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Nothing

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Can you remember when you were young, on a long hot summer day, school was out, and a sibling or friend would ask, “whatcha doing?” Your response of “nothing” could only mean that there must have been something good going on and that the sibling or friend was being left out.  Humans have a very hard time thinking that nothing is really just that, nothing, and the implications are somewhat staggering.

Let’s start with the esoteric. Michael Shermer, writing in Scientific American (February 2017, pp. 73), starts off by asking “Imagine nothing. Go ahead. What do you see?” In this case he is really asking you to imagine nothing, no galaxies, no stars, no planets, no energy, no space, no time, not even darkness. Nothing. Go ahead, give it a try. People can’t do it. If everything started with nothing, we would not be here, for what can arise from truly nothing? He goes on to argue that nothing is not stable, and not the natural state of things, citing findings in classical and quantum physics.

Fast forwarding a bit from the origins of the universe, as humans developed counting systems, nothing was again a difficult concept to grasp.  John Matson writing in Scientific American on the origins of zero (August 21, 2009), describes its origins as somewhat murky. But here is something you can try. Try writing zero in Roman numerals. Can’t be done. Zero is nothing, the absence of a quantity, formally depicted by the Arabic numeral 0. (Each Arabic number was represented by the number of angles in the number so the representation of the number 1, had one angle hence its value. Zero was depicted as 0, a symbol that had no angles.) The concept of zero arrived in the west by way of North Africa approximately in the year 1200 CE, when a mathematician named Fibonacci figured out how to incorporate it into his work.  In addition to the later Arabic refinement of zero, earlier work on the concept happened in both India (circa 500 CE) and among the Mayans (circa 100-200 CE). But the point is that the notion of zero did not always exist, for nothing was a difficult concept for humans to grasp and the Romans built a whole mathematical system that excluded it. We are simply not built to think of nothing very well.

Janis Joplin in the lyrics to her song, Me &Bobby McGee, states that “freedom is just another word for nothing left to lose”. So if you truly have nothing, you have freedom (according to Janis), but the reality is that as long as we are clinging to even a shred of hope or a shred of life we all have something and humans with their natural tendency to resiliency tend to have hope of one sort or another, especially if they are given some assistance in generating that hope. (Ok, I am pushing it here a bit). But the song struck a chord and was very powerful in its time of turmoil and protest, and has been used by people willing to stand up and fight for what they believe, for when everything has been taken away, well, what do you have to lose?

In this last election there were many people who felt that prosperity had slipped past them and they had nothing to lose, so they were free to take a risk. Trump himself in trying to promote that idea and get votes in the black community said, “What have you got to lose?” He was attempting to make them feel like they had nothing.

There is tremendous strength in a community that can band together to solve problems. The notion is that you are not alone, with nothing, with no one to help, but that there is hope, there is help, and there are options. And with the generation of hope, resiliency springs forth and all things suddenly become possible. The tendency to band together for mutual benefit was stated eloquently by Martin Luther King Jr. as “We may have all come on different ships, but we’re in the same boat now.”

Anyway, the point is that humans grapple with the concept of nothing and don’t always do it very well. How does our inability to deal with nothing play out in organizations?

It is quite clear that when there is a lack of information or opaqueness on a topic, say a change in leadership, a reorganization, an acquisition or a downsizing, etc. that people will fill in the missing information for themselves. And in the absence of actual information, people are quite willing to just make things up. In fact they can’t help it, we are programmed to fill in the blanks, not to leave things at zero or at nothing. And what they make up is generally more negative, often much more negative than reality.

As you can imagined, and as we have all recently experienced, people are more than willing to use this human foible to achieve their own ends. When James Comey of the FBI publically announced that a new email investigation was underway on Hillary Clinton, and then provided no details, people, especially swing voters began to fill in the missing details for themselves. And just like in other organizations the stuff they made up was much worse than reality. It is human nature. You would expect that someone in Mr. Comey’s position would know that would happen.

