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Enhancing Organizational Performance

Archive for February 2010

Organizational Power and Vilification

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I had an experience not too awfully long ago that left me feeling somewhat unsettled. I came across a widely distributed email from within an organization that vilified most thoroughly a competitor to that organization. The email showed a number of organizational members dressed up in military fatigues and talked about “going to war” against the competitor. The competitor was described as wanting to take food out of the mouths of this organization’s employees and even to drive them into homelessness by making them unable to pay their mortgages. The question was posed, “What are we going to do to this enemy?” The supposition contained within the email was that WAR was the answer. KILL them, because the people of this other organization were somehow less than human. To me it was a depressing reminder of the tactics that those in power will sometimes use to either retain power or to unify a population by the vilification of another external group or an internal subgroup. The fact that this message was celebrated within the organization while quite disturbing was perhaps not surprising.

Creating unity within a population by fabricating an external threat followed by the complete vilification of that external entity, whether that entity is a single individual, an ethnic or religious group or an entire country, is a tried and true method used by dictatorial regimes or others seeking or desiring to hold onto power all around the world, beginning in the most ancient of times. For those who brutally wield power it is a way to justify their brutality. It plays to people’s innermost fears and creates a rationale for why those in power must hold onto power, or why those seeking power should be given it, for the argument is that they and they alone can protect you from the evil that is waiting to pounce, given the chance. Stigmatizing a group or a class of people as a threat and the source of internal problems is a fundamental building block of creating bigotry and hatred, and for the establishment of behaviors, through legislative means, societal or group norms for treating those so identified as an unequal subclass.

It can be tempting for today’s organizations of whatever stripe (e.g. private sector, governments, religious, political parties), given the difficulties they face, to use that same logic for creating and/or playing on people’s fear, for portraying “outsiders” or those others as an enemy is an easy path towards increasing internal group cohesiveness or attracting others to the “cause”, at least among those wanting to be part of the inner circle. Pointing the finger at others for your problems deflects blame, or a proper examination of systemic deficiencies from where it rightly belongs, which is squarely in the mirror.  It is shrewd in the sense that it plays off of people’s natural tendencies, but it is a path that is taken by vacuous people, is morally corrupt and unethical. Instead of creating a vision that inspires a group to greatness you prey on people’s uncertainty, biases, and threats to their baser survival needs to bind them together by blaming others for their troubles. Once you head down that road there is no gaining higher ground.

George Washington, in 1790, was making a tour of the states, partly to promote the adoption of the Bill of Rights and to drum up support for its ratification by the states. He stopped in Newport, Rhode Island, a city which had suffered greatly during the revolutionary war and proclaimed to a population eager to hear his words that America was a country “which gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance”. He provided assurances, in diverse Newport, that tolerance of people’s differences was a key component to the future success of the fledgling nation. His vision for the future of the country was one in which diversity of thought and belief was to be celebrated. His thinking was congruent with the likes of Franklin, Jefferson and Adams among others, even as they varied widely in their individually held beliefs. The very religious Adams for instance lost no love on Jefferson, calling him godless in their very heated battle for the presidency, but the god-fearing Adams signed a treaty with the Bey of Tripoli on June 10th, 1797, as the United States negotiated with the Barbary pirates (finally going to war in 1801 – America’s first foreign war) which contained these words in Article 11,  “as the United States is not in any sense founded on the Christian religion it has no character of enmity against the laws, religion and tranquility of the Mussulmen” (archaic English for Muslims).  James Madison was also a proponent of religious pluralism and tolerance, as demonstrated by his arguments before the Virginia Assembly in 1785 that pluralism was “the best and only security for religious belief in any society, for where there is such a variety of sects, there cannot be a majority of any one sect to persecute and oppress the rest.” The notions of vilifying or oppressing or of holding separate those who are “different” than the majority was not part of the thinking of the founding fathers of this country.

