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Archive for October 2010

Lazy, Good-for-Nothing Employees

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Are you one of the lazy ones? That has been one of the charges leveled by some of those in congress at people who are unemployed. The idea apparently is that there are plenty of jobs out there, but “lazy” Americans are unwilling to take them. One member of congress wants all unemployed people who receive assistance to take mandatory drug tests, implying that at least a portion of those unemployed are in that state because of drug or alcohol addiction (likely so in any economic climate), and are unworthy of assistance (that is a different issue). Both of those charges carry with them a judgment that people, by-and-large, have gotten into the predicaments they are in due to character issues.

This is at the heart of locus of control research, which demonstrates with some variations, that people tend to credit their successes to internal strengths, (e.g. smarts, friendly, innovative, drive and hardworking) and their failures to outside influences (e.g. economy, unfair competition, changes in technology). Others who succeed are labeled as lucky, in other words, they happened to be in the right place at the right time and others who fail are labeled as having personality, character or ability issues. In other words there is a natural tendency among humans to see our personal success as being due to who we are, our failures as being due to circumstances, other’s successes being due to circumstances and their failures as being due to who they are.

You could surmise that this mental coping mechanism evolved as a survival technique, allowing, say hunters (or politicians, sales people etc.), to attribute their lack of hunting success to circumstance, and enabling them mentally get back out there the next day and the next and the next. Hunters who were unsuccessful however, could be seen by others as not very good hunters ability-wise, and may have been avoided, since I would want to hunt along-side someone who had a track record of success.

One recent research study explored the concept of “laziness” and came up with a somewhat remarkable finding. Participants in this experiment came to a research lab having not recently eaten. A subject upon entering the lab found on the table two bowls. One bowl contained freshly baked, very aromatic, chocolate chip cookies. The other bowl contained radishes. Each participant was told that the experiment was about taste and smell sensations. Half of those in the experiment were instructed to have a few chocolate chip cookies, the other half were allowed to nosh only on radishes.

The researchers then left each subject alone in the room for a period of time; the idea was to induce temptation on the part of the radish eaters to have a cookie. As it turns out, no one in the radish condition snuck a cookie so there was a certain level of will-power being demonstrated. And here is where it gets interesting. A second researcher now entered the room and asked the subject to participate in a supposedly unrelated study about solving puzzles. Each subject was given a complicated geometric shape to trace with the requirement that they not retrace any lines.

These puzzles were unsolvable and each participant in the experiment was measured on how much time they would spend on attempting to solve the frustratingly difficult, unsolvable puzzle. Those who got to eat chocolate chip cookies originally, using up lower levels of “will-power expenditure”, spent on average 19 minutes and made 34 attempts at solving the puzzle. Those who had to use will-power and only eat radishes in the original condition spent on average 8 minutes puzzle-solving, making 19 attempts. The conclusion that the researchers came to is that will-power is an exhaustible resource.

If we stretch this finding a bit to present day job searchers, we could perhaps conclude that if day-to-day circumstances create frustration, and require you to “use up” the amount of will-power you have available to you, that when faced with a difficult task, such as a job search, those who have already used up their will-power will give up on the task sooner, perhaps being labeled as lazy. This notion shifts at least part of the definition of lazy from an internal condition, a personality issue, to an externally influenced condition. People can tend to act “lazier” when certain trying external circumstances must be coped with. The research on learned helplessness would have a substantial impact here as well, I would imagine.

All of the research on employees at work points to a differing conclusion than the one suggested in which the unemployed are labeled as lazy however. You see the evidence suggests that the vast majority of people want to do a good job at work and in fact would much rather be overworked than underworked. For when I am overworked I feel valued, when underworked I feel dispensable and not of value.

Like most things we measure in life and at work, the desire to work falls along a normally distributed continuum. There is a small portion of those at work, who no matter how they are treated will continue to work hard. And there is a small portion of those at work who will do whatever they can to get out of working. And then there is the vast majority, 85 to 90 percent of us, who want to work hard, want to be engaged by the organization, but if we view ourselves as not being treated well, or our circumstances as frustrating (e.g. working for an ineffective organization, maybe one with no vision, or one that treats people as disposable) we will retreat from the organization, some faster than others.

So those organizations out there that have lower employee engagement scores, congratulations, you have overcome a natural tendency on the part of most people to want to be engaged, to want to participate in the organization in a meaningful fashion, and a desire to contribute to success.  And to those who accuse others as being lazy? First understand your own internal tendencies towards labeling and second understand how environmental conditions impact people’s ability to perform. Try to avoid another natural tendency on the part of humans – a rush to judgment.

