Jeffrey Saltzman's Blog

Enhancing Organizational Performance

Behavior Attitude or Attitude Behavior

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One consulting project took place in a very remote corner of South East Asia. We were there to do an employee survey whose aim was to improve organizational effectiveness. There were several thousand employees at this remote location and the employee base was a mixture of local tribes, tribes from other parts of South East Asia and American expatriates. This location was probably the closest I would ever come to living in a small American town circa 1950, as the company had reproduced a facsimile complete with schools, infirmary, bowling alleys, theater, golf course, grocery stores, and barber shop with a stripped pole in front, country club with Olympic sized pool and cafeteria/mess hall. There was street after palm tree lined street of bungalows in which families lived and there were guest bungalows for visitors. Each bungalow had a screened-in front porch in which you could rock in comfortable wicker chairs as the day winded down, cooling off and watch the world go by. There was also a hotel for short term visitors which reminded me of the days of Howard Johnson or Holiday Inn drive-up-to-your-door kind of places. The place was immaculate with a large gardening staff continually maintaining the grounds, trimming the fast growing tropical plants that seemed to thrive in the hot humid conditions and in general keeping things in top form. Occasionally a troop of monkeys could be seen meandering through a neighborhood.

The quaint, perfect American dream right? Well just as in the 1950’s the American dream was not so perfect, underneath the surface this place was not paradise for some of its residents either.  As it turned out the pool was for the use of “certain” residents on certain days (segregated by occupational level, which was also strongly related to which tribe you were from). The mess hall had a cinder block wall about 2 feet high running down the center. One side was carpeted the other cement and just like the pool certain groups were relegated to certain sides. (The food available to everyone was identical). Other conditions hinting at class distinctions abounded – seemingly driven to some extent by your tribal affiliation. I made many friendships that I still cherish during this period, but I was taken aback on more than one occasion when a local would give me some friendly advice about not getting too close to another person as they came from a group that as little as twenty years ago were cannibals. The previously cannibalistic tribe was at the bottom of the social structure. I developed a good friendship with one member of this tribe and I heard many jokes made at his expense about being careful if he wanted to have me over for dinner.  

As part of my work to get to understand this organization and to help develop the appropriate questions to use in an employee survey aimed at improving effectiveness, I along with my team, conducted focus groups with people from all areas and occupational levels of the company. To get to some of the focus groups, I vividly remember a ride I took in a Vietnam-era Huey helicopter with no doors during which I gazed at mile after mile of palm-oil plantations, covering a vast area that used to be tropical rain-forest. In general during the focus groups there was little to no mention of the class system that had developed in the organization. When I discussed this with the American expatriates (who were generally in management or very technical positions) they told me that advice given to them (typically by locals residing at the top of the social ladder) on how to sustain a harmonious environment was to allow the class distinctions to flourish – don’t rock the boat, the standards by which all employees expected this game to be played. Except it was not a game, it was real life. These standards had become ingrained enough that they were not often mentioned as discussions were held regarding how the organization could improve its performance. It seemed not to occur to employees that the social structure was something that could change.

I was in a bit of a quandary. I was retained to work on organization effectiveness. Do I try to improve the organization within the parameters, the conditions that they themselves have set and were used to or do I try to impose my own standards of conduct and attitudes that had developed from my own background? Did I have any right to try to impose my own convictions on others? And should I attempt to gather the data from the survey, using the data as a lever to try to change attitudes, how various groups perceive themselves being treated, or should I immediately suggest some changes in behavior? The immediate decision revolved around which approach would have more impact, try to change some attitudes and with that some resultant behaviors or should I try to immediately change some behaviors?

What comes first? Do attitudinal shifts lead to changes in behavior or can you have more of an impact on attitudes if you first change behavior? It was very clear to me that many in management were uncomfortable with the situation as it existed but were unsure at how best to proceed for their charge was the operation of a major installation for their company and not necessarily social engineering in a land and culture in which many of them were strangers (as was I). Could an argument be made that even though this operation was very successful by any standard that further success and efficiencies could be gained by beginning to change the social strictures by which they operated?  But again how should that be approached, through educational efforts aimed at changing attitudes or by going directly for behavior change?

We began with a little of both. First we put together a survey task force that consisted of about 50 people, while much more than we needed, allowed us to reach out to people from all areas of the company and to people with a diversity of backgrounds. We spent weeks over the course of the project with this group having them work together to accomplish jointly held goals, so that they got to know each other just a bit better. They were empowered to make decisions and they drove the project we simply advised along the way. Also management did away with the regulations at the swimming pool, the wall in the cafeteria was torn down and the entire place was made to look uniform. Superficial? Yes, but it was a start.  

If you can get people to immediately start behaving differently day-to-day in their interactions with others that will support your efforts around attitude change. And if you can change attitudes, behavior change (or additional behavior changes) can be easier to accomplish. If you don’t work on the attitudes though, even with changes in behavior, eventually the old behaviors will reassert themselves. And if all you do is work on attitudes without corresponding changes in behaviors the old attitudes are reinforced by the undesirable behaviors. We made a conscious decision to attack both the behaviors immediately and through the use of the survey/feedback tool the attitudes and then additional behaviors in our attempt to modify the way this organization operated.   

This project was repeated 3 times over the course of 4-5 years and each time actions were taken to improve organizational performance (e.g. they moved from a centralized support structure to a decentralized one more in tune with their geographic dispersion).

During each iteration of the project a different group of 50 project coordinators were chosen to help implement, striving for a large impact on people which we directly touched. Each manager receiving results received extensive training on discussing the results with their respective staffs and on change implementation to provide assistance to those whom we only indirectly touched. The implementation team tracked the actions and assisted managers with their efforts. At the end of that time the organization apparently was pleased with the changes that had been wrought.

Were imbedded prejudices or class distinctions erased by what we accomplished for this organization? I think it was unlikely that in the period of time that we were working there that we made changes that fundamental. However, did we move the dial a bit in the positive direction for this organization and the people living within? I certainly hope so.

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

Written by Jeffrey M. Saltzman

October 30, 2009 at 2:47 pm

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