Jeffrey Saltzman's Blog

Enhancing Organizational Performance

People at Work, or is it Life?

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The notion that people join organizations and leave bosses tends to be an overly simplistic depiction of the complexities of why people join and leave organizations. After years and years of research and literally hundreds of articles and books published on the topic there is no mystery regarding what people around the world want out of a job experience or a career. And while you can spend your time searching and highlighting the minutia that indicates differences, perhaps driven by your research design, the bottom line is that people at work, humans, are more the same than we are different, and I don’t care if we are talking about generational differences, gender, ethnicity or perceived geographic differences. And while there are as many ways to state it as there are researchers to describe it, the fundamental underlying characteristics of what people want include:

  • A clear and compelling message or reason regarding what the organization is about, why it exists, what it stands for, what it hopes to accomplish and knowledge of how each individual person within it can support it in a meaningful fashion. In other words, give me a compelling reason for belonging; make it desirable for me to join up.
  • Performance enablement – providing individuals within the organization what’s needed to accomplish their tasks in a way which creates pride. Align those tasks to the compelling message. In other words, make me feel like what I do is important in the organization’s mission.  Additionally important to enablement is:
    • Working for a management team that is effective, trustworthy, ethical (warning: people’s definition of ethics is dependent on their role in the organization), makes individuals feel valued and accepted, and puts sensible business processes in place, positioning the organization well within its markets and industry, whatever those may be.
  • Create a sense of future – give me compelling reasons to stick around such as:
    • Fair and respectful treatment – the equity equation – you get out what you consider to be fair for what you put in, covering pay, benefits, recognition, rewards and advancement as well as being treated in a respectful and dignified fashion
    • The ability to stay current in your skills and to develop new skills.

These characteristics which can create a motivated workforce within organizations are nothing new and are not limited to private sector, or for-profit kinds of organizations, they apply to NGOs, not-for-profits, educational, governmental institutions, religious organizations, just about any kind of organization you can name, because they apply universally to what we as humans want, not just from the work experience but out of any organizational relationships in which we engage.

In some organizations members actually pay for the privilege of membership, but the equity equation – you get out of the organization, what you consider to be a fair return on your investment, is still an overriding factor. If I join a private golf course, I will pay for the privilege of playing golf on their links. The sense of enjoyment and satisfaction I get from that experience is what keeps the equity equation in balance during that transaction, and makes paying the organization for the privilege of joining rather than being paid by the organization a fair arrangement. And for instance, if I work at a store, selling goods, I would expect what I perceive to be fair compensation for my labors. If that store is a place where I volunteer my time because it happens to be a charity were the money raised helps the homeless, I may not get paid in monetary terms, but I may find myself just as pleased with the equity equations, just as rewarded, by my increased sense of personal contribution to helping solve the homelessness issue. The equity equations must stay in balance during the individual/organizational transaction regardless of the kind of organization.

There are those who in interpreting this finding transform it to pay is not a significant contributor to satisfaction at work. They are wrong. Pay is a very significant contributor until the equity equations are in balance. Once I achieve balance in the equity equations, a perceived fairness in the organizational transaction in which I am engaging, pay can drop in importance and other things can take on more importance. When the equity equations are not in balance, pay as a mechanism of achieving balance is indeed very important. And rather than the rote regurgitation of key driver lists of what causes what in employee attitudes, looking at an attitudinal characteristic along the continuum of its possible expression, rather than at a single discrete level would more properly illustrate its importance in driving employee attitudes and in achieving a proper organizational culture.

Sometimes extreme situations act as a magnifying glass, making it easier to illustrate what we know about people at work. One example occurred during and immediately following the World Trade Center disaster. One organization located near ground zero, was in the middle of an employee survey when the planes hit. They completed the survey afterwards and that created a situation with a pre-9/11 and post-9/11 comparison for workers at that location. Some workers were told to go home, for they had no place to work, not a single one though lost a day’s pay or benefits, but they were not involved in getting the organization back up and running. This group was sitting at home as events within the company unfolded feeling somewhat helpless. A second group was told, please come to this location and help get the company back up and running. The first group in the pre/post comparison showed a significant decline in attitudes, while the second group showed a marked increase over their pre-9/11 attitudes. In other words, being involved in and contributing to efforts that made the individual feel valued and important to the success of the organization gave the attitudes of that population a big boost.

