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Enhancing Organizational Performance

Archive for September 2010

Inappropriate Survey Questions – or, By the Way, I Garden Also

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Here is a question posed to Randy Cohen, in The Ethicist column of the New York Times on September 24, 2010. “The company I work for has long conducted “employee engagement” surveys, supposedly confidential, but because many teams are small, supervisors often surmise who answered what. This year, in addition to the usual questions about how we communicate with co-workers, there was “Would you rather spend time with your children or your spouse?” and others that I thought were out of bounds. But I have a family to support, so I lied on some. For instance, I said I would rather play on a company sports team than garden. Are such lies O.K.? NAME WITHHELD, MINNESOTA.”

I have been conducting employee surveys for over 25 years, working with a good chunk of the Fortune 100. More recently, say the last dozen years or so, employee engagement surveys are often requested by clients and most consulting companies oblige. There is no single common definition of employee engagement among consulting companies, as everyone has their own set of questions measuring somewhat differing aspects of the employee/employer relationship. And, while I have my own favorite items which I have found over the years to link to business performance metrics, such as sales, goal attainment, turnover, absenteeism, etc, employee engagement is generally thought of as measuring how committed the employee is to the employer, including willingness to stick around, and give discretionary effort (discretionary effort can be parsed into discrete behaviors such as a willingness to speak positively about your employer, a willingness to go above and beyond in service to the customer, etc). Some pose that engagement comes from a combination of a trait (people who are more likely engageable) and a state (how the company is treating employees, yielding various emotions, such as pride, and behaviors, such as sticking around).

I have a tendency to like engagement indices that include future oriented questions, for if employees can’t see a future for themselves or a viable future for their employer the likelihood of longer-term engagement is about zero. For instance, I can be very engaged making buggy whips for my employer as Henry Ford is in the next building figuring out how to mass produce cars. As soon as I come to the realization that the world is changing and my employer is not changing with it (especially if I feel my recommendations or efforts at helping them change go unheeded), I will disengage rather quickly. One critical aspect of whether an employee is engaged is how the effectiveness of management is viewed.

By way of that background, let me state that in all the time I have been doing surveys I have never asked a question such as “Would you rather spend time with your children or your spouse?” orwould rather play on a company sports team than garden.” I have never seen questions like that on any credible engagement survey including those that I have seen from my competitors. Those questions are clearly inappropriate in a business oriented employee survey and I can only surmise that someone is conducting some kind of personality inventory along with the engagement survey. Possibly spending time with children might be seen as being in a leadership type role, rather than spending time with a peer, such as spouse might be construed. And a company sports team orientation is likely looking at a tendency for teamwork, rather than the individual behaviors associated with gardening. Regardless of intent those survey items are highly questionable. If a psychologist wanted to get at those issues there are ways to ask about them that does not get into such personal space.

I would highly recommend that anyone who is thinking of including questions such as the above on an employee survey that:

  1. You don’t;
  2. If you feel you must, they should be clearly stated as being for research purposes and not part of the engagement survey, and that you state how they will be used and who will see the results. Optimally, they should be optional.
  3. Or better yet, make that whole section dealing with items such as the above optional.

The original question to The Ethicist was skeptical about the confidentiality of the survey. I have consulted with many very good companies that are truly concerned about the views of the employees and want to create the best possible environment for them, which is a win/win for all concerned. But such personal questions like the above on a survey creates unnecessary concern on the part of the employee on topics such as confidentiality, and I can fairly confidently say yield little, if any, additional benefit. If supervisors are spending time trying to figure who said what instead of using the results to benefit their operation, they have been either poorly prepared to utilize the survey results or are not the kind of person that should be in a supervisory role in the first place.

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

Visit OV: www.orgvitality.com

Written by Jeffrey M. Saltzman

September 26, 2010 at 8:23 pm

Selling Falsehood

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I am feeling somewhat cynical at the moment so forgive me if this seems a bit one-sided.

