Jeffrey Saltzman's Blog

Enhancing Organizational Performance

Direct Questions, Actions, Outcomes, Tipping Points and Gun Control

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Here is a little secret about employee surveys, if you want to know about something it is often best to directly ask about it. Surprised? It may seem like common sense when someone says it, yet there is a lot of obfuscation out there, a lot of confusion, some purposeful, some simply based on a lack of knowledge. People tend to be honest when answering survey questions and direct questions with direct answers often give you the information you need to take corrective action. The best way, for instance, to determine if your employees are thinking about leaving is to ask them if they are thinking about leaving, or if you want, how long they plan on staying. How do I know that people tend to answer those pretty sensitive questions honestly? There were a number of times where that question was asked and then a year or two later we went back to find out if those who said they were leaving left, or those who indicated they were staying were still there. By and large both were true. People tend to answer honestly and they tend to act on what they say they are going to act on.

On 360 surveys, those are surveys where you ask a manager to rate themselves, for their boss, subordinates and peers to rate them as well, you get the best data when you ask about observable behavioral things. Don’t ask about “emphasis”, “spirit”, or “caring”, which are things that people may have to surmise from behavior, ask about the behavior you want the person exhibiting directly. If you want to know whether a boss cares about their employees, define what caring means in your organization, in terms of what behaviors a boss should be doing or not doing and ask about those behaviors directly. It works. And then when you  need someone to change, it is a lot easier to talk about which behaviors they need to start doing and which ones they need to stop then to tell them they need to show more “spirit” or be more “globally focused”, which can simply leave them floundering.

It feels like you can’t pick up a newspaper, turn on the TV or look at the internet recently and not read about people dying due to gun violence. The Newtown school massacre was devastating, hitting close to home and seeing six and seven year-old children killed certainly means to me that something significant has to change. The status quo is not acceptable. Six and seven year-old children have every right to expect to come home from school and we need to make sure that we do what it takes to make that happen. There are going to be competing viewpoints of what that means, and what actions we can, should or are we willing to take to make that happen.

In the spirit of evidence-based decision-making and direct actions and outcomes, I looked at how each state was rated by the Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence on strictness of gun laws. I wanted to know if stricter gun laws have an effect on deaths in that state due to firearms. The states which had the toughest gun laws include: California, New Jersey, Connecticut, Massachusetts, Hawaii, New York, Maryland, Illinois, Rhode Island, and Michigan. The states with the most lax gun laws include: South Dakota, Arizona, Mississippi, Vermont, Louisiana, Montana, Wyoming, Kentucky, Kansas, and Oklahoma.

So now I wanted to know which states had the most number of deaths due to firearms and which the fewest and how that compared to the strictness of the gun laws. Of the ten states with the most deaths due to firearms 90% were given an “F” grade on their gun control laws. One was given a “D” grade. Of the states with the fewest deaths from gun violence 60% were given a grade of “A” or “B”, 30% got a “C” grade, and one, Vermont got an “F” grade. Vermont is an anomaly; it has poorly rated gun laws, but relatively few gun related deaths. The rest fall into line, those states with stricter gun laws have fewer gun deaths. Said another way, seven of the ten states with the strictest gun laws also make the list of the states with the lowest death rates due to gun violence. Direct action, direct outcome.

Out of curiosity, I went a little further. I visited the US Census Statistical Abstract and looked up a couple of facts about the states with the strictest and most lenient gun laws. By no means was this a thorough analysis, but I wanted to look anyway.  As a measure of educational attainment, I looked at the percent of people within the state with a degree beyond a college bachelor’s, could be a graduate (e.g. Masters, Ph. D)  or professional degree (e.g. dentist, doctor) of some sort. Of the ten states with the most gun deaths, 8% of their populations, on average, have a degree beyond a college diploma. Of the states with the fewest gun deaths, 12% have a degree beyond a college diploma. So there is a 4% difference in graduate degree attainment between the states with the most and those with the least deaths due to gun violence. Does 4% represent a tipping point? Does a little education go a long way towards reducing gun violence? In Vermont, our anomaly, 13% of the population have degrees beyond college, and they are squarely in the fewest gun deaths states, in spite of their “F” rating on gun laws.

You could argue that having a more educated population is not the primary cause of lower gun deaths and without additional analysis I would be hard pressed to counter that. But education certainly can be considered a surrogate measure of other outcomes as well. For instance, economic success is closely linked to education. On average people with a bachelor’s degree, according to the US Census, have a 39% likelihood of earning $100,000 or more per year.  For people with a degree beyond a bachelor’s that number rises to 58%. For those with less than a bachelor degree the percent who earn at least $100,000 per year drops rapidly to the low single digits, depending on educational level achieved.

In other words, educational attainment is very strongly linked to economic success and in states with higher educational attainment there tends to be both stricter gun laws and fewer deaths due to gun violence.

A chicken or egg question which comes up fairly often about culture change is whether you first try to change attitudes about a topic, or first try to change behaviors with respect to that topic in order to change the culture for the long-term. While you want to work on both, much success has been achieved by making behavioral changes first, and then having the resultant attitudinal changes follow. The behaviors, what people do day-to-day, reinforce and help create the attitudes which create the culture. But if you still have the old behaviors in place they constantly push you back towards the old attitudes and culture. This has been true on topics as diverse as equal rights in society, quality control procedures in manufacturing, seat belts use in automobiles, customer service orientation and I believe will be true for getting control of the gun violence now sweeping our society.

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

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Written by Jeffrey M. Saltzman

December 25, 2012 at 10:21 am

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