Jeffrey Saltzman's Blog

Enhancing Organizational Performance

Work Factoids

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I was leafing through an issue of an astronomy magazine I happened across. One story in the front of the magazine was about the most common elements around us. Hydrogen of course was number one and right behind it was helium. The author of the article branched off into some interesting facts, which he stated he uses to spur children’s interest in astronomy and a few of which surprised and delighted me (I am nothing more  than a large child after all). For instance, the most common element you breathe when you take a breath is nitrogen, an inert gas which doesn’t do much for you and which most people with a high school education will get right. The second most common element you breathe in is oxygen, which again would be on most people’s list, but the third is argon which if I had known (at some point I likely did), I had forgotten. Some other factoids he let loose with included that half of our moon is made up of oxygen and it has very little hydrogen, the most common element in the universe elsewhere. H2O, water, is most dense at 40 degrees (the reason why ice floats), exists mostly in the areas of the universe we have studied as either a solid or gas and very rarely as a liquid due to the limited range of temperatures and pressures at which it will take the form of a liquid. Anyway you get the idea, interesting tidbits that you think you should know, likely did at some point, but have filed away and forgotten.

It did make me stop for a second and think if there was a similar list I could put together about people’s behavior in organizations. Facts that perhaps we knew, filed away and forgotten or interesting pieces of information about what people want from an organization or how organizations behave that are less well known.  Anyway I thought I would see how hard it would be to put together a list and see how controversial it would be. Here are 10 of my favorites:

  1. Much of the differences that are talked about between people of various generations, genders, ethnicities etc. and what they want from the work environment is a myth. People, of any generation, age, ethnicity, nationality, gender, etc. fundamentally want the same things out of the work environment. There are larger differences to be found within any demographic category than across demographic categories (e.g. larger differences in the expression of an attribute (risk tolerance for instance) can be found within the male population than looking at the gap between the average male vs. the average female tolerance for risk.
  2. If you are not measuring it, you can’t manage it. While measurement is good in the right circumstances there are plenty of things we manage quite well without measurement. (Thank you very much!) When is the last time you took out a ruler and measured the length of your hair before getting it cut? (Excepting those who are growing their hair to a specific length for donation purposes). How often to you rate your hunger, plotting your findings on a chart before deciding to raid the refrigerator? How many people gather the opinions of professional sniffers, measuring their reactions, before deciding on whether to bathe?
  3. Everyone in an organization is biased. Bias is built into our humanness. It arose as a way to help us process information efficiently. We develop heuristics or rules-of-thumb to speed our decision-making. Some people are not very good at developing rules-of-thumb and then these people have a tendency to apply inaccurate rules inappropriately. People using inaccurate rules inappropriately may judge a person by superficial characteristics and not the essence of their character. This is one source of bigotry, but this tendency also helps to give rise to superstition. For example, let’s suppose one day a baseball player takes a piece of rope, ties a knot in the two ends of the rope and places it over his head as a necklace. Perhaps he used up the soap that was on the rope, but being a saver could not bring himself to discard the rope itself. That day as he is wearing his soap-on-a-rope, sans soap, he hits a home run and feels really good. The other players wanting to know his secret to success notice the rope and determine that this soap-on-a-rope, sans soap, enhanced his performance. The next day there is a run on soap-on-a-rope at the local drug store and all the players take long showers, using up the soap so they can wear the rope. A few of them have an outstanding performance that day and attribute it to the rope. Those who did not have a good day think that the rope simply has not had enough time to work yet and so wear it another day giving the rope another chance to work its magic. Word gets around. The next thing you know every player wants to wear a rope which is now selling for $125 or more instead of the $1.99 that soap-on-a-rope normally goes for. A tendency to categorize, in this case, what leads to good hitting performance, can lead to superstition.
  4. Perhaps due to an optimistic tendency, people tend to be poor judges of their own abilities. Ninety-five percent of us think we are in the top twenty-five percent in driving ability. Twenty-five percent of us think we are in the top one percent on leadership ability. This applies even in street gangs where on average forty percent of the members think that one day they will be running the gang. In general, there is a tendency to overestimate one’s ability. Evolutionarily, if you did not overestimate your ability, your chances of success, you might have given up on the next day’s hunt even before you started.
  5. The least informed among us are often the ones who are most sure of their positions. And when confronted with facts that clearly contradict their position, the tendency among these people is to dig in and proselytize others to join with them in their ill-informed point of view. After all, the thinking may go, if a lot of people believe in and have the same point of view that I have it can’t really be wrong can it? Or if we are all wrong together does that make us right?
  6. People tend to put intelligent intent behind what are somewhat random or spontaneous events. Again evolutionarily, if you are at the watering hole drinking your fill and the wind rustles the leaves next to you, you are better off assuming that it might be a tiger so that you can live to drink another day. If you assume it is the wind and it turns out to be a tiger, the situation has the potential to just ruin your morning. The same thing holds true in organizations with people assuming that someone higher up has a master plan and knows how everything will work out. They are just keeping it close to the vest. This is especially true during reorganizations, mergers and acquisitions and other organizational changes.
  7. Wishful or what is termed magical thinking is often seen in people and hence organizations. Again the perception is that some higher power or some magical bullet (e.g. the latest management fad) will take care of problems, will resolve issues. Recent research has been looking into the origins of superstitions and belief in magical powers. For a very long time we have known that people have superstitious beliefs, that certain illogical behaviors are thought to lead to desired outcomes. And other work clearly shows that these superstitious behaviors are not limited to human beings. It appears though that the brain may be hardwired for a tendency towards superstitious behavior. “The appetite for such beliefs appears to be rooted in the circuitry of the brain, and for good reason. The sense of having special powers buoys people in threatening situations, and helps soothe everyday fears and ward off mental distress. In excess it can lead to compulsive or delusional behavior.”
  8. Organizations don’t really exist. Maytag never came to your house to repair your washer; it was the Maytag repair person. Organizations are nothing more than an amalgamation of their people. Yet, people will hide behind the organization as a power or a decision-maker, using the “organization” to obfuscate whom within the organization actually made the decision to do what. And yet somehow the organization can do things that no one individual within the organization can bring themselves to do. The “organization” can lay off 25% of the workforce for instance, even if you were to interview every single manager and they insisted that they would not. Yes, people hide behind the “mysterious” organization as an all-knowing entity.
  9. Even the best of us, in certain circumstances, are capable of doing horrible things. The experiments that have been done on this prove it out beyond question.
  10. Even the worst of us, in certain circumstances, are capable of reforming their behavior.

This list can go on and on, was fun to generate, and I hope you feel free to add to the list, but please no superstitious beliefs or inappropriate heuristics.


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


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