Jeffrey Saltzman's Blog

Enhancing Organizational Performance

Nonexistent Differences

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There is an old story from Eastern Europe about a ruler who gathers his advisors around him. A discussion ensued about a dramatic rise in madness among those in the population who consumed grain from the recent harvest. In the manner of many politicians or those with vested interests, the advisors told the ruler that they must put aside enough grain from pervious harvest so that they could preserve their own sanity while those around them went mad. The ruler objected, and using logic possible only among those with the inbred genes of hereditary rulers, stated that since they could not put aside enough grain for everyone, that they too must eat the fungus infected grain, for if everyone else was mad, acting similarly, those others will think us mad if we are different. We must be as mad as everyone else, acting like everyone else, believing in what they believe in order to be considered normal and blend in, to consolidate and not lose our positions of power.

Normal. It is very relative and time specific. Tattoos were once what happened to drunken sailors, piercings were limited to the earlobes of women, listening to rock and roll was going to send you to hell, voyeurism was a mental illness and not promoted on prime-time TV, books were printed on paper and much earlier reading those newfangled books called novels was viewed as immersing oneself in dangerous fantasy worlds, and each and every younger generation has been an enigma to the previous. The only thing certain about what is normal is that it is a moving target and subject to change over time. Trying to hold back the floodgates of change is and should be an exercise in futility. Ideologues, those who support a specific ideology frozen in some past moment, yearning to go back to the way things were are not only tilting at windmills, but are often at the root of much violent, disruptive and nonproductive behavior. However, what one person views as a positive shift in the value set that describes normal, another will view as negative. What is certain is that humanity is not a monolithic entity in our values and beliefs, and whatever “system” is put into place that governs us must be one that allows for those differences to enhance the mosaic of what constitutes humanity.

Are organizations any different? Do myths of what is normal exist within companies? There is a technique I like to use when analyzing an organization’s data. For want of a better name we call it a 9-box. The 9-box takes two questions from an organizational assessment and lays out the all possible responses to each, one along the x-axis and one along the y forming a 3×3 matrix. The 9 cells that are then created contain those responses from people who responded one of 9 different ways to the 2 questions. They could have been favorable on both questions, in which case they would be in the upper left box, they could have been negative on both questions, in which case they would be in the lower right hand box. All the other possible combinations are filled in (Favorable:Neutral, Neutral:Neutral, Negative:Neutral, etc.). Once the matrix has been completed we examine the outcome measure of interest for each cell. How, for instance, do the Favorable:Favorable people fare on turnover or measures of quality, customer satisfaction etc. We contrast that positive cell against the other cells within the matrix.  And then it gets interesting.

We examine the demographic characteristic of the employees within the Positive:Positive cell and compare it against those in the other cells. In every single case where I have done this analysis organizational beliefs are exploded and shown to be myths. For instance it may be thought that the most positive employees within the organization would be the managers and the least positive would be the production workers. But when you examine the demographic breakdowns you typically find very similar percentages of employee types in each of the cells. It is not simply that employees are of different types that accounts for perceptual differences and performance differences within organizations, rather it is how each employee as an individual views their treatment, and that is independent of position and most of the common demographics tracked within organizations.

You see there is a bit of a conundrum at work. While we are free to have different beliefs and values we are all still human and each of us have most of the same hopes and desires as any of our fellow humans. We may all have different fingerprints, but we all have fingerprints. Those issues that arise within organizations that create the new normal, the current conditions in which everyone must function, affect all within the organization and whether they view their own situation in a positive or negative light is driven by a myriad of factors that impinge on them in their organizational existence. Some of those factors are driven by the competence, tone and actions created at the top of the organization, others are more career and personally oriented, others depend on perceptions of how the organization is positioned competitively. In sum, the perceptions of both the organization’s future and one’s personal future matter in determining the attitude and performance of employees of all types.

One thing is certain. You can’t get maximal performance out of all of the employees of an organization by hanging onto myths and false beliefs that emphasize non-existent differences while at the same time ignoring those issues that actually matter.

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

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