Jeffrey Saltzman's Blog

Enhancing Organizational Performance

Uphill in the Snow, Both Ways

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“Act in such a way that you always treat humanity, whether in your own person or in the person of any other, never simply as a means, but always at the same time as the end.”

Immanuel Kant

After reminding my daughter what is was like when I gave birth to her, with my wife smiling peculiarly in the background, I often remind her of what things were like when I was growing up. I regale her with stories of how we made do with so little compared to today. For instance, I don’t know how many times I have described how I used to carry my little sister to and from school on my back, while barefoot in the snow, uphill, both ways – – before breakfast. And how when my shoes got a little small, how we would cut off the toes (of the shoes), to make them last just a bit longer, or how we lived in a house so small, that you had to be careful not to break the window in the back when you put the key in the front door to unlock it. And after amusing ourselves just a bit with these tales, it tends to take on a more somber note as we realize just how lucky we really are.

When we were kids we had a much better standard of living than what our parents had and lived in much better circumstances, and if you go back one additional generation, circumstances and living conditions were truly awful. My mom’s parents had gotten as far as Ellis Island in the late 1910’s before being told that the quota was full. They were given a choice of Canada or Cuba and I guess Cuba sounded warmer. So my mom was born in Havana, Cuba, her first language was Spanish with a heavy dose of Yiddish, and Russian. Her dad started off manufacturing ties in the living room of their small rental apartment at night and then took to the streets during the day to sell his wares. For one of her birthdays she got a roller skate, just one, as her parents could not afford one for each foot, so she learned to skate using just one of those old fashioned skates with four wheels, one in each corner. When her shoes did wear out, with a hole in the bottom, her father would carefully cut newspapers to line the shoes so that they would last just a bit longer. And after that unexpected side trip and struggle in Cuba, twenty-some years later they finally made it to the USA, their dream, where my mom and her parents eventually became naturalized US citizens. She was introduced by a cousin to my dad, who was returning from WWII, after serving in the army in Europe, doing stints in England, France and Germany, and they soon fell in love and got married.

My dad, of course, had no end to the stories he could tell about what it was like growing up in Providence and Brooklyn. He was the oldest son of three, born in 1920, just a day after his parents landed in New York and that accident of timing made him an instant US citizen. He remembered how horse drawn carts would deliver milk and other goods to the various neighborhoods as he was growing up and how a Coke and hotdog was 5 cents. His father worked repairing radiators in the streets of the lower east side of New York (and was exposed to some nasty chemicals that likely finally killed him) and eventually saved up enough money to open a small candy shop in Brooklyn, and after that did not work out, became a furrier in the garment district. Two of my grandparents three sons fought for this country in WWII, one in the Pacific Theater (who slightly exaggerated his age at enlistment) served in the Navy and one in the European Theater in the Army. The third son was too young at the start of the war to serve. All three brothers now lay side-by-side in a cemetery just north of New York City.

The thing that is the most remarkable about these stories is that while the details of the events may be, the essence of the stories are not unique, with the vast majority of families in the USA today able to share similar stories of their own family’s struggles and tumults as they sought to gain a foothold in this great country. When you look at the bigger picture, we are a nation, by and large, of immigrants and we are all more similar than we are different. The drive and desire that the immigrants brought with them powered us to the heights that we have achieved. Yet there are those who tend to look for the differences between us rather than the similarities that bind us together. Differences can of course be found if you want, but we are better served by examining and building on our similarities. Most of us for instance, want a better future for our children than what we or our ancestors may have had or at least one similar to our own. All of us want to be treated with respect and dignity, our humanity being recognized and valued. We all want to be given a fair shake by society, an equal chance to succeed, as others have had. And we all want to be able to pursue our cherished dreams, our happiness that our constitution lists as a fundamental right.

The same holds true in the world of work, and no one should be surprised by that for the world of work is nothing more than a reflection of our society as a whole.

Utilitarian philosophy as described by John Stuart Mill and Jeremy Bentham is a worldview that societies should exist and decisions should get made in service of the greater good, majority rules. That logic can be used when laying off workers, the greater good of preserving the organization and jobs for the other employees being served. But it is not difficult to knock holes in the efficacy of this approach for every situation. For instance, say you were a doctor and had 5 very sick people in your office. Two needed kidneys, one a lung, one a heart, one a liver. In the next room you had one healthy patient. That one healthy patient, if sacrificed, could save the lives of the 5 other people and thereby increase the greater good, by donating the needed organs. Does that one person, representing a minority in that doctor’s office have rights to keep his organs, even though it would serve the greater good to give them up? Of course it becomes rather obvious that we don’t make decisions that way when it comes to such an example. But that argument was used by the advocates of Proposition 8 in California which barred non-heterosexual marriage, that simply because the majority (52%) of Californians voted for it, that homosexuals and lesbians were forfeit of their rights. What if the 5 sick patients in the doctor’s office voted to have the organs removed from the only healthy patient? Would that fly?

John Locke, widely known as the father of liberalism, countered that approach by stating that man has certain inalienable rights, that even if the majority or the greater good is not served, that each individual has the right to life, liberty and property, which Thomas Jefferson broadened out later on to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. One major point of Locke and Jefferson is that majority rule could not simply erase the rights of an individual even if that individual was a minority of one; these inalienable rights were fundamental and as such could not be pushed aside by legislative decree. And building on that, Kant’s moral imperative can be summed up as not treating people as a means to achieving your own self-serving goals, but treating them in accordance to their humanity, as humanity is the end state which we all have in common.

Back to the world of work. Many organizations today benefit from their ability to promote their products as being “green”. One recent research study concluded that being green was not a passing fad, but that it is here to stay and those companies that operate in a green fashion are more likely to have greater increases in sales than those with similar products, but are not as green or green at all. So here is a question that I pose. Given what roles humans have in organizations, how do we create organizations that are “GREEN” when it comes to their PEOPLE and not just around their products and services? How do we employ people in a sustainable fashion? How to they treat people so that they support the notions of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness and treat people for the sake of their humanity and not as a means to an organizational end? Are the rights of the individual forfeit when it comes to organizational or employee life? What are the obligations of organizations to operate in such a manner that reflect the greater values that we as a society have adopted?

I would expect, of course, a great diversity of thought.

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

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Written by Jeffrey M. Saltzman

August 8, 2010 at 8:22 pm

One Response

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  1. Jeff,

    I have never considered the situation as you wrote it. Well said.

    My own pespective on the subject has changed over the past couple of years. While I still have my own opinions about homosexuality, to me this is not about that. Prop 8, in my opinion, is about one person (or a group) judging another.

    My perspective really started changing one morning when I was preparing a lesson for an upcoming Sunday school class. While working on that lesson (Entitled: “Who do they see – Christ or a Pharisee”)it dawned on me that those who were publically critical of same-sex marriage and that were using morality as the basis for their argument, were creating their own rules for the rest of the world based on THEIR judgements. It was then that I asked myself, what if I was being judged on that same HUMAN standard.

    All of that to say that WE have to stop trying to control people and start treating them as what they are, our equals in the eyes of God and that it is He that makes the rules around morality, not us, so let Him be the judge.


    August 10, 2010 at 11:07 am

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