Jeffrey Saltzman's Blog

Enhancing Organizational Performance

Social Contracts and Social Fabrics

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A few weeks ago I was asked to reflect on and present at a conference on what 30 years of studying people at work have taught me about the topics of Social Contracts and Social Fabric. To be honest at first I wasn’t exactly sure where to start, but the conference was being put on by some old friends and it was in Geneva, Switzerland so I decided to participate. For this topic I began thinking about all the employee survey data I have collected and examined over the years (thousands of organizations) and the various types of organizational uses that this data has been put. Importantly, the conference organizers were asking about my opinions and even though my opinions are informed by data, they wanted me to go slightly further and inject some beliefs that have arisen from the research, even if I did not have hard data on the topic. I ended up having much more material then I could possibly present in the time allotted so in the end I had to shorten what I spoke about, but I wanted to present some highlights here.

There are a lot of misconceptions about people at work. Some of those misconceptions center on what people want out of the work environment. Other misconceptions center on differences that people have about work that are driven by generation, gender, geography or ethnicity.  And if you make your living looking for differences between people, differences can be found. However, what people have in common is much more substantial and important and we would be better off focusing on our commonalities than our differences. Most, if not all of the differences that are cited in the popular press is the product of confounding variables (such as environmental situation, economic conditions or life stage) that are rarely taken into account when reporting on people at work. Some samples of the myths that have arisen include:

  • Younger people have different drivers of what they want out of a job than older people;
  • Older workers are more loyal to an organization;
  • Older people don’t want to learn new things – especially technologically oriented things;
  • Everyone is unhappy about their pay;
  • People with a lot of work to do will be less positive about work than someone with little to do;
  • Chinese, Bangladeshi, Vietnamese, Thai, or other 3rd world workers don’t mind the working conditions and hours to which they are subject.

The list can go on and on, but in general these kinds of statements are usually given by people who have no data to back them up, or the data they do have is suspect. Whenever I talk about this topic I am reminded of a scene I came upon in Indonesia numerous times. In Jakarta there are sewage swimmers, workers who, wearing nothing more than a pair of shorts, immerse themselves in the open sewers to remove blockages that could prevent the sewage from flowing. I have never had an opportunity to study these workers to ask them their opinions, but when I have seen them, I am convinced that their concerns and what they want out of a work environment, the fundamentals, would be little different than the concerns or desires that you or I have. So how can they submit themselves to conditions so foul that it will most likely shorten their lives?

If you define organizations broadly, and I do, fundamentally, people join organizations to achieve goals that they can’t do alone. And people are members of many, many kinds of organizations. Everything from where you work, to where you study, to volunteer organizations you belong to, to the city or state you live in, your country, your immediate and extended family, any organized religious group to which you belong, they can all be thought of as organizations. If you add up all the different kinds of organizations to which we all belong, and the rules by which they operate, you have a society. The society in which we live is an amalgamation of all the organizations which are operating in that space. This notion is nothing new and Socrates uses this kind of argument in explaining to Crito why he must accept the death penalty that has been meted out. He explains that society had created conditions that allowed Crito to be born, to live a good live, to achieve. And when Crito violated the rules of that society, as a society member, he must accept its punishment rather than flee.

Over the last 30 years it is pretty clear that on the fundamentals, what people want from the organizations in which they work there has been very little or no change at all. Show me someone, anyone, anywhere in the world who doesn’t want to be treated with respect and dignity at work. Or someone who doesn’t want to feel like they receive fair compensation for effort expended. Or someone who doesn’t feel that the time they spend in the organization will hopefully lead to a more positive future either for themselves or their children. The differences that are often cited between generations or other demographically defined groups of people (e.g. men vs. women, minority vs. non-minority), such as expected time to promotion, safety, or desire for job security, have almost nothing to do with who the workers are as people and everything to do with the economic and social conditions in which they are imbedded. It is also true that every characteristic, such as desire for job security, or expected time to promotion, or risk tolerance will express itself as a distribution due to individual differences, but those individual differences are not driven by the traditional demographic characteristics to which they are often attributed.  In general, within any of the traditional demographic groups you can find a distribution, a spread of the expression of a characteristic (e.g. risk tolerance) that will be greater than the differences between demographic groups.

Due to this, over the long-term, the end state of globalization and the social contracts in which it is imbedded will not be driven by governments or by the multi-national corporations. The end state of globalization will be driven by what people want and what people want is pretty much the same thing everywhere. Now, there are individuals, governments and corporations who take advantage of discrepancies that exist in social contracts to pursue their own agendas, but over time these social contracts will evolve and the ability to take advantage of the discrepancies in social contracts will diminish.

So for instance, a corporation or other organization, in its perfect world, would want to be able to do whatever it wants without concern of oversight, regulations, prosecution or penalties. And the individuals who run these organizations would want any crime committed on behalf of the organization in pursuit of those goals to accrue no personal liability. While there is a desire for praise and recognition for what the individual achieves, their contribution to the organization, there is also a desire for anonymity within the organization, being able to hide behind the organization’s “walls”. What organizations also want though is not to have other organizations, perhaps more powerful than they are, to take advantage of them. So organizations, to achieve a balance between treatment given and treatment received, are willing to abide by the social contracts/the social fabric as currently defined by society.

As humans, of course, we are all subject to the flaws inherent in being human. There is always a person or group in power or an organization that is willing to live by an existing social contract which is in its favor until, as society changes, that social contract must change. There can be resistance by those who have benefited from the existing social contract to make changes to that contract for it may have benefited them financially, socially, or simply reinforced their beliefs. On a larger scale, different forms of government, (e.g. democracies, dictatorships or authoritarian rule), also have different social contracts in place (e.g. who gets to vote if they vote at all, access to basic health, shelter or food, who gets to marry) and while there are differences in these social contracts, what people globally want, what they find important is fundamentally the same.

This combination, I believe is at least partially responsible for the inexorably slow but consistent march by humanity to more tolerance and freedoms as well as societies with less violence for people over time. We may take three steps forward and two steps back, but over the long term we are moving in a consistently more liberal and tolerant direction. Why is the march of history in that direction? Because people are fundamentally the same and want the same things out of life that everyone else does.

Multi-national corporations have chased various social contracts that exist by location to maximize their profits. Looking for low standard of living, low cost environments, and regulatory-free environments to manufacture or provide services from. But there is an inherent conflict in that the social contracts/the social fabric in the locations that allow for profit maximization over time will change. It may take a long-time, likely too long, but basic salaries will rise, working conditions will be forced to improve, regulatory oversight to insure quality standards and lack of worker abuse will be put into place etc. And the ability to chase a social contract that is way out of whack with other social contracts will diminish.

Humans want to place their faith into something and due to that we have a tendency to ascribe even random events to intelligent entities, or we see patterns to events where none may exist. Built into all of us there is a desire to allow some entity, which is more knowing or more powerful than us to provide guidance or direction. Some put their faith into their religion, some into science, some into their political leaders, and some into their leaders at work. Me? I’ll put my long-term faith into humanity as a whole as our humanity allows us to reach beyond where we are, even if sometimes in the short-term we will fall short. As people together, we will determine our own future.

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

Visit OV: www.orgvitality.com

Written by Jeffrey M. Saltzman

December 1, 2013 at 12:31 pm

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