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Enhancing Organizational Performance

At a Distance

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“Get one pound of best galls, half a pound of copperas, a quarter pound of gum arabick, a quarter pound of white sugar-candy; bruise the galls and beat your other ingredients fine, and infuse them all in three quarters of white wine or rain-water, and let them stand hot by the fire three or four days; then put all into a new pipkin set it on a slow fire, so as not to boil; keep it frequently stirring, and let it stand five or six hours, till one quarter consumed. And when cold, strain it through a clean coarse piece of linen, bottle it and keep it for use.” (Forgotten English, 1999, Jeffrey Kacirk)

Any idea what the recipe above is cooking up? Many times as the distance between original sources of information is increased our understanding of that information is diminished. Sometimes as distance increases we look upon that information with incredulity and wonder how anyone could have ever thought that way or held that belief. Distance can make some things, such as information and attitude more obscure but can also give perspective.  For our purposes here, let’s define distance as a separation by time or place between an event or a piece of information and our interpretation of that event or information.  

This past week I attended the graduation of one of my nieces from Barnard, a women’s college that is part of Columbia University (Magna Cum Laude I am proud to say). The awards given out and speakers at the commencement included the CEO of Pepsico, a distinguished Harvard University professor who is working to save historical artifacts in Iraq, and the US Secretary of State. There was one thing all of three of these highly accomplished people had in common, they were women. The ceremony included a speech given by one of the students, who said something interesting. She indicated that her mother stated that when she grew up she wanted to be like her daughter. It was the rephrasing of a common response of how little girls often answer when asked what they want to be when they grow up that caught my attention. The mother of this very articulate student said she was desirous of all of the opportunities that would be open to her daughter as she began her career, opportunities that were not available to women of her age/generation. Do opportunities and attitudes change over time? Do we operate today on some assumptions, attitudes and beliefs that future generations will deem as absurd? You judge.      

Here are three examples of advice separated from us by time given by Transportation Magazine which in 1943 published a “Guide to Hiring Women”. The guide gave eleven helpful tips on how to hire and motivate women who were now needed in the workforce because of the labor shortages associated with World War II. I wonder how many of the eleven tips could be found in the hiring practices of any of today’s corporations.  

“Pick young married women. They usually have more of a sense of responsibility than their unmarried sisters, they are less likely to be flirtatious, they need the work or wouldn’t be doing it, and still have the pep and interest to work hard and to deal with the public efficiently.”

“Give every girl an adequate number of rest periods during the day. You have to make some allowances for feminine psychology. A girl has more confidence and is more efficient if she can keep her hair tidied, apply fresh lipstick, and wash her hands several times a day.”

“Give the female employee a definite day-long schedule of duties so that they will keep busy without bothering the management for instruction every few minutes. Numerous properties say that women make excellent workers when they have their jobs cut out for them, but that they lack the initiative in finding work themselves.” (Transportation Magazine, Guide to Hiring Women, Western Properties, 1943)

Even the Supreme Court of the United States has handed down judgments that when viewed through a lens of more modern thought seems absurd. An example can be found in Plessy vs. Ferguson. In Louisiana, Homer Plessy boarded a car on a train that was reserved for whites on June 7, 1892. Classified as a black man, Mr. Plessy was arrested when he refused to leave the car, setting the stage for a Supreme Court ruling on racial segregation. In 1896, the US Supreme Court ruled in Plessy vs. Ferguson that “separate but equal” did not violate the constitution thereby clearing the path for the proliferation of racial segregation. Separate was never equal, but this ruling held until the 1954 case, Brown vs. Board of Education repudiated the notion. We look back on that now and have difficulty understanding how the notion of “separate but equal” as being equal ever arose. That notion unfortunately, would not be foreign in some other parts of the world today.

We can get into the sociological or the psychology of why individuals within certain groups, cliques or other groupings feel compelled to look upon those that are somehow different, whether by choice, by birth or by accident and feel that they must be labeled somehow as “less”, either less able, or less likely or less deserving, but suffice it to say for now that the sociology and psychology is fairly well understood. Look around today at individuals and groups that are discriminated against for no other reason than they are different or a minority (hence non-conforming) within the larger societies in which they exist, and the challenge is not to find examples which can be used to illustrate the point, but rather the overabundance of choices that can be used as illustration.  

The good news is that things change and over time some of our societal and attitudinal absurdities are likely to fade away. The bad news is that it will take time for societies to change. I, for one however, am reluctant to simply be patient. You have to wonder how much human potential is being squandered by not giving equal opportunity to excel at whatever task or opportunity is desired to all.

The obscure recipe above, if you did not recognize it, is for ink.

Written by Jeffrey M. Saltzman

October 15, 2009 at 1:50 pm

Posted in Communications

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