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

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What Price Success?

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Suppose you worked in a company that had 20,000 employees and was overall very successful, but had a dirty little secret, one that was widely shared by most of those in its employ. Those who worked in marketing, accounting, sales, human resources, treasury, logistics, engineering and most of the other departments were well treated. They were often described as being well paid. They were treated respectfully and had generous benefits. They enjoyed development opportunities, so that they could stay sharp and employable in their various professions. The company had never experienced a layoff and people felt secure in their jobs. In general people liked what they did and they liked their immediate supervisors. It was a very collegial atmosphere and after work people would often get together and visit socially. What was the dirty little secret?

Deep in the bowels of this organization’s headquarters there was one worker who did a job that was critical, more than critical, it was essential to this organization’s manufacturing process. Without this one person doing this critical job, this organization’s product could not be produced and the organization would cease to exist. It would have to shut its doors and layoff its entire staff. To say that this one person’s job was mission critical was an understatement. Unfortunately, this one job had a nasty side effect. After working at this task for 6 months the worker would perish. You see this job was 100% guaranteed to be lethal. Being on this job was a death sentence, no ifs, ands or buts. And no one could prevent, reengineer, modify or otherwise change this task from its ultimate lethal consequence. Every six months the one person who worked at this task died so that the rest of the organization, the 20,000 others could flourish. Now, also suppose that workers were hired from the outside for this job and were not told about the ultimate price that they would have to pay after working on the job after six months. They worked in ignorance, happy, well paid, until exactly on the six-month mark they would drop over dead.

How would you feel about working at that company? Would you? Supposed now that instead of one person dying every six months to ensure happiness for 20,000, it was 5, no make it 500, no let’s make it 5000. Supposed every six months, regular as clockwork, 5000 people had to die to ensure the success of the organization, so that 20,000 others could lead their lives in a secure fashion. Would you work at this organization? Would you let someone else pay that price for your security? What if it ensured the security of 20,000? Do you feel any differently about the death of one, so that 20,000 could be secure vs. the death of 5000, so that 20,000 can be secure? Should you? If you happen to be the “one” hired into this position you are just as dead after six-months as if you were “one of the 5000”. Is your one life any less valuable than the lives of 5000? Your shortened life was as meaningful and as full of happiness as anyone else’s until you took the job. What if the person toiling at this lethal task was an informed volunteer? Someone who knew the price that was to be paid, but for the sake of the 20,000 decided to pay the ultimate price. Does being a volunteer, someone willing to die at a task, so that others can live pleasant lives change anything?

Suppose instead of the total organization being 20,000 it was 20,000,000. Yes, 20,000,000 people could live happy harmonious lives, if only one-person performed a task that every six months led to their death. How would you feel about being associated with that organization now? Is one life too much to ask for the happiness of 20,000,000?

Now suppose instead of six-months carrying the death penalty for this task it was 5 years, no, let’s make it 10 years, no, let’s make that 25 years. Now, to-the-day, after 25 years on the job, each and every worker who performed this job would drop over dead. Does that make you feel any different about working for this organization?

What variables matter when it comes to paying a price as an individual so that society as a whole can benefit?

Let’s twist this just a little bit more. Suppose instead of the consequence of death being the price paid, it was that the workers on this mission critical task simply had to toil away at an assembly line sixteen hours a day, six days a week for a salary that barely allowed them to put food on the table. Instead of a quick death, after six-months, it was a very slow death, allowing them to toil away for their entire lives, barely able to stay alive at starvation wages, never able to get ahead or exit the harsh realities of their low pay world. The idea being that this group of workers being paid as little as they were allowed the organization to stay competitive globally, allowing the larger organization to flourish and all the other people within it to live happy lives. Does that change the picture? Does that make it any better?

Now, suppose you were the leader of this organization. You have the ability to decide where to locate jobs, how much to pay your workers, how to compete in the marketplace, what conditions you were going to allow some in your employ to suffer in order for the others to flourish. What would you do?

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

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Written by Jeffrey M. Saltzman

October 11, 2010 at 5:56 am

Posted in Leadership

Tagged with

The Fires of Leadership

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“An Ounce of Prevention is Worth a Pound of Cure”

Benjamin Franklin

In the last two weeks, in various venues, the name of Benjamin Franklin has come up a number of times as a way of explaining some research or circumstance. That his name still comes up so often really does indicate the kind of impact he had on society with his forward looking ideas and actions.

