Jeffrey Saltzman's Blog

Enhancing Organizational Performance

Iron, Coke, Chromium Steel

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I really like people who can make things with their hands. Always have. People who produce goods like cars, homes, planes, clothing, food and their underlying components, steel, lumber, bricks, cotton, energy etc. these are people who hold a special place in my heart. Farmers as well are truly special in my mind for they wrest a living from the very earth itself, allowing the vast majority of us to lead a more comfortable existence. I have more than once given serious thought to buying an old farmstead and attempting to rehabilitate it. Here in the Hudson Valley of New York there are old apple orchards, vineyards and smallish farms that people buy to raise exotic animals such as alpaca and lamas for their wool, as well as various kinds of goats and other livestock whose milk is used in making unique cheeses. (I am not sure any of them actually makes a profit.) We like to go to shows where there are craftspeople plying their trade, and I can watch for hours as a bowl takes shape from the blows of a skilled hand holding an adze, or as a blacksmith hammers iron into splendid forms. These craftspeople as well as the others who produce products add value directly to our society by making things that others can use in their daily lives.

In my attempt to feel somewhat connected to people like this I built a greenhouse in my backyard as well as a small shop where I try out various crafts. I tried a garden but the deer and raccoons were cleverer than I on when to harvest, usually getting their crops in the day or so before my own harvest. My most ambitious project to date was to assemble a reproduction of a 18th century Adirondack guide boat which cost me a small part of a finger (so much for skill), lost to a jointer as I straightened an edge on a plank. I take nothing away from doctors, dentists, teachers, biologists, chemists, and a whole host of others for they too are critical to our existence and they add great value, but people who can create high quality objects with their hands, that is something to behold.

When I decided to go to graduate school for Industrial/Organizational Psychology my first choice was a school in Ohio, the industrial heartland. I decided that if you were going to do Industrial Psychology what better grounding than to be in a location where there was a lot of heavy industry and the fact that they were going pay me to go to school there simply added to the attractiveness. Continuing with my logic stream the first job I took after school was with a steel and roller bearing producer. I was to be a generalist working across a broad swath of my field with my new graduate degree in hand. I took part in developing employee selection systems for new bearing plants in the south and the first green field steel mill built in Ohio in decades as well as other tasks such as an employee survey and succession planning.

“They never taught us what was real, Iron and coke and chromium steel”

The words from Billy Joel’s tune Allentown memorialize the decay of the industrial heartland. And while I am positive about the resulting cleaner environment as these industries have been diminished, it breaks my heart to see the pain that is has caused those who worked in these noble professions. I have pain for those who have lost their jobs, have lost a part of who they are and wonder where they are now. I wish them well. I would expect that given the more advanced technologies available today, if we wanted to build cleaner versions of these industries that we certainly could, but I am not so sure we can rebuild the industrial base that once was. Allentown is just one location where this pain was felt, for there are literally thousands of Allentowns across the USA.

I was born in New York City, but spent a good part of my childhood growing up in upstate New York. In one town, near where I grew up, you could stand at one end of a main street and for a good distance see one shuttered factory after another. In another small town nearby, which used to be the shoe capital of the country, you can see massive abandoned rotting factories littering the landscape. Rail lines next to the factories that once hummed with activity, bringing in raw materials and shipping out finished product now lie quietly rusting. I used to hear stories of immigrants who upon landing at Ellis Island had English skills limited to 3 words, “Which way EJ?” It has been a long time since these areas have felt real prosperity, the kind of prosperity that draws immigrants and others like a beacon of hope. A sense of prosperity that gets generated by fulfilling the dreams, the hopes people have for their lives and by being able to provide for their families, a sense of prosperity felt when people have confidence in what the future holds for them. The people who have these dreams are no different than any other people anywhere else in the world in terms of what they want out of life. And while these dreams do have variations, there are next to no differences when you look at the core essence of those dreams by generation, gender, ethnicity, or geography. Dreams are dreams and people are people.

“Every child had a pretty good shot
To get at least as far as their old man got
But something happened on the way to that place”

My second professional job was to become a specialist with a research company that studied employee attitudes and organizational culture with the goal of helping organizations enhance performance and effectiveness, while improving conditions for the workers themselves. I studied culture and employee attitudes globally for the next 18 years, examining results from hundreds and hundreds of companies across millions of people. I filled up multiple passports with visa stamps in the process and I ended up running and owning that company for a good portion of those years. In company after company the consistency of the findings was truly remarkable. There was of course variation on the absolute scores, as some companies were better run, or had better widgets to sell into stronger markets, but when you examined not the absolute scores, but the items that employees around the world used to define effective management, or the items that translated into more positive employees that gave extra effort, the results were truly remarkably similar. It did not matter what kind of employee you were measuring, from which generation or location. The data stated again that people are people wanting similar things out of the work environment and in essence out of life. We are all driven by human desires.

