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Enhancing Organizational Performance

Heretical Aspirations

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Here is an interesting notion; we humans and this moment in time which we occupy are nothing special. Some would consider that to be heretical.

Galileo in his support of the work of Copernicus faced lifelong house arrest for simply asserting that the Earth moved around the sun and that the Earth was not the center of everything. There is a strong tendency on the part of humans to see themselves as the center, as critically important to the greater scheme of things; to be told that the Earth on which we humans reside was not central to existence upset this world view, the notions that some have regarding humanity’s, and hence the Earth’s, centrality to the scheme of things.

Darwin also faced much criticism for his work on evolution much of it, continuing even today, by people who feel that it diminishes mankind’s special place, our centrality and novelty of our existence. It would make us no different than any other animal out there, similar to a cow, a goat, or a worm. We would be considered simply a link, an evolutionary quirk, in the greater scheme of how life naturally unfolds on the Earth. How much different are we truly from other life forms that inhabit this planet?     

It has been documented that elephants will return to the site at which a relative perished, the gravesite, and spend hours running their trunks over the bones of their fallen brethren, clearly recognizing the individuals who those bones now represent. We can only speculate what is going on in their heads, but to my point of view it certainly looks like they are remembering those who came before them, and should I dare say mourning? Hippos gather round a deceased comrade in the water, protecting the carcass from crocodiles, reluctant to depart from it, even though it bestows no benefit upon them to do so. The list of creatures that seem to show emotion or intelligent thought, at least from a human point of view, can go on and on. Are we humans the only one who can mourn? Why would we limit certain emotions and thoughts as being unique to our species? Should we consider ourselves so unique as to think that we are the only animal that can have complex thought or emotion?  Are complex though and emotion unique attributes of humans, or are they simply helpful survival tools courtesy of Darwin’s survival of the fittest, and those species that would benefit from those traits have developed them over time? 

The well documented notion of ethnocentricity is when your world view is based on the notion that your culture is the center of everything and is the yardstick by which all other people are judged. The more similar others are to your culture the more positive the view, the more distant the more harshly they are judged. Maybe a new concept needs to be added to that notion. Our commonly held belief that our species, Homo sapiens, is the center of everything is just as much a fallacy as cultural centricity.  Specicentricity (a word that I don’t think you will find in any dictionary) is the notion that humans are the center of everything and the yardstick by which all other animals are judged. Is the only concept of intelligence one in which other animals need be similar to our version of intelligence to be considered smart? Is the only concept of morality or emotions one in which other animals must be like us to be considered as exhibiting those traits?  Can a dolphin, a whale, or an elephant be just as smart, just are moral, just as emotive as us, but in a different way?

When people feel that something is wrong morally but can’t explain why, the term moral dumbfounding has been used by Jonathan Haidt, a psychologist from the University of Virginia to describe the sensation. He tested people’s reaction to certain situations as a way of measuring the phenomena.  One scenario he looked at, for instance, was the reaction that people had to a hungry family that cooked and ate its pet dog after it had been struck and killed by a car. In general, people felt strongly that something was wrong with that but they could not explain why (New York Times, Sept. 18, 2007). Dr. Haidt describes his view that certain aspects of morality within humans are evolutionary in nature. Morality evolved, in his view, to help us become more successful social animals and to help ensure our survival as a species. If us, why not other animals as well? 

Irene Pepperberg is a psychologist who worked for 30 years with Alex an African gray parrot which died a few weeks ago. Alex responded to all of the visual cues and words that you would expect a well trained bird to do, but Alex had something more, a realization regarding what the training was all about. When Dr. Pepperberg developed a system to test color recognition in Alex, “what sound is green?” Alex would respond appropriately. When instead of getting the reward for a correct response, Alex got another question; he chimed in with “want a nut” and refused to cooperate. Alex was more than trained to respond to a stimulus, in operant conditioning fashion, he knew what was going on – he was thinking – he was thinking that he wanted a nut. When Alex was bored, he stated that he was going away now and refused to cooperate with further experiments until he was in the right frame of mind. Alex’s last words to Irene the night of his death were “You be good, see you tomorrow. I love you.” 

