Jeffrey Saltzman's Blog

Enhancing Organizational Performance

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.

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