Jeffrey Saltzman's Blog

Enhancing Organizational Performance

Reality

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There is a question that floats around out there, it goes something like this: “If everything in the universe can be described by physical laws and mathematical equations, how is the universe any different than a computer program or a simulation/computer game?”  The answer is that it is not. But there are subtleties and nuances in there and reactions are varied.

One reaction that I have heard from physicists is “why is that an interesting question?” The physicist is trying to understand the laws and equations, and those goals are independent of discovering whose computer our universe is running upon, a more philosophical and perhaps unanswerable question, for you would have to look outside of our universe for that answer. You immediately bump right up into religious notions. For instance, what would be the difference if we were a simulation, simply an advanced program (maybe not so advanced), running on some alien teenager’s bedroom computer and god? From our perspective, there would not be any, for that alien teenager would have all of the capabilities of a god. (Alt-Ctrl-Delete).

Another reaction is that what we are doing when we humans are programming is trying to mimic (not necessarily intentionally and of course in a very limited fashion so far), rules that govern our universe, or at least our corner of the universe. And in that we have no choice, since those are the laws. So, it is not that we are a simulation, but rather that we (and our math, our physical limitations and by extension our programs/simulations), are governed by the same laws that govern all things in the universe. 1+1 must always equal 2. The initial question then is in essence somewhat backwards. It is not that we are the same as a program, a simulation, it is that our programs need to abide by the laws and properties that govern all things.

There are a number of physical constants (e.g. the speed of light) with somewhat arbitrary values that define how our universe operates, and if some of them were different we would not be here to have this discussion, for it would have been impossible for stars to coalesce, for life to emerge. This state of affairs gives rise to what is called the Anthropic Principle, which says that the fact of our existence, beings that can measure these physical constants, requires those constants to be such that beings like us can exist. In other words, we perceive reality, because we are here to measure it. There could have been or there could be right now an infinite number of universes, with different physical constants, and life would emerge only in certain universes and only under certain conditions. We drew the lucky straw. So, a third reaction is to respond with a “why does this matter”? A variation on the first reaction above. We have to live in our world, our universe as defined, so let’s get on with it. It’s properties, rules and laws are what they are. We are not capable of looking outside the box, so live with it, and get on with it. Reality is reality.

Reality is reality. Simple phrase but our human perception of reality is subject to constant manipulation by others, to innate biases, driven by evolution and by learned response, to limited sensors, like our eyes, ears, our sense of touch, smell and proprioception and of course to our very limited and flawed processing center, our brain. Human perceptions of reality are very different than the measured physical realities that shape our universe. Maybe that is pointing out a flaw in the English language, with the word reality itself. Maybe it is too simplistic of a concept, given the challenges of determining the reality that humans have. Your perception of reality, my perception of reality is very often different from another’s perceptions of reality, and all three are very likely different from actual reality. And each of us, of course, assumes that our perception of reality is the correct one. The first step towards perceiving reality more accurately is to be aware of our shared human short-comings and foibles.

I assume that at least some of you have seen the monkey business illusion. If not, you can watch it here https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IGQmdoK_ZfY. It nicely illustrates how easy it is for each of us to miss what is right there staring at us, to misinterpret reality.

In order to make good decisions and come to correct conclusions, humans must be able to overcome their inherent processing deficits, not giving into innate or shaped biases, and not being persuaded by the latest PT Barnum that comes onto the scene, simply saying what you want to hear rather than what is real. Decisions need to be based on data, on scientifically derived facts and on sound judgments.

When it comes to intuition’s role, or gut instinct on sound judgments, Herb Simon, the economist, studied and defined intuition as coming from the repetition associated with practice. Meaning that intuition is actually recognition of a situation that the decision-maker has experienced before. There is no such thing as simply having good instincts. Good instincts are borne out of training and experience.

Meanwhile, Phil Tetlock and his Good Judgement project have developed techniques that have been repeatedly shown to lead to more accurate predictions and better decision-making. Among the techniques is the ability and willingness to continuous take in new information and to use that new information to modify your predictions and decisions.

Other research has repeatedly shown what is all too obvious today. People tend to seek out and absorb only information that supports their existing points of view and to reject as “false” any information that does not support their preconceived notions. Simply put, this tendency flies in the face of everything we know about how to make good decisions and has people believing realities that are based on missing or skewed information.

Bottom-line? People can improve their ability to perceive what is real and what is false and by extension their decision-making. Among the techniques that can help are basing decisions on data and science, practicing decision-making techniques, being open to new concepts and ideas, and a willingness to recognize human’s inherent short-comings when it comes to perceiving reality.

