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Political Freedom and Employee Positiveness

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A few years ago during a presentation at a conference I was attending, I noticed what I thought was a pattern in a dataset that was being presented on employee engagement scores by country. The countries that seemed to score higher on employee engagement, in general, were democracies or those that did not have despotic rulers or a history of monarchy, though they may have had a history of colonial occupation since thrown off, such as in India. There were of course exceptions, but in general the brief glance at the data I got seemed to imply that vibrant democratic countries were scoring higher on employee engagement. I tucked that thought away for future reference.

Freedom House produces an annual analysis for each independent country in the world scoring them as Free, Partly Free or Not Free. These ratings (scored 1-7) are based upon how the country performs according to these standards taken from Freedom House’s mission statement:

Freedom is possible only in democratic political systems in which the governments are accountable to their own people; the rule of law prevails; and freedoms of expression, association, and belief, as well as respect for the rights of minorities and women, are guaranteed.”

I was pretty happy to come across this group as it provided an independent and standardized rating by country, regarding the state of freedom in each. In 2006 I did an analysis of fifty-one countries regarding the degree of positiveness of employees in each country, based upon how they responded to employee surveys that their respective employers asked them to complete. That dataset included about 29 million survey items across the countries, and a country positiveness score was produced for each of the 51 countries. So for instance, if a survey had 30 questions and 1000 employees completed that survey that produced 30,000 survey item responses. Rather than looking at a specific index what I was able to do is take a step back and look overall, at the gestalt of where the more favorable responses were coming from and where the least favorable responses were coming from. This avoided item mapping across a large number of different projects with items that really did not match up very well. Since most of the projects were multi-national I was getting a good cross section of differences by country within each survey questionnaire.

With the new data from Freedom House in hand, and the tucked away thought from the presentation at the conference I attended, I wanted to revisit that dataset and see if there was a relationship between employee positiveness and how a country was rated in terms of freedom. My hypothesis was that employees, who felt they had a voice in society and were living in countries rated as more free, would respond more positively when they were given a voice in their respective organizations by being asked to complete an employee survey.

I eagerly loaded the data from Freedom House and was pretty dismayed by the correlations. They were very low and really no relationship was found to support the hypothesis. Then I looked at the data a little closer and found that the reason for no relationship being found was a classic case of range restriction. In this case, perhaps not surprisingly, countries with despotic rulers, to the extreme right or extreme left, were simply not very likely to be places where employee surveys were carried out. So most of the data came from countries identified as being Free as you can see in the table below.

2006 Country Scores Freedom House 2006 n Freedom House % Employee Survey 2006 n Employee Survey %
Free 89 46% 39 76%
Partly Free 55 29% 8 16%
Not Free 40 25% 4 8%
Total 192 100% 51 100%

Bottom line, I was disappointed not to have enough data to test out my hypothesis, but perhaps enlightened a bit by confirming the notion that in places where people are Not Free, where attempts are made to suppress freedom of expression, that attitudes of people, including employees at work are not collected. Employee surveys in countries identified as Not Free or Partly Free are not done at nearly the same rate as in countries that are identified as Free. I can’t help but wonder if more participative companies are more likely to carry out employee surveys than those that are run in a more autocratic fashion paralleling the findings at a country level.

There is a complexity in the data that needs to be mentioned and that is that most of the organizations collecting employee survey data who are in the dataset are western multinationals, either American or European, who may simply not be doing business in the countries that are Not Free and I have no ability to test for that.

© 2011 by Jeffrey M. Saltzman. All rights reserved.

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Written by Jeffrey M. Saltzman

February 19, 2011 at 2:24 pm

Is Being a Leader Inherently Unethical?

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If you review the various major models of leadership out there a glaring hole becomes rapidly evident, and that is the relative lack of ethics as a trait, skill or critical behavior of leadership. In a cross section of studies reviewed by Peter Northouse (2010) on leadership traits and characteristics, only one major review (Kirkpatrick and Locke, 1991) out of six, listed integrity or ethics as an important defining characteristic of leadership. Roughly the same results occur when other leadership models are reviewed including those that focus on leadership skills or style, a situational characteristics approach to leadership, a contingency theory or path-goal theory approach, or exchange based approaches to leadership. Only models describing transformational leadership and authentic leadership seem to have substantial ethical or moral components to them. Since the development of most of these theories is driven by data-based experiments, it leads one to questions why ethical behavior does not show up in so many of the major approaches to studying and classifying leadership.