Political groups and other organizations have striven for political or influential power and to exert their views on the majority for a long time, and the one of the paths taken by those groups in their attempts is somewhat well worn. Here is a list of attributes and environmental conditions that describe the circumstances surrounding one group as they attempted to rise to power. See if you can identify the group.

  • This movement was born in a tense period of economic uncertainty and joblessness;
  • There was an uneasy feeling that the nation’s influence and power was fading;
  • Two political parties were in power but were bitterly opposed to each other and unable to formulate effective solutions to pressing issues, such as high unemployment and the failure rates of businesses;
  • The view promoted by those seeking power was that those in power has lost touch with the masses and what was important to them;
  • The view was promoted that current leaders were violating the founding principles of the nation;
  • Political changes underway were a source of intense dissatisfaction for some;
  • A portion of the nation’s troubles were blamed on subgroups (such as immigrants) within the nation and those wanting power were promising a solution;
  • This party attempted to draw in people who traditionally were not politically active;
  • This group appealed most strongly to lower middle class who were fearful about the their future;
  • As this group gained power and influence, politicians from more traditional groups began jumping on the bandwagon;
  • This party grew out of smaller political groups and movements.

And of course this listing could, but does not refer to a contemporary group but rather to the rise of the Nazis in Germany taken out of a text (slightly disguised) on the history of the German Workers Party.

The point here is that it is not unusual for organizations to resort to the lowest common denominator, people’s fears and concerns and to do so quickly in pursuit of its goals, holding itself out as the only hope for organizational continuity or personal goals, security and desires. It is a well-worn path that we as humans have traveled down many times before. And while these behaviors are not rare, they are not always given into and the enlightened founding fathers of the United States did not succumb to the vilification process of those who did not look like them, who did not pray like them, who did not have the same origins or the same political beliefs. After 234 years perhaps it is time for us to remind ourselves of the ideals that they based this country upon. We must never forget history, for it is a window which shows us our likely future behavior, and gives us insight into how others may try to take advantage of our nature. I would like to think we as a species might finally learn a lesson or two about our nature and then perhaps the next time around things might be different. Perhaps. Perhaps not.

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

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Healing Employee Emotional Cracks

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During this recessionary period many employees feel that they have been left holding the short straw, being treated as a readily available commodity or simply as an unnecessary cost by their organization. And while large percentages have been laid off in many organizations, the biggest concern that many organizations now have is how do we re-engage the survivors? How do we make them feel like the organization cares about them and that they should be loyal to the organization, working diligently for its success, when the organization has demonstrated quite recently and vividly that it will cut through them, as a warm knife cuts through butter, in order to insure the survival of the organization as a whole? How can the organization make employees trust them again, how can it turn them once again into loyal employees? Exacerbating the challenge in some organizations are the rewards that certain executives heaped upon themselves as they laid off large components of the workforce.

If you prick an inflated latex rubber balloon with a pin, the popping sound you hear when the balloon bursts is not from the rush of air escaping through the pin-hole in the balloon, rather the pop you hear is from the speedy propagation of cracks in the latex skin of the balloon breaking the sound barrier. The more tightly stretched out the balloon skin is, the more energy it contains and the larger the pop when that energy is finally released. The popping noise is literally the noise of the balloon tearing itself apart.

Employees have been asked to do more and more with less and less, and as salaries have been fixed or reduced, 401k matches canceled, health care benefits evaporated and people laid off, the organizational latex has been stretched almost to the breaking point and it contains an enormous amount of energy waiting to be released. As the economy improves some organizations which are not perceived by their employees as acting at all to preserve jobs, or as looking out for the interests of the average employee have created situations where it will take but the prick of a pin for organizational life-threatening cracks to rapidly propagate throughout the organization.

The popping sound you may hear propagating throughout the organization may take the form of skilled and valuable employees leaving, lower quality in products and services delivered to customers and clients, a lowering in productivity and efficiency, an increase in absenteeism, employees not acting as brand advocates, and an openness to third party representation and other forms of protection from the reoccurrence of the abuses people perceive they received. Employees have been on an emotional roller coaster that have left them bruised and battered these last few years and we may learn something on how to help employees heal from this trauma by taking a closer look at what we know about human emotion.