Written by Jeffrey M. Saltzman

June 28, 2017 at 12:15 pm

Strategic Choice or Desperation

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If you are bewildered by how Trump’s cabinet can sing his praises while lurching from one scandal to another, this piece about the power and draw of the “inner ring” might help explain. From CS Lewis – Interestingly, CS Lewis challenged Sigmund Freud’s dogma that the sex drive is the strongest drive that humans have and suggested that the desire to be part of the “in” group the Inner Ring is stronger.

Jeffrey Saltzman's Blog

Why would a dictator gas his own people? The answer may not be what you think. In Syria’s brutal civil war it has been documented that there have been atrocities on both sides. One particular atrocity, the gassing of the civilian population with hundreds of children dying gruesomely stands out. The USA’s reaction to this has finally gotten Syria to admit that it has chemical weapons and though it denies being the source of the attack the evidence in the media is pretty persuasive that the Syrian government is gassing its own population. Syria’s denials take the form of logic rather than evidence. They pose the question, why would we gas people in locations where our own troops could be affected? That question presupposes that Syria cares enough about their own troops not to expose them to gas, which is a dubious assumption, but it is also misdirection from the…

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Written by Jeffrey M. Saltzman

June 13, 2017 at 7:42 am

The Air We Breathe

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I should be working on a proposal tonight (it is due soon), for that represents the future of my company. But I decided I needed to take a break and write about the future of the planet, for that is much more important. Today, the United States pulled out of the Paris Climate Accords, which aligns us with the other 2 countries in the world which also don’t participate – Syria and Nicaragua. So now we are similar to two other outstanding pillars of the global community. Syria, which is really no longer functioning as a country, Nicaragua and the United States now share similar pedigrees. But the reason to do something, to behave in a certain way, should not be driven by simply what everyone else is doing, it should be driven by scientific evidence, by fact and by reasoned thinking, three areas which have recently taken a beating by the leadership of the USA.

But let’s take a step back and look at what we know about what people around the world want. These tend to be universal findings and there is no or little difference when you examine these results by region, culture or other demographics you care to. In literally thousands of studies commissioned by companies who wanted to know what their employees want, what motivates them, some common patterns emerge. These patterns are pretty easily transferred beyond the workplace to what people in general desire.

What do employees want?

I can go on and list some other things, but fundamentally this list covers the vast majority, the basics of what is important. You can substitute the word “employees” with “people”. Let’s look at the more fundamental things an employee or a citizen might want and not even consider to be debatable. Just what are the basics of what a citizen of a country should expect?

Should you be given air to breathe? Many people would consider that to be a ludicrous question. Should you be given air to breathe? Get real, air is all around us no one can limit it.  But, what if you lived on Mars and air had to be manufactured or shipped in? What if you were viewed as a drag on the colony, a non-optimal performer. Should you be given air to breathe? Most people would still argue that death through asphyxia is not an appropriate punishment for poor performance. Maybe the leadership on Mars would work with you in an attempt to improve your performance before cutting off your oxygen supply.

Should you have access to clean water to drink? Like air, without water we would all die within a few days. Access to clean, potable water is fundamental to life.

Should you be given food to eat? For one congressman from Nebraska that answer to that question is no. He refused to answer the question whether everyone in the USA has a right to food. And that is really no different than air or water, except that it takes longer to die from no food. Presumably he feels that certain people who are not contributing to society as much as he is (and his contribution is certainly debatable in my mind), that they are not worthy of receiving food.

Let me take another step back and introduce you to John Rawls. He is a noted philosopher who has done extensive work in the area of justice. He developed a thought experiment called the “veil of ignorance” to help people figure out whether a rule or regulation was just or gave inappropriate advantages to certain groups. The concept with the veil is that you are ignorant to which group you belong as you consider the rule or regulation and its implications for justice. Since most people writing rules or regulations are part of a privileged class, the thought experiment is aimed at opening people’s minds to other points of view. Perhaps our Nebraska congressman, instead of getting paid by the government, was out of work, unable to find employment or was unable to work due to some other factor. Perhaps he had children that, due to his inability to work, often went to bed at night hungry. How would he feel about his position about whether everyone should have access to food? The veil suggests he might feel differently, if it was his children that were starving to death or growing up stunted physically or mentally.

The Paris Climate Accords is squarely aimed at the fundamentals of life. Should we not change the current path we are on, access to water, to food, the very quality of the air we breathe will be diminished. No one else, no other country, entity or being, is going to take care of this problem for us. If we don’t act, not only is our society threatened, but life itself on the entire planet. The United States, rather than making decisions based on its privileged state, needs to use the veil and look at the larger question of what is just for the entire planet. Participation in the Accords affords us the opportunity to resume the global leadership role we have abandoned, to become the example for others to once again follow, and economically, we will benefit from being a technological leader in an alternative energy future that is only going to become more dominant over time. We will also have a planet we can live on, for ourselves and our children.

