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Archive for November 2009

The Fundamental Benefit of Consistency for Organizations

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“We are what we repeatedly do.” – Aristotle

The other day I tried to track down the origins of the joke “How do you get to Carnegie Hall?” My recollection of the response was “Practice, Practice, Practice”.  I had thought that it was an old Jack Benny joke.  To my surprise I found many different potential origins to that joke but the one I liked and settled upon was the version that had violinist Jascha Heifitz being hailed by a man on a New York street. The man asks Heifitz, “How do you get to Carnegie Hall?” And Heifitz replies, without missing a beat, “Practice!”

There are two important components to the response of “Practice”. One aspect of practicing is that you know the piece and can play it correctly. The better violinists can also play with emotion, giving the piece “life”. A second component of “Practice”—one much less talked about—is that you deliver the piece in a consistent manner time after time. When the audience lays down the dollars to see you play at Carnegie Hall they get what they pay for. Again, from Heifitz: “If I don’t practice one day, I know it. If I don’t practice two days, my critics know it. If I don’t practice for three days, everyone knows it.”

The need for consistency

The need for consistency is pervasive. People are looking for consistency in their personal lives; organizations are looking for consistency as they deal with other organizations. Customers are looking for consistency as they interact and purchase either products or services. The attainment of consistency is a very powerful organizational tool—a tool that can greatly increase organizational performance; a tool that I believe is underutilized.

The philosophy of consistency is at a unique crossroads. It is one place where personality theory and organizational theory merge. Let me explain. There has been much effort expended on trying to understand people—what makes them tick. How do we classify their personality and abilities, from a personnel standpoint how do we select for certain characteristics that are more likely to lead to success on the job, how to develop them, etc. The desire for consistency is a characteristic that can be used to describe people. In fact, a Consistency Theory dating back to the 1950s utilizes a concept called cognitive dissonance. (“The discomfort of cognitive dissonance occurs when things fall out of alignment, which leads us to try to achieve a maximum practical level of consistency in our world” – Festinger 1957). The theory states that people have a strong innate desire for consistency.

Organizations have a strong need for consistency as well—after all organizations are nothing more than a group of people. An organization that makes maximal use of consistency in its performance from a product standpoint (uniformity of product—zero defects), from a customer service standpoint (customers have a similar experience each and every time they interact with your organization), and from an employee management standpoint will outperform the competition. At the same time, consistency is not some magical elixir that will solve all our problems. We live in a real world which is complex and has many critical, complex interactions for us to deal with and no single solution works for all problems. Consistency, though, when viewed correctly can become part of a larger whole, a piece of the puzzle that helps organizations maximize performance.

Managers within organizations are constantly faced with challenges. Oftentimes they need to produce more with fewer resources while maintaining quality. This requires a constant evaluation of processes and procedures to increase efficiency. (One coping mechanism that some managers use is to simply put in more hours. While this may work for the short term, over the long term real efficiency will only be obtained by rethinking processes and procedures.) What is a manager to do within an organization when faced with the real need to constantly change, to innovate in order to stay competitive in today’s fast changing world—especially when the natural tendency of many is toward consistency”?

The customer viewpoint

If you examine some of the most successful organizations, one thing stands out very clearly— their customers get what they expect. Consistency of performance helps drive that success. Some of these organizations even work it into their slogans and sales mantras—having, consistently, the lowest prices in a retail environment, or in a hotel chain having the same comfortable bed in each room have become mainstays of advertising campaigns. For other organizations it simply becomes part of what customers expect. People don’t go to some of the fast food shops for exquisite cuisine, they go because they know what they are going to get—fast food at a good price. The philosophy of “location, location, location” is critical in the retail (and many other) environments but you could add to that “consistency, consistency, consistency”

This is not only true at the end user consumer level but is also true for business to business customers. Can you imagine if an airplane manufacturer turned out planes of the same model that performed inconsistently? Some flew better at 5000 feet and some flew better at 30,000 feet? Or if a chemical plant could not deliver a consistent chemical composition to their product?


People and organizations are not only looking for consistency of performance to help deal with the world in which we live; it is crucial for success. Consistency is closely tied to predictability, and predictability is what organizations depend upon and what helps individuals cope in a complex world. This is the whole crux of the billions of dollars that have been spent on quality programs over the years. Six-Sigma has focused on the removal of variance from our products and from work processes, making them more consistent. The consistency of a product or the employment situation also helps organizations build trust, the trust of the customer and the trust of the employee.

The principles of Six-Sigma can be applied successfully to help improve organizational culture, creating a more performance oriented culture.  In order to know if the performance of the organization is indeed consistent it helps tremendously to have consistent performance measures and to aggregate those performance measures in a consistent fashion across geographies and business units. Displaying that information in a consistent fashion to help in corporate decision making is also very powerful and can be a challenging effort.

The employee at work

So what about the employee at work? Do these concepts of consistency hold within the working environment? I would argue that they do.

What if you walked into your place of employment each day and were met by inconsistency—a quantum mechanics of unpredictable behavior if you will. One day being late was measured by being at work at 5 minutes past the hour, the next day it was 1 minute. One day you walk in and your boss is helpful in all aspects, helping you manage your workload and the next day the boss is extremely difficult to deal with. One day your job is to perform task A by procedure B and the next day it changes to procedure C, only to change back to B the following day for no apparent reason. What is an employee to do? Any attempt by employees to develop coping mechanisms to deal with what is expected of them would be futile and because of the changing standards by definition they would end up failing. In a situation like this trust would also fall by the wayside.

I am not advocating the blind adherence to a rigid set of rules for organizational decision making. That would be a disaster. Good decision making may require setting up systems that allows managers to be consistently flexible (often within a framework), rather than adherence to a set of fixed rules. The consistency here is that managers are allowed to exercise their judgment, and given the appropriate tools so that good decisions can be made. As the environment changes (and it will need to change), employees need to be brought along—informed as to the rationale behind the decisions—and the consistency of the decision processes and outcomes desired need to be pointed out.

Is everyone really looking for consistency? What about dare devil thrill seekers? Certainly they are not looking for consistency or boring routine. Well in fact they are. Take for instance bungee jumping. One aspect of what they desire is the adrenaline rush, the thrill, associated with jumping, even though most of us would be more than a little reluctant to try it. If they lost the adrenaline rush my guess is that they would move on to other activities. They have different needs than many of us, a different threshold for what they are looking for—to satisfy those needs, but it does not mean they are not looking for consistency in those more dangerous pursuits.

Psychologists have relatively recently created a theory of personality called “The Big 5”. It consists of five dimensions of personality that are supposed to be overarching in describing people and their personality. One of those dimensions is “openness to new experiences”. A group of people, if you measure them on this trait, would differ on where they fall along the scale of being complex and open to new experiences to being conventional and uncreative. I am not implying in this work that people are not different. People are different and selecting the best fit for the various positions within your organization is critical. However, taking into consideration the various differences between people, there will be a fairly strong tendency for people to look for situations that delivers to them consistency—the consistency that they need.

Don’t fall into the trap, though, of thinking that consistency of performance means stagnation—little growth, no innovation, no increase in organizational effectiveness. That is absolutely not true. To be successful a company can be, needs to be consistently innovative and nimble (among other things) and organizations can absolutely create an environment allowing that to occur.

How to create consistency in the work environment

There are many things companies can do to create that environment. For instance, some of the data I have seen over the years strongly suggests companies with stronger diversity programs are able to deliver more consistently on business outcomes such as innovation, customer service and other performance metrics. It seems that the very act of organizations being diverse and allowing diverse people to feel that they have equal opportunity to excel and achieve allows for greater differences in thinking to occur and hence spurs innovation. It does not mean that your product or service is delivered to your customers in an inconsistent fashion. If that is occurring it has nothing to do with diversity, but rather poor process control – inconsistency.

Another aspect I have studied over the years is whether there are generational differences in what employees are looking for out of the employment situation. While the entire answer of what employees are looking for is somewhat complex, the bottom line is that there are larger intra-generational differences than inter-generational differences. In other words, within any particular generation you will find a range of people with differing desires and those differences within generations are larger than cross generational differences.

The fundamentals of what people are looking for in the employment situation are extremely consistent. How you deliver on those fundamentals is what may change.  I have looked at this from gender, geographic, ethnic, cultural and generational perspectives and always come to the same conclusion.

However what I have also seen is that there are no magic silver bullets.  Simply putting in a diversity program or a Six-Sigma program, or any other program in a vacuum, standardizing it regardless of the situation, without looking at what is going on in the organization as a whole is another recipe for disaster.  You are likely not to address root causes and are likely telling your managers “here is the silver bullet – the magic” (at least for the next 6 months until it fades away).

There are additional sound practices that can be followed and implemented by organizations that can greatly help them achieve consistency. Let me focus on a few elements, the elements that I believe are most critical.

The fundamentals of creating consistency for employees in the work environment first centers around content and consistency of “organizational message”, describing for employees what the organization is about and their role in achieving that goal and then sticking to that message. I am making the assumption that the organization gets that original message right. This is critical. You don’t want to stick to the wrong message.