Are we all really that different? A friend of mine in India, Shuba, sent me a link to an advertisement on Danish TV.  The ad showed a large group of people who are segregated into separate boxes drawn out on a large floor. They were placed into these different boxes by certain characteristics. The educated go into a certain box. People struggling to get by went into another box. Wealthy people into another box. People with somewhat scary characteristics went into another and so on. They all stood there in their separate boxes looking at each other somewhat distrustfully. Then the moderator enters and said he was going to ask them some questions. Some of which may be somewhat personal, but he would appreciate it if they answered honestly, and if the question applied to you, to walk together into the middle of the room.  The first question, “Who in this room was the class clown?” The second question, “Who in this room are stepparents?” As people from all the different and separate boxes come together they realize that they have more in common than they thought. What is the underlying commonality here? Their humanity and the normal things that happen in each and every one of our lives that make us all human. It was a very powerful message and can be seen here: https://www.onedayonly.co.za/blog/?post=this-danish-tv-ad-is-literally-the-best-weve-ever-seen-300.

You see, here is the bottom line, if we want to search for differences those differences can be found. If we want to look for the things that we all have in common, we will find that as well. The choice is ours. If we approach life as a win/loss equation, that in order for one person to win, somewhat else has to lose we will constantly be at each other’s throats. If we approach life as a win/win, all parties can find mutual benefit.  Will we let people drive us apart? Using the fears that we all harbor to achieve power and position for themselves? Or will we celebrate what we all have in common together? Our Humanity. Celebrating our humanity together is a path to common prosperity. From nothing we can create something, together.

Written by Jeffrey M. Saltzman

February 6, 2017 at 9:31 pm

Avoiding Tough Questions

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I was moved this morning when reading a piece in the paper about a 35 year old woman who was diagnosed with stage 4 stomach cancer.  She felt that her life was being unfairly cut short, especially given the way she had led her life, and her belief system up to that point. She felt that her religious beliefs should have protected her from illness.

The article reminded me of how people often avoid tough questions by answering for themselves simpler questions and by giving into a human tendency, a human need to have things that occur make sense, to have some sort of explanation (no matter how convoluted the logic) for what happens around us. The tough questions we avoid can be in the area of business, in politics, in religion or in other aspects of our lives.

When you see a celebrity endorser of a product, the advertiser is counting that you will not ask the tough questions of whether the product is right for you or if it is any good at all, but rather to have the well-known figure come across as an expert in which you should simply put your trust and buy the product. And that you can be like that celebrity, living the good life, if you too use the product. (Not all blame goes to the celebrity or “expert” as they have the same human short-comings of any of us and may come to believe in their own “expertise”.)

These two tendencies, avoiding the tough questions and the overwhelming need for explanations, causes us to rely on others, who we perceive as somehow expert, when forming our own judgements or making choices about a situation or event. What lulls us into this pattern? Sometimes the experts are right, sometimes they are wrong. When they are right we use that as justification for reinforcement of our belief system and when they are wrong we tend to dismiss the contradictory evidence or explain it away.

For instance, a high-profile crime occurs and rather than waiting for the evidence or asking ourselves and thinking through why the perpetrator acted the way they did, we tend to readily accept the hypothesized motives and explanations offered up by various media sources.

When a politician says “Trust me, it will be great”, they are also counting on these same decision-making tendencies to win support, rather than having people deeply probe their explanations to determine if they truly make sense. They use sound bites and count on human short-comings to garner support.

What can you do? The first and perhaps most important step before you simply accept what one person says to you, as they try to persuade you to their point of view is to slow down. The tendency to make quick decisions to process information in a knee-jerk reaction must be slowed down to enable you to make better decisions. Take a deep breath, think it through and ask yourself rather than taking it on faith, “does this truly make sense”?

Written by Jeffrey M. Saltzman

February 14, 2016 at 9:21 am

Sunk Costs

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The patient in the ICU had given instructions for no heroic life support. Heroic is of course subjective as one person’s routine might be deemed heroic by another. Never-the-less over a period of almost two weeks the measures taken would be described by most any observer as heroic. How did it happen?

It started as simply some abdominal pain. A trip to the ER revealed a small perforation in the intestine, a complication of diverticulitis. The patient was admitted, put on intravenous antibiotics and a small amount of supplemental oxygen. At first the antibiotics seemed to be working, but then the patient took a turn for the worse. An abdominal abscess was discovered, the dosage of the antibiotics being given was increased and a pathology report led to a change in the type of antibiotic being used. Again, positive signs emerged. Up to this point fairly routine healthcare.

