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Enhancing Organizational Performance

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Leadership in the time of Ebola

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Many people react to the suffering that Ebola has wrought on West Africa with a great deal of compassion. Towards one end of a continuum you see some people who are skilled enough and brave enough to travel to those locations where the disease is rampant to lend assistance. Towards the other end of the continuum you see some people calling for isolation of those locations where the disease is prevalent by imposing travel bans or other isolation methods.

At the risk of gross oversimplification you could state that at both of the more extreme ends of this same continuum exists pathology. Pathology on the compassionate end of the continuum could be defined as people reaching out to help, who in their desire to lend assistance somehow view themselves as immune, and not taking personal precautions to prevent the spread of the disease. At the other extreme end of the continuum you have people who are suggesting burning down the homes of the people who have been in contact with disease carriers, or people who feel that West Africa should be left to their own devices to deal with the problem.

This continuum of attitudes towards the Ebola virus and towards those who have been exposed to the disease is not a simple haves vs. have-nots, or educated vs. uneducated kind of split for you can find people at all points of the continuum existing in all of our societies, regardless of their prosperity or educational level.  There is something else going on, something based on individual personality types or cultural imperatives that drives people’s reaction to the situation.  What causes some to react with compassion, reaching out to do what they can, exhibiting a strong desire to help while others react with a circle the wagons or a “survivalist”, every person for themselves mentality? Where do most of us fall on this continuum and what kind of leadership can be effective in dealing with the problem?

While not a perfect fit, the situation reminds me of the work done by Jonathan Haidt and others on what is called the Omnivore’s dilemma.  An omnivore has certain advantages. Not being a picky eater, an omnivore can wander away from its traditional food source and expect that it will find some thing or other to eat when it gets to wherever it is going. When an omnivore, however, really wanders into unexplored territory and comes across completely foreign food, it faces a dilemma. The omnivore’s dilemma is a term first used by Paul Rozin and essentially states that omnivores as they move around must find new foods and new food sources, but at the same time must be wary of them until proven safe. Is this new food something that it can safely eat or is it a food, like certain wild mushrooms, that should be avoided at all costs? How can it know?

Jonathan Haidt describes omnivores as having two competing drives or motives. Neophilia is an attraction to new things, and neophobia is a fear of new things. And it has been shown than in the omnivores we call humans, neophilia and neophobia are not binary conditions but rather exist along a spectrum with each term anchoring one end of a “neo” scale. Most people will fall into the “fat” part of the distribution, meaning that we all have a degree of both neophilia and neophobia present in our personalities and which way we lean, to be neophilic or phobic will be triggered by the situation we face.

People who score higher on neophilia are more open to new experiences, including meeting new people and considering new ideas. Neophilic people would be more likely to reach out in times of crisis for others and to lend a helping hand.

Neophobic people, on the other hand, do not prefer new experiences but do prefer tradition, guarding borders and boundaries either physical or social. Neophobes are the “circle-the-wagons” set, they would be positive about building physical boundaries as well as legal ones to prevent outsiders from getting “in”.  They are fearful of the unknowns represented by a disease like Ebola and want to just avoid it, going back to the way things were. They are looking to chart a course that takes them back into their comfort zone, into familiar territory.

Now an omnivore’s survival as it wanders into new territory, much as the Vikings or Columbus did, depends on having evolved a disgust reaction to foods or environmental conditions that were certain to harbor pathogens or which could prove deadly. Omnivore flexibility, and any natural immunity to Ebola, only goes so far. For instance, you would be hard pressed to find an omnivore that would eat rotting meat, as only very specialized types of animals, such as vultures, or doctors/nurses in hazmat suits in the case of Ebola, can manage that without getting sick.

Disgust as it turns out is also not binary but exists on a continuum along with neophobia and neophilia. And you guessed it, neophobics, people who are more fearful of new experiences preferring tradition; and those who feel a need to closely guard social or physical borders, have a more readily triggered disgust mechanism. They look toward new situations, perhaps dangerous ones, have their strong disgust mechanisms triggered and their first reaction is to walk away.

Organizations face the omnivore’s dilemma continually. Do they hire leaders from the outside, exposing themselves to potentially new ideas, new ways of doing business, a willingness to try some “new food”, such as the development of new products or geographic expansion, which unfortunately might prove poisonous, or alternatively might lead them to previously unattainable success? Or do they promote from within, utilizing those who have risen from the ranks, have found success in the organization’s current methods and processes, and are deeply imbued with the organization’s existing culture and ways of doing things?

That is a surefire method of guarding one’s social and physical boundaries, which might lead to either the continuation of a success story or alternatively to obsolescence as the organization is stagnant and unchanging as environmental conditions change. If the leader of the organization is neophobic or neophillic will it affect which path they choose? In the time of Ebola would we be better off with a leader who is open to dealing with new, unforeseen, unexpected situations, who can deal with ambiguity, or would we be better off with a leader who wants little or nothing to do with the ambiguity of a highly contagious (if you come into contact with an infected person’s bodily fluids) disease?

The omnivore organization roughly parallels the decisions that must be made in an ambidextrous organization. An ambidextrous organization is one that can maximize its current performance while at the same time build future potential. That is a balance that must be struck but is at the same time somewhat of a conflict or challenge. When you are building future potential, you are by definition not maximizing current performance, and if all you are doing is maximizing current performance, you are throwing away your future. In the time of Ebola maximizing current performance is doing those things that helps as many infected people survive and stops the spread of the disease. Future performance deals with preventing a reoccurrence, and would include steps such as developing vaccines or the proper training of emergency personnel and putting into place an infrastructure that can deal with an outbreak.

Leaders of organizations (e.g. governments) that are successfully ambidextrous relentlessly talk about the need to maximize current performance and to build future capacity. Their management teams below them tend to have differing groups focused on either the current performance or building potential, but not both at the same time. It is at the top that all points of view should be listened to, considered and the balance must be struck, by leaders that are practiced at being omnivorously ambidextrous.

Written by Jeffrey M. Saltzman

October 18, 2014 at 10:30 pm

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