of the human understanding to be more moved and excited by affirmatives than by negatives.” – Francis Bacon
Curses are another form of wishful or magical thinking, and though there are positive curses, most of the time they are thought of in a negative sense, in an attempt to bring harm to someone else or another organization. While most people use curses as a way to relieve pent up feelings of anger, maybe helping to prove wishful thinking’s health benefits, others will utilize curses believing that they will bring benefit to themselves while harming others. Since there seems to be a built-in tendency on the part of the human brain towards wishful thinking, and that human thought can alter events and even objects, it is no wonder that so many people actually believe in magical or wishful thinking and its power to affect events.
Appearing February 6th in the New York Times is a story about a small research lab at Princeton University. “Over almost three decades, a small laboratory at Princeton University managed to embarrass university administrators, outrage Nobel laureates, entice the support of philanthropists and make headlines around the world with its efforts to prove that thoughts can alter the course of events… The laboratory has conducted studies on extrasensory perception and telekinesis from its cramped quarters in the basement of the university’s engineering building since 1979…. But at the end of the month, the Princeton Engineering Anomalies Research laboratory, or PEAR, will close, not because of controversy but because, its founder says, it is time.” The history of wishful and magical thinking is long and is enticing to many of our fellows on this planet, especially in places where the basic tenets of science are not well established.
The very best curses (if there can be such a thing) in my opinion are those that make you stop and think about what they really mean. Three curses that fit that description and are linked together (their origin is a bit unclear) and in order of increasing severity are: May you live in interesting times, May you come to the attention of those in authority and May you find what you are looking for. Some curses are related to sporting events: The curse of the bambino is very well know, but recently annulled. There are many other curses perceived to be related to sports or to those participating in sports. One is that athletes appearing on the cover of Sports Illustrated are likely to suffer setbacks in their careers or to become injured.
“Confirmation bias refers to a type of selective thinking whereby one tends to notice and to look for what confirms one’s beliefs, and to ignore, not look for, or undervalue the relevance of what contradicts one’s beliefs. For example, if you believe that during a full moon there is an increase in admissions to the emergency room where you work, you will take notice of admissions during a full moon, but be inattentive to the moon when admissions occur during other nights of the month. A tendency to do this over time unjustifiably strengthens your belief in the relationship between the full moon and accidents and other lunar effects.” (Skeptics Dictionary)
“Curses seem to have been a regular part of ancient cultures and may have been a way to frighten enemies and explain the apparent injustices of the world. There is no evidence that anyone has successfully invoked occult powers to do harm to others, but there is evidence that those who believe they have been cursed can be made miserable by exploiting that belief. Fear and the human tendency to confirmation bias and selective thinking can sometimes lead the believer to fulfill the curse.” (Wikipedia)
The power of the mind, while of dubious efficacy on external events has been demonstrated to have power over internal body processes – partly due to the power of positive thinking. The US Food and Drug Administration states that “Research has confirmed that a fake treatment, made from an inactive substance like sugar, distilled water, or saline solution, can have a “placebo effect”–that is, the sham medication can sometimes improve a patient’s condition simply because the person has the expectation that it will be helpful. For a given medical condition, it’s not unusual for one-third of patients to feel better in response to treatment with placebo.” “Expectation is a powerful thing,” says Robert DeLap, M.D., head of one of the Food and Drug Administration’s Offices of Drug Evaluation. “The more you believe you’re going to benefit from a treatment, the more likely it is that you will experience a benefit.” What about the power of positive expectations in organizational life? Are there benefits from that as well? From my experiences with various organizations I would have to respond affirmatively, though I can’t point to any definitive work proving that.
For someone who has a strong belief, a curse is in essence a negative Placebo effect. They expect something bad to happen and will begin looking for it. When something unfortunate happens, as it is likely to do in life, a ready explanation is available. From an organizational standpoint and an interpersonal standpoint, I don’t think many of us would have to think very hard before we came across someone who we have crossed paths with or an organization, upon which we could lay a well deserved curse, the telephone company or the cable company somehow spring to mind. But in general organizations and most people are indifferent to such things.