What organization has not tried to present itself in as favorable a light as possible through their marketing and promotional efforts? A question for deliberation is, how far can they go before they cross the line into what could be called deception and falsehood? And what causes them to do so? The pursuit of profit? Fear of failure? A win at any cost mentality? The need to attract organizational members? A desire to maintain a harmonious employee or customer base? Simple goal attainment? Hubris?

False statements by an organization fall broadly into two categories, those that are ignored or “winked” at by society and those that carry formal penalties. For instance, false statements made by a representative of the organization during the hiring of a new employee are generally viewed as not rising to the level of needing legislative remedy to prevent, though there is the occasional civil court case. Those kinds of errors when proven, which can be very hard to do, are usually explained away as being made by an errant individual and not routine or systematized throughout the organization. False or exaggerated statements to customers about the goods and services the organization provides rarely results in formal action. And while there are classes of products, such as pharmaceuticals, that are controlled to “protect” the consumer, there are many products sold as remedies or preventatives for this and that which are largely unregulated. Many of those are worthless, and some are truly dangerous. It certainly is a buyer beware marketplace, whether you are purchasing or buying into a physical thing, a service or a point of view. False statements made to investors or regulators are assumed to be more insidious, perhaps because they are harder to pass off as simply an errant individual, and fall into a very different category, a category which carries penalties which can rise to the level of threatening the existence of the organization itself. Arthur Andersen, LLP the accounting firm which made the Enron debacle possible found that out the hard way.

An organization’s behavior and reputation are determined from an aggregation of the behaviors that those inside the company deem acceptable. You want your company to have a reputation of honesty? Then get the employees within the company to behave in an honest fashion. Reward honesty, not those behaviors that lead to dishonesty. So many organizations miss this basic point. A organization that presents falsehoods has people inside of it that feel, for some reason (perhaps they are rewarded for it), that presenting falsehoods is ok. Organizations and their resultant reputation are, to a great extent, driven by the behavior of those residing within. You don’t interact with an organization; you interact with the people of the organization. Maytag, the company, has never shown up to repair the washer, not because the washers are so reliable, but because it is the Maytag repairman or woman who shows up to fix those unbreakable machines. It is the people of the organization that define the organization. The organization itself is an abstraction.

Some companies unfortunately it seems are looking for plausible deniability. They want to claim that one set of standards are in place, say honesty, while not looking too closely at the behaviors that actually get rewarded, say dishonesty. If they officially looked too closely at it, uncovering that the system actually promotes and rewards dishonesty, they might be compelled to do something about it.

And there are those that present false information not because they are rewarded for it, but because they simply don’t have the capacity to differentiate correct from incorrect information. Justin Kruger and David Dunning coined a term, the Dunning-Kruger effect, for when a person of limited ability comes to erroneous conclusions or makes poor decisions, and their limited abilities or incompetence also prevents them from being able to recognize their mistake. Due to this, these incompetent people tend to rate their own ability as above average and suffer from what is called “illusory superiority” and live blissfully in ignorance.  This is not limited to people with lower intelligence as this effect has also been demonstrated among those with significant intellectual power. It is more about a shortcoming in perception. Lake Woebegone, where all the children are above average comes to mind.

The degree to which this is happening in our society is documented in a new book by Charles Seife called “Proofiness”. The main theme of the book is that while we are used to being lied to with words, various organizations today have taken the art of lying to us with numbers to a new level. “Proofiness” is defined as “the art of using bogus mathematical arguments to prove something that you know in your heart is true — even when it’s not.” And it is related to “truthiness” which Stephen Colbert popularized and means “the quality of preferring concepts or facts one wishes to be true, rather than concepts or facts known to be true.”

Dr. Seife documents case after case of bogus numbers being used in an attempt to persuade, attempting to convince someone to sign onto a point of view, to purchase a service or product, or to simply join an organization. Those caught in the act include Supreme Court judges, (who are supposed to be above that sort of thing), politicians (which I guess is unfortunately expected), and providers of goods and services (which is called marketing).