I am not talking about mission, vision and value statements, though at times those can help, I am talking about strategy and goals, but I mean strategy and goals not only at the corporate level but also down at the personal level. What do I need to do in order that my department, division, BU etc. be successful?  (Together these 5 components are often called an organizational charter.)  The organization needs to understand who it is and what will make it successful in its market, and needs to convey that to its employees in a way that makes them feel like they are doing meaningful work. Secondly, the organization needs to provide the employee what they need to get their own jobs done – done in congruence with the organizational goals. Thirdly, the employee needs to feel appreciated for what they have accomplished and see a future for themselves within the organization. Message, Performance, Future (MPF) is an action focused framework that can be used to guide organizations. Three questions should be kept in mind as a manager thinks through this framework:

  • Message: Am I sending the right message in a consistent fashion throughout my organization?
  • Performance: Are people getting what they need (in the broadest sense) to be able to deliver on that message – to get the job done?
  • Future: Do people feel recognized and feel like they have a future with this organization?

I recall presenting the results of a culture survey to a high level executive of a very large firm. In comparison after comparison to other firms on similar items, his company was scoring well above average and in fact was benchmark on a number of items, until we got to pay. When I went over the pay items with him the results for the organization were rather average. He was perplexed about how his organization, which scored highly on many items could be so average on pay. I asked “what is your pay strategy”? The response was without hesitation “to pay about average”.

The point is that you get what you work towards and if you looked at a list of the top performing organizations on different aspects of performance and culture, you would be looking at lists of different organizations. Who is the most innovative, the most nimble, provides the fastest service, the best customer service, who has the best prices, the highest quality, the most dedicated employees? No organization has the resources, the time or the energy to do everything at the level of “the best in the world”.  Management may feel it is a requirement to strive for that, but it is simply not realistic. Mission critical then for each individual organization is to figure out what it needs to excel upon, to be first in its industry upon, the “best in the world” and to concentrate on those objectives.

Organizations need to do most things at a minimally acceptable level, to be competent (the price of admission) and I would argue that the minimally acceptable level can be a changing target over a relatively short period of time. You need to get the “engineering” right, to have good products, you need to be able to send out bills correctly, provide good customer service, you need to have effective sales and marketing etc.

Picking the items to be the best in the world at, constantly improving your delivery on those items, monitoring your performance so you know how you are performing is what will give an organization an unbeatable competitive advantage.

Delivering on that list of “we will be the best at….” requires that you get all of your business processes focused on those objectives, making sure that they are in alignment. All processes that effect all constituents should be examined, the processes that impact your customers, your suppliers, and those that affect your employees. It will require that the organization create and managers can work in a consistent environment. That environment can be consistently creative, nimble, innovative, diverse, customer focused, etc. I have seen organizations and managers operate this way successfully and you can too, but it will require plenty of “practice, practice, practice”.

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

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November 28, 2009 at 10:58 pm

A Lesson Never Learned

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Phillip Zimbardo did some of the most interesting, depressing work ever done by a psychologist. He showed how just how easily one person or group can dehumanize another. His experiment was called the Prison Experiment and was conducted at Stanford in 1971 (see for more information). In this experiment a group of college student volunteers were randomly split into 2 groups. One group became “prisoners” and the other became “guards”. After a short period of time due to the situation the “guards” and “prisoners” found themselves in, drastic changes in behavior began to occur; behavior that demonstrated that situational cues, rather than actual differences in people, caused one group to behave very poorly to another. In fact the situation became so dire that the experiment was concluded ahead of schedule. From Dr. Zimbardo’s website: “At this point it became clear that we had to end the study. We had created an overwhelmingly powerful situation — a situation in which prisoners were withdrawing and behaving in pathological ways, and in which some of the guards were behaving sadistically. Even the “good” guards felt helpless to intervene, and none of the guards quit while the study was in progress….And so, after only six days, our planned two-week prison simulation was called off.”

This experiment sadly demonstrated how poorly people can behave toward other people using situational cues, peer pressure and expectations to drive their behavior, cues that often have nothing to do with the persons themselves. This pattern of dehumanizing behavior has occurred repeatedly throughout human history and is sadly, certainly to be repeated once again in the future.

Africa, the birthplace of humanity, has certainly seen is share of suffering and inhumanity over the ages. It is both very poor and very rich at the same time. Very poor in terms of how groups treat each other, leading to some extremely violent, really terrible behavior, very poor in it’s history of human rights, in it legendary corruption and constant vying for power by some dictator or another; and for some reason poor in the willingness of the world to lend a hand in a way that can make a lasting difference. Africa though is rich in mineral, timber and oil resources and in today’s world it was only a matter of time until China with its growing thirst for resources cast an eye towards Africa. When I first read about this I have to admit to feeling a ray of hope. Maybe the Chinese can succeed where everyone else has failed. Maybe the Chinese can help lift that continent out of the pattern of almost perpetual bad news. The Chinese were able to turn a huge country that was essentially poverty stricken into a growing economic juggernaut. Could some of what they learned work in Africa?

China for a long time had been among the have not’s in the world; taken advantage of and looked down upon by others. In one instance, the opium wars (also called the Anglo-Chinese wars) were fought to ensure the British right (in the second opium war the French fought along side the British) to import opium into China (opium had been outlawed within Britain, but was apparently ok to import into China). The opium trade in China had very serious negative consequences on individual health and the economic health of China, consequences that the British chose to ignore, as their main concern was balancing their trade deficit. Additionally, China was forced to cede control of Hong Kong in perpetuity to Britain. (The New Territories were ceded for 99 years and over the years the New Territories became crucial to Hong Kong’s ability to function; water, food and other resources came from there, and the British were forced to give Hong Kong back as well as the New Territories when the term expired as Hong Kong was not viable without the New Territories).  The Japanese during World War II treated the Chinese very poorly (as well as a host of others), looking down upon them as somehow something less than human. In Nanjing China, the Japanese army it is estimated killed over 300,000 civilians and POWs, and raped at least 20,000 women during a two-month period. The means used to kill these people are almost beyond description. There is virtually no country in the world, some to a lesser extent, and some to a greater extent, which does not have versions of these sordid acts in their own history – including the USA.  The point is not to single out any one country but to paint a general pattern that describes how mankind can be inhuman to mankind.

China is now rapidly becoming one of the world’s haves. And given its history, the trauma that the Chinese have suffered over the years would it be possible that the Chinese would take a fresh approach in their dealings with Africa and other have not’s? Can they break the mold of “situational judgment”, whereby certain characteristics are ascribed to a person because of the environment they are in and not who they really are? Have their own personal experiences prepared them to interact in a more positive fashion with today’s have not’s?  The verdict is still out, but there are some troubling signs emerging.

Appearing in the International Herald Tribune (February 17th, 2007) is this excerpt from the opinion page.  “China’s president, Hu Jintao, recently completed a 12-day, 8-nation African tour in which he dispensed billions of dollars’ worth of debt relief, discounted loans and new investments….Beijing’s huge purchases of oil and other resources have made it the continent’s third-largest trading partner…China’s oil appetite has drawn it into an ugly partnership with Sudan, which is waging a genocidal war in Darfur that has already killed at least 200,000 people. Chinese mining investors in Zambia, as focused on the bottom line as any capitalists, have drawn complaints from workers and environmentally minded neighbors. China’s lending banks do not subscribe to the international guidelines, known as the Equator Principles, that are used to monitor and manage the social and environmental impact of major outside investments. And a flood of cheap Chinese manufactured goods has pushed some of the poorest and most marginal workers deeper into poverty and unemployment…China isn’t the first outside industrial power to behave badly in Africa. But it should not be proud of following the West’s sorry historical example.”

And appearing on the on the cover of The Wall Street Journal (February 2nd, 2007) is the story of Chambishi, Zambia. “Set amid rolling hills in Zambia’s copper belt, Chambishi was supposed to be a showcase of Sino-African friendship. China’s state metals conglomerate…bought the mothballed copper mine here in 1998, bringing plenty of jobs and investments. Initial gratitude, however, quickly turned into seething discontent, as the new Chinese owners banned union activity and cut corners on safety. In 2005, dozens of locals were killed in a blast at the Chinese explosives facility serving the mine – the worst industrial accident in Zambia’s history. Then, the following year, protesting Zambian employees were sprayed with gunfire. ‘The Chinese, they don’t even consider us to be human beings…They think they have the right to rule us’”, says a former miner who says he was shot by a Chinese supervisor.

Sometimes extreme events accentuate behavior patterns and can serve as a magnifier of experiences we have in our day to day lives. Lessons learned from extreme events can bring clarity to how more common situations can be successfully worked through. For instance people face traumas as organizations merge, acquire, downsize, and reorganize. Some organizations do a much better job than others in dealing with these traumas and the employee’s associated stress. These organizational traumas are no different than larger traumas that people would experience when facing the death of a spouse, child or parent, or living through a terrorist attack, the degree of the trauma is the difference. Larger traumas can magnify human reactions and allow us to see more clearly our needs and shortcomings.