After a day or two the patient once again took a turn for the worse with the infection having turned into sepsis, an infection of the blood itself. Sepsis led to edema, where the fluids that normally travel in the bloodstream leak through small blood vessels into surrounding tissue, including the lungs. The patient now required large amounts of replacement fluid via IV as without the fluid in the blood itself, blood pressure plummets. Pressers, a class of drug to raise blood pressure, were now begun to help counter the loss of fluid. Increasing the amount of fluid of course also increases the amount of fluid leakage. And the continual fluid build-up led to each breath becoming increasingly more difficult. Abdominal pressure also caused by the fluid buildup was increasing to critical levels and it was putting dangerous levels of pressure on the internal organs. The patient was obviously struggling. A decision to intubate the patient, to breathe for the patient had to be made, it was thought that a few days, at most, of being intubated would allow the body to fight off the infection. It was only one small additional step. The family gave the go ahead to intubate.

The infection continued to rage and it was now thought that the abscess that had been discovered needed to be physically drained in order to help the body heal. A procedure was scheduled as it was only another small additional step. The abscess was successfully drained, but the patient did not improve. All of this had now been going on long enough that nutrition had become an issue. A nutritional IV bag, a very small additional step was hung and added to the numerous other medicines and fluids the patient was receiving. A few more days went by. Small signs of improvement were noted. Diuretics were started at a low level to relieve some of the pressure on the internal organs. As soon as the diuretics kicked in the blood pressure once again plummeted. One option that was out on the table was major surgery to clean out the abdominal cavity from additional abscesses that had developed. The odds of the patient surviving the surgery were not good. It was clear now that things were on a continual downward trajectory. If you took a step back and looked at the patient surround by beeping and whirling machines, IV bags, and numerous sensors, it was clear that the desire for no heroic measures had not been met and the culprit was sunk costs.

Sunk costs is a common factor in human decision-making. It is when a series of incremental decisions or investments are made, each one by itself relatively small. Each one requiring an investment in capital, effort or other resources that is made more likely because of the investment in capital, effort or other resources that have already been made. If the patient described above had known of the eventual end state of all of these incremental steps the decision path may have been different. Unfortunately, even highly skilled physicians are not omniscient. We begin to head down a certain road with our decisions and as we head down that road it is increasingly difficult to say to ourselves “we are on the wrong road, it is time to get off”.  Sunk costs. The expenditure of resources makes it increasingly more likely that an additional expenditure of resources will be made to achieve a goal, even as that expenditure makes the goal less and less attractive or worthwhile.

It happens in all sorts of situations. You buy a cute little house, which you thought was reasonably priced. You find out that it has termites. You fix the problem, and then find out it needs a new roof. After the new roof, a new hot water heater is required, then in quick order you deal with refrigerators, stoves, leaky windows, poorly done wiring from a previous renovation, a broken furnace and an air conditioning system that is refusing to work. When you take a step back, you realize that your cute little house has turned into a money pit and if you had known up front what was going to happen you never would have bought it in the first place. Most of us are also affected by a sense of positivism or optimism regarding outcomes arising from our decisions, along with the difficultly of deciding when to get off the path.

In the New York Times (1/10/16) there is a story about how the economic slowdown in China is affecting commodity prices around the world. What path are the producers of these commodities taking as the value of the commodities in the market plummets? From the Times: Chile is expanding its largest open-pit copper mine….India is building railroad lines that crisscross the country to connect underused coal mines…. Australia is increasing natural gas production by 150 percent….Oil sands in Canada are just starting to produce….Iron ore mines in West Africa are coming online…Freeport-McMoRan is finishing up a $4.6 billion dollar expansion of a copper mine in Peru.” It is so big it will consume 10% of Peru’s electricity production when operational. Freeport-McMoRan’s board, taking a step back and seeing the big picture asked the CEO to step down.

So is there anything that can be done to better recognize that you have begun down a path of sunk cost decision-making? Can you improve your decision-making abilities? The answer to both of those is yes. Decision-making, like other skills, can be practiced and practice and training can result in improvement in your decision-making. The first step? Understanding how people fall into certain decision-making paradigms traps.

 

Written by Jeffrey M. Saltzman

January 10, 2016 at 12:14 pm

Why Do People Join Organizations?

