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Enhancing Organizational Performance

Archive for February 2012

Desperately Seeking Answers

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“Questions seeking well thought out answers. Must be optimistic, relevant, definitive, in-line with my preconceived notions, not too onerous to implement, and guaranteed to show results within an unrealistically short period of time. Silver or magic bullets welcomed. Simple clichés allowed. Historically tried and true methods or responses requiring hard work and sacrifice will be returned.”

When the National Weather Service puts out warm weather advisories and tells the elderly that they should stay indoors with air-conditioners or go to cooling centers a very large percentage of those who are older than 70-75 ignore the advice. Why? When those who are then stricken with heat related illnesses are questioned, many of them state that the advice was for the elderly and they did not consider themselves to be “elderly”.

In the NY Times this morning there was an article about some, who are critical of societal safety nets, making increasing use of those safety nets. One part of the article described a man who stated that too many taxpayers are not living within their means and are relying on federal handouts to get by. This person signs his children up for a federal free-meals-at-school program (breakfast and lunch), and receives an earned-income tax credit of several thousand dollars, which is a federal subsidy for lower income households.  In his mind the assistance he received was not a safety net, but the kind of assistance others receive is.

It reminded me of the angry crowds during the health debate attending town halls meetings holding up signs that stated, “Keep the federal government out of my Medicare”, an oxymoron as Medicare is a federal government program. The protestors clearly did not see the connection between their well thought of federal program, called Medicare, and other federal programs.

These disconnects are startling and do not seem all that rare, and one has to wonder if in our work organizations such disconnects happen as routinely. I am afraid they do. Sometimes the disconnects happen due to poor communications, sometimes due to comments having differing saliency between the speaker and listener, sometimes they happen because people want to hear what they want to hear, and sometimes they happen because of a willingness on the part of some to mislead others by leaving out relevant information or through outright deception.

I was speaking to a manager at a fairly large organization, whose manager had told him that his performance was outstanding and within a year he would be a director if his performance continued. Well a year went by and nothing happened. He went to his boss and gave notice that he was leaving. His boss asked him why he was quitting; he seemed to enjoy his work, his colleagues and was even recently given a raise. He reminded his boss about the promised director position, a statement that the boss could not even recall. He was going to become a director as predicted he stated, as he had accepted just such a position; it was going to be at another company however. The boss used a throwaway line, at least to the boss, in a poorly thought through attempt to motivate performance. The subordinate waited in vain for the promised promotion to come through. This communication had widely different saliency for the speaker and listener, and caused the organization to lose a valuable contributor.

I went to a lecture last Thursday given by the head of a philanthropy organization. It was a great speech about the challenges facing the community in today’s environment and what the organization was doing to help meet those challenges. At the end of the lecture time was left to answer any questions those of us in the audience might have. While the speech was fairly broad ranging due to the speakers depth of knowledge, in no way did the speech cover the topics asked about in the questions. Each question took the speaker further and further afield on topics that while important to the crowd, were clearly outside of the philanthropic organization’s ability to influence. I was waiting for someone in the crowd to ask what the speaker was going to do to achieve world peace! Those in the crowd were desperately seeking answers.

What many of these instances share is that the people involved were seeking answers to issues of import to them. What does the future hold? What actions should I take? How can we improve our situation? But beyond that it seems that many of those posing questions or having points of view, whether they are holding up signs about Medicare or are wondering how the world situation can be improved, are somewhat scared. They are scared about uncertainty, that events are out of their control and they are looking for someone, anyone, to provide some assurance that events can be brought under control.

Organization have an obligation to be as transparent as possible, to provide assurance where they can, but organizations also need  to say so when there are no answers, or at least easy answers, and that we as a group will work through this together and find solutions. At the same time however, those kinds of responses will leave some people feeling very uneasy and they will need additional support and communications, open honest communications, to deal with their uncertainty.


© 2012 by Jeffrey M. Saltzman. All rights reserved.


Written by Jeffrey M. Saltzman

February 12, 2012 at 7:06 pm

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