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Enhancing Organizational Performance

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 http://www.zimbardo.com/zimbardo.html 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.

Visit OV: www.orgvitality.com


Written by Jeffrey M. Saltzman

November 24, 2009 at 9:20 pm

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