Some organizations over the years have created “classes” of people that are somehow looked down upon, not part of the team. In organizations with poor labor/management relations, militant unions can arise. What is management’s typical response to the rise of unions? Is it to look inward and say what have we done that has created conditions where our employees (often called our most valuable asset) felt the need to form or join a union? And how can we correct this situation? Some management’s will respond appropriately, others will seek to dehumanize the employees and the unions, just as the “guards” in Phil Zimbardo’s experiment did to the “prisoners”.

A case in point comes from a story appearing in the Wall Street Journal (February 9th, 2007), about the US Air Marshall Service. After 911 the Service greatly expanded but grueling schedules, lack of advancement, onerous rules affecting one’s ability to get the job done, lack of identity protection have resulted in “many” (in the words of other Marshalls) quitting the Service.  What was the response from the head of the Service? He called the complainers “disgruntled amateurs, insurgents, and organizational terrorists” – and the response of the Marshalls? They joined a union. Luckily there is now a new head of the US Air Marshall Service.

Interestingly within it own borders China is passing laws that give greater protection to workers and increasing authority to unions. The enforcement of those laws is still questionable. The Chinese Embassy in the USA cites a report to the Chinese government that documented a few of the worker abuses that occur:

  • According to the results of a survey, payment of 36.6 billion yuan (4.4 billion US dollars) in wages for urban workers was delayed by employers across China in 2000, and the figure may exceed 40 billion yuan to date.
  • For migrant workers, mostly poor farmers, the situation is even worse. Experts put the delayed payment of wages for them at 100 billion yuan annually, and it is not unusual for them to get no pay for overtime.
  • Workshop safety remains a problem for many workers, mostly those working for private or some overseas-funded plants. In Leqing city of Zhejiang Province, east China, trade union officials said about 5,000 migrant workers lost some of their fingers last year while working at poor quality punches without safety devices. Those injured were kicked out of the plants by their bosses with little financial  compensation, which is against the law, the officials said.

This description of the US Air Marshall Service, the state of labor relations within China and China’s behavior in Africa are simply more severe, magnified descriptions of what happens within our own organizations on a routine basis. Organizations are made up of humans, humans that are subject to all of our nobility, all of our frailty, and our shortcomings. Can we learn from Phil Zimbardo and make our organizations truly better places to inhabit or will this lesson of dehumanizing those that are different from us, those that often times simply due to economic conditions find themselves with fewer options? Can we evolve into something more than we are today? On good days when you read about some of the truly inspiring efforts of people trying to help others I am filled with hope, and other times when I read a story of a supervisor shooting an employee to keep the others in line, or of a factory throwing out an employee who lost their fingers while working as though they were no more than damaged goods…I just don’t know.

“I am somehow less interested in the weight and convolutions of Einstein’s brain than in the near certainty that people of equal talent have lived and died in cotton fields and sweatshops”.  – Stephen Jay Gould

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

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November 24, 2009 at 9:20 pm

Sweet Dreams

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I want to build a shining city on a hill. Day-to-day sometimes you wonder what all this activity we engage in means, why are we here, what are we supposed to be accomplishing? Any rational thinking being will have thoughts like that at some point. I had a professor who once told me that neurotics build castles in the sky and psychotics live in them. Well I don’t think I am neurotic or psychotic, but I want to build, to create, a shining city on a hill. What do I mean by that? I would like to be part of creating an environment where people are excited about being part of something truly special. Where each and every member has opportunities excel and to develop to their fullest potential. Where they can not only contribute organizationally to the fullest extent they can and are not simply rewarded for their efforts but feel rewarded by their efforts. Where people feel like their efforts have an impact on benefiting humanity broadly. I want to build an organization where people can be intellectually stimulated to question and probe why things are done the way they are in the spirit of continual improvement not only for the organization but for those served by the organization as well. I want them and I guess by extension myself to feel like what we are doing really matters in the greater scheme of things. I want people to laugh to have joy at and in their work. Is this a general path to fulfillment or simply my own path? 

The other night we were traveling out of town for a family event. When we got to the hotel I was pretty exhausted by the long drive. We had dinner with some relatives and after that I was more or less ready to put my head on the pillow and get some shut eye. At the hotel our room had one king sized bed. So my wife and I along with my 8 year old decided to all just share one bed rather then opening the couch up. We all fell asleep rather quickly and after a few hours I was awakened by my daughter laughing in her sleep. I lay there listening to her laughter and realized that I would be very content to listen to her laugh, listen to her sweet dreams all night long. I was pretty sure I would be up in the morning feeling refreshed from that experience. Even now as I think of it, it brings a smile to my face.

Building an organization where people can laugh, where there is a joy to the work may be a critical aspect of organizational development that is often overlooked. There are however some advocates of laughter at work. For instance the Global Coaches Network on their website claims that:

  • laughter increases productivity
  • those who laugh out loud are more creative at problem solving than those who don’t
  • those who laugh have better memory retention than those who don’t
  • those who laugh have less stress, and miss less time from work than those who don’t
  • laughter is a major coping mechanism
  • those who laugh together may work more effectively together than those who don’t.

I don’t know if these statements are backed up by research but they certainly feel right. It reminds me of the old vaudeville joke. A man walks into the doctor’s office saying, “doctor, doctor it hurts when I do this” (picture man bending his arm) and of course the doctor’s response is “don’t do that”. Well when we laugh at work we are running into the doctor’s office saying “doctor, doctor I feel better when I laugh” and the response from the doctor (in this case I like to picture the doctor as an Industrial/Organizational Psychologist) is “you should laugh more”.

I can’t imagine that I am alone in wishing for this sweet dream and I hope there are many of you out there who are interested in laughing some more and finding joy in and at our work.

Written by Jeffrey M. Saltzman

November 21, 2009 at 8:01 am

Powerful Words and Behavior

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How important are words? Do words have the power to shape our thinking or are they nothing more than a reflection of what our minds are already processing, giving substance to existing abstractions floating in our heads? That is the essence of a debate that has gone on now for more than 100 years. Think for a minute of the words we use to describe numbers, one, two, ten, fifty. Are we naturally inclined to develop words to describe numbers? Do the words themselves, the words that we have made up to signify quantities give us the ability to think both abstractly and concretely about numbers, or is the ability to think numerically built into the structure of our brain? Said another way, is the ability to think logically about quantities an inherent ability, independent of language, and the words we have developed simply an expression of that ability or do the words shape our ability to think in a numerical sense?  

There is a tribe from Brazil, the Pirahã, who have no word for the number one or any other exact quantity. This is apparently the first group ever studied that has no concept for the number one. A new study undertaken demonstrates that the Pirahã can still convey quantity somewhat but are essentially using words that mean few, some and more. Other researchers contend that the words they are using mean one, two and many. In either case in Pirahã society the need for being able to quantify things precisely and hence develop a language system that allows for that was not a cultural priority.  

As strange as you might find it, that there is a society without words for specific numbers, remember that the first evidence for the use of the concept of zero is from the Sumerians in Mesopotamia about 5000 years ago. From there it traveled to the Indus Valley, and was used in Hindu society. In the Indus Valley it was picked up by Arab merchants and became very important in their trade and spread throughout Arab society. The Greeks only occasionally used the concept and Romans had no concept of zero (for those of you who remember Roman numerals try writing zero). On the other side of the globe the Maya independently invented their own version of zero. The concept of zero slowly migrated around the world and did not make it into European society until the late middle ages, as Europe was stubbornly holding on to the use of the Roman traditional counting system rather than adopting new methods. So while we take zero for granted today, it is a relatively new concept for western culture.   

Do words shape our thinking? One urban legend states that Eskimos who live in snowy places, and hence deal with snow more regularly than most of us have developed many more words than exist in English to describe types of snow. That is apparently not true. First off Eskimos are not a unitary people and of the many groups that consist of Eskimos, many different languages exist. Second the language structure of these groups is different, allowing for combinations that do not exist in English, making comparison between the numbers of words that exist to describe snow very difficult. They may or may not have a few more words than in English to describe snow but it is certainly not hundreds as the urban legend claims.  

There are words that have been consistently used to reinforce messages of hatred, words that need no repetition here. Those words tend to be used over and over to denigrate others within societies around the world. Does the constant use of words of hatred reinforce the pattern of biased and bigoted thinking within the minds of those who use them or are they simply an expression of what is already there? Clearly some believe that words of hatred create beliefs and behaviors of hate, as there are school children in various locations who are learning the vocabulary of hatred and to hate as part of their daily lessons. But what then happens to these children later on? Can they ever put the hatred aside once it becomes part of what they are, part of their essence? The future for the majority of children who grow up on hatred looks very bleak and greatly saddens me.