That finding is in stark contrast to what you would find if you just asked a group what characteristics they want in their leadership, (let’s start with the folks in Egypt for instance and ask what they think about corruption), and would certainly be at odds with the vast majority of competency models that exist in corporations for defining the skill sets needed for their leadership as well as it’s prominence in performance management systems and 360 surveys which assess leadership. One Fortune 20 firm in their management competency model caveats the whole thing with *****all always done with the highest integrity*****, another starts off their competency listing with a very strong statement about ethical behavior and on and on.  So there seems to be a substantial gap between many of the influential models of leadership and what is actually happening in the organizational world.

Some of the leadership theories seem to get at ethics tangentially, for instance that a leader needs to take into account what followers desire and what their personal goals are as they set organizational goals, and by taking those follower goals into account they are acting ethically. That also seems to miss the mark, as most leaders in organizations have a vision of where they want the organization to go and while they may ask for input and help in fine tuning the tactics to get there, the leaders are often hired specifically for their vision and are paid big bucks to implement those visions. So leaders are influencing followers to do things their way and to buy into their vision without having a significant say in exactly what that vision is. Does all this add up to leadership being inherently unethical? At least as far as these definitions are commonly used?

The purpose of a theoretical model is to bring order or structure to the phenomena that surround us. Those phenomena can be observed directly, indirectly or they can be hypothesized. People have a natural tendency to build models, as it is a hardwired into our brains as a mechanism by which we cope with and process the vast amounts of information that impinge upon us every day. One common use of models in everyday life is to speed decision-making by reducing information processing time. Some people build useful and accurate models and some build models that are based on flawed assumptions, poor information, bias, bigotry, or worse.  When people build models that they use in day-to-day activities, they are called heuristics or rules-of-thumb.

“Its 20° F outside and something is falling from the sky? Could be snow or sleet, likely not rain, and in any case it may be slippery driving out there this morning.” Those assumptions about icy conditions when it is below 32° F and precipitating are based on a model that we each have in our heads about driving conditions as they relate to temperature and precipitation or moisture. We use the available information within the context of our model to make predictions and to guide our behavior.

“When you meet a human being, the first distinction you make is ‘male or female?’ and you are accustomed to making that distinction with unhesitating certainty.” – Sigmund Freud

You make that male/female distinction with unhesitating certainty because of the heuristics that you have regarding which body shapes, facial characteristic etc. are classified as a woman and which are classified as a man. When those heuristics are thrown off, you end up spending a much greater amount of time making your judgment and there are those, who, when their heuristics are thrown off become decidedly uncomfortable.

Most organizational members, using their own heuristics, would not hesitate much in classifying a leader’s specific behaviors as being ethical or not in their view, using an “ethics – I know it when I see it” kind of approach. Yet the definition of ethics and the specific behavior of what is ethical and what is not can be exceeding difficult to get everyone within an organization to agree upon, as people view ethics through different lenses, depending on where they sit within the organization. (Jolton & Saltzman 2008)

Beyond every day heuristics, models in a more scientific sense tend to include or be useful as:

  • A formal statement of a problem, which if done well will require clarity about what the different variables and parameters in the model are, and how they are interrelated.
  • A guide in identifying knowledge gaps, suggesting a focus for where more information needs to be obtained.
  • Gaining theoretical insights which define the interconnections between various factors extending our intuition.
  • Quantitative testing. Quantitative predictions will not only say that X will increase, but how much.
  • Interpretation. When measuring the phenomena of the model directly is not possible, it may be possible to measure the outcomes or surrogates of the phenomena and then to use that as an interpretation of the model. (Warning, this is a source of potential bias. For instance in social models where assumptions are made that certain outcomes are due to the wrong underlying variables but are not actually causally related.)
  • Forecasting and prediction. Prediction tends to be more rigorous than forecasting. For instance, I could forecast that the sun will come up in the east in the morning, which is based on an understanding of how the earth rotates. But if I can predict that the sun will come up at 5:41a.m. if I am at 42° N Latitude and 73° W Longitude, that is a prediction based on a deep understanding of the Earth’s movements including rotation, revolution, and precession.