Emotions evolved and became a survival mechanism in animals long before humans came onto the world stage. As we evolved into humans these pre-existing emotional mechanisms came along with us, and they developed with 2 essential elements. They turn on when the external world demands it, and they turn off when the external world situation changes. Try this experiment (Darwin did). Put your face up near the glass of a poisonous snake exhibition at a zoo. Tell yourself logically that the snake can’t hurt you and you will hold your ground, not moving if the snake lunges at you. When the snake lunges, coming towards your face you will automatically jump back, you will not be able to help yourself as a natural emotional instinct (fear) will take over, attempting to preserve your life. The underlying mechanisms that generate emotions are generally now categorized as fear (imminent threat), sadness (loss of attachment or status), anger (blocked goal pursuit), disgust (exposure to or ingestion of unpleasant substances), and happiness (success in goal pursuit). The neurobiological mechanisms that cause these states to arise are now well understood and can actually be seen by brain imaging techniques as people experience them.

The immediate emotions that employees in organizations during this period have experienced include fear of layoff or from the implications of salary cuts, sadness when their friends have been let go or from having to take lower level reassignments, anger from having career and life goals seemingly further out of reach and if the executives are perceived at having enriched themselves at the expense of others, disgust. There is also a well-document notion of survivor guilt, a type of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), which can come from the happiness of not losing your job, while those around you have fallen, making you feel as though you somehow bear some responsibility.

The humans mind has evolved beyond primitive real-time underlying emotional mechanisms and one part of that evolution is our ability to create mental models which allow us to think emotionally about things in the past and to anticipate the emotions we may experience regarding future events. For instance a feeling of depression or feeling low can be achieved simply by thinking of negative events that we experienced in the past and how many times have you heard the line “imagine yourself in a happier place” as a way to get people beyond the emotions they may be currently experiencing.

Emotional problems and mental illness can occur when our modeling of past or future events are interpreted by our bodies as immediate and real, and our bodies react accordingly, never switching off the emotional thrusters, if you will. Some therapies for treating anxiety or depression focus not only on the emotional state itself, but on the individual mental model which allows those emotions to become all encompassing. If you can control the mental model you will be better able to control the emotions it engenders. As an example one treatment for survivor’s guilt in the workplace involves helping people come to the realization that they are not the reason why others have lost their jobs and that they too are suffering. Once their own suffering is recognized, they can come to grips with it and move on with their lives.

As an aside, because I am writing part of this on Valentine’s Day, in contrast “love” is typically thought about as having 3 separate biochemical processes which act in concert rather than as an underlying emotional state. One part is arousal or the sex drive, which causes you to seek out potential mating partners. Another is the feeling of “love” which has been tied to levels of cortisol, which kick in during stressful situations and possibly to serotonin. Lower levels of serotonin can cause obsessive thinking and both of these hormones together focus your attention on one person at a time. In addition, the hormones oxytocin and vasopressin, are released during orgasm, and can make you feel deeply attached to or responsible for the person you are with. The third component or mechanism attributing to the feeling of love is attachment, and while the underlying hormonal process there is unknown, the mechanism creates an ability to tolerate another person long enough to have offspring and possibly raise them until they can be independent. When a person says they love their job, it would be very interesting to measure their hormone levels at work and see if any similar chemicals are released during the work day.

Emotional distress is not an isolated event which only a few people experience and even though many are uncomfortable talking about it, a new study that aimed to estimate what percent of the population suffered from either depression, anxiety disorders, alcohol dependence or marijuana dependence for at least a brief period, found that 60% of the population, a majority, experienced symptoms that rose to the level of benefiting from treatment by the age of 32. By middle age that number is likely to be even higher. There is no reason to assume that the percentages for people in the workplace would be any different.