There is a raging debate going on about the vocabulary of rap music. Words that denigrate are built into the lyrics of certain performers. These words perpetuate negative stereotypes but are rationalized as somehow being ok since they are coming from within a community. I can’t agree with this at all. I strongly believe in first amendment rights but people should be aware of what they are doing and the implications of the choices they make. Words of hate will have hateful results – regardless of the source. Just as yelling “fire” in a crowded theater is not protected speech, yelling out hate filled words for mass distribution should not be protected speech as well.

Stringing together words of hatred into sentences can produce what some would call jokes. Jokes made at the expense of others, jokes that denigrate others for being different or being perceived as a threat to those giving word to those statements of hatred, hatred couched in supposedly humorous terms.  

Each organization also has a vocabulary, words that they use in their day-to-day operations. (I am not talking about acronyms.) How important are the words that get used in our organizations? They can be no less important than the impact that words have in our everyday lives and in our shared histories. Developing unique organizational vocabularies that allows for both abstract reasoning and concrete discussions on the issues critical to the organization’s success may give an organization a competitive edge. Unique vocabularies, ways of expression may allow the organization to consider concepts and ways of working that competitors are unable to replicate. Words are important, they have power and they have impact and they should be used with care. People when speaking for themselves need to choose their words with care. People when speaking on behalf of organizations need to choose their words with care as well.

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

Written by Jeffrey M. Saltzman

November 21, 2009 at 7:56 am

Measuring what you are Managing – Part 1

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There are times when rigorous measurement of programs, processes or choices can greatly aid in the decision making process and surveys can be used in that evaluation. For instance, in organizations when the amount of resources that can be brought to bear are limited and difficult decisions need to be made about the deployment of those resources, a measurement process that gives insight into the expected benefits of action A vs. action B can be especially helpful. Consider the following situations:

  • A school system wants to know if the investment it is making in advanced teacher training is improving educational attainment among its students;
  • The GAO wants to know if efforts in information dissemination by government agencies can be documented as furthering government agency goals;
  • A corporation wants to know if changes made in a reorganization are achieving the desired impact in terms of increasing organizational effectiveness and customer satisfaction;
  • A zoo wants to know if it should proceed with increasing elementary school outreach by investing in an animal travel program, developing an on-site hands-on children’s zoo, or investing in bringing in more exotic animals and building new exhibition space in order to maximize attendance;
  • A retailer wants to know if it should invest in more physical retail locations, beef up its website or send out additional catalogs with its limited budget dollars;
  • A benefits departments wants to know how the company’s redesigned benefits package is being perceived by employees and how well the execution of the benefits program is being conducted by the new outsourced provider;
  • A refiner wants to know if it should invest in a new Greenfield plant (a tangible asset) or if there would be greater ROI if it invested the equivalent dollars in additional training for all of its workers that would be expected to increase efficiency and throughput in its existing manufacturing assets (an intangible asset);
  • A sales department wants to measure its sales funnel of potential deals, to determine if its marketing and sales efforts are having the payback it desires and to predict future sales volumes for the organization.

All of these decisions or potential decisions can be enhanced by an effective effort aimed at program evaluation. Clearly having effective measures is invaluable to those trying to manage these kinds of decisions. Where to invest, how much to invest, when to invest are critical decisions and managers would be well served to seek out systematic measures to enhance their judgment. The American Evaluation Association defines evaluation as “assessing the strengths and weaknesses of programs, policies, personnel, products, and organizations to improve their effectiveness.” While organizations vary in their efforts at program evaluation one interesting statistic comes from NASA-Goddard which has determined that for them between 7% and 9% of a total program’s budget should be spent on evaluation, and a recent Air Force initiative devoted 15% of the project budget to a rigorous evaluation of whether their new inventory control system was working as planned. Program evaluation though has been around long enough and has been practiced by a wide enough variety of people that not only have myths sprung up about program evaluation but other documents that attempt to debunk the myths of program evaluation are also in existence.

Traditionally when organizations have thought of program, policy or initiative evaluation what springs to mind is a list somewhat like the following as areas to be evaluated:

  1. Perception of Benefits –medical, life, dental, disability, wellness, stock options, matching contribution to retirement, vacation, maternity policy
  2. Views of Pay & Bonuses
  3. Health Safety and Environment (HSE) Emphasis and Policy,
  4. Effectiveness of Diversity Programs,
  5. Work Life Balance Initiatives,
  6. Psychological Recognition Efforts,
  7. Development & Training Opportunities,
  8. Advancement Systems,
  9. Physical Conditions,
  10. 10.  Job Security.

One of my goals is to broaden out that traditional definition to include a broader array of various types of programs, policies and initiatives that an organization may undertake and would benefit from a rigorous evaluation methodology.

Many program evaluations have been sneered at as wasteful efforts due to poor evaluation methodologies being applied, but another factor that creates the typical cynicism is that whether a program gets continued funding may be somewhat contingent on issues outside of the effectiveness or the evaluation of the program. Common problems facing program evaluation consist of unclear program goals (so how do you know if you have accomplished the goal?), difficulty in collecting data, a lack of cooperation among those responsible for implementation (those whose plates are already full) and the politics of and vested interests surrounding various programs.  Yet with a methodical approach insights can in fact be gained without too much pain into whether the program is having the hoped for impact.

Program evaluation can take place within a specific window in time or it can be an ongoing activity. For instance, an organization might implement a phased-in approach to a new program, or a new product/service etc. and decide that after 6 months the program will be evaluated to determine its impact, and whether funding should be continued at the current level, increased or diminished. If there is a positive finding to the evaluation effort, the program would be rolled out to the rest of the organization. Other organizations may not use a phased in approach and may simply have two or more programs being performed simultaneously in the organization and then conclude possibly, that it cannot afford all of them, so which ones are benefiting the organization more? An evaluation might be done once, at a single point in time to help to make that decision. Other organizations might decide that long-duration type programs, ongoing efforts, need to be constantly or periodically monitored to ensure that they are still delivering the desired for outcomes or that processes associated with them are not deteriorating in their effectiveness.

Surveys can be used for both single points in time and on-going long duration reviews as well as to measure program processes, content, and outcomes and there are appropriate uses to all in program evaluation.  Some of the questions that program evaluation efforts can be used to answer include:


  • Is the program being carried out well, and how can it be improved?
  • How can you measure the impact of various programs on organizational processes?


  • Are the people targeted by the program understanding, retaining and actually utilizing the content being provided?
  • Is the content covering all critical areas?


  • Will the program have an impact on organization effectiveness, increasing the organizations ability to perform?
  • Which programs are the most cost effective, providing the biggest bang for the buck?
  • How can I measure the return on investment (ROI) of various programs?

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

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Written by Jeffrey M. Saltzman

November 21, 2009 at 7:50 am

Hanging by a Thread

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I am sure you have seen one of these, the little desk toy that has a series of steel balls in a straight line, suspended from nylon strings in a small frame. You pull the ball at one end away from the others, and then let it go. It smacks against the next steel ball in the series, which doesn’t appear to move, but the ball at the opposite end bounces away, at least as far as it’s string will let it, only to swing back and cause the original ball to bounce away from the others and so on until the little gizmo runs out of energy and the balls at each end swing slowly to a halt, waiting for you to re-energize it by pulling up on a ball at one end again and letting it go.

I was at a lecture where the ball which you originally pull up on was called the independent variable, when manipulated it has the potential to cause change. The ball at the other end of the contraption is described as the dependent variable, or outcome variable, an item that is affected by the change in the independent variable. While the lecture itself was extremely good and thought provoking, I could not stop myself from thinking about those balls in the middle of the contraption, those balls that do not appear to move but simply sit there hanging by a thread. The reality of course is that the balls in the middle, which do not appear to do anything, conduct energy through them to the ball at the end, which because it is at the end has the freedom to swing away from the other balls when it receives that energy load rather than being trapped by balls on either side.

In the experiments that were being presented in this lecture, there were causes or independent variables being described called Means Efficacy, which in my lingo is the Confidence that someone has about the equipment and resources given to them to accomplish their task. Not their actual ability to perform the task objectively measured, but their Confidence that they have the best equipment, resources etc. available to perform the task. The findings, in experiment after experiment, was that given equal starting positions, those with the most Confidence in their Means, meaning equipment, resources, etc. will outperform those in an identical task, with equal Means objectively, but with less Confidence about those Means from a subjective perspective. Apparently being Confident about your Means leads to higher performance, even against others who have identical Means but lack only in Confidence about those Means.

Means Efficacy has been developed by Dov Eden, a distinguished I/O Psychology professor from Tel Aviv University. This concept needs to be distinguished from Albert Bandura’s notion of Self Efficacy, which has to do with your belief in yourself and in your own internal abilities, which has a very long track record and has been proven beyond a shadow of a doubt. Means Efficacy is not the belief in yourself, but rather belief in external variables, your equipment and the resources being made available to you. He also distinguished the concept from Situational Efficacy, which is not about the equipment and resources but about your belief that the Situation in which you find yourself will somehow affect your performance. One example given was the home field advantage of a sports team.