The thing is, if you have organizations filled with people, and people have these natural tendencies, it becomes a very interesting thought experiment regarding how to maximize performance of the organization. Superstitious beliefs and the belief in wishful or magical thinking while not hard to find in places like the USA is even more predominant in the 3rd world, where large portions of the population may not be exposed to the common scientific rationales as to why things happen. I remember one organization in China I was working with that had to bring in an expatriate human resources manager, because the previous Chinese one, had died during a business meeting and this was viewed by potential replacements as an ominous sign and not one of them would take the position.
Managements of organizations can have a tendency to assume that organizations are filled with logical rational beings and that their customers make decisions that way as well. However, some recent work seems to point in some other interesting directions. “The best decisions do not always derive from analytical reasoning, says Dr. Matthias Rosenberger, research associate at the Faculty of Economics and Business Administration at Chemnitz University of Technology. The fact that emotional and subconscious principles, that is, the gut feeling, significantly influence our decisions is verified by latest research findings in psychology. Intuitive decisions are more reliable and make us feel more comfortable.” But what are these gut feel decisions based upon?
Without mystery there is no freedom to choose.
“Out of intense complexities intense simplicities emerge.” – Winston Churchill
Organizations today face unrelenting challenges, the pace of change quickens, quality must constantly be improved, costs must be reduced to remain competitive, workload increases, and management and staff spend an inordinate amount of time trying to determine “how to do more with less”. Stress is high and getting higher – and there is no end in sight. One of the most common conversations I have with CEOs, when I present findings on their organizational culture, revolves around the unrelenting pace that their organizations face and what can they do to help people cope with the pace of change. This conversation is almost always prefaced with a caveat: “the workload and pace of change are not going away, in fact they are likely to increase, so don’t tell me to not drive the organization as hard as we do”. What is an organization to do?
One thing is very clear. There are plenty of things that can be done to help the members of the organization cope with the situation but they all can be thought of under one main heading:
Give people as much control as possible.
Sometimes great catastrophes can be used as a window providing insight into more common day-to-day issues. Five years ago, I was in the unique position of being able to examine data from a company that was in the middle of their employee culture survey when the planes hit on 9/11. This company had a facility near the World Trade Center (WTC). This facility was destroyed and the employees had nowhere to go. The management employees who were found a place to work and had the responsibility of getting the company up and running again, who knew their future and the future of the company was in their hands, experienced rather dramatic improvements in attitudes. Other employees who spent time at home, without tasks, none of whom lost a day of pay or benefits or got laid off, saw a drastic decline in attitudes. Those who had some degree of control over their future, who felt somewhat efficacious, came through a very significant trauma with far more positive attitudes than those who were having feelings of helplessness.
The WTC disaster greatly magnified within this company attitude shifts that you see in companies undergoing less traumatic change. In the ordinary course of business companies undertake mergers, reorganizations, and process improvements resulting in changing job responsibilities. What the employees experience—the stress—in those situations will be the same (albeit not necessarily to the same degree) as the employees making their way through the WTC disaster.
So what lessons can be learned? In times of change, to the extent that you can provide employees—whether they be the management staff of the organization or the workers on the shop floor—with some sense of control, some sense of say in their own future, in whatever fashion that you can, you are helping to improve their ability to get through both the normal stresses they face day to day, as well as the stress they face under extraordinary circumstances. Where employees cannot be given control, having a decision-making process as transparent as possible, explaining the situation fully, and letting them know what decisions will be made under what circumstances, will help employees deal with the uncertainties of constant change. Here are some of the mechanisms that can be used to do this:
- Increase employee involvement in day-to-day decision making that effects them;
- Increase communications to and from employees about the business and the decision-making process;
- Install processes whereby employees’ voices can be heard—meaningfully;
- Take action on employee ideas and let them know what actions you are taking and why;
- Set up cross-functional, cross-strata committees to develop and implement organizational change, so that change is done with the employees and not to them;
- Utilize a collaborative model/process for change; and
- Treat employees as you yourself desire to be treated.
People’s reaction to stress falls along a continuum. Some handle tremendous stress with very little problem while others buckle under the slightest stress. Some employees show no signs of stress (until the heart attack occurs) and others begin immediately to show many symptoms (lack of sleep, inability to concentrate etc.). Given the varying nature of how individuals react to stress you will not be 100% successful, but to the extent that you can assist them it is in both the employees’ and organization’s best interest.