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Enhancing Organizational Performance

Well, I don’t think that is going to grow back

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“You can’t step into the same river twice” – Heraclitus

I can remember it very clearly and it did seem to happen in slow motion. I was using a jointer, which is a type of wood working equipment that is used to give a piece of wood a smooth and straight edge. I was building an Adirondack guide boat from a kit I had purchased in Vermont, and was pushing a plank through the jointer when a friend pulled up in my driveway. As he got out of his truck I looked up for a moment, just a moment of distraction, and instead of passing the plank through the jointer my finger went through it. I immediately dropped to my knees and saw that I had removed the tip of my middle finger. The moment it happened I looked at the finger which now looked significantly shorter, very flat on top and very square and the first thought that popped into my head was, “Well, I don’t think that is going to grow back”. I was expecting a gush of blood, but strangely the finger just began oozing a little. I wondered if I would pass out, but the pain was somehow not that significant. My wife, who was in the backyard with my daughter, grabbed a first aid kit that I keep in the trunk of my car and we put a bunch of bandages over the top of the injured finger and began to apply pressure. My friend threw me into his truck and off we went to the hospital.

At the hospital I was hustled into the ER (no waiting when you cut off a good portion of your finger) and they pulled off my haphazard bandaging. The nurse upon looking at the finger decided it needed a good dose of Betadine poured over it and for the first time since the injury I did almost pass out. I was laying on a gurney in the hallway, writhing in pain from the antiseptic being poured over my finger as all of the ER rooms were filled. A plastic surgeon that happened to be there on another case came by to look at my finger. He immediately asked me what I did for a living and I must have been at least somewhat lucid for I told him that I was a concert pianist. He then got a look of concern over his face and said “really”? I said “no I was actually an Industrial/Organizational Psychologist but let’s pretend I am a pianist”. I wanted him to realize beyond a shadow of a doubt that the finger was important to me and for all I knew he may have come from the school of thought that fingerless psychologists were just fine. I was hustled off to x-ray and was told that I had missed the bone by the smallest of fractions so I would not need surgery. There was nothing to stitch and no piece of finger to reattach and by the looks of it, I had removed between a quarter to a third of an inch of finger. The plastic surgeon bandaged me up and told me to come see him in his office on Monday morning. With a prescription for pain medication to get me through the rest of the weekend, I headed home.   

There are moments in our lives when we come to the realization that things can never go back to the way they were. Some changes are permanent and while some of the changes may be for the better and others for the worse the only sure thing is that we can never go back. Things will never be the same. For me cutting off the tip of my finger was one of those moments. If you get a broken leg, it gets set and in most cases it heals with no noticeable effect. If a tooth gets knocked out the dentist can either put it back or implant an artificial one, but in either case you can have your full set of teeth restored. When we are younger we feel immortal, feeling that there is nothing that you can do to yourself or any illness that can’t be put right. But in fact we are all mortal and there are plenty of things that can happen that can’t be put right. When you first realize that it is a rude awakening (I find that as I get older I have more and more of those moments). There are of course many changes that cause permanent differences that are positive, like getting married, or having a child, but the realization that what is happening is permanent and not in the normal course to be undone, creates anxiety.

Our organizations are much the same. Much as you can lose parts of your body to accident or injury we can also lose parts of our organization to mergers, acquisitions, reorganizations or simple turnover. When people leave an organization the results can sometimes be traumatic, sometimes beneficial and sometimes it can be a wakeup call. I have yet to find an organization where people are truly fungible, sometimes contrary to the belief of others within the organization. When an organization loses a part, a component, a member, things will never be the same. It is not that good replacements can’t be found for lost members; it is just that somehow those replacements will be different. That difference overall may be for the best, or the organization may lose some of it’s essence with the change. Each one of us has strengths and each and every one of us has shortcomings. Once a person leaves an organization it is sometimes way too easy for those who remain to focus only on the shortcomings of the person who left, for after all how good could their judgment be, they left. That focus is simply a defense mechanism as it is difficult to objectively look at the issue from all points of view when those who remain have a vested interest in the organization’s success.

Each person who takes a position within an organization brings to the organization a unique set of history and skills and that uniqueness becomes imprinted on the job that the person does, no matter how routine the job. While the impact of that uniqueness may vary by job and person, it is there nevertheless. Organizations which expect replacements to act identically to those that preceded are just kidding themselves, are shortsighted and are losing at least some of the potential of the new member. Without allowing a new member to diverge from the past, to implement their uniqueness the potential of the new member will not be fully utilized and hence the potential of the organization will not maximized.

It reminds me of a linkage study that was done with meteorologists from the National Weather Service. Upon hearing that a good portion of the variance associated with average tornado warning time differences between forecasting offices was due to organizational culture, the meteorologists became upset. When asked about what was bothering them they indicated that we had just told their management that they should be sent to “touchy-feely” classes rather then getting them the latest supercomputer to improve their forecasting ability. The reply was that they were missing the point. The point is that at any level of technology, regardless of whether they were using an abacus or a supercomputer, unless we take into consideration the humans who use that technology and the uniqueness that we all bring to bear, that we will not make maximal use of that technology. 

No, you can’t step into the same river twice, but each time you step into the river you can have a rich unique experience. My finger has healed somewhat and part of it has in fact grown back, but the nerves are very close to the surface. The plastic surgeon told me that if I was younger it would be worth trying to put a pad of fat back into the tip to provide some cushioning, but at my age I should probably just learn to live with it. (Talk about making you feel old.) It is still painful when I use a keyboard for typing or lift something that puts pressure directly on the tip. After about a 3 month recuperation, I went back to work on the guide boat and finished it (and yes I used the jointer again), and have had many pleasant trips through lakes and streams.

Written by Jeffrey M. Saltzman

October 17, 2009 at 6:06 am

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