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Why do people join organizations? A seemingly innocuous question that seems like it should be easily answered. To some extent the answer depends on which type of organization you are talking about. For instance, why do people join a certain employer over another? Why do they join various social or religious groups? Why do they join various charitable or other public interest organizations? Why do they join professional organizations? And today, many are puzzling over why people would join various terrorist organizations. You would think there would be endless reasons that drive people to sign up with these various types of entities, but in reality there are some fundamental underlying principles that drive those decisions. Let’s go through some of those fundamental driving forces.

Equity and Rewards: This is the notion that what you get out of the organization is fair for what you put into the organization. If the relationship is employer to employee, a sense of equity develops if you feel you are paid and have benefits that are fair. Pay is indeed a strong driver of satisfaction in the relationship, until people feel they are paid fairly, then it becomes almost non-existent. Equity can also be influenced by giving the person “things” they would not be able to get elsewhere. For instance, people may be willing to accept a lower salary level for longer-term career building experiences, being able to work with a person they admire, enhanced job security, earlier retirements than typical, the ability to travel, and flexibility in working hours, location or the willingness of the organization to adapt to their special needs.

You will almost always find for instance that remote, work-at-home, or part-timers (people who were intentionally looking for part-time work), are more positive than full-timers in a company facility. The reason is because they were given a position that met their unique employment needs. They would see the total equity equation, what they get out of the relationship with respect to what they put in as being “fair”.  The exception to this is when the organization treats these groups radically differently than the other “regular” employees, as “second-class employees”. In this case it is as though there are really two different company cultures being applied to the different groups. People are also driven by pure economics and will often accept lower salaries when they simply have no other options available to them.

When the relationship is not employer to employee there are still the equity equations that get solved for each organization that people choose to join. However, instead of money the sense of fairness may be fulfilled by other characteristics of the organization. For instance, a person may volunteer time at a food pantry or homeless shelter because of the fulfillment they receive by doing those activities.

So one aspect of why people join an organization is, in general, when fairness exists around the equity and rewards expectations of joining.

Meaningfulness of the job-itself, type of work or the type of activity: Ever notice how certain professions run in families? There are plenty of firefighters, police, tradespeople, accountants, doctors, lawyers, etc. who can trace back across multiple generations their ancestors who worked in the same professions. Why is that? One reason is knowledge about, and methods for entry into the profession is transmitted to others in the family, or the profession itself, (e.g. undertaker) is part of the family’s business. Another is certainly access and opportunity (sometimes unfair access). One aspect is that children often look up to their parents and will then strive to emulate them. There are other people, those who know what they want to do, or simply find certain kinds of work or experiences inherently interesting. For instance, some go into government or the military as a way to serve to their country, others go into healthcare to serve humanity, others into academia or research to further mankind’s knowledge base. People tend to join organizations that allow them to chase their dreams and to have experiences that fulfill them. People become full of pride in the organization when the mission of the organization, the meaningfulness of what they are doing, what they are accomplishing is held in high regard by themselves and others.

The Brand/Alignment with the Mission:  Another factor which influences people to join various organizations is the brand image of the organization. If a brand or the mission is well thought of in someone’s mind that makes joining that organization more attractive. The reasons which makes a brand attractive are varied. For instance, a company can be attractive if it has an outstanding reputation or industry dominating products. A religious organization may be attractive if it aligns with personal belief. A terrorist organization may have an attractive brand if it is seen as righting a wrong, aligned to personal or the beliefs of other family members, is seen as strengthening ones identity, or is viewed as more effective than the other parts of society in which it exists. A civil rights organization attracts people who are interesting in creating just conditions. People join organizations, of all types, when they see it as having an attractive brand image. The marines promote their brand as exclusive. “The few, the proud, the marines.” Not everyone can get into this organization, but if you make the cut, you become part of something special. This sense of exclusivity if you join is very intoxicating for many.

There are of course other factors that come into play, like convenience, a sense of long-term future opportunity, or little to no alternatives that influence why a person would join a specific organization. But one thing that research has shown has no effect, contrary to what you often read, are generational differences. People are mostly looking for very similar things when they voluntarily join an organization regardless of which generation they belong.