It was also found that the most of those sufferers recovered after a brief period either on their own or with professionally administered treatment. Emotional distress and some mental illnesses, rather than commonly thought of as affecting a small portion of the population, stigmatizing them with a life-long affliction, would be more accurately described as a passing cold, at some point in your life you will likely get it, but then are very likely to get over it. The study’s author stated, “Like flu, if you follow a cohort of people born in the same year, as they age almost all of them will sooner or later have a serious bout of depression, anxiety or a substance abuse problem.”

Taking employee’s emotional states into consideration, an organization that desires to re-engage its employee population at this time has at a minimum the following options at its disposal:

  1. If the senior management team has lost all credibility with the employee population, this may be a good time for them to retire and for succession plans to kick in.
  2. The distress the employees have gone through should be publically recognized and discussed. At the same time the stress the organization has experienced should be recognized along with the steps taken to improve the resiliency of the organization from a reoccurrence.
  3. Counseling should be given to those employees who would benefit from treatment.
  4. The organization should work to restore employee confidence in its functioning including:
    1. improving internal functioning, changing and modernizing the way the work gets done
    2. create more competitive products that are attractive and in demand within its markets
    3. describe the level of job security the remaining employees have and the conditions that would allow that security to be maintained
    4. describe a compelling vision of employees personal futures creating a model of the future that breaks with the negative emotions that may be swirling
    5. build career security for the employees by providing training and development opportunities that are transferable to other organizations, building self-confidence.
  5. Listen to employees, though feedback mechanisms such as skip-level interviews and employee surveys, open channels of communications that you may have closed during the recession.
  6. Create a social communities within the organization to help bring the employees together, allowing them to support each other.
  7. Provide the employees with the tools, resources, information, training etc. that they need to succeed and thrive within the new organizational environment.

Much of the emotional distress that employees are experiencing will heal fairly rapidly as people tend to be resilient, and if given the right conditions that allow them to behave in a resilient fashion, most will be able to rise to the challenge. Both the organization and the employees have a role to play in assuring organizational success and the best path forward is to transparently discuss the past events as well as the future vision of what the organization can become, and then acting vigorously on that vision.

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

Visit OV: http://www.orgvitality.com

Written by Jeffrey M. Saltzman

February 14, 2010 at 8:53 pm

Employee Loyalty in an Oompa-Loompa World

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“While traveling abroad in search of new candy flavors, Willy Wonka encountered a race of tiny people called Oompa-Loompas. Hunted by vicious beasts such as the Snozzwangers and wicked Whangdoodles, the Oompa-Loompas had taken refuge in the tree tops of Loompaland living only on mashed green caterpillars, they desired cocoa beans above anything. Wonka immediately invited the entire Oompa-Loompa colony to his factory. Now the Oompa-Loompas comprise the entire chocolate factory workforce – in exchange for all the cocoa beans they desire.” (From Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory).

Oompa-Loompas were in a sticky situation. Their basic needs such as safety and food were not being met. One would suspect that the children were suffering terribly, eating only mashed green caterpillars. So Oompa-Loompas reached an agreement, a compact, with Willy Wonka. He gave them a safe place to live and all the cocoa beans they wanted and in exchange they provided the labor that made his chocolate factory run. For them the bargain provided a much better environment and their loyalty to Willy was high – at least in the beginning. What hypothetically could unfold next for them? As economic conditions improved and additional opportunities for the Oompa-Loompas from other chocolate factories came about, Oompa-Loompas began to demand a livable wage and shorter work weeks. They resented the fact that Willy looked outside of the factory for a successor to himself, wondering why none of them were good enough. One was quoted as saying “we have given our lives to making this place successful, and now that Willy is thinking of retiring, he is choosing to bring in a new CEO from the outside rather than promoting from within.” The Oompas-Loompas decided they needed third party representation and a general strike was called.  Willy was beside himself, not understanding how those he had rescued and provided for, those he brought into his factory and treated like family could be so ungrateful.

