Jeffrey Saltzman's Blog

Enhancing Organizational Performance

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

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