There are some separate and distinct factors that increase the likelihood of people leaving an organization and there are a few surprise explanations there as well.

© 2015 by Jeffrey M. Saltzman. All rights reserved

Written by Jeffrey M. Saltzman

March 26, 2015 at 6:13 pm

Contradictions

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A friend recently sent me a video which illustrates some new experiments going on in an area called experimental philosophy. Like the well-publicized experiments in behavioral economics, the vignettes bring us to the conclusion that humans are not always rational creatures and that we often think in a contradictory fashion. The video shows two vignettes of a business manager who doesn’t care about the environment, all he cares about is maximizing profit. In the first vignette he states that he doesn’t care about the environment and takes action that causes environmental harm, while maximizing profit. He is then blamed by viewers of the vignette for causing intentional environmental harm. In the second he states that he doesn’t care about the environment then takes action which improves the environment, while maximizing profit, for which he gets no credit. In viewing the vignettes, I found myself drawn into the same judgments as the other viewers, you just can’t help it. Because he is only driven by maximizing profit, when the businessman states he doesn’t care about the environment and then causes harm, your brain readily ascribes intentional fault. But when the businessman states that he doesn’t care about the environment, only profit, and then does environmental good, your brain refuses to ascribe any credit. In this case the environmental effect is viewed as unintentional. You get blamed when you knowingly and uncaringly cause harm, but you do not get credit when you knowingly (but uncaringly) do good. There was no intentionality to do good, hence no credit is ascribed, even though good was done.

The kind of contradiction that this points to is the kind of contradiction that all humans are capable of making. It is part of our shared genetic heritage and it is how all of our brains are wired. For instance, if you ask an abortion opponent about science, it is quite easy to create the following situation. Paint a picture about a scientific investigation that has unequivocal findings supporting the abortion opponent’s point of view and they will state that abortion supporters should change their point of view due to the scientific research.  But if a scientific investigation unequivocally proves the fallacy of their position the abortion opponent will reject the science. They will accept the science only when it supports their previously held notions. Conservatives who form a higher proportion of abortion opponents (and paradoxically death penalty supporters) are not the only ones who fall into this cognitive trap.

Those who support the notion that we are in the middle of major climate change, which human behavior is significantly impacting, will often point to the reams of scientific evidence supporting that fact. Opponents, who state that humans are not altering the environment, will find the one or two outlier studies and hold them up as somehow equivalent to the preponderance of evidence, the thousands of studies that state otherwise. People who support implementing environmental regulation, who are often more liberal, scoff at the unscientific notions held by their opponents, stating that science should take precedence.

Yet, those same liberals may hold onto the notion that Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs), should be kept out of our food chain because of the harm they might do, that somehow they are unhealthy. Bending to this pressure, just this week the maker of Cheerios has announced that no GMOs will be used in the manufacture of its product.

There is no scientific evidence that GMOs have any detrimental effect on human beings. Humans have made modifying their food sources, modifications that require genetic changes, into an ongoing art form which we have been practicing for tens of thousands of years. In fact you would be very hard pressed to find any food what-so-ever that you put into your mouth that has not been genetically modified from its original state by humans over time. That natural organic turkey you just ate bears no resemblance to its wild ancestors, neither do the tomatoes, potatoes, carrots, celery, onions, apples, bread made from wheat, or anything else you might have eaten along with it. GMOs have the potential to deliver critical vitamins to poverty stricken areas, to cure or prevent disease and to create drought and disease resistant crops that could help billions on this planet who cannot take food for granted. So how can some scoff at climate change opponents for ignoring science, when they themselves ignore the science surrounding GMOs? We humans are very good at rationalizing and dealing with our mental contradictions.

Is it possible to teach people to think more rationally? Not to fall victim to their mental traps? The answer appears to be yes. By first learning about these mental traps, by studying them and their underpinnings, then practicing decision-making the research says that thinking patterns and decision-making can be improved.  But, stubbornly held onto notions are not going away any time soon.

© 2014 by Jeffrey M. Saltzman. All rights reserved.

