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The Silent Majority, Organizational Performance & Occupy Wall Street

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[tweetmeme source=”jeffreysaltzman”] Recently in Foshan City located in Guangdong Province, China a truck ran over a toddler, throwing her to the pavement on a busy roadway, creating as horrific a scene as any parent could imagine (CBS News 10/17/2011). In our heads we would next imagine the truck stopping, the driver jumping out, calling for help and with the little girl’s head cradled in his lap, soothing words of comfort that all would be ok would be heard. But what actually happened was that the truck did not stop, in fact the truck slowly moved forward after striking the child until the rear wheels of the truck ran her over as well, crushing her a second time. No one stepped in to help until a rag picker, working nearby, came over and pulled the limp body form the roadway, but not before a second vehicle hit the child as well. The toddler now lies in a hospital, brain dead and very likely to pass away. Rightfully so, there is great unease in China over the incident. People are asking, how did we create a society in which such behavior can happen?

Some in China are blaming a 2006 court ruling from a judge in Nanjing. In that case a woman was struck and taken to the hospital. She later accused the good  citizen who came to her aid as being the one who struck her. The judge in an absurd finding ruled that the only one who would be likely to help the woman must indeed be the one who struck her and so the man was found guilty. While that ruling may have had an impact not only on the truck driver’s behavior and all the others who witnessed the accident but did nothing, if we make the assumption that the Chinese are people, just like we all are (a good bet), there are other things at play as well.

John Darley and Bibb Latané, two sociologists, examined how people behave when they witness an accident or a crime and found that “contrary to common  expectations, larger numbers of bystanders decrease the likelihood that someone will step forward and help a victim. The reasons include the fact that onlookers see that others are not helping either, that onlookers believe others will know better how to help, and that onlookers feel uncertain about helping while others are watching.” The silent majority, if you will, sitting on the sidelines, because of a lack of confidence that they know what to do and an  inner sense that others, better capable or more knowledgeable, will step forward to correct or assist in the situation. However, when one person does step  forward and begins to offer assistance, it is often the case that others begin to model that behavior and step forward as well. Increasing people’s confidence  that they have the ability to make a difference, empowering them, is also likely to result in more people stepping forward during these events. Recently,  as was widely reported a motorcyclist was trapped underneath a car and as flames began to sprout, people gathered around the car and, ignoring the  hazards, banded together to lift the car off of the trapped cyclist.  They created a temporary organization (doing as a group what none of them would be able to accomplish individually) in order to accomplish a very specific task – freeing the trapped man.

Broadly speaking an organization is a group of people who band together to accomplish what they cannot do as individuals, or at least not do as well on an  individual basis. We are all members of multiple organizations, some of which you do not even think of as organizations. Organizations come in all shapes and
sizes. The neighborhood beautification committee, the church on the corner, the baseball league, the company you work for, the volunteer fire department, the
city, state or country you live in, etc. all are examples of organizations. China as a society and country is a type of organization.

It is very clear and widely reported in the literature that a performance bonus is to be had in organizations if the members of the organization are exhibiting high levels of engagement with the organization, each member giving their all for the organization to succeed. Now engagement is not the be all and end all of what organizations should do in order to be successful, but if all others things are equal between two organizations, the one with the more engaged members will outperform the other.

Let’s assume for a moment that this silent majority effect exists in differing circumstances across multiple kinds of organizations (the exception may be organizations in which people are employed, as people tend to be engaged in organizations that supply their livelihood – at least to a moderate extent).  It would be very much in the organization’s best interest to ask the question, “How do we awaken the silent majority?” For if we can awaken the silent  majority, engaging them to a higher degree so that they take action, actively supporting the organization, the logic would flow, we would as an organization,  be able to achieve higher levels of performance.  People would step in rather than watching from the sidelines as action needed to be taken.

There are well documented instances of the silent majority awakening and as more and more people realize that they are part of this majority they are silent no more. And oftentimes once awakened, a bandwagon effect begins with the ranks of the silent majority growing with more and more people making  themselves heard through their actions or words.

The Occupy Wall Street group has many people wondering just who they are and what do they want. Many talking heads who seem to know little are expressing their points of view about the “group”. Only a few things are abundantly clear:

1. The Occupy group is an organization, in the broad definition of the word. How temporary or long term it will be remains to be seen.

2. The people who are camped out in Manhattan are not the silent majority since they are very active in supporting the organization.

3. It is getting clearer that large portions of the American public are at least somewhat sympathetic to the group.

4. That the frustrations, so far only partially expressed by the group, have resonance outside the USA as well, with parallel movements occurring  in many other countries.

As I was thinking this through I decided to do what I do. What kinds of questions would I like these group members to complete in order to better understand
their point of view? Here is what I came up with.

To what extent do you agree or disagree with the following statements?

  1. I am able to live in a manner equal to or better than what my parents experienced.
  2. I am confident that my children will be able to live in a manner equal to or better than my own.
  3. I see a promising future for myself.
  4. Most jobs today allow people to live comfortably and provide for their families.
  5. Every day has been a struggle just to get by, to make ends meet.
  6. I feel that at this point in my life I have few alternatives as to how I’ll live my life.
  7. I am very anxious about what the future holds for me.
  8. I am very anxious about what the future holds for the United States.
  9. Our society is a meritocracy.
  10. Most of our society is too oriented towards collecting wealth.
  11. If you work hard here you will succeed.
  12. Our society provides equal opportunity for all.
  13. I feel frustrated by my current life situation.
  14. The way rewards in our society are distributed is unfair.
  15. The most successful among us need to contribute more to the general well-being.
  16. Our culture currently supports the notion that we have a responsibility to look after each other.
  17. My actions here will make a difference in how our society functions.
  18. As a group we can make a difference in how our society functions.
  19. I feel part of something special here, a movement that will make a difference.
  20. I feel confident that things will change for the better.
  21. Overall, I am satisfied with my life so far.

Demos

  1. What best describes your age? <25, 26-35, 36-45, 46-55, over 55.
  2. What best describes your education level? High School Diploma or Less, Undergraduate College Degree (BA, BS, BFA etc.), Masters Level Degree (MA, MS, MFA, etc.), Doctoral Level Degree (Ph.D., MD, etc.), Other.
  3. Are you currently employed? Yes – Full time, Yes – Part-time, No.
  4. Are you? Single, with no children, Single with children, Married or in a relationship without children, Married or in a relationship with children.

Write-in

  1. What is your single biggest concern about our society today?

As soon as I get a chance, I will start with the data collection for this new organization.

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

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Written by Jeffrey M. Saltzman

October 18, 2011 at 11:26 pm

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