One occasion where his name was mentioned was a lecture I attended where a categorization scheme of the various types of leaders was reviewed. It was a great lecture even though I disagreed with some of the premises and conclusions stated. This talk by Mike Mumford covered the notion that leaders tend to fall into one of 3 distinct categories.  A leader can be charismatic, an ideologue or pragmatic based on this body of research, and there were some interesting characteristics ascribed to these various types of leaders. The 3 types of leadership could each be described on a separate scale of effectiveness, so that you could have effective charismatics, ideologues or pragmatists at one end of the scale, and ineffective ones at the other.  Much of this research can trace its roots back to the work done by Max Weber, a German sociologist (1864-1920).

A charismatic leader is one that has a “vision” of the future and while they may be short on details on how to get there, they are good at persuading their followers that they should be followed. Interestingly, the research indicates that charismatic leaders create schisms among the larger population, with one segment buying into their “vision” and joining up while another segment really dislikes the charisma and the vision and are vehemently opposed. Charismatic leaders can generate substantial followings but can fall prey to narcissism, convinced to their inner core that they have the right answers and they are on a crusade to convince others to see the light. This narcissism can fuel the abuses that you see among some leaders in terms of the rich rewards they indulge themselves with, because in their mind they of course deserve it, since no one else has the vision and can accomplish what they are doing.

An ideologue is a leader who tends to live in the past, wanting to take society or an organization back to its fundamentals, or the good-old-days, reverting to a concept or an idea of what the past was like. They often do not want to repeat past mistakes but want to capture, from their point of view, the best of what has worked previously. In addition to the obvious ideologues that run some religious groups, political organizations and terrorists organizations around the world, you can see ideologues among serial entrepreneurs. You see entrepreneurs are creating something new and they are doing so by making use of previous lessons that they have learned, not wanting to repeat past mistakes that may have led to previous failures. Ideologues tend to generate smaller followings that charismatic leaders.

And then you have pragmatics. These are people who are driven by the need to get things done and people follow them because they are perceived as someone who can, in fact, get things done. Pragmatists are willing to compromise to bring as many people to the table as possible, but can be seen as comprising ideals in order to do so. This notion of compromise can generate anger or apathy among some followers for “not living up to promised made”. Pragmatics live in the present, analyzing what needs to be done to solve current problems and getting-on-with-it, having less emphasis on future visions of grandeur or a need to return to the good-old-days orientation when things were done right.

When these differing styles of leadership interact with each other or attempt to negotiate, conflict can arise when contrasting leadership styles are present. For instance, if one head of state is a pragmatist, negotiating with another head of state who is an ideologue, about how to resolve a conflict, successful negotiations may be difficult to achieve.

Within this schema, Benjamin Franklin was characterized as a pragmatist, as was President Obama. I had some difficulty with those classifications. I could see how they were arrived at, but the notion that these two gentlemen did not have the future vision thing going on just did not resonate with me. Perhaps I am in error.

Benjamin Franklin it was noted was a problem solver. One example given was that he was the originator of the notion of backing US currency with land, as gold and silver were in short supply within the new nation. He saw a problem, in this case how to generate confidence in a new currency, and he fixed it by having the currency backed up by land.

Benjamin Franklin was also the originator of the first volunteer fire department. He saw a problem, the way fires were being fought, and set out to fix it as a pragmatist would. Here is his description of the problem. “Soon after it [a fire] is seen and cry’d out, the Place is crowded by active Men of different Ages, Professions and Titles who, as of one Mind and Rank, apply themselves with all Vigilance and Resolution, according to their Abilities, to the hard Work of conquering the increasing fire.” But goodwill and amateur firefighters were not enough. Franklin suggested a “Club or Society of active Men belonging to each Fire Engine; whose Business is to attend all Fires with it whenever they happen.” ( But in my mind fixing the problem required a vision of the future regarding what firefighting could and should accomplish and I would suggest that leaders would not necessarily fall cleanly into only one leadership style or another.

Another example of his future leanings and vision, if you will, comes from his desire to reduce the risk of fire by arguing that “chimney sweeps should be licensed by the city and be held responsible for their work”. He saw a positive role for regulation and also what oversight accountability could accomplish. Yes, solving current problems, but in my mind with a vision of the future. Through his work and urgings Philadelphia, which once greatly feared fires, became one of the world’s safest cities from a fire damage perspective.

Fast forward to the present day, “Firefighters in rural Tennessee let a home burn to the ground last week because the homeowner hadn’t paid a $75 fee. Gene Cranick of Obion County and his family lost all of their possessions in the Sept. 29 fire, along with three dogs and a cat.” (MSNBC) I have to wonder what this response by the fire department says about their leadership and what Benjamin Franklin would have said about a fire department which let a house burn down. Now there is a lightning rod topic for you. Positively crackling with electricity.

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

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