What about the terrorist who drove those planes into the towers. Certainly those subhuman animals must be driven by different factors than you or I? Might they be driven by human needs as well? Consider this, “…researchers now agree that most terrorists are not pathological in any traditional sense…” (American Psychologist, November 2009). John Horgan, Ph.D., International Center for the Study of Terrorism at Penn State, found that those who are more open to recruitment as terrorists:

  • Believe that joining a movement offers social and psychological rewards such as adventure, camaraderie, and a heightened sense of identity
  • Feed the need to take action rather than just talking about the problem
  • Feel angry, alienated or disenfranchised
  • Believe that their current political involvement does not give them the power to effect real change
  • Identify with the perceived victims of the social injustice they are fighting
  • Believe that engaging in violence against the state is not immoral
  • Have family or friends sympathetic to the cause.

And in recent work done to “deprogram” terrorists, one fruitful avenue seems to be in getting the terrorist to recognize that the promises initially made upon joining up were false promises, such the glorious lifestyle, or to demonstrate that the leaders of the terrorist organizations actually held values differing from those they espoused in order to get them to join in the first place. In other words pointing out the violations to the expectations of what people were looking for when they first joined the organization.

One issue that comes up fairly often as a contributing factor of turnover in organizations is that newly hired workers come to the realization that the job that they are performing is not as advertised by the recruiters, or as promised by the hiring managers. A technique that has been found to reduce turnover is to give people a realistic job preview, truthfully telling people exactly what they are going to be doing, and truthfully telling people what it is like to work in the organization which they are considering joining. So, as it turns out, one method that is used to help deprogram terrorists is one that seems to naturally occur in some organizations as a driver of turnover, pointing out or coming to the realization that there is an incongruity between promises made at the beginning of the relationship to the actual facts on the ground. Getting terrorists to leave terror organizations shares some similarity to the reasons why employees may leave organizations on their own.

Maybe as we work and work and write and write to describe what people want out of work we should take a step back and first describe what is it exactly that people want out of life. And rather than separating work and life into an artificial duality of work-life and personal-life, our time would be better spent on life integration.

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

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5 Responses

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  1. Robert Feeley

    January 24, 2010 at 4:29 pm

  2. I have found that the duality of work and life is more of a culturally bound issue. Here in the US we have a firmer boundary than some other countries, an I expect that as students of organizational experience we have mirrored that. In my experience, at the close of lengthy competency assessment interviews in Europe, it is not uncommon to have participants ask why there were so few or no questions about personal life and who they are outside of work. In parts of West Africa at the introductions in a workshop, participants are as likely to offer up information about their family as their organizational role. It was truly refreshing to see people choose to bring their full selves into their work setting.

    I suspect US organizational culture is at that inflection point where we are valuing the whole person at least as much as the set of tasks they are asked to do. I certainly hope that is the case.

    Marc Sokol

    January 26, 2010 at 9:56 am

  3. Reblogged this on Jeffrey Saltzman's Blog and commented:

    I keep coming back to some fundamental findings about people at work and life since the two are so tightly interwoven.

    Jeffrey M. Saltzman

    October 16, 2012 at 6:54 am

  4. I too think pay is extremely important to employees, particularly if they are not too keen on the job but ‘need the money’. Like you say, if the value of the job outweighs the lower pay then balance is achieved but if it doesn’t, then workers will not feel as motivated to do the job and will most likely not put as much effort into the job as they are capable of.


    October 17, 2012 at 6:23 pm

  5. […] want to work for leaders that they can trust and are seen as looking out for their […]

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