Jeffrey Saltzman's Blog

Enhancing Organizational Performance

Societal Teamwork

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Things change. Commonly held standards of what are acceptable societal and individual behaviors evolve over time. If we go back a few thousand years to Rome, the Coliseum was the scene of brutal events that resulted in the deaths of an estimated half a million people and a million animals. We deem the spectacle that took place in the Coliseum as brutal and viscous when seen through our lens of our acceptable modern behaviors. Today public spectacles like that would not be deemed acceptable. However, turn on the TV and see how popular ultimate fighting shows are and you have to wonder if we have really changed, or perhaps have just put a more civilized or technological veneer on our baser emotions and behaviors. I have to assume that not all Romans found joy or entertainment in watching others be torn apart or slaughtered in the Coliseum, but enough did to justify a fairly substantial building effort over 10 years time to create the Coliseum which could seat 50,000. And certainly today not everyone enjoys watching two people fight inside a cage, but perhaps too many do as the ratings for these shows would imply. The more things change the more they stay the same.  Maybe I am a little foolish to assume that we can rise above aspects of our sordid history as a species, but I would certainly like to try.

I recently heard a speech by Steven Kerr, (his speech alone made the whole conference worth attending) who described an exercise that he took a group of managers through when his was the Chief Learning Officer at GE. He asked them to help come up with the ultimate definition of teamwork. As a group what they came up with was, “Teamwork: Not allowing others to fail.” That definition is simple, straightforward and deeply profound when you think about it for a few minutes. That definition of course contrasts sharply with Jack Welsh’s stated policy of cutting the bottom performing 10% of the workforce each year (sounds a bit like the Roman slaughter, doesn’t it). But here were a group of Welsh’s managers that consciously or not were repudiating that policy simply by defining teamwork. My understanding from the speech is that this definition of teamwork was derived in an effort to answer the question of how teamwork should be deployed within an organization to maximize the performance of that organization.

While I was at the conference where Kerr spoke, a terrible tragedy unfolded in Binghamton, NY, the town where I spent most of my childhood. Thirteen people who were in class learning how to be Americans were killed by a gunman who had grown despondent over losing his job and his inability to master English. At the end of his murderous spree he took his own life. What would have happened there if somehow as a society we said, here is a person who is struggling and it is in our collective best interests as a societal organization that we do not let this person fail? Fourteen lives could have been saved. The police chief in Binghamton was quoted in the New York Times as calling the shooter a “coward”, because he was wearing body armor and did not shoot it out with the police but rather took his own life. I don’t think the chief gets it. I have little sympathy for police chiefs in Binghamton as I had a run-in with a previous chief-of- police there, almost getting myself arrested. I was working my way through college on the local ambulance and we got an early morning call (the kind you always hated to get around 5:30am or 6:00am as they usually meant someone woke up and found a dead body). Well, we went to the scene and there was a young teenager laying face down in a basement. I flipped him over and sure enough he was dead, however he was a young teen and it was unclear how long he had been dead, so I inserted an obterator airway, started an IV, defibrillated, and passed some bicarbonate and other meds in an attempt to get his heart started. We rushed him to the hospital. A few hours later I got a call telling me to come down to the police station where the chief of police started screaming at me about disturbing evidence at the scene of a potential crime. I looked at him and said, “If it was your kid, would you want me to give him the benefit of the doubt and try to save him?” At which point he got really red and threatened to arrest me. There was only one other time in my life where I was as angry as I was at that police chief at that moment when he threatened me for trying to save someone’s life. Anyway, that is a different story.   

I happened to be in Indonesia at the time of the political turmoil following Suharto’s 1998 fall from power. I was riding in a taxi in Jakarta when we came across a very large political demonstration with a few thousand young men in the streets all wearing yellow t-shirts. I believe it was a demonstration of support for the Golkar party. The taxi driver quickly reached into the glove box and pulled out a yellow shirt which he put on the dash. We were allowed to pass through the crowded streets. I asked the driver what would have happened if he had not had the appropriate color shirt available and I only got a vague response. (I have to admit that I was wondering what in the world was I doing there.) The next day I was again driving in a taxi and this time we came across another political demonstration and the color of the day was red as all of the young men in the crowd were wearing red shirts. And predictably the driver reached into the glove box and this time pulled out a red shirt and placed it on the dash. He indicated to me that the different political groups were assigned different days to avoid any confrontations between the groups, but also to allow the demonstrators who showed up to support one political party one day to show support for another the next, wearing the appropriate color of the day. These political supporters were paid to turnout and show their support. Day after day the same people got paid to wear the right color clothing and show up at the appointed intersections. As it turns out they did not care all that much about politics, what they cared about was earning some money so they could get by for another day.  

