Jeffrey Saltzman's Blog

Enhancing Organizational Performance

No Turn on Red

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Speed Limit 30 MPH, my daughter instructed me from her booster seat in the back as I maneuvered down the road at a speed slightly higher than that. I slowed the car down. Her sense of right and wrong, sometimes somewhat misplaced, is very strong. Once when I had to pick my wife up at the train station at about 9:00 pm or so, I pulled into a deserted parking lot and parked next to the stairs from which she would descend and proceeded to wait for the train and her to put in an appearance. My young daughter pointed to a blue sign in front of the car with a wheel chair on it and asked me what it meant. I told her that it meant that the space was reserved for handicapped people. She told me to move the car. I told her we were the only car in a lot that could hold several hundred cars, which had about a half-dozen other handicapped spots, all empty, and if someone pulled in looking for a handicapped spot I would move. My daughter, who was 6 or 7 at the time, gave me the eye. I moved the car. Now that she is a pre-teen instead of the “eye”, I get the “rolling eyes”, usually followed by an “oooh…dad.”

Signs, messages, warnings, suggestions, advance notices, advice, rules, regulations, commandments, moral codes, prohibitions, commentary, talking heads, pundits, product labels, warning labels, calories counts, advisories, report cards, performance appraisals, performance management systems, traffic tickets, parking tickets, parables, all of these things have something in common. While some document current behavior or aim to punish or reward current behavior, to inform or increase your safety and perhaps extend your life, all of these things also aim to influence our future behavior.

We are surrounded by scads of information and processes that are squarely aimed at influencing our future behavior. A speeding ticket for instance is not only punishment for going too fast (or at least faster than the rules say you should), but it is also trying to send the message that the behavior of speeding should not be repeated. The point system, whereby if too many violation points accumulate on your license leads to suspension of the license, simply reinforces the behavior change aspects of the process. Warning labels on some products are there to inform and attempt to influence – use this product at your own risk, as are performance appraisals which attempt (most rather poorly) to document current performance and to influence future performance – sort of like attaching a warning label to a person’s forehead. Warning: this person’s current performance is sub-par; please keep clear so as not to be unduly influenced yourself.  

What if all this information which bombards us and attempts to influence our behavior was to suddenly disappear? Would we be floundering in a sea of confusion, not knowing how to behave? Would civilization, as we know it, collapse? What if every stop sign, every speed limit sign, every prohibition, every code of conduct, every warning label on every product you purchased, every pundit who interprets events for us were to disappear. Would we be better off or worse off? Would we be walking around in a stupor wondering which actions we should be taking? Would we have no sense of direction, not being sure of what to eat or how to interact with others? Or are we more capable than the way we have developed as a society gives us credit for?

When someone moves from one country or culture to another, how much of the assimilation process, and the success or failure of that assimilation, is due to successfully understanding and knowing how to behave regarding all of the messages that bombard you in everyday life? What if I had no idea that the guy wearing the orange vest and standing in my lane waving the red flag was telling me to stop so that cars could make it safely through a construction zone? What if, based on my experiences, that particular set of symbolic indictors all pointed to a robbery or carjacking attempt was about to occur? Might I react differently? How about when one moves from one company or organization to another? The information flows are likely more subtle, but a portion of whether that new employee will be successful or not in the new organization with its own unique culture may depend on how successfully that person is at interpreting and heeding the information flows that impinge.

Fundamentally, searching out information to help you interpret and guide you through the events surrounding you is likely an in-born survival mechanism, fulfilling a need in humans to create order out of disorder. We automatically develop rules-of-thumb or heuristics to help us interpret events, situations and people. As our environments get more and more complex the need for information to successfully navigate that environment grows. Yet it was not too long ago that we got by with substantially less information flows than what we experience today. A farmer just 50 years ago, living in a rural area, making a living from the land did not have nearly the amount of information stimulus that we have today. But the farmer’s children might dream of moving to the big city where life would be more “interesting”. And those in the big city dream of a vacation, “getting away from it all”, and perhaps unarticulated in that notion of “all”, is away from the constant bombardment of information and its attempted influence on us which needs interpretation and digestion.       

I have spent a good deal of my career collecting information from employee or customer surveys and helping organizations interpret that information as a way of dealing with the environments in which they find themselves. I work to increase their performance and to help them and their employees thrive. For me, having information is a critical component of my success in working with clients, and in fact when I am asked questions about the usefulness of employee survey data to achieving business success, my response usually includes the notion of increasing the chances of success by managing with information rather than without. And while I may find the amount of information and processes that impinges on me daily at times to be intrusive, the lack of that information would likely leave me looking for sources of information to help me interpret the complex environment in which I find myself.

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

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