Jeffrey Saltzman's Blog

Enhancing Organizational Performance

Heart of Hearts

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There is an old story that describes a very special clock. This clock does not work like most clocks, keeping track of the passage of time. Rather this clock, though it looks like a regular clock, keeps track of the time until a certain event is supposed to happen. It counts down the days, hours and minutes until that moment is to occur. What strikes me about this is not that you can create a clock that is a count down timer rather than a tracker of the passage of time, but that a single aspect of reality can be thought of in distinctly two fashions. One is to keep track of the passage of time and the other is to keep track of time until an event is to occur, one aspect of reality, time and 2 distinct points of view about how to measure it. The clocks can look identical, both are measuring time, yet they operate in distinctly differing fashions.

As I spend more and more time with various organizations I am struck by another duality of what I view as another single aspect of reality. And that reality is how employees are viewed. In order to make the point I will put it into stark terms using extreme descriptions while realizing that most organizations do not fall at one extreme or the other.

At one extreme there are management teams of organizations that truly believe that their success is because of their employees and at the other extreme you have management teams that view employees as costs to be controlled, two extreme points on one scale. And to me there is a very interesting part to this concept. On the surface it can be extremely difficult to tell the difference between these two groups. Much of what they do looks similar. Among the one group’s goals will be to retain the valuable assets called employees and among the other group’s goals will be to make sure everyone is replaceable, that the cogs in the wheel are easily replaced should one fall off. 

Both groups will have impressive plaques on the wall describing their mission, vision and values. Both groups will say things like “employees are our most important asset”. Both could have certain employee benefit programs in place. And both could be very respectful of employees treating them well and providing opportunity for all to succeed – in good times. The difference while there all along becomes much more obvious when there is an economic downturn or when the organization feels some kind of stress.

In the organizations that view employees as the true reason for their success, an overriding theme seems to permeate. What can we do to help make our employees more capable of success? How can we knock down the barriers that get in their way, those things that prevent them from performing? How can we enable them more? How do we maintain the motivation that they brought with them when they first came to this job?

It has been documented over and over that the most positive employees in most organizations are the ones you just hired and it takes the average organization about 3 years to beat that “positiveness” out of them. What happens to these employees that their degree of positiveness flags? The data suggest that they begin dealing more and more with the organization’s bureaucracy. They are not given the same amount of attention as when they first joined up. Their jobs did not deliver on the salary expectations they may have thought were there. They were not given recognition for their performance over time. They did not advance as quickly as they thought and in fact they seem to feel that their talents are not being recognized. Realistic job previews help in this area but they are only part of the answer and this pattern of decline is not necessarily seen in all organizations, but is seen in a relatively large number of them.

Some management teams upon hearing this will think to themselves, “well then turnover is not so bad, after all as we hire new people we will get people with more positive attitudes and hey, if they stick around for 3 years or so, great we can just hire more replacements at that time.” People after all are just costs to be controlled.

Other management teams will view the turnover as a loss of organizational memory and with that goes capability and long-standing relationships with others that can characterize successful organizations. While some of this comes from a Wall Street and its resultant short term orientation, with managers of today feeling intense pressure to make their profit numbers, I think another component of this comes from the heart. I think some managers in their heart-of-hearts believe that the path to organizational success is through their employees and others believe that employees are simply part of the problem, preventing organizations from being as profitable as they could be. I think is shows up in hundreds of subtle ways and some not so subtle ways in the day-to-day actions of the organization.

In some recent conversations I have had with senior managers of various types on this idea, I get general agreement, but I also get a good deal of discomfort. It seems that some organizational managers don’t necessarily want to operate in this fashion but feel that because everyone else is, in order to remain competitive they have to as well.  What may cause this to show up more starkly once again is that we are now in a period of economic uncertainty, with many betting that we are already in a recession and speculating on how long it will last. Some organizations will immediately go to layoffs, cutting off those expenses called employees, while others will try to figure out how to better utilize those assets called employees to help weather the storm.

Wayne Cascio a professor of management and international business at the University of Colorado in Denver and an Industrial Organizational Psychologist has conducted a series of studies and has published a book on alternatives to layoffs in down cycles, and has found that those companies that follow these practices of retaining valuable employees, treating them as assets, in the long-term outperform those that quickly resort to layoffs. He finds that those companies that “view their workers as assets to be developed rather than costs to be cut” will be more likely to succeed and “In general, we found that it was just not possible for firms to ‘save’ or ‘shrink’ their way to prosperity.”

But in order to operate in this fashion the organization has to believe, it has to believe in its employees in its heart of hearts.

Written by Jeffrey M. Saltzman

November 13, 2009 at 8:09 am

One Response

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  1. Jeffrey,
    Good points made and I enjoyed reading your post. it is disconcerting that so many managers still revert to theory X style of management decisions.

    When tough decisions are to be made, there is a golden opportunity to engage staff. However, with extravagant bonuses and pay, is it any wonder that so many workers are distrustful?

    Companies need to engage the hearts and minds of employees, and in my view it includes schemes such as giving employees shares so they can share in the success of the business.
    Best regards

    Charles van Heerden

    November 16, 2009 at 5:26 pm

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