There has been a lot written about the changing role of organizations in terms of their responsibility to employees and employee’s responsibilities to them. What is the current compact between workers and their employers? What do employers expect and what is foremost on the minds of today’s employees? What are they hoping to get out of an employment situation? Are there similarities to these factors as we travel the globe? Are they willing to work for…. beans?

Years ago organizations in order to compete for talent and to have a stable skilled workforce offered what was described as cradle to grave employment – high job security, part of a paternalistic approach. Various iterations later it is safe to say that few organizations are willing to offer that approach to employment. Yet they still desire the loyalty of the employee, convinced that having a loyal workforce is a path to organizational success. Re-engaging the workforce is consider critical to success today. Some people I have talked to in organizations lament that “today’s workers have no loyalty; they just hop from employer to employer.” I strongly suspect that the reason for their lack of loyalty rests firmly in terms of how they perceive themselves being treated by the employer – loyalty is a two-way street. How do you achieve loyalty in today’s environment? What is the new compact that organizations need to forge with their workforce?

Let’s examine one aspect. Some organizations have responded to the need to re-establish loyalty by offering innovative perks such as concierge services, game rooms, dry-cleaning on premises, special prizes, killer cafeterias and a host of other convenience factors. These kinds of perks are attractive and no one is going to say “oh – please no, I just couldn’t eat another 5-star free meal”, but I firmly believe that they are all on the wrong track. These kinds of perks are really just another form of paternalism and don’t get to the heart of what is important to employees long term.

Employers today should establish a compact with employees of mutuality. What is mutuality? Mutuality is when a win-win situation is created for both the firm and for the employees within the firm. For instance, one aspect of mutuality revolves around job security. Employers can no longer guarantee life-long job security and many employees have taken that in and no longer expect it. But an employee is likely to feel that if they can no longer be guaranteed a job here, they need to keep their eyes open and if a better opportunity comes along, maybe they should grab it. “After all, I have no guarantees if I stick around.” So how might an employer overcome a sense of temporariness that has been created?

One way would be to increase the confidence level that the employees of the firm have in their ability to find another job in their field, increasing their career security. By preparing your employees to leave and making them eminently employable, then the pressure to grab another job when one comes along is actually less – I can wait. While it may at first sound counter-intuitive, employers should work diligently to keep their employees as current in their skills and education as possible. They should work hard to make their employees marketable and attractive to other potential employers. If they are more attractive to others they will be more attractive to you as well. Employees, seeing that the company cares enough about them to develop them, are more likely to stick around for further development opportunities and this mutuality of benefit will result in an increase in employee loyalty. By keeping employees up-to-date in their skill sets, not only does the company benefit by the enhanced skill set, but is also likely to benefit by keeping that skill set in-house. Additional benefits are likely to accrue from the additional flexibility afforded to the organization that increased education and skills of their workforce would bring about.

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

Visit OV: www.orgvitality.com

Written by Jeffrey M. Saltzman

February 10, 2010 at 6:44 pm

Under the Manure Pile

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DO YOU REMEMBER HOW WE USED TO TALK ABOUT cancer? People were afraid to mention it out loud, as though by saying the word and recognizing its existence that somehow that would give it credence, or power allowing it to more fully enter our lives. I remember being with others and talking about an ill relative, and if what that person had was cancer, 1) you would likely not get a clear answer about that was wrong, or 2) if you got an answer the person providing it would whisper the word. “What is wrong with Uncle Joe?” “He has cancer” would be the reply, with the word cancer being supplied in barely audible tones. You almost never got any specifics, describing prostate cancer, or pancreatic cancer, or bowel cancer, and the reason was not TMI, as the term is often applied today, rather the reason was ignorance and fear. (For those of you of an older generation TMI means too much information, I checked with my daughter.)