Spinoza writing about ethics in the mid-1600’s, was afraid to publish his work during his lifetime. It was only after his death that his friends published it and then identified him only by his initials, given that his views towards ethics were considered so heretical. What was heretical about his writings? In three of his propositions below you can see that what he was essentially saying about ethics is that it is dependent on the person and the environment. In other words, one person’s view of what is ethical or unethical will vary from another’s simply because of the different natures and circumstances between them.

Proposition 29:

“No individual thing whose nature is quite different from ours can either assist or check our power to act, and nothing whatsoever can be either good or evil for us unless it has something in common with us.”

Proposition 30:

“No thing can be evil for us through what it possesses in common with our nature, but in so far as it is evil for us, it is contrary to us.”

Proposition 31:

“In so far that a thing is in agreement with our nature, to that extent it is necessarily good.”

Baruch Spinoza, 1677

Given that, one explanation for the lack of prominence of ethics as a critical leadership characteristic in models, may have more to do with the varying nature of the definition of ethics and less to do with the importance of ethics in and of itself.  The common wisdom, as evidenced in organization after organization, is that ethics is critical to successful leadership. Perhaps by furthering the research on the definition of ethics or how ethics breaks down into commonly agreed to subcomponents, we would begin to see it showing up more strongly in the research models of leadership. The ultimate goal of a better definition would be to predict to what degree how much a leadership that is stronger on ethics would outperform those that are not.


Jolton, J. & Saltzman, J. 2008, Preventative Maintenance: How Industrial/Organizational Psychologists Can Build and Maintain an Ethical Culture, SIOP annual convention

Northouse, P.G. 2010, Leadership, 5th Edition, Sage Publications

Spinoza, B., 1982, Ethics and Selected Letters, translated by Samuel Shirley, Hackett Publishing Company, Indianapolis

Turchin P. 1998. Quantitative analysis of movement. Sinauer Associates, Sunderland MA.

© 2011 by Jeffrey M. Saltzman. All rights reserved.

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Written by Jeffrey M. Saltzman

February 15, 2011 at 9:15 pm

O Robot

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0. A robot may not harm humanity, or, by inaction, allow humanity to come to harm.

  1. A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.
  2. A robot must obey any orders given to it by human beings, except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.
  3. A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Law.

Isaac Asimov’s 3 Laws of Robotics with the additional Zeroth Law

I just finished reading a science fiction book by one of my favorite writers, Greg Bear. Hull Zero Three is about a massive ship that is sent to colonize another planet in our galaxy, that colonization being the last best hope for mankind’s survival after having systematically exploited and destroyed the Earth. That makes it a fairly typical story as these things go, but when one of the colonists wakes early to find the ship badly damaged, he determines, over the course of the novel, that a civil war had occurred on the ship while he “slept”. Most of those who were to colonize the new planet were kept unaware of the methods and goals that the designers of the ship were willing to employ to assure mankind’s survival and when those goals and methods were uncovered dissention in the ranks ensued. The civil war, internal to the ship, was fought over differing visions of what the ultimate goals of the ship should be and how they should be accomplished.

So here you have a senior group, the designers/managers of the mission, who felt it was necessary to keep overall organizational goals and methods secret from those who were to carry out the mission, the “real” goals being on a “need to know basis” in order to assure success of the mission.  Sounds like fiction doesn’t it? Who could believe that senior managers of an organization would not be clear to others within the organization regarding ultimate organizational goals and methodologies? Hidden agendas, ulterior motives, political manipulations, or simply poor communications are the makings of a good story, unless of course that story unfolds in the real world in your company or organization.