Back to the balls in the middle. In a two ball set-up the same concept will work, but of course would not be as interesting and would not convey the energy over the same distance as the contraption with multiple balls in a line. But what got to me is that the experiments presented cause and effect without measuring the why. Maybe the why is not important, it probably was not for the purposes of proving the concept, but I get the feeling that the why will be very important as we deal with real world challenges.

For instance in one experiment young children, playing a version of Chinese checkers, were randomly assigned to one of two conditions. In the one condition you appeared to have a superior starting position on the board, even though it could mathematically be shown to be the same at the other starting position randomly assigned. Those children assigned to the identically strong but weaker appearing starting position more frequently lost the game. Cause and Effect. But Why? What did the children with the better appearing starting position do differently that caused them win more frequently? Did they strategize more? Did the play more aggressively or take fewer or more risks? We don’t know. If we were to know what the “winning” combination was, we then could develop a strategy that could be taken to those who feel that they are in weaker starting positions and say to them, “look, you may feel that you are in a weaker position, but here is a strategy that can help you succeed”. We could help those that feel disadvantaged, or disillusioned, or have been labeled by current testing or selection procedures as “less likely”, those who may also feel like they are hanging by a thread.

The notion of what is being measured or not measured reminded me of a piece I wrote a year or so ago about a Manhattanite who wanted to live forever. Just in case you have not seen it, here it is again.        

There is an old story that goes something like this about a very rich man, let’s say he lived in Manhattan, who had everything he wanted out of life except for one thing – he wanted to live forever. He struggled mightily with trying to figure out how he could accomplish that goal. Finally he came to the realization that he needed the assistance of others if he was to accomplish that goal. He thought about consulting some I/O Psychologists he knew, or going to see his doctor, but he finally settled on the smartest people that he knew, the New York council of elders.  He went to the council of elders and he said, “I am a very rich man and I want to live forever. If you can tell me how I can accomplish that I will give the city ½ of my wealth.”

Well to the council of elders in the perpetually cash strapped city this was an offer that they just could not refuse. So they decided that they should figure out a way for this rich fellow to live forever. After much deliberation, the demographer in the group said, “I have been studying my charts and tables, and I have found that as far back as records have been kept, that no rich man has ever died in the South Bronx. So if the rich man were to move to the South Bronx he could live forever.” Well the elders were astonished. They decided to study the charts for themselves and they too came to the conclusion that no rich man according to their records has ever died in the impoverished South Bronx.

They went to the rich man and said, “We have found a way in which a rich man can live forever”. They explained to him that he needed to move to the South Bronx and asked for their money. Well, the rich man not being a fool said to them, “I will give you half the money now and half when I have proof that I will live forever in the South Bronx”. The elders protested and said that they had found the answer that the rich man was looking for, but there was little they could do as the rich man was very shrewd.

The rich man moved his family and all his possessions to the South Bronx and in due course he passed away, the city never got the second half of his wealth.

Morale of the Story: You can conclude anything you want based on your point of view and depending on how you are measuring it or not measuring it as the case may be, or you can’t live forever in the South Bronx, only in Hoboken.   

When we measure organizational performance, while not as obvious as in the above story, sometimes conclusions are based on what is not being measured as much as what is being measured and that can clearly lead to erroneous outcomes.

And, when we are measuring cause and effect, while the evidence of what causes the effect may be incontrovertible, sometimes understanding why that cause leads to a certain effect can be very beneficial when dealing with real world issues. Saying that, the evidence seemed very strong that a winning combination in maximizing employee performance would be to create conditions whereby the employees felt:

  1. A strong sense of Self-Efficacy – internally generating a strong sense of “I have the ability and am confident that I can accomplish this task”
  2. A strong sense of Means Efficacy – “I have been given the best equipment and needed resources to enable me to accomplish the task”
  3. A strong sense of Situational Efficacy – “I am starting this work in a position of strength; I have been dealt a winning hand and will succeed at this task”.

Written by Jeffrey M. Saltzman

November 21, 2009 at 7:45 am

Creating Confidence & The Long Island Murder

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On Long Island, in a neighborhood not all that far from NYC, there was a murder this month. In fact it was not so much of a murder as it was an old style lynching carried out by those with a mob mentality, a gang of high school boys who took sport in torturing their fellow human beings, viewing it as a pleasurable activity. They routinely hunted Latinos, shooting them with BB guns, jumping them and punching them as they drove around. This time, their sport led to the fatal stabbing and the death of an Ecuadorian immigrant, Marcelo Lucero, simply because he was Latino and easy prey. NYC that bastion of liberalism, where we are supposed to be more tolerant of people’s differences, where we take pride in our live-and-let-live attitude regarding how people live their lives, how could something like this happen here? It could happen anywhere. But that is not an excuse as much as it is a warning. As terrible as that crime was, another crime is now being committed and that crime is a failure of leadership in a time of crisis.    

Nothing tests leadership more than crisis. Crisis represents an opportunity for leadership to shine or for it to fail miserably. Sometimes, but not always, leaders can simply muddle through, surviving the crisis simply because the severity of the issues lessen and not because of any direct actions they take. Suffolk County, where this crime took place, is run by a form of government that has a country executive, Steve Levy. Mr. Levy is of the opinion that the blame for the crime rests partly with the family, friends and acquaintances of the gang members for allowing them to pursue their sport. For him, blame rests with others and not with those in authority. But what created the atmosphere whereby this pastime was viewed as an acceptable sport?  Mr. Levy has a record of immigration enforcement, and in fact tried to use the local police to enforce federal immigration laws. The effect on the immigrants both legal and illegal was to turn them into victims with no options of redress. They could not go to the police, for they would immediately be suspected of being criminals themselves. They became victims without a voice. The evidence for this is clear, as now that the murder has been committed, a tidal wave of unreported crimes against the immigrant community is now being reported.

That along with other policies gave the gang a green light and set the stage for a lack of confidence within the immigrant community that officials would be there to protect rather than harm. It made officials including the police force assume roles similar to those that officials and police took as Europe lurched toward WWII, herding up the “undesirables”. In that kind of environment everyone is guilty rather than innocent and with unnecessary mass edicts, induced fear is the order of the day. Suffolk County under the leadership of Mr. Levy has an opportunity to break with the past and to create confidence in the system from the perspective of community members, create confidence in leadership, and create confidence that the future will be better than the past. How might they go about this?      

John F. Kennedy in a cold war speech in Berlin proclaimed, “…All free men, wherever they may live, are citizens of Berlin, and, therefore, as a free man, I take pride in the words ‘Ich bin ein Berliner!’” Kennedy’s proclamation, “I am a Berliner” demonstrated his solidarity and empathy with the people of Berlin who were being isolated by the Soviet blockade of the city. His speech was aimed at both the Soviets to demonstrate his resolve but also at the citizens of Berlin to increase their confidence that they would not simply be left to their own devices, but rather that we all stood together with them. But words are words, and action is action, Kennedy followed up his words with concrete actions that demonstrated to the people of Berlin that he meant what he said and that the confidence that he asked them to have was justified. Latinos who are hunted for sport in Suffolk County, New York? What is wrong with us? What is wrong with the system that we have let evolve to the point where such a thing could happen? Is it not too much to ask all of us to join with the Latino community and proclaim “Soy un Latino”? But now we need to follow up those words with deeds. The confidence of the Latino community and of every other minority community in Suffolk County has been shredded. How can it be put back together?

(There is an urban legend that says that due to a coincidence of terms, that Kennedy when addressing the crowd in Berlin actually said, “I am a jelly donut”, as a Berliner was the name of a popular breakfast pastry. Upon verification and with some closer inspection, given the context, this does not seem accurate, but rather some in the media at the time simply having fun with a play on words. Even in the face of extreme anxiety and worry over the Soviet blockade there was humor.)

Creating Confidence, is a process that looks at how entities and individuals, (e.g. public, private, governmental, community, NGO’s, teachers, physicians, etc.) can create confidence within the populations with which they interact. Creating Confidence also provides a framework whereby crises of confidence can be addressed and remedied. Creating Confidence is strongly linked to the notions regarding how to increase the perception that individuals have regarding their efficacy, doing away with responses that arise from a learned helplessness response and increasing feelings of empowerment, and an internal locus of control among people. Creating Confidence requires change at both the institutional level, creating well regarded processes and products that are aligned with stated intentions and those that are aligned with the issues of the day, and change at the personal level, creating a sense of ability on the part of the individual to be able to deal with the situation and an avenue for redress should the existing system be felt to be inadequate.

On a generic level, the Creating Confidence framework:


Internal External
Institutional/Organizational Improving internal processes and procedures, building a track record of success, having checks and balances in place, being well-run and effective Reflecting current issues and needs, being seen in a  positive frame, having products and/or services that are needed/helpful, being better than the alternatives
Personal Enabling individuals to thrive and prosper within the system/institution/organization, educating them on how to use the available resources, providing enabling structure and processes, creating a sense of fairness and equality   Providing alternative pathways, should institution/system path be seen as failing, an ombudsman or escalation process, transparency to the individual but also to the larger public enabling media and watchdog scrutiny

The impact of Creating Confidence is enhanced by thinking of what actions should be taken within this structured framework. In the case of the county executive, confidence can be thought of as having 2 dimensions, an institutional or systemic dimension and a personal dimension, each of those having an internal and external component.