In thinking about all this, I can’t help but be reminded of the Iraqi Information Minister at the time of the American conquest of Baghdad in 2003 who claimed that there were no American troops in Baghdad, and that the Americans were committing suicide by the hundreds at the city’s gates. At that very moment, I remember seeing news feeds of Americans patrolling the streets of Baghdad, with all opposition having apparently crumbled.

Saying something simply does not make it so, which is a concept we seem to have largely forgotten these days.

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

Visit OV: www.orgvitality.com

Written by Jeffrey M. Saltzman

September 22, 2010 at 9:36 am

Aligning Morality and Profits

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“Tell me why you are crying, my son

Are you frightened like most everyone

Is it the thunder in the distance you hear

Will it help if I stay very near, I am here”

Day is Done, by Peter Yarrow

of Peter, Paul and Mary

There has been much written about the greed of Wall Street, the pay of CEOs, the off-shoring of jobs to enhance corporate profits while eliminating jobs locally, the evils of globalization, the increasingly powerful corporations doing as they feel, ignoring or bending national governments and political parties to their will. Over the years, other corporations have been shown to skimp on key issues such as safety, increasing risk for their employees, or adopting procedures or processes that put their customers or the general public at risk (minimally at risk of purchasing an inferior product, but rising up to and including the risk of death).

All you have to do is read the descriptions of the egg farms associated with the recent salmonella outbreak, with bird droppings so thick that doors could not open, rodents running rampant in the henhouses, dead birds lying around, and horrible conditions for the birds themselves, to be put off of eating eggs for a long time. You question the methods of the corporate world when explosions and oil spills, that seemingly should have been prevented, contaminate vast expanses of water, destroying communities and livelihoods. Option backdating, sales figure manipulations, kickbacks, bribes, corruption, and Ponzi schemes, the selling of smoke and mirrors, snake oil and other worthless products, market manipulations, false valuations, shell corporations, tax havens, shelters and evasions, and on and on. It can be a bit overwhelming, if you let it.

The Institute for Policy Studies recently conducted research that correlated CEO pay to layoffs. CEOs among “50 companies — “layoff leaders” in the study — that laid off the most employees took home an average pay of almost $12 million in 2009, 42 percent more than the average CEO pay. Most firms — 72 percent — announced mass layoffs during periods of profit, reflecting a growing trend in corporate America: tightening the workforce to increase profit and maintain high CEO salaries.” (CBS News) Corporations seem to be rewarding to a greater extent those CEOs that can layoff the largest number of people. If everyone is laid off though, just who do these corporations and CEOs think will be buying their products and services? The notion is one of passing the buck onto someone else, some other organization or government entity to worry about, as though organizations have no social responsibility, even when the evidence suggests that organizations that minimize or have no layoffs perform better in the long-term (Cascio). The logic in the CEO’s head seems to be that “I am just paid to worry about the health of my organization, not that of society” and boards, apparently in agreement, are rewarding CEOs accordingly. To worry about society, it would require the CEO and the organization to take a long-term view of their business, its overall long-term potential growth, and not be focused on simply the next quarter’s numbers.

Consider Afghanistan, the country and its government, as an organization. In a scathing review of the corruption that is rampant and part of the “normal” operations of the government, the New York Times describes sentiments from decision makers about the need to squash the corruption in the country that flies in the face of everything we know about how people behave – what they want from life, what they expect from the heads of the various organizations to which they belong, and how they are similar to, or differ from other people elsewhere. “Since 2001, one of the unquestioned premises of American and NATO policy has been that ordinary Afghans don’t view public corruption in quite the same way that Americans and others do in the West.” (New York Times) Those sentiments are intellectually shallow and inherently wrong. Those in power in Afghanistan may not view it quite the same way, or they may rationalize that the citizens view it differently, but I can guarantee you the citizens do in fact view it like people all around the world do. They may not feel they can do anything about it, they may be resigned to it, but they resent it as much as the citizens of the USA resent corruption in their own government. (I am sure there are some in the Afghan government who are honest civil servants). And this resentment opens them up to being influenced by those (read Taliban) who promise something better (even though they are likely as corrupt as the government).