The pursuit of efficiency and the corresponding breakdown of work into its subcomponents, with each subcomponent being performed by an expert in that task was one reason that people lost sight of the bigger picture, what the organization stood for, its goals and how it was going to go about accomplishing those goals. Craftsmanship can be lost when an individual’s tasks are performed in isolation of the other tasks required for ultimate organizational functioning. It then can become very easy to perform blindly, overlooking or literally not seeing ineffective or perhaps even distasteful, illegal or immoral practices occurring elsewhere within the organization. A sales group who has no idea what operations can actually deliver upon, marketing being similarly divorced from an organization’s actual capabilities are not rare occurrences. Overall operational quality can go by the wayside if the view I have of my job is to simply put bolt A into slot B and my perception is that quality will be delivered by the quality control department, or that others will be the ones to worry about things that are beyond my own task. Conversely, those in operations/engineering/service delivery may be oblivious to the need to manufacture or provide what will actually sell or to stay closely in tune with what customers want. What you begin to develop is O Robot, the organization acting in a robotic-like fashion to develop, market, sell and deliver its products and or services, with each simplistic robot/employee doing the individual element for which it was organizationally programmed or because of interest, skill, or willingness to expend effort, programs itself.

But I feel like I might be doing robots a disservice. Isaac Asimov’s fictionalized robots were much more advanced than those notions and behaved according to the laws of robotics stated above. And large advances are being made in the real world to make robots behave in a more human-like fashion. According to a paper in the journal Interaction Studies (2007) among the traits a robot will need to exhibit to be viewed as more human-like are:

  • Acting with autonomy
  • Containing intrinsic value  – being valued for simply being, not only for what it can do
  • Being held morally accountability for its actions
  • Engaging in reciprocal relationships – adjusting its expectations and desires as it interacts with others
  • Demonstrating creativity
  • Imitating other’s behaviors normatively– because of a desire to fit in socially
  • Distinguishing or identifying actions that break social conventions.

It might be considered a step up if humans operated consistently or valued others according to a similar list of what we expect from our future robots to make them seem more human.

In the 1970s, there was for a time the notion of job enrichment. It was all the rage. Organizations, it was felt, had gone too far in breaking down jobs into elemental components, and in order to achieve happier, more satisfied or engaged workers, what was necessary was to enrich their jobs to make them less robot-like. Workers therefore were given more of a “whole” piece of work to do. You don’t hear much about job enrichment today, do you? It was not carried out very well in the majority of cases and in some cases workers whose jobs were enriched were not happier, but went on strike for higher wages and/or benefits, since more was being expected of them. This occurred not because enriching jobs was wrong, but because of fundamentally poor management practices or poor implementation of the job enrichment schema. In some cases workers were given new skills and responsibilities, but were in many ways still treated and compensated as unskilled labor, destroying any sense of fairness or equity they may have had.

An organization’s ethics is a broad and somewhat nebulous definition, but can generally be stated as the values to which the organization subscribes. How it behaves from a legal perspective is only one piece of the ethics equation. Over the years I have found that each organizational member’s view of ethics can be quite varied and is very dependent on where within the organization that member sits. The definition of ethical behavior by a blue collar worker is indeed different than the definition of ethics by management and ethical definitions will differ between professionals and administrative assistants or supervisors etc. And there are often differences in understanding or saliency of communication as different groups think about what is ethical to them. Forgive me, Isaac Asimov, for taking liberties with your Laws of Robotics, but given the way some organization attempt to operate in a robot-like fashion, I could not help but adapt the Robotic Laws into Organizational Laws that might just form a basic foundation for big-picture ethical behavior in organizations.

Organizational Laws

  1. An organization may not harm the Earth, or, by inaction, allow the Earth to come to harm.
  2. An organization may not harm humanity, or, by inaction, allow humanity to come to harm.
  3. An organization may not harm a constituent (e.g. employee, customer, citizen, supplier, member), or through inaction allow a constituent to come to harm.
  4. An organization must follow societal laws and regulations except where such laws and regulation would conflict with the First, Second  or Third Law.
  5. An organization must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the other Laws.

One has to wonder that if these relatively simplistic Organizational Laws were widely followed would we be better off today in terms of our environment and society? Or are these notions too simplistic? How do rewards and punishment fit into the organizational role? What is the role of the organization if it decides to punish one member for harming another? And what is the role of rewarding members differentially based on merit? Etc. Possibly too simplistic, but I have to say I am intrigued by the overall framework. Thoughts?

© 2011 by Jeffrey M. Saltzman. All rights reserved.

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