“Well our fathers fought the second world war
Spent their weekends on the Jersey shore
Met our mothers in the USO
Asked them to dance
Danced with them slow”

With all of the above as backdrop, during that timeframe and afterward I began thinking that while it is all well and good to have emotionally attached, satisfied or engaged employees, or employees willing to give discretionary effort helping their organizations succeed, that measuring those conditions of satisfaction or engagement was not the whole critical story for the employee or the organization. To me a missing component was Employee Confidence. In order to achieve a high level of Employee Confidence the employee needs to be engaged, but the engaged employee is not necessarily confident. The engaged employee can be working in a dying industry, for a poorly managed organization that will go out of existence or the engaged employee can see their skill set rusting away, making them less and less employable as time marches on.

I defined two distinct components or sub-dimensions to Employee Confidence, Organizational Confidence and Personal Confidence. Each of these sub-dimensions has an internal and external factor. The Internal part of Organizational Confidence focuses on the internal functioning of the organization. (e.g. Is it well managed, does it have effective business processes, can it make profits?) The External part of Organizational Confidence focuses on the environment in which the organization operates. (e.g. Is the organization’s industry robust and healthy, is it a tough competitor, does it have products that are attractive to customers?)

The Internal part of Personal Confidence focuses on the employee’s future with their current employer and is the traditional driver of how employee loyalty used to be generated from the employee’s perspective. (e.g. Does the employee have job security, is there a promising future for them and are they being prepared for that future?) And finally the External part of Personal Confidence tries to get at how prepared the employee feels to leave their current organization, should they need to, and to find a similar job elsewhere. (e.g. My skills would allow me to find a similar job, with similar pay and others are hiring people with skills like mine.)

Some of the data that I have collected suggest that this quadrant of the model, External Personal Confidence is another way to establish loyalty among employees. For if the organization can no longer supply the traditional carrots that lead to loyalty, Internal Personal Confidence (i.e. job security with a bright future) what the organization can supply is a new carrot, External Personal Confidence (i.e. transportable skill development), so that employees don’t feel that by continuing to work at the organization that their skills rust away, but that by working for the organization they are keeping themselves marketable and attractive to other organizations. While of course it is never wholly one way or the other, but rather shades of gray regarding which categories the organization can supply to the employee, my hypothesis is that if the organization is a good place to be from, the employee is more likely to stick around rather than jumping at the first offered alternate opportunity that arises. So far the data suggests that employees who are highly trained and feel capable of moving around are no more likely to do so than employees who are feeling perhaps more trapped in their jobs due to how unmarketable they view their current skill sets.

“For the promises our teachers gave
If we worked hard
If we behaved
So the graduations hang on the wall
But they never really helped us at all”

On the last line I would have to disagree with Billy Joel’s steelworkers, education never hurts. From a theoretical standpoint I think this model of Employee Confidence touches on and perhaps builds off the concepts of learned helplessness, locus of control and efficacy theories, including self, means and situational efficacy.

What do you buy when you have high levels of Employee Confidence? I believe that Employee Confidence can have an impact at the global, country, organizational and personal level and these theories are being tested out now. If for instance you take a representative random sample of employees from within a country and they are exhibiting a high degree of Employee Confidence in their respective organizations it is likely that we are looking at a healthy business climate within that country, one that is positively perceived, with well-run organizations positioning themselves for future growth and all that implies.

If the employees within a specific organization are exhibiting a high degree of Employee Confidence I would hypothesize that it would mean that they are engaged, willing to assume control over their own future and the organization’s, willing to make things happen, display higher degrees of confidence in the organizations products and/or services to its customers, resulting in increased sales. I also think that the more confident employees will likely create conditions that will drive organizations to higher levels of performance with respect to employee treatment. For if your employees are confident that they can go elsewhere you had better get your act together if you want to keep them. The results as they roll in will be really interesting.

“And were living here in Allentown”

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

Written by Jeffrey M. Saltzman

October 25, 2009 at 8:04 pm

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