People were and many still are terrified of cancer and perhaps rightfully so. At the time a diagnosis of cancer was almost an automatic death sentence, and while today there are still many forms of cancer that are often fatal, there is a great deal more that can be done to provide treatment and hope, possibly a cure or at least remission. The ignorance and fear surrounding cancer at the time did no one any good and it may have caused many deaths. By not openly dealing with the issues, and encouraging people to get examinations and screening many cancers went undiagnosed until they were in advanced stages. For instance, even today some will hesitate to talk about a colonoscopy, as though having a doctor shove a tube up your rear to check for cancer is inappropriate or embarrassing. I got news for you, if all I have to do to save my life is allow a doctor to shove a tube up my rear, …well where can I get in line?  

Ignorance and fear still surround us and this pattern of not dealing with uncomfortable or what is deemed as socially unacceptable topics shows up in the public discourse, in private conversations, not to mention in our workplaces and in other organizations to which we belong.

Don’t ask. Don’t Tell. The policy of discharging gays from the military if they disclose that they are gay immediately springs to mind, as though by not asking about it, and encouraging gays not to discuss it, to live a lie, that somehow they are not really there and the topic can simply be avoided. There have been gays in the military ever since there was a military, and this anachronistic policy changes nothing, only trying to hide what statistically has to have been true.

Each year in the Super Bowl there is a competition to see who can come up with the most attention grabbing advertising. Beer ads are plentiful, as are ads showing very attractive, scantily clad women, others show animals that try to steal your heart. This year an ad was deemed as pushing the envelope just too far. Two men were to be seen eating potato chips out of a bowl and when their hands touch they recognize how much they mean to each other. The ad was for a homosexual on-line dating service. CBS declined to run the ad that they felt stepped over the line (I have to wonder which line). Perhaps they don’t want people having to admit that homosexual men might be drawn to watch the most macho of sports – would that make the sport less attractive to heterosexuals? Or perhaps if the viewing audience sees that two men are attracted to each other that they run the risk of destroying family values of those watching the show, as though touting the benefits of beer drinking or how little clothing women should wear to make themselves attractive would not. Certainly seems a bit hypocritical to me.

All of this can be roughly compared to Ahmadinejad, when he says there are no gays in Iran, for whatever reason his twisted mind deems that necessary. Do we really want to be comparable to his logic that if we don’t admit a thing it is not true? That is like agreeing with him that Iran is pursuing nuclear capability for peaceful purposes only. Only if you define peaceful purposes as being able to intimidate or destroy your neighboring countries so you can do whatever you so choose peacefully, without anyone opposing you.           

Within organizations, sometimes those uncomfortable topics are financially related, with organizations viewing poor financial performance as something to be hidden, playing “hide the weenie” with employees, customers and investors. Perhaps thinking to buy a little more time, and allowing the financial issue to just work itself out. Product defects can be inappropriately handled as well by a failure to disclose or discuss. All you have to do is contrast Toyota’s handling its stuck accelerator issues with how Johnson & Johnson handled their Tylenol troubles. Other times the issue may deal with an individual manager who while having a lousy track record on the people side, may have a track record on the financial side of making the numbers, so let’s not deal with the people issues, regardless of the impact on individual’s lives. Transparency in organizational functioning, especially given today’s flows of information is one critical component of organizational success.

There is an old story coming out of Spain, at the time of the inquisition, of a physician, who prior to leaving on a several week trip to see an ill patient, brings his newlywed bride out behind the barn.  Standing by the manure pile, she asks him not to go on the dangerous trip, for what would become of her if he was killed on the perilous journey. When he indicated that as a doctor he must go, she asks that she accompany him, so as not to separate themselves from each other for such an extended period of time. He indicates that the trip is just too dangerous and in order to demonstrate his love for her he shows her what is under the manure pile.