The difference between the corrupt power brokers in Afghanistan and those in the USA is not that somehow our western culture is inherently more honest, or that somehow we possess a larger percentage of people with honesty traits. The difference is that with our free press and some regulatory oversight, those in the USA are more likely to get caught and punished, and hence reign in their corrupt instincts, and given the more open, transparent nature of our society, they may find it more difficult to rise to a position of power in the first place. I am not painting a picture of inherent dishonesty being rampant, rather that if you create opportunity for individuals to behave inappropriately, a portion of them will. One role of society is to eliminate the temptation and opportunity for dishonest behavior to the extent we can.

“So you ask why I’m sighing, my son

You must inherit what mankind has done

In this world full of sorrow and woe

If you ask me why this is so, I don’t know”

Peter Yarrow

All of this behavior is in pursuit of profit or personal gain. If one were to talk to a dispassionate outside observer, you could not blame them if they were to question whether there was a better way for societies to provide for their members than those currently in use. The outsider would observe, for instance, ample evidence of organizations and individuals doing their best to maximize their positioning vis-à-vis others as though they were in some kind of race, a race that promises profit, money and personal gain laying just across the finish line.

The underlying question is this: Is the pursuit of profit and personal gain antithetical to the best interests of society as a whole, does it tend to create amoral conditions or conditions in which the average person is not treated justly? Are the conditions generated by profit seeking entities, whether they are organizations or individuals cause them to be inherently in conflict to the best interests of society as a whole?

The short answer is “no”. But it takes some explanation as to why, when we see so much abuse of the profit motive around us. In fact it gets to the point, think of Enron or even the drug cartels in Mexico for instance, where the pursuit of personal profit, personal gain or profit for the organization is clearly detrimental to society at large. Capitalism and democracy is clearly the best mechanism that we humans have devised so far to create conditions which furthers the well-being for large segments of society. But it is too easy to turn to an approach that seemingly simply provides for the greatest good, neglecting individual rights, or alternatively an approach that we should not impinge on the freedom of others to do as they choose, emphasizing individual rights, even if what they choose to do imperils others.

John Rawls (1921-2002) provides a path forward, and in recognition of that he was awarded the National Humanities Medal in 1999 for helping Americans revive their faith in democracy itself. You see, the struggles we are facing on these issues are really nothing new. John Rawls was an exceptional American philosopher who worked in the space of morality and political science.

He allowed that people are born with differing natural abilities and with uneven opportunities being handed them, because of the economic status of their parents, ethnicity, religion etc. His thinking was that “the natural distribution is neither just nor unjust; nor is it unjust that persons are born into society at some particular position. These are simply natural facts. What is just and unjust is the way that institutions deal with these facts.” In other words, yes, people are different and have different opportunities due to circumstance, but that fairness or morality when applied to these differences means that organizations are required to provide equal opportunity regardless, in order to be just. His famous thought experiment describing the “veil of ignorance” illustrated his point. What is critical is that access to differing opportunities is not institutionalized, memorialized into law, or are available simply by social contracts or norms. In the veil of ignorance, the morality of a concept is determined by how it would be implemented in society if no one knew what opportunities they would personally receive under the concept.

The profit motive is moral and it has proven much more effective than the alternatives. It has lifted countless people out of poverty and has greatly improved the lives of billions. The abuse of the profit motive, that is, profit at any cost, to the detriment of an individual or society as a whole is not moral. What Rawls would argue is that regulatory oversight of how organizations and individuals achieve profit is proper to ensure that abuse does not occur. It is up to us as a society to strike the proper balance between oversight, checks and balances that limit opportunity for improper behavior and so much regulation that we choke off the vibrancy of capitalism.

Why are you smiling, my son

Is there a secret you can tell everyone

Do you know more than men that are wise

Can you see what we all must disguise, through your loving eyes

And if you take my hand, my son,

All will be well when the day is done

Peter Yarrow

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

Visit OV: www.orgvitality.com

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