Written by Jeffrey M. Saltzman

June 1, 2017 at 9:29 pm

Posted in Ethics

Beyond the Pale

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If I used my life savings and opened a pizza parlor, and I wanted it to be successful, who would I hire to run that pizza parlor for me? Would I hire someone who really knew how to make great pizza or would I hire someone who had never made a pizza before? Maybe someone who thought that ketchup was the same thing as tomato sauce (or gravy)? Would the person I hire need to know how to treat my customers, how to hire and motivate a staff, how to run a cash register and all the other things required to run a successful small business?  Or could they just learn it over time? Could they learn it before they ran my pizza parlor into the ground, forcing me into bankruptcy? Am I willing to take that risk?

But here we are. We have a president and his appointees who are learning how to ruin, sorry I meant run, run a country with on-the-job training being done every day. The person in charge of tackling global warming, despite overwhelming scientific evidence, doesn’t believe it is real, the person in charge of the improving our public schools doesn’t believe in public education, the person in HHS in charge of contraception doesn’t believe contraception works, the person in charge of providing public housing to the poor believes that public housing coddles them, the person in charge of the DOE did not realize that one of its tasks was to protect the nation’s nuclear arsenal (oops), the person who regulates what can go into kids school lunches rolled back regulations which attempted to ensure that kids had healthier lunches, the first person who was National Security Advisor had to resign because of ties to Russia, the latest pick to run the Army had to withdraw because of discriminatory comments made about LGBTQ folks, the person in charge of regulatory reform is an activist investor who buys interests in companies and then squeezes the life out of them to turn a profit, the list of misfits to positions goes on and on. These are not the kind of people you would appoint to run your pizza parlor if you wanted it to be successful, maybe turn it into a chain. These are the kind of people you would appoint if you were purposefully looking to shut down your pizza parlor because you did not want it to work, to be successful. (Why would someone do that after investing their life savings to open the pizza parlor in the first place? Our founding fathers invested a hell of a lot more than their life saving to create this country.)  These are the kind of people you would put into place to “starve the beast” which is a Republican tactic for shrinking government.

There is a mistake that many managers in business make. They create rules and regulations for the 5%. Most people, the vast majority of people, want to come to work, want to do a good job, want the organization to succeed and want to have success along with the organization. The evidence for that is abundant and abundantly clear. Yet many managers in companies simply can’t bring themselves to believe that or don’t know it, and so they create rules to manage the population as though they were all looking to “get away” with things. They put into place onerous rules on the 95% rather the managing the misbehavior or issues of the 5%. The result of that can be stifling to the 95% who are really interested in doing good work.  In my company, yes, it is small, our vacation policy is “Take some, make sure your work is covered”. Our HR Policy is summed us as “Use your common sense, violators will be persecuted”.  We are open 24/7/365. You pick your holidays and manage your schedule. In other words, we try to manage for the 95%. The 5% who are not able to work that way? We deal with them individually. People new to the organization often take some time to adjust to being treated this way. Some have a harder time than others adjusting to the freedom after a lifetime of rules being imposed.

I recently marched in a demonstration to support my immigrant neighbors, yes in some sense that is all of us, because unless you are a Native American, you too are an immigrant. But this march was to support more recent immigrants who feel threatened by this administration. The rules being imposed today do not treat the immigrants as the 95% who contribute, pay taxes and are real contributors to our society. The rules are written for the 5% or less, just like many businesspeople do as they write rules for their organizations. Yes, within the 5% there could be criminals or worse, but you treat them as individual criminals and you do not blanket a whole population because of the actions of a few. (Under the Geneva convention, if you punish an entire population for the actions of a few, and you did that during a war, you would be committing a war crime).  By stifling the 95% because we are trying to control the 5% we are losing all sorts of potential as a country. The data shows that immigrants, regardless of what the administration says, commit fewer crimes than native born Americans, are more likely to become scientists, doctors, engineers etc. Are you over 40 and still alive? You likely have science and an immigrant to thank. Immigrants start businesses, pay taxes, participate in community events and become leaders. They came here for the same reason our grandparents came, to find a better life for themselves and their children. You should not be surprised by this statement.