 Issues to be addressed potentially within Suffolk County within this framework include:    

Organizational Internal – eliminate bureaucracy, do away with any non-responsive legacy systems, create an empathetic system one that does away with as much of the power inequality between the groups as possibly, ensure that disciplinary actions are taken on staff who violate agreed upon standards and regulation, create a well-run efficient system and establish a track record of fairness, proper treatment and protection for all community members. Leaders must demonstrate:

  • Competence – being clear about the mission of the organization, setting direction, being seen as a leader, being viewed as competent and completing what needs to be done
  • Compassion – an empathic response, displaying a genuine concern for people and what they are going through
  • Collaboration – seeking and obtaining the cooperation of all relevant parties in order to help each other and the organization, this is enabled by equalizing power relationships between the groups
  • Communication – disseminating relevant and accurate information, even if it means admitting that some things are unknown, you cannot over-communicate
  • Contribution Recognition – giving credit to those who help, sacrifice and contribute

(The 5 C’s first appeared in Saltzman, Reichman and Hyland, Leading the Organization in Times of Catastrophe, October, 2001)

Organizational External – assure that they processes and procedures in place are reflective of the current challenges facing the community, involve the community, make them part of the solution, listen.

Personal Internal – educate people on how the system works and how to make use of the normal administrative processes within the system, establish strong communications with the individuals within the community, and explain how the system will operate in a fair and equitable manner at the individual level.

Personal External – create alternatives for the individual, an escalation or ombudsman process, outside of the normal channels for use when people feel that the system is failing them.

Case Study: If you examine the arguments being made on how to fix the current economic crisis in a speech made by Barak Obama, the following pattern emerges:

Premise: “The economic crisis we face is the worst since the Great Depression… …millions of Americans will open up their 401(k) statements this week and see that so much of their hard-earned savings have disappeared.  …The credit crisis has left businesses large and small unable to get loans, which means they can’t buy new equipment, or hire new workers, or even make payroll for the workers they have…760,000 workers have lost their jobs this year…”

Obama Speech on Fixing the Economy Internal External
Institutional/Organizational “…it will take a new direction. It will take new leadership in Washington. It will take a real change in the policies and politics of the last eight years.”


“..I realize you’re cynical and fed up with politics. I understand that you’re disappointed and even angry with your leaders.”


“We need to pass an economic rescue plan for the middle-class and we need to do it now. Today I’m proposing a number of steps that we should take immediately to stabilize our financial system, provide relief to families and communities, and help struggling homeowners.”

“We’re still home to innovation and technology, colleges and universities that are the envy of the world. Some of the biggest ideas in history have come from our small businesses and our research facilities.”


“…create the jobs of tomorrow by unlocking the drive, and ingenuity, and innovation of the American people.”


“…America needs to end our dependence on foreign oil.”

Personal “…We’ll ensure every child can compete in the global economy by recruiting an army of new teachers and making college affordable for anyone who wants to go.”


“…extend and expand unemployment benefits to those Americans who have lost their jobs and are having a harder time finding new ones in this weak economy.”

“We’ll create five million new, high-wage jobs by investing in the renewable sources of energy that will eliminate the oil we currently import from the Middle East in ten years, and we’ll create two million jobs by rebuilding our crumbling roads, schools and bridges.”

Obama’s Conclusion: “…We can do this if we come together, if we have confidence in ourselves and each other, if we look beyond the darkness of the day to the bright light of hope that lies ahead…”

While I did not sort the whole speech due to space limitations, you can certainly see that he covered the Creating Confidence bases.

Confidence can be created or restored, by working through in a systematic fashion and addressing those issues that created the crisis of confidence. Leadership has a critical role to play in this respect for they are the ones who are supposed to have their gaze to the horizon, seeing issues and challenges before the boat of confidence hits the shoals. Institutions and organizations in general can thrive or fail depending on the confidence levels that their citizens, customers, investors, employees, suppliers, members and others have in their ability to provide and the perception of the need for the services or products for which they came into existence.

The War on Talent

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I will describe a somewhat contrarian approach to the War for Talent, attracting and retaining the best and brightest, as a way of opening up new avenues of thought and encouraging debate on a topic that is critical for all of our organizations. Our approach to this topic, the paths we choose to go down, will in large part determine the future success of all of our organizations. Given this, let’s make sure we go to war with our eyes open, examining all possible avenues and methodologies we can choose from to make sure we can win not only the battle for talent but to ensure long term organizational success. 

The War on Talent can be thought of as having two main components. The first is building a “brand”, creating a sense among the job seekers that the organization is one which attracts bright people (people like me), sends out clear messages, enables them to get their job done and provides for them the sense of a meaningful future, treating them well. The second component is creating an environment, an organizational culture, where people want to stay and are constantly striving to perform at their highest potential. Luckily these two components are inter-related and we will examine both, using a combination of case studies and foundational concepts.

I was originally going to title this article “The War for Talent”, but I started thinking about “The War for Talent”, and wondered “what does that really mean”? Are companies battling with each other to attract a limited resource – talented people who can make them successful? In a country that just past 300 million, a world population of billions, is there not enough talent to go around? Does that really make sense? Are organizations looking broadly enough in their search for talent? Do they recognize talent when they see it? It is a tough world out there, isn’t it, with employees ready to jump at the first better opportunity that comes along. How do they define that better opportunity? Is it all about money, career, the grass being greener?  Loyalty to an organization is dead, right?

As organizations battle to attract the very best they believe they are looking for a competitive edge. Is that really the case? What about all those talented people within the organization who decide to leave? Is there anything that can be done to prevent or slow down the hemorrhage? There are a number of organizations which instead of worrying about their high turnover rates, lament about not having enough turnover. Is that really a problem? Or is it that the organization has created a culture that allows the talented people that they attracted in the past to go stale, to lose their innovativeness and the only solution they can think of is to “clean house”. Is that a copout, a way of avoiding the real issues?  

After much thought, I changed the title of the piece to “The War on Talent”, as I am not so sure that this War is with other companies or organizations in the competition for employees as much as it is with the potential employees themselves thinking about joining your organization and with the current employees of the organization. What do I mean by that?  The War on Talent is when organizations do their level best to drive out of the organization the talented staff that they have worked so hard to attract and this driving out establishes the organization as not necessarily the best place to be, thereby making the attraction of new talent more difficult. Before you dismiss this notion out of hand lets look at some data.

“To keep a lamp burning we have to keep putting oil in it.”- Mother Teresa

I took a look at a massive (millions of employees) database of employee attitudes and cut the data by company and tenure. The results were very striking. In every company the most positive employees were the ones with less than one year tenure, the newly hired. In as little as 6 months sometimes stretching out to 18 months the data began to decline. Often the least favorable employees in an organization are those with 5-7 years tenure. After that time period you began to see either a gradual recovery, but usually not back to the initial level, a flattening of the pattern or occasionally a continuing decline.

New employees come in with a high level of excitement, a can do attitude. Then after a period, they are out of training, or no longer the new person getting the attention, or wondering why their brilliance has not yet been recognize and they begin to deal with the more frustrating components of working through organizational bureaucracy to get their work done. 

At 5-7 years serious questioning begins to occur. Did I make the right career decision? Is this the right company for me, the right industry? Should I jump? People who make it through that period of introspection and doubt (and stay) begin to see a long-term career being possible at the organization they chose (cognitive dissonance also comes into play in that if I am investing so much time here it must be good, because if it wasn’t, I am not making good decisions.)

Remember all this data is collected on the people who stayed. You could logically argue that the more disaffected and less satisfied had already left the company and are not in the results – those who left can often be described as the most talented, those who had little or no difficulty finding other opportunities. Providing career guidance, mentoring, coaching, special experiences at the 5-7 year mark in someone’s tenure could help them get over the disillusionment hump.  

What are the key drivers of this employee disillusionment? When does disillusionment get to the point where employees begin to actively seek out alternative employment? What attracted employees to the organization in the first place? What can be done to change the organization so that it can attract and retain the very best talent?

Organizational culture can be thought of as consisting of 3 main components: Message, Performance and Future. A very simplified depiction of the MPF framework:

  • Message: Am I sending the right message in a consistent fashion throughout my organization? Do people know what they are supposed to be accomplishing?
  • Performance: Are people getting what they need (in the broadest sense) to be able to deliver on that message – to get the job done?
  • Future: Do people feel recognized and feel like they have a future with this organization?

The data on employee disillusionment when looked at though this lens falls across the entire framework, indicating the importance of each area in achieving organizational performance. (Numbers 1, 2, 3 above indicate areas of where suboptimum conditions exist, only 2 out of 3 factors of performance in place).