Richard Gott utilizes what is called the Copernican Principle to make some startling predictions about moments in time. In addition to how much longer humanity is likely to survive the Princeton astrophysicist has used his technique to forecast the longevity of Broadway plays, newspapers, dogs, and likely tenure of politicians pretty successfully (New York Times, July 17, 2007). His predictions are based on the notion that there is nothing special about the particular moment in which you are observing a phenomena and how long that phenomena has already lasted.

Say you live in a country that has been around for 230 years. What is the chance that it will survive the next year? Given that there is nothing special about the 231st year, as compared to the 99th or the 64th for instance, the Copernican Principle states that the likelihood of the country failing in its 231st year is 1 in 231 or .43% likelihood. We can also say that the likelihood of the country failing over the next 6 years is roughly 2.5% (6 x .43%=2.58%).  If you now think of a time line with a line vertical line drawn at the bottom 2.5% and the top 2.5% there is a 95% certainty that the country would exist for the duration within that which is represented by those lines. For a country that has already existed for 230 years there is a 95% likelihood that it will continue to exist for at least another 6 years but not as long as 8970 years, the upper and lower bounds on that timeline. The chances of being wrong on the low end – the country surviving less than 6 years is roughly 2.5 percent, and the odds of being wrong on the high end – the country surviving more than 8970 years is roughly 2.5% for a total potential error rate of 5% (the standard for scientific judgments).

A simpler example can be found by looking at a company that has been around for 5 years. The lower and upper bounds of its continued existence would be 1 ½ months (.125 of a year) on the low end to 195 years on the upper end (with 95% confidence). Here is how you calculate it. If you take the 5 years and divide by 40 (1/40th being equal to 2.5%) you end up with .125 of a year. Now if you take the current length of time of the company’s existence and multiply by 39 you end up with 195 years (based on the assumption that the company is not in the first 2.5% of its existence).  The span (.125 to 195 years) represents the likely life of the organization with a 2.5% error rate on the low end and a 2.5% error rate on the high end, or a total error rate of 5%, according to the Copernican Principle. The company has a 50% chance of making it to about 100 years, having survived its first five.      

So with these examples you can make the argument that we humans and this moment in time we occupy are nothing special, our highest talents subject to simple evolutionary pressures and statistical patterns.  That is both the strength and the flaw with this kind of reasoning. Our highest talents, our complex reasoning, our morality, and what we create may be subject to and driven by evolutionary pressures and statistical patterns, but what we ultimately decide to do with those talents and abilities, how we apply them, is completely up to us. We do in fact have free will.

The Copernican logic is simply playing the odds, no different than the slot machines in Las Vegas which are of course designed so that over the long term you will lose and similar to how psychologists validate employee selection procedures or determine linkage results of employee attitudes to business performance metrics for instance. We are looking for patterns, for broad tendencies to demonstrate that following these procedures or building these kinds of organizational cultures will lead to the desired outcomes. It is not possible for instance to state that we know with certainty how any single person will perform, but rather that we know as a class that a group of people who exhibit these traits tend to be more successful, hence lets hire more people who exhibit those traits. It is not possible to say that if an organization does this and this, that its performance will definitively improve, only that there is a tendency that if you do this the likelihood of improvement is greater.   

I am struck by one fundamental difference that humans have from our co-inhabitants of this planet. We build on such a scale that we actually shape the planet – in general we are a species of builders. Yes, you can say that ants build, bees build, birds build and of course the beaver, but no other animal builds on such a scale and for a multitude of purpose as humans. We have impact. We build monuments. Whether that impact is beneficial or harmful, and whether our monuments will be of lasting duration or fleeting as a moment is up to us. Our monuments can be physical, or they can be meta-physical, such as building optimal societies and organizations. What monuments will you choose to build?  

Our organizations will evolve, people will evolve, our awareness and our understanding that people around the world are more similar than they are different will evolve and we will hopefully become more enlightened. I would count on evolution continuing, not because of any change in what we are fundamentally, but because of a change in our knowledge base of what we know about societies and organizations, and what we know about the people and the other inhabitants of this world in we all live.

Here is an interesting notion; we humans and this moment in time which we occupy are special, as are all the other creatures with which we share this planet. Some would consider that to be heretical.

Written by Jeffrey M. Saltzman

November 6, 2009 at 3:49 pm

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