Visit OV: www.orgvitality.com

Timelines

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“Time is an illusion.” – Albert Einstein

The US Postal Service just announced that in the New York and Los Angeles metropolitan areas it would immediately begin delivering Amazon packages on Sundays (New York Times 11/11/13). The announcement, a recognition that American’s shopping patterns have been forever altered by Amazon, and coming at the start of the 2013 holiday shopping period, may give the post office a much needed boost to its profitable package delivery service. Sunday delivery of packages will be, for the moment, a clear differentiator for the post office, since no one else offers that service and for consumers it gives them a way to receive their purchases even faster. It is likely to be especially useful to Amazon Prime customers who get 2-day delivery included in their membership and those who have no one at home during the Monday-Friday work week.

Amazon and the Postal Service are making a pretty safe assumption that when someone purchases an item online they desire to receive their purchases as quickly as possible. It is in Amazon’s best interest to get the package to the consumer, as it helps to eliminate a competitive advantage of bricks and mortar stores and it is in the consumer’s best interest in that they don’t have to delay receipt of the goods they have purchased. Their respective timelines are operating in a congruent fashion and because of that it seems a safe bet that the offering will be very popular. And until Amazon can download your purchases directly into your home 3-D printer, Sunday delivery of packages may be the best way to shorten delivery timelines.

Timelines, however, don’t always line up between two people or entities in a congruent fashion, and in fact non-congruent timelines are the source of much conflict between people, organizations, investors and countries around the world. When timelines between two efforts or events don’t line up there is an increased potential for failure of whatever those efforts or events are, with the corresponding finger pointing of whom and what organization or country is to blame. Timeline incongruences are often overlooked as a potential risk factor that can derail an effort or event.

Think of a school system for instance. It may look at gradually improving test scores as a long-term trend that their policies and practices are on the right track. However, to parents, a long-term view of the trend of test scores is irrelevant to what they want as consumers of educational services for their children. They want the system to be at its best for their child, enrolled in the school right now. Not some future promises that things will get better for other “unknown” students. They want their child to do well in life, to be prepared to succeed, even though intellectually the parents know that change is often a gradual thing in organizations, including school systems. Their timelines of what they want can be fundamentally in disagreement with the school systems timelines and a source of conflict.

The teachers themselves may look at their course material as a gradually evolving, ever improving body of information, but the student typically only goes through the course once and that incongruence has at it source a fundamental difference between the timelines that a teacher is operating under (a teaching career that could span 30 or 40 years) and the student (taking the course once for 12 weeks).

There are endless stories of timeline incongruence between Wall Street’s quarterly-driven expectations for publicly traded companies and what those companies feel that have to do in order to build a robust, lasting enterprise. Sometimes public companies will be taken private when the timeline incongruence, along with other factors reaches a breaking point. Other times companies that could go public choose to remain private in order to operate with a longer-term view.

At an individual level, when you try to compress what you can get done within a shorter timeline, the potential for error or worse increases dramatically. At one extreme people are “multi-tasking” trying to fit more and more into an abbreviated period of time. Incongruence in the timeline exists between what it actually takes to do a good job on something, how much time and attention you should devote, and the expectations that you can do more and more activities within a compressed period of time. Many managers today feel that they must “multi-task” to be viewed as capable in their jobs. But ask yourself, how would you feel if a cardiac surgeon was multi-tasking while operating on your heart? Perhaps banging out a tweet while looking for that bleeder? Or what would your comfort level be in a combat situation walking behind the multi-tasking person responsible for spotting landmines? Does managing a group deserve the same level of focused attention? Or when talking to an individual, what does a singularity of focus, all of your attention on that person, in that moment in time, what does that buy you? Plenty.

While it is not uncommon for despair to take the form of immediate suffering and pain, ultimate despair seems to be driven when no positive potential future is seen for oneself or one’s children. And while people who can see a path forward to a better future are often very positive, even in trying circumstances, if you can’t see that better future, attitudes and behaviors can quickly turn in a very negative direction. It doesn’t matter if you are living in poverty in the rural south of the United States, within an inner city urban center, barely hanging on in a refugee camp, trying to survive a natural disaster or being controlled by a “benevolent” government. If you can’t see a bright future on your timeline, not the timeline of an organization, society or government, negativity will flourish.