Disillusioned employees are created.  Specifically, the data suggests they are created by having their attitudes decline in the following areas:

  • Message: consistency of policy and communications;
  • Performance: organizational effectiveness, being efficient, planning, innovativeness, decision making timeliness, and training for one’s job (all of these diminishing ones ability to actually perform on the job, people get frustrated by not being able to get their jobs done – they want to do a good job);
  • Future: rewards and recognition (especially dissatisfaction with pay) and considerate treatment.

Communications is one of those areas that never seem to score very well on organizational assessments and since poor communications can literally drive people out of the organizations the question is why is it so critical and what can be done about it? There is a trait found in animals and people that have been fairly extensively studied called the Intentional Stance. This trait probably evolving out of defense mechanisms to keep animals alive, occurs when an animal assumes that a movement or an actively that it notices is felt to occur intentionally. “That is not the wind you heard through the trees but another animal that is stalking you”. By acting based on that assumption you may always be more cautious but also more likely to survive a bit longer. There is no reason to assume that this is not the case with humans as well.

I have noticed in organizations the same kind of assumptions being made by employees – the Intentional Stance. Things just don’t occur by chance – especially during periods of change – people assume that they are being driven by the active behavior of others – a variation of the Intentional Stance. During major upheavals, say mergers or downsizing or reorganizations, I have had conversations with many employees who assume that members of management know exactly what position they will have down the road and what their responsibilities will be, but because of a desire to hoard information are simply not telling them. The response that no one really knows is often met with disbelief. How many of us had heard the phrase “people here always assume the worst”? Well the penchant for assuming the worst maybe somewhat hard wired into us as a helpful survival mechanism. Organizations need to do an exemplary job at communications to help overcome this natural tendency.

Do communications ever receive praise or can employees ever feel that there is enough communications about what is going on? The answer is yes. The benchmark on communications was a consumer products company that I consulted to. They scored well above anyone else in this area. How did they achieve such high scores on communications? Ready for this….they communicated more than anyone else. And it was communications that employees deemed important to them. Managers have a tendency to treat communications as one of those check the box activities. “Check, ok I communicated, that is done; let’s now move onto other issues.” Unfortunately it doesn’t work that way and communications is a never ending, continuing requirement to creating an optimum culture. 

Nursing shortages seem to run in cycles. First we bend over backwards to attract new nurses to the profession, raising pay, proving flexible hours and schedules, recruiting in far off places, providing housing in high cost of living areas etc.; in general making it attractive to nurses and potential nurses to enter into the profession or to choose our organizations. We then begin to tighten the screws as far as we can, trying to eke out more patients per nurse, more patients per hour, more hours with fewer employees, more flexibility in managements ability to schedule etc. We then begin all over again with studies trying to figure out what we have to do to attract more nurses. Is the war for talent or on talent?

In one study nurses who had left hospitals within the last 9 months were asked, why they left and if they would consider returning. This study included approximately 10,000 nurses across 160 hospitals. Out of these nurses fully one-third said they would consider returning. What was the biggest reason why they left? No one asked them why they were leaving and reached out to them asking them to stay. The indicated that they would have stayed if asked and if they had their “grievance” dealt with. The grievance often had to do with their immediate supervisor and dealt with “Performance” frustration – the inability to get their work done. Again, they wanted to do a good job and felt like they were prevented from doing so. Realize that some of those in management dismissed the nurses concerns about not being able to do a good job, so that there can be differing points of view, but also realize that the nurses were acting on their own perceptions and not those of management.

How important can it be to examine your culture and make sure that it is healthy, what you want or need it to be. One Pharmaceutical found out after a few years of conducting employee surveys regularly, covering matters of importance to the employees and most importantly involving those employees in the solutions to issues that were identified from the survey that the employees no longer felt it was necessary to have 3rd party representation. The union was decertified. Trying to decertify the union was not the driving force behind the survey process and implementing actions based on the survey results. However, when employees felt that their needs were being met through the normal business processes that were implemented; they did not see a reason to have a union represent them. Both sides decided to call off the war on talent.

An area of intense debate right now in the employee survey and culture measurement industry is whether surveys should be conducted in an anonymous or identified fashion. With the advent of electronic, integrated personnel systems with finally, fairly accurate data, much information can be passed to the survey provider that in the past would have been asked for on the survey itself. In fact much information can be passed that was never previously available or asked about. All of the surveys are still confidential, and the survey responses are anonymous to the organization being surveyed. But in identified surveys the consulting firm knows who is who in terms of responses. When matched up to records from the personnel system, very powerful analyses can be conducted. For instance, how top rated performers rate rewards and recognition vs. others in this organization? (In one organization where this was done the only difference I could find between top rated performers and poorly rated performers was on feeling valued by the organization. It did not affect the likelihood of staying or leaving. It did not change other aspects of their behavior or whether they felt that their performance appraisal was of value in helping them improve. So it appeared that the performance appraisal system simply created two groups those who felt valued and those who did not.)

Another very power analytic method is called Life Cycle Surveys. With a regular surveying process we can track “the same employee” through socialization (what attracted them, what was their path of entry, how orientation is going, is the job what it was originally described to be etc.), though early to mid-career (views towards training, advancement, pay etc.) to exiting (reason for leaving, where they are going, would they consider coming back etc.). By tracking the same person through their career, it becomes possible to develop warning indicators of turnover at the individual level, not simply for groups of people, to know which avenues of selection yield lower turnover, which employees tend to end up as the highest performers, how to better recognize talent etc. The potential is simply enormous. 

There are multiple ways of course of recognizing talent and we have a thing or two to learn about the recognition of talent from fish. What could fish possibly know about talent recognition and turnover? Fish do know a thing or two about employee selection – coral reef fish specifically. They employ a very interesting method to determine whom they should hire while interviewing candidates for a job.

Coral reef fish experience what must be an uncomfortable sensation. Parasites tend to attach themselves to their skins. In order to rid themselves of these parasites they visit and employ “cleaner” fish to remove the parasites. But how does the coral reef fish know which “cleaner” fish will be best at removing the parasites? They have developed some skill at employee (fish) selection, skills that are useful for human managers to understand as they look at potential candidates for a job. 

The cleaner fish have a choice as they work on cleaning the coral reef fish. They can work diligently eating parasites and cleaning off the coral reef fish, while not taking what has been described as a delicious bite of mucous membrane (I assume it hurts to have a cleaner fish bite your mucus membrane), or they can chomp on the membrane and get a more tasty meal then just parasites. It has been shown that when other coral reef fish are nearby (potential customers) and watching the cleaner fish, the cleaner fish are more likely to behave appropriately – foregoing nibbles on mucus membranes. This gives you a sense of what appropriate supervision can do but it also demonstrates that the cleaner fish know what is expected of them on the job. (I wonder who wrote that job description.)

Where it gets really interesting is that coral reef fish who have witnessed the desired behavior on the part of the cleaner fish are more likely to choose those that behave in the desired fashion for their own cleaning. They are in essence interviewing candidates for the position by observing the cleaner’s on-the-job performance and then selecting those that perform best. They seem to instinctively know that one of the best predictors of future behavior is past behavior. (I had to go to graduate school to learn that, so I wonder what that says about me.)

What can we learn from this about employee selection? Human behavior often has parallels in other animals. When psychologists study personality characteristics it has been found that as people age it becomes very difficult for them to change and by 30 years of age or so, personality traits seem locked-in. One theory of personality describes how people can change if they undergo a “unfreeze – change – refreeze” experience, but the “unfreeze” events, events that have the potential to “unlock” personality characteristics or behaviors tend to be of a fairly significant nature for the person. The point being, people tend towards consistency in the experiences they seek out and in how they behave and in fact one of the best indicators of how an employee will perform on the job is past job performance.  Don’t expect a 40 year old manager who acts immaturely to suddenly find a mature side or someone who exhibits marginal ethics to suddenly walk the straight and narrow, or an employee who is generally sloppy or last minute in their work to suddenly become fastidious and timely – at least not without a very significant event to propel them. Even then the rates of recidivism will be extraordinarily high.

The goal of psychologists when they construct assessment centers or develop job based testing for selection is the same as the coral reef fish, that is to set up a situation where on-the-job behaviors can be observed in order to get a sense as to how the candidate will perform in the future; in the case of the psychologist from a simulated or historical standpoint and in the case of the fish by direct observation. The use of biodata, such as job history, the number of jobs held (previous turnover), promotions, credit worthiness, even speeding tickets etc. is another method to examine past behavior.

Selecting the right employee for the job in the first place, one that fits correctly into the organization and has the necessary skill set is absolutely critical. But do not take the above example about fish and the tendency of people to behave consistently to mean that there is no benefit to developing or training employees. In fact just the opposite is true. Employees can benefit tremendously from having someone “show them the ropes” if you will of how to be a highly performing employee in the organization. They may have in place the correct personality or skill set but they may lack experience or some other component that would allow them to excel, to be a highly performing employee. Development for these people can be very advantageous – especially early in their careers. However if you have an experienced employee or manager who consistently exhibits behaviors that are not appropriate (biting mucous membranes for instance), don’t keep holding out hope that they will someday change their behavior if just given one more chance – it may be a fools vigil.

