Jeffrey Saltzman's Blog

Enhancing Organizational Performance

My Jeans are Irregulars

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There are many stories that get passed down through families of European origins regarding what members of the family did to escape, avoid or deal with the horrors of WWII.  One method that I have read about was how families struggled to obtain fake passports to be used in their attempts to flee. There is one story that takes place in Poland in the late 1930’s. In that story it is described how passports were forged by studying old passports from many different countries, their style and format were then copied creating new fake passports for those trying to escape.

One day a man, who was part of the underground, set out to collect old passports through whatever method he could. He was extremely successful and by the end of the day he had collected a large number. On the way back from his activities he was stopped by the Polish police, was asked for his papers, and then confronted when they discovered the large number of passports he was carrying. He was sure that they would take him to the police station, torture and then kill him as they tried to learn about the activities of the underground organization collecting the passports. The man thought about how troubled his family would be if they never saw him again without any explanation. But, it was near the end of the day and the police told the man to go home and then come to the station in the morning for questioning. The man was terrified. The police knew who he was and if he stayed home and did not show up the next day or if he tried to flee that night, they would simply go to his house and kill his family. If he showed up the next day at the police station they would torture him to obtain information and then kill him anyway. He did not know what to do. After much deliberation and consultations, he went to the police station the next morning and approached the policeman who had stopped him. The policeman asked him what he wanted and appeared not to remember the previous day’s incident. The man indicated that he had been stopped and a packet of passports had been taken from him and he was here to collect it. The policeman handed the man the packet of passports and told him to be on his way.

Saliency as a psychological concept deals with how central an event, object, fact or perception is to you or another person and may be the result of emotional, motivational or cognitive factors. To the man with the passports in the above story, being stopped by the police was extremely central to his very existence for it was quite literally life or death. To the policeman, the man was one of hundreds of people that he had stopped and questioned that day. The man who was stopped and questioned described the incident as a miracle, that his life and those of his family were spared. And from his perspective it certainly was, but what was the underlying mechanism of human perception that allowed that miracle to occur? Saliency.  To the policeman the incident was not nearly as salient, not nearly as memorable as it was to the passport procurer.

I don’t envy the Transportation Security Agency (TSA) officers who screen airport passengers, checking each one as they pass through metal detectors and x-ray their bags. They are faced with an unenviable task. They have to keep constant vigilance, maintaining the saliency of forbidden items in their consciousness as thousands of people pass in front of them in a steady stream.  As thousands of objects and people pass through your consciousness each day maintaining the saliency of each and every one, to eliminate errors that can creep in due to the repetitive nature of the work is difficult, and we read about how when tested objects that should not be getting through are, as their saliency decreases.

On a new job everyone else can remember who you are because they only have to remember one new person, for them you are very salient, the new object in their environment. But for you, you need to remember a large number of new people, making the task of remembering any specific one that much more difficult – unless something about them is extremely salient. The same holds true anytime whenever you are introduced into a pre-existing group. It is much easier for them to remember you as an individual then for you to remember each and every member of the new group. 

I have to admit something to you. Not being all that concerned about fashion, I buy irregular jeans. I grew up wearing jeans (one pair to wear while the other pair was being washed) and even today I am most comfortable pulling on a pair. I like to wear jeans. But I don’t like what jeans cost these days. So I go to a manufacturer’s outlet mall near me and I buy irregular blue jeans. As I pull each pair off the shelf and examine them I am usually hard pressed to determine why they are called irregular. I look for the obvious, for instance, does it have 3 legs? (Well I could always use a spare, in case I get a hole in one knee). And I usually just can’t find anything wrong with them. When I wear them, at least at the first, I wonder if what is not obvious to me, the irregularities, are likely very obvious to those around me and I am sure I can hear people pointing at me and laughing as I walk by. But maybe it is not the pair of jeans that brings on the laughter. But in reality no one is looking at my jeans, let alone looking for the defect in my irregulars. You may just think they are, at least for a moment, because the issue is more salient to you.  It is very much more salient to me that I am wearing irregulars, until I forget about it, but no one else cares. (Try using that logic on a teenager.)         