My grandparents came to this country to escape the Pale of Settlement. It was an area within Russia which was the only area in which Jews could live. There were some few exceptions made. Conditions within the Pale for the Jews were extremely harsh. The word Pale is a derivative of the Latin word for stake – meaning stakes in the ground, a figurative wall in this case, beyond which Jews could not live. The term “Beyond the Pale”, came from the notion that living outside of the Pale was unacceptable for Jews. Today, if something is “Beyond the Pale” it means it is outside the bounds of acceptable behavior. The actions of this administration towards science, environmental regulations, healthcare, housing, women, minorities, immigrants, other vulnerable populations, as well as on a host of other issues is Beyond the Pale.

Written by Jeffrey M. Saltzman

May 7, 2017 at 10:07 pm

Posted in Ethics, Human Behavior

No Fear

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Humans are fearful creatures. We can’t help it, we evolved that way to help us survive. When a pre-technological human was kneeling by a stream to get a drink of water and there was rustling in the nearby trees, the human assumed that the unexpected noise was a potential threat and immediately took up a series of defensive moves. The assumption of threat is called the intentional stance, and is the idea that until proven otherwise, the human assumes that the noise was not the mere rustling of the wind, but rather that the noise was created by some creature or agent, potentially a creature or agent with intent, perhaps with the intent to eat you or cause harm. Even today, we very often assume intelligent or purposeful intent to what are random or statistically meaningless events. The assumption of intelligent intent means that a random or statistically meaningless event is assumed to be done with some deliberate or intelligent purpose, by some kind of agent. The makers of horror movies know this reflex very well and use it over and over to achieve their desired reactions among the audience. They will often substitute ominous sounding music for the rustling of the wind in the climatic build-up to a fear-inducing scene. You just know something awful will happen when you hear that music.

The intentional stance and intelligent intent plays out over and over in organizational life. Here is one example. When an organization reorganizes itself, merges with another, or goes through some other kind of significant change, one assumption often made by the troops in the trenches is that the future of each and every person is known by those in charge. And what is on the mind of the staff? They want to know how the changes going on will affect them personally. For the intelligent intent instinct that we all have means that someone must surely know. And by-and-large, if communications around the changes are less than complete or misleading, people will instinctively fill-in the picture for themselves. Most of the time with a version of reality that is much worse than the actual reality.

The origins of superstitious behavior lie here as well. And none of us are immune. For instance, over the last few months I have coincidentally worn the same suit during a number of successful sales visits to potential clients. The pull to wear that same suit on the next sales visit I do is very strong, even though intellectually, (assuming I look equally decrepit in each of my suits), I am aware that which particular suit I am wearing has no impact. I am willing to somehow give the suit agency in being able to have an impact on the sales visit outcome rather than looking at it as simply pieces of cloth. But of course, if I get over the need to wear this particular suit I always have my lucky socks to fall back upon.

In terms of people’s reactions to a perceived threat the standard flight or fight response that we all grew up learning is actually a little more nuanced. Recent research has shown that there are at least four separate reactionary stages that occur when animals, including humans, are threatened. The freeze response comes first which is characterized as a state of hypervigilance. Research has shown that the initial freeze response is “stop, look and listen”, the immediate response associated with a fearful situation. Once this first phase has run its course the next one is an attempt to flee the situation, to remove oneself from the threat. The third phase is then to fight, to resist the threat. Once the fighting is over or is deemed as not immediately advantageous, a type of paralysis can set in called tonic immobility or more commonly, fright, which can result in extreme passivity, possibly in the hope that the attacker or threat may loosen some vigilance, relaxing its guard and allowing the victim to escape. So, the more accurate and updated description of flight or fight is freeze, flight, fight, and then fright.

There is a great debate going on among scientists today. Generally, an apolitical bunch, who prefer to let their research and publications do the talking for them, assuming that others will act rationally in the face of evidence and facts, they are debating how forcefully to speak out as science comes under increasing threat by current political powers and scientific nay-sayers in a manner (forgive the hyperbole) not seen since Copernicus’s time, when he proposed that the earth was not actually at the center of the universe. This notion of a heliocentric model, with the sun at the center of things, caused a great deal of fear among the powers that be at the time as it threatened their belief system and their hold on power over the masses. (For a really good description of this read Zero, The Biography of a Dangerous Idea by Charges Seife.) And in case you forget that time period in Europe when Copernicus lived is now called the DARK AGES. The arguments against facts and scientific notions which led Europe into the dark ages is eerily similar to some arguments against science being made today.