“Nothing is more difficult, and therefore more precious, than to be able to decide.” – Napoleon Bonaparte

Written by Jeffrey M. Saltzman

November 19, 2009 at 4:10 pm

What if your child is below average in English?

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A question was posed to me the other day. What if your child was really good in math but below average in English? In a world of limited resources and time should you work to improve your child’s English abilities, or should you pour your resources into an area where your child has the potential to really be a superstar?  In other words, do you give up on the English and concentrate on math or do you forego a shot at becoming a math superstar to spend some time and resources on English?

As a parent the answer that comes to mind is that you do both. We have unconditional loyalty to our children so you figure out a way to make both of them happen. You bring English up to an acceptable level and you work on providing whatever edge you can in the math area. Let’s not allow that easy answer however and say that doing both is not possible. What do you do?

What if your child was an employee, an employee who was really good in one area but sorely lacking in another? Is your loyalty in this case unconditional? Where do you put your effort now?

What if the choice was between two customers? One customer was average in their satisfaction with your services the other customer was dissatisfied. If you have to make a hard choice due to limited resources, is it more beneficial to an organization to resolve the dissatisfied customers complaints or should you concentrate on making the average customer absolutely thrilled? How do you create a loyal customer?

Where do you get the biggest payback for your expenditure of resources, time and effort and is it always a matter of payback? These are questions that people within organizations as well as others struggle with every day. 

In the area of customer research I have seen some data that suggests that thrilled customers are at least 3 times more likely to repurchase your product, willing to spend 10% more for perceived value add and are much more likely to recommend your product or service to others. This data also suggested that dissatisfied customers are already lost, they are typically already actively looking for alternatives to your product or service. So the case here was made that taking an average customer and making them thrilled has more benefit to the organization. But how did the dissatisfied customer get that way in the first place? Are there systemic issues within the organization that will raise their heads again and affect your now thrilled customer?  Without that kind of root cause examination, you may be diligently working utilizing wishful thinking as a way to thrill your customers. Just to make matters more complicated I recently attended a meeting where an expert on customer research suggested that this pattern varies by industry! Ah the world is never simple, and just when I thought that a categorization was possible to simplify my thinking process it turns out to be complicated. (See posting on Organizational Entropy).

What are we to do with an employee, an employee who excels in one area but may be sorely lacking in another? Here again the answer is more complicated than it may first appear. There are certain areas that are zero tolerance in my mind. Anything less than a high level of performance should be unacceptable. These are areas like working safely, sexual harassment, and ethics. Let’s put those zero tolerance issues aside for a moment.  I have never seen a job performed absolutely identically by two different people. Each person has unique strengths and abilities and they tend to make a job their own by bringing to bear that uniqueness. I believe that an organization is stronger when it can take advantage of those unique strengths, that potential diversity, rather then attempting to force everyone into the same mold. Saying that, there are some issues that need to be performed at a minimally acceptable level, across the board, and effort needs to be expended to bring an employee up to that level. If an employee can not achieve that level they may not be a close enough fit to stay in the organization. Is loyalty to an employee unconditional? No it is not, but neither should employees be treated like disposal assets, fungible assets or to be moved around as needed like pieces on a chess board.

What was my answer to the original question? What if your child was really good in math but below average in English? I said that you do both, improve the English up to a minimally acceptable level and give them the edge that may make them a mathematical superstar. Now I am left wondering if that should always be the case even when that appears not to be an option.

Written by Jeffrey M. Saltzman

November 19, 2009 at 3:46 pm


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“It is the peculiar and perpetual error of the human understanding to be more moved and excited by affirmatives than by negatives.” – Francis Bacon

Curses are another form of wishful or magical thinking, and though there are positive curses, most of the time they are thought of in a negative sense, in an attempt to bring harm to someone else or another organization. While most people use curses as a way to relieve pent up feelings of anger, maybe helping to prove wishful thinking’s health benefits, others will utilize curses believing that they will bring benefit to themselves while harming others. Since there seems to be a built-in tendency on the part of the human brain towards wishful thinking, and that human thought can alter events and even objects, it is no wonder that so many people actually believe in magical or wishful thinking and its power to affect events.

Appearing February 6th in the New York Times is a story about a small research lab at Princeton University. “Over almost three decades, a small laboratory at Princeton University managed to embarrass university administrators, outrage Nobel laureates, entice the support of philanthropists and make headlines around the world with its efforts to prove that thoughts can alter the course of events… The laboratory has conducted studies on extrasensory perception and telekinesis from its cramped quarters in the basement of the university’s engineering building since 1979…. But at the end of the month, the Princeton Engineering Anomalies Research laboratory, or PEAR, will close, not because of controversy but because, its founder says, it is time.” The history of wishful and magical thinking is long and is enticing to many of our fellows on this planet, especially in places where the basic tenets of science are not well established.

The very best curses (if there can be such a thing) in my opinion are those that make you stop and think about what they really mean. Three curses that fit that description and are linked together (their origin is a bit unclear) and in order of increasing severity are: May you live in interesting times, May you come to the attention of those in authority and May you find what you are looking for. Some curses are related to sporting events: The curse of the bambino is very well know, but recently annulled. There are many other curses perceived to be related to sports or to those participating in sports. One is that athletes appearing on the cover of Sports Illustrated are likely to suffer setbacks in their careers or to become injured.

Confirmation bias refers to a type of selective thinking whereby one tends to notice and to look for what confirms one’s beliefs, and to ignore, not look for, or undervalue the relevance of what contradicts one’s beliefs. For example, if you believe that during a full moon there is an increase in admissions to the emergency room where you work, you will take notice of admissions during a full moon, but be inattentive to the moon when admissions occur during other nights of the month. A tendency to do this over time unjustifiably strengthens your belief in the relationship between the full moon and accidents and other lunar effects.” (Skeptics Dictionary)

“Curses seem to have been a regular part of ancient cultures and may have been a way to frighten enemies and explain the apparent injustices of the world. There is no evidence that anyone has successfully invoked occult powers to do harm to others, but there is evidence that those who believe they have been cursed can be made miserable by exploiting that belief. Fear and the human tendency to confirmation bias and selective thinking can sometimes lead the believer to fulfill the curse.” (Wikipedia)

The power of the mind, while of dubious efficacy on external events has been demonstrated to have power over internal body processes – partly due to the power of positive thinking. The US Food and Drug Administration states that “Research has confirmed that a fake treatment, made from an inactive substance like sugar, distilled water, or saline solution, can have a “placebo effect”–that is, the sham medication can sometimes improve a patient’s condition simply because the person has the expectation that it will be helpful. For a given medical condition, it’s not unusual for one-third of patients to feel better in response to treatment with placebo.” “Expectation is a powerful thing,” says Robert DeLap, M.D., head of one of the Food and Drug Administration’s Offices of Drug Evaluation. “The more you believe you’re going to benefit from a treatment, the more likely it is that you will experience a benefit.” What about the power of positive expectations in organizational life? Are there benefits from that as well? From my experiences with various organizations I would have to respond affirmatively, though I can’t point to any definitive work proving that.

For someone who has a strong belief, a curse is in essence a negative Placebo effect. They expect something bad to happen and will begin looking for it. When something unfortunate happens, as it is likely to do in life, a ready explanation is available.  From an organizational standpoint and an interpersonal standpoint, I don’t think many of us would have to think very hard before we came across someone who we have crossed paths with or an organization, upon which we could lay a well deserved curse, the telephone company or the cable company somehow spring to mind. But in general organizations and most people are indifferent to such things.

The thing is, if you have organizations filled with people, and people have these natural tendencies, it becomes a very interesting thought experiment regarding how to maximize performance of the organization. Superstitious beliefs and the belief in wishful or magical thinking while not hard to find in places like the USA is even more predominant in the 3rd world, where large portions of the population may not be exposed to the common scientific rationales as to why things happen. I remember one organization in China I was working with that had to bring in an expatriate human resources manager, because the previous Chinese one, had died during a business meeting and this was viewed by potential replacements as an ominous sign and not one of them would take the position. 

Managements of organizations can have a tendency to assume that organizations are filled with logical rational beings and that their customers make decisions that way as well. However, some recent work seems to point in some other interesting directions. “The best decisions do not always derive from analytical reasoning, says Dr. Matthias Rosenberger, research associate at the Faculty of Economics and Business Administration at Chemnitz University of Technology. The fact that emotional and subconscious principles, that is, the gut feeling, significantly influence our decisions is verified by latest research findings in psychology. Intuitive decisions are more reliable and make us feel more comfortable.” But what are these gut feel decisions based upon?

Without mystery there is no freedom to choose. 

Written by Jeffrey M. Saltzman

November 19, 2009 at 3:42 pm

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