At the time, rarely did one count on institutions to provide any kind of personal or financial protection. Banks for the common person did not exist and the FDIC was not even a glimmer in someone’s eye. The safest place, thought this physician, for his family’s fortune was buried under the manure pile, a place where no one would look. In my head this story could have taken two distinct paths. One path was that as soon as the physician had left on his journey, a band of marauders, or perhaps those from the inquisition would come upon the house and upon seeing the lone female would ransack the place. Finding no treasure they would ask themselves where the most unlikely place that someone would hide their treasure, and it would not take too long before some said “I know, let’s look under the manure pile, for the physician would have thought that no one would look there”. Another possible ending was that the physician would return safely and the couple could continue to leave their fortune buried under the manure pile safe and sound. Of course keeping your treasure buried under the manure pile doesn’t really do you much good does it?

Institutions, organizations, or people that simply keep their treasures buried under the manure pile never get to utilize those treasures to benefit their own organizations, lives or the lives of others. The gay translator in the military who is discharged, does not get to translate the message that could save hundreds perhaps thousands of lives. They gay soldier who leads a contingent that secures a neighborhood or saves his platoon from an ambush is simply not there. The gay football fan or player cannot enjoy life as openly as you or I do. Customers are left wondering about the safety of their automobiles and whether they should take the family out visiting friends, as they ponder the honesty and openness of the manufacturer and whether the problem will truly be fixed. Employees are sent a message that only the financial performance of the organization matters, and if their life is a living hell because of a supervisor, well that is just not that important to the organization’s senior management. They should bury their concerns if they really cared and are loyal to the organization. Is it any wonder why employee loyalty withers?  

Human nature makes it expedient to sometimes bury the uncomfortable, those things that some of us might find difficult to discuss or acknowledge and by not being forthright we sometimes buy a little time in not dealing with painful or personally embarrassing issues. But a question that consistently returns is what is lost by keeping your treasures buried under the manure pile?     

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

Don’t See What You Like? Come on in.

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The advertisement, sitting in the front window, visible to all passersby was attempting to lure potential customers into the store. “Don’t see what you like?” “Come on in.” Makes you scratch your head a bit, until you find out that the store was an optometrist shop. Context. Context can take some information or behavior that might seem very odd to you and by giving it some perspective have it make perfect sense.

There is a parasite, a protozoan, which lives in the stomach of rats. At a certain point in its life cycle, it will cause the rat to become less wary of cats and to become attracted to cat smells. The infected rats search out cat smells and when found the cats tend to oblige and eat the rat. What could drive the parasite to induce this fatal behavior in its host? The parasite can only reproduce in the stomach of cats.

It has been shown that children infected with Malaria are more attractive to healthy mosquitoes. Why? The malaria-causing protozoan, Plasmodium falciparum which spends part of its life cycle in mosquitoes and part of its life cycle in humans, does not leave its reproduction, and hence the spread of malaria, completely up to chance. Once it has infected its human host it somehow (exact mechanism still unknown, but smell seems to be a possibility), makes its human host more attractive to mosquitoes so it can complete its lifecycle and reproduce.

There is an old joke where two mothers are talking. One mother says to the other, “My son”, says the mother proudly, “has two Ph.D.’s, one in psychology and one in economics.” “You must be very proud of him,” says the second mother. “Yes I am,” replies the first. “He can’t get a job, but at least he knows why.” Context.   

Seemingly strange and odd behaviors abound all around us. We would be remiss to think that these behaviors occur only outside of the working environment. We interpret co-workers behaviors each and every day and yet we often have very little context to base those interpretations upon. We, as humans, have a tendency to jump to conclusions and to quickly categorize what we observe as a way to reduce the amount of information processing we need to do. This has both beneficial effects, we don’t get paralyzed with analysis, and negative effects, we may be jumping to inappropriate conclusions based on our lack of context. Next time, as an experiment, before you quickly categorize what you observe try to place additional context around it and see if you draw the same conclusions.

I was driving home the other day and in a neighboring town I passed a stately funeral home that was located right next door, so close they were almost touching, to a self-storage facility. No, couldn’t be….

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

Written by Jeffrey M. Saltzman

February 3, 2010 at 9:53 am

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