Attacks on science and facts in the face of fear did not start with the dark ages, it seems to be somewhat cyclical. Remember Pythagoras? The Greek who knew all the angles? His worldview of math and hence his worldview of the world was based on rational numbers. In fact, the whole Greek understanding of mathematics was geometrically based and restricted to rational numbers. When a student of Pythagoras violated their vow of secrecy (power structures often depend on secrecy rather than transparency to solidify their hold on power and disseminate only their approved worldview), and told the world about irrational numbers, that student (gets a little murky here) was either murdered or exiled by Pythagoras and his other students.  Pythagoras may have been willing to commit murder to prevent truth from reaching the world. But over the long-term truth and science won out.

The American Psychological Association (APA), a group to which I belong, has taken a position that political advocacy is important and has come out in support of an upcoming scientist march on April 22, in support of facts and science.  SIOP, the Society for Industrial and Organizational Psychology, to which I also belong, has joined in with its support as well.

Immigrants have always been a cornerstone in the formula of what has made the USA successful. And despite all that evidence that exist to that effect, there has been much discussion, based on fear, about limiting immigration or deporting undocumented immigrants. I was at a recent scientific event and there were many immigrants or first-generation Americans in the crowd. And this was a crowd that has made tremendous contributions to America, our innovativeness, our businesses, and our culture. Should we limit which immigrants can come to America we run a substantial risk of losing our leading position in many fields including medicine, technology, computer science, finance as well as many others. What is my point of view? Well, since you asked…

We are a nation the likes of which the world has never seen. Yes, there are things that we have done and things that we continue to do that we should not be proud of, but we are a nation that follows the long arc of justice towards the right policies over the long-term as Martin Luther King would say, or as in Winston Churchill’s sentiments, we are a nation that eventually does the right thing, after we have tried everything else.  We are a nation where people should know no fear. No fear of going to bed hungry at night. No fear of being forced to live in the streets. No fear of not being able to see a doctor and get treatment when sick. No fear of being relegated to a status somehow “less” than others because of the color or your skin, your religion, your sexual orientation, your age, your occupation or your income level. We as a nation should be investing in education, in infrastructure, in innovation, so that we live in no fear of losing our technological leadership and competitive status. We should live in no fear of change, knowing that we bring our citizens along, helping them to adapt, rather than leaving them as carcasses in the road. We should have no fear of bullies, either in the school yard or at the state actor level. And no fear of those who attracted by the light of the torch shining in the New York harbor, come to our shores to continue to help us fulfill the promise of this great nation. Our current political situation relies heavily on our natural human tendencies and peddles in fear to achieve their objectives. A great nation does not wall itself off from the rest of the world, in fear, if it hopes to maintain its position of greatness. A great nation embraces the world and becomes a shining example of morality and justice for all, and for all to follow. I have no interest in giving in to ancestral fear and making decisions based on primal instinct. I will make my decisions based on my hopes and dreams for my nation, and upon science and facts. And I will know no fear.

Written by Jeffrey M. Saltzman

March 16, 2017 at 12:51 pm

Posted in Human Behavior

Information…Please!

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A few years old, but more relevant than ever! Jeff

Jeffrey Saltzman's Blog

“From the children’s point of view it was hard to tell a neighbor from a relative. She is like a sister to me was said in all sincerity. Door-to-door living over long periods of time made these people true kin to each other. The only difference between neighbors and relatives was that the neighbors went home to sleep; the relatives could climb into bed with you.” (Sam Levenson, Everything but Money).

The fact that neighbors went home to sleep and relatives could climb into your bed was information that helped a small child differentiate relatives from neighborhood friends in a crowded, confusing world encompassing the tenements of East Harlem in the early 1900s.  Information, we are always searching for more in order to help us make sense of our world, to help us interpret the events by which we are surrounded, to help us make better decisions, but then we…

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Written by Jeffrey M. Saltzman

February 19, 2017 at 7:23 pm

Mental Illness at Work

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Jeffrey Saltzman's Blog

“Neurotics build castles in the sky, psychotics live in them.” My professor for a course called abnormal psychology made that statement as a way of remembering the difference between these two classes of mental illness. While the thinking around many aspects of mental illness has shifted and continues to evolve since that statement was made, that stark difference between people with neurosis who fantasize, sometimes as an escape from reality, and psychotics who can’t tell the difference between fantasy and reality remains.

While people talk about mental illness as some sort of all-encompassing disease the term mental illness is not at all precise, nor is it very useful. From the Mayo Clinic: “Mental illness refers to a wide range of mental health conditions — disorders that affect your mood, thinking and behavior. Examples of mental illness include depression, anxiety disorders, schizophrenia, eating disorders and addictive behaviors. Many people have mental…

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Written by Jeffrey M. Saltzman

February 17, 2017 at 3:27 pm

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