When a manager makes an off-hand comment to a worker about that worker’s performance or future, what may be perceived by the manager as a minor topic or issue, just above the threshold of consciousness, may be perceived quite differently by the employee. To the employee that comment might be indicative of whether or not they have a future with the organization, central to their very existence, while the manager might not even remember the comment the next day. How many cases of miscommunication in the workplace are derived from a comment that has very different levels of saliency to the various people who might be listening to it? Managers may use what they perceive as throw away lines, about “future opportunities” or “earnings potential” not really thinking about just how closely the employee is listening or just how salient those message might be to the listener. 

Another example of a routine event taking on added saliency recently occurred in North Korea where the NY Philharmonic gave a performance. The final piece played was a traditional Korean folk song. At the conclusion of that piece the audience jumped to their feet and began a standing ovation of long duration. The audience and the performers began waving to each other, as though they were two ships passing in the night, ships who did not want the brief beacons of light shining from each ship and seen by the other to be extinguished.  Those brief beacons held all sorts of messages that the audience and performers wanted to pass to each other but were unable to expand upon in that setting. It was palpable. Messages that were saying “we are people too, don’t hate us” and “how can we get past the issues that our two countries face?”  Anyone who saw that could not help but be moved and could easily realize the saliency of the performance to those in attendance; it was not just another performance.  

Can a stimulus or event become salient to you if it is subliminal? The notion of something being “subliminal” is that it exists below the threshold at which you perceive it. There are some, however, that believe that a subliminal stimulus can actually effect behavior. I have to state that I am highly skeptical about this.  If a stimulus is truly subliminal, and not perceived by the individual, it is hard to imagine how it can affect behavior. There was enough concern surrounding this, however, that in the 1970’s, congressional hearings were held to probe the effects of subliminal advertising on the American population. If something can actually effect your perception then by definition it is not subliminal and your body in fact perceives it. Let’s put hair splitting aside for a moment; could an event because of its differing saliency to different individuals be subliminal to one and very salient to another? Have you ever sat next to a passenger on a plane who was extremely upset about bumps occurring during the flight, bumps that a frequent traveler fails to even notice?  

In the work environment similar occasions can arise and being sensitive to the differing levels of saliency that an event can hold for different people can make you more sensitive to those around you. This sensitivity will translate into increased empathy (for most) and in the long run better relations with those around you.

© 2010 by Jeffrey M. Saltzman. All rights reserved.

Written by Jeffrey M. Saltzman

October 22, 2009 at 10:56 am

2 Responses

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  1. I think the issue of saliency is very real and typically under appreciated by most managers. This was driven home to me a few years ago when I was promoted and had responsibility for a fairly large organization. One day one of my employees commented that I never walked by her desk on my way to the conference room. There were several rows of cubicles which I could have walked by, but I usually took the same route and I did not walk past the aisle where she sat. She had apprently read something into this that I never intended. I was totally surprised that my walking patterns were the subject of employee concern and when I delved deeper in this, I discovered that almost every aspect of my behavior was being scrutinized by those who worked for me and that the messages being sent were not always the ones I intended. It taught me a lot about saliency and made me much more aware of how my actions and words could be interpreted. I wonder how many managers out there are simply not aware of this?!

    Andrea Goldberg

    December 14, 2009 at 11:34 am

  2. This is a HUGE topic for many of my coaching clients (although I’ve been referring to it as managing perception vs salience.) For people who are less likely to assert their thoughts or opinions in groups, the perception by their supervisors is that they’re not involved – an indication of how ‘speaking up’ is salient to the supervisor – where the non-speaker is just exercising good listening – salient to her way of gathering information to make decisions. Unfortunately, the divergence of perception/salience seems to occur more often along gender lines than any other variable. Secondly, I agree that managers are generally unaware of how others perceive and measure every single action and conversation. When I point it out as relevant, they are dismayed, often saying “but I don’t want to have to watch everything I say and do!” Alas. “Heavy is the crown.” It’s a crucial component of interaction intelligence (r) – recognizing how what you say and do affects others.

    R Everett

    December 15, 2009 at 5:54 pm


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