The size of the Iraqi army at the start of the 2003 war was estimated at 375,000 soldiers. Once they were defeated the army was disbanded and the level of violence in the country greatly escalated. At the time the average monthly salary of an Iraqi was as little as $60 per month and shortly after the war it rose as high as $200 per month. Using an average of $100 per month, to keep the math simple, the army could have stayed in place and all of the soldiers employed for less than $38 million dollars per month or about $450 million dollars a year. Compare that to the average yearly cost of persecuting the Iraqi war at about $130 billion per year. Not even close. I have to wonder how many of the soldiers turned to violence as a way of simply earning a living, similarly to the political supporters in Indonesia. We allowed the Iraqi society to fail by throwing large numbers into the ranks of the unemployed who had no other way to survive. 

What would be the cost and the benefit if we as a society said to the unemployed come down to the employment office and if you want a job, you will be given a job? That job could be working at a nursing home, cleaning up along a roadway, planting trees, or teaching etc. depending on the skill set of the person, but you would be given a job which covered your basic living expenses. Not welfare, not unemployment, but a job. Our goal would be to drive out despair and despondency from our midst. Each person in additional to a job would be assigned some sort of case worker, whose goal would be to find permanent employment for that person and working on a development plan that may include educational goals, or developmental experiences so as to increase that person’s employability. Societal Teamwork: We will not allow others to fail.

I am not advocating socialism or communism here. I am advocating raising our standards regarding acceptable societal norms. One criticism of this plan might be how and who will define “failure”? What if anything do we as a society owe the individual? We certainly as a society do not owe each person a Masarati in their driveway, and “success” rather than failure should be defined as allowing each and every person to achieve their maximum potential. I would ask not what would be the cost, but what would be the benefit to our society if each and every person were enabled allowing them to achieve their maximum potential?

Written by Jeffrey M. Saltzman

October 15, 2009 at 1:55 pm

4 Responses

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  1. Mr. Saltzman,
    Societal Teamwork takes Sociological Imagination. The construct is not difficult, it simply is taking a step out of the day to day routine to examine the social structures that surround us. Linking that understanding with the construct of team work we could then begin to apply quality standards , or dismantle inefficient systems. We can begin to develop teams who are able to navigate the social systems and mechanisms,then establish effective ones that yeild meaningful outcomes.
    The issue lies in identifying and developing the individual as a partner, and developing cooperation that leads to best practice. There is so little “community” left in our neighborhoods, or in the world of work in which people sense or feel connected to as a member. The ability to network has got to be strengthened, along with the will to engage and support. The task is not as easy as stuffing a buck in the blind guys cup, or turning it over to a bureaucrat to dole out jobs. It is getting down in the mud and lifting up that soul.
    Societal Teamwork is not socialism… it is church, community, neighborhood. It is not about keeping someone busy… it is about helping a soul find meaning, value and joy that can be brought to the workplace.
    Net worth is not always a dollar amount sometimes it is recognizing that all people are priceless…then treating each soul according to that understanding.
    In my opinion Societal Teamwork is one of the most valuable constructs to explore in this economy. What are we willing to do to engage another soul?

    John Piselli

    October 16, 2009 at 5:25 pm

  2. I wouldn’t have said that you were suggesting Socialism as such, but you are certainly offering a strong repudiation of the “Rugged Individualist” social model.

    In many sources these days the emphasis seems to be on socialisation, team-work, and networking, and less on individual excellence and achievement.
    If one accepts the thesis of Keith Sawyer in “Group Genius: The Creative Power of Collaboration”, none of even the most individualistic achievements appear to have been without collaboration and dialogue with others.

    I guess we return to the simple fact that as slow moving naked apes sans big fangs, armour plate, or claws, and having half the muscle strength of our nearest ape relatives, we derive our success from working in cohort with other and in teams.

    Not sure why we ever thought any differently.
    After all, we all think that somebody who helps others is laudable, not laughable.


    October 21, 2009 at 4:41 am

    • Thank you very much for the comment it is greatly appreciated. I agree with your poiints. If you think of the rugged individualism that you describe, my mind is immediately drawn to the settling of the American West. WIth the lonesome pioneer moving around the landscape. An image that is mostly myth. While there were of course individuals who preferred to be out on their own, they were exceptions to the rule of increasing your chance of survival by being in a group. Even the rugged individual out there was dependent on a supply chain for materiel that enabled them to be “lonesome”. Thanks again. Jeff

      Jeffrey Saltzman 914-747-7736 (voice and fax) 914-671-9414 – cell (Linkedin) (Blog) (Twitter)

      Jeffrey Saltzman

      October 21, 2009 at 11:11 am

  3. […] I’ve learned some lessons along my journey. I think it took my a bit longer to internalize the message, but finally, it stuck. I was raised in a culture where the work ethic was everything. If your work was diligent, accomplished, innovative and results-oriented, everything else was secondary. I was young at the time, but that’s how it seemed to me. Somehow that was the message that stuck.  On top of that, the success of a peer, friend, neighbor did not mean that I would copy their actions to achieve my own success, nor did it mean that I would have less chance of success because someone else had already achieved it. It just meant that someone else had accomplished what they set out to do, and I needed to carve my own path and meet my own success.  My birth country’s motto is “Together we aspire, together we achieve.”  It seems a n odd notion where one” success can help buoy another’s, instead of the thinking that I must crush others in order to be successful. You can find  more information about societal teamwork on the following blog: […]

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