Incongruent timelines may also be having a large and perhaps largely ignored impact on various peace negotiations around the world between countries. Americans tend to be fairly impatient, wanting to see progress on an issue within a fairly short period of time. Our maximum timeframe of focus is usually about one election cycle. But what if you are in negotiations with someone who has a very different timeline view than you? What if you are negotiating with someone who is thinking in hundreds or thousands of years and not driven by a 4-year election cycle? Their goal is not necessarily to achieve “immediate” progress on an issue or to resolve a conflict and put it behind them. With a long-term timeline view, the goal may be to simply do what it takes to pass time until more favorable conditions present themselves, 10, 50 or 100 years from now. And when you are dealing with multiple countries, each of which who view their ultimate success as being guaranteed by a higher power, the chances of a successful negotiation with immediate improvements in conditions is diminished.

Albert Einstein may be right about time being an illusion from a physicist’s view point, but from the view point of countries, people and individuals, all of whom live on a timeline, incongruence on respective timeline intervals and scales can at best cause miscommunications and at worst complete failure of the event or efforts underway.

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

Visit OV: www.orgvitality.com

Written by Jeffrey M. Saltzman

November 12, 2013 at 9:30 am

Strategic Choice or Desperation

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Why would a dictator gas his own people? The answer may not be what you think. In Syria’s brutal civil war it has been documented that there have been atrocities on both sides. One particular atrocity, the gassing of the civilian population with hundreds of children dying gruesomely stands out. The USA’s reaction to this has finally gotten Syria to admit that it has chemical weapons and though it denies being the source of the attack the evidence in the media is pretty persuasive that the Syrian government is gassing its own population. Syria’s denials take the form of logic rather than evidence. They pose the question, why would we gas people in locations where our own troops could be affected? That question presupposes that Syria cares enough about their own troops not to expose them to gas, which is a dubious assumption, but it is also misdirection from the reason why a dictator would conduct an act, that by generally acceptable world standards is beyond limits.

In order to explain, I need to turn to Africa, another area that has seen its share of gruesome atrocities and to explain the rationale behind an atrocity so gruesome that words had to be created to describe it. If this is at all disturbing to you, you should either skip the next two paragraphs or just stop reading here. Nicholas Kristof writing in the New York Times, (February 10, 2010), wrote about atrocities happening in Congo. He describes autocannibalism as “what happens when a militia here in eastern Congo’s endless war cuts flesh from living victims and forces them to eat it.” He goes on with an explanation as to why it is happening:

“… after talking to survivors and perpetrators alike over the years, I’ve come to believe that the atrocities are calculated and strategic, serving two main purposes. First, they terrorize populations and shatter traditional structures of authority. Second, they create cohesiveness among the misfit, often youthful soldiers typically employed by warlords. If commanders can get their troops to commit unspeakable atrocities, those soldiers are less likely ever to return to society. So don’t think of wartime atrocities as some ineluctable Lord of the Flies reversion to life in a natural state but as a calculated military strategy. We can change those calculations by holding commanders accountable.”

So in Syria’s case the commitment of atrocities by the government, is one way of Assad telling his supporters, there is no going back, we are in this to the end, for what we have done is so unacceptable that there is no place for us elsewhere (Russia not withstanding), we have to survive here. It is a clear message that he won’t abandon them, and they now can’t abandon him because they are now associated with gas attacks. It also creates a situation where reconciliation between the regime and the rebels is likely out of reach. The thought that Assad is acting out of desperation is likely in error.

If we consider these atrocities for what they are in their essence, they are a way of increasing internal group cohesiveness in the face of increasing external pressures. Governments, societies and other kinds of organizations have always been concerned about maximizing internal group cohesiveness. Though they don’t often resort to atrocities of this scale, but the psychology of the methods used in Syria are unfortunately a well-worn path.

Organizations by their very nature create a dichotomy, a split, between those on the inside vs. those on the outside. Even within organizations there are subgroups or subcliques creating a sense of us vs. them.  Only this week a story ran about the Harvard Business School which documented how wealthy students experienced a different Harvard than a typical business school student. An elite organization, Harvard Business School, was not elite enough for some, so a group of wealthy students created an even more elite sub-organization called Section Z within it. These students, the members of Section Z, would experience Harvard together, helping each other out, and presumably be there for each other during their careers.

Creating a sense of “we” vs. others or foreignness will increase the cohesiveness of the “we” and can create a sense of desire on the part of the others to