Jeffrey Saltzman's Blog

Enhancing Organizational Performance

Once Again, “Into the Myths”

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There is a story of a CEO who in the middle of a company meeting keeled over. He was rushed to the hospital, but despite their best efforts they were unable to revive him. Many employees turned out for the funeral, and as speeches describing the CEO’s management style were given before heading off to the cemetery, the employees were all appropriately sad. As they were wheeling the coffin out of the funeral home, it accidently bumped very hard into the door frame, giving it quite a jar. All of a sudden there was moaning coming from the coffin. The coffin was opened and low and behold the CEO had revived! He recovered and continued running the company, staying true to his style, despite what was clearly a life altering event. After 5 more years he once again keeled over. The employees again dutifully showed up at the same funeral home and listened once again to speeches regarding this CEO’s management style. As the service concluded, and the coffin was being maneuvered towards that fateful doorway of the funeral home, all the gathered employees called out in unison, “careful this time!”

Everyone has various traits which could be described as strengths or shortcomings. Some of them are known to us and some are hidden, despite, perhaps, being quite obvious to others. And some of these traits have their origins in how we have evolved as a species and how our psychology developed. Our tendency to see intelligent intent where there may be none is one such trait. And our ability to form up into groups, to better accomplish tasks which we would have difficulty accomplishing alone, and to see short-comings or differences in “others”, who are not part of our “select” group, is another such trait.

Some of these human traits, such as the tendency to see differences across generations of workers, have manifested themselves into modern management practices, partly due to much publicity and pop psychology. The differences that are often pointed to as generational differences, in actuality tend to be driven by “life stage” differences, confounded by the issue of economic opportunity, an environmental variable, being considered a “fundamental” difference. Bottom line, the belief that there exist generational differences in what workers want out of the work environment is a myth that holds no water.

From an economic perspective, western society is wealthier today, in general, than it has ever been and that wealth translates into differing opportunity. People may behave differently not because their fundamental underlying psychology has changed, but because of economic opportunity differences.

People for instance are less concerned about job security when there are plenty of jobs available and are more concerned about it in times of recession. People are also more concerned about job security when they have a mortgage and kids – a life stage and not a generational difference. Only because economic cycles can take years to work through do these tendencies appear to be related to generational differences, but that is a veneer. Economic opportunity can come and go fairly rapidly and people of all different generations will quickly adapt to those differences, modifying what is important for them at that moment in time and life cycle stage.

Take safety as another example. While there is a normal distribution for the amount of risk people are willing to assume, many people who work in unsafe conditions do so not because they are unconcerned about their personal safety, but because those risky tasks are the only opportunities that are available to them. I remember quite well the “sewage swimmers” of Jakarta. These are people who swim through the open sewer system to perform maintenance and to keep the “waters” flowing, removing blockages. Now, others may rationalize that these sewer swimmers don’t mind their task, but I can guarantee you that they are no different than you or I, and undertake these very risky activities because they, 1. may not completely understand the risks they take, and 2. need to provide for their families. Underneath it all, so to speak, they are the same as we all are.

The same hold true for a willingness to work in sweat-shop like conditions with long hours for little pay and other working conditions that would be less acceptable to “westerners”. You can often hear about how people in a certain country are more tolerant of corruption or other unsavory business practices. The evidence suggests that they may expect more corruption or unsavory practices, but if given a real choice they would be no more tolerant of it than you or I. Society and organizations become at risk when these less savory practices become the de-facto norm. Changing the norm is the challenge, but it can be done.

People are People©, we are all more the same than different (I exclude psychopathology) and while we spend an enormous amount of time searching for our differences, another evolutionary trait, we would be better served by understanding our similarities.

© 2013 by Jeffrey M. Saltzman. All rights reserved.

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Written by Jeffrey M. Saltzman

January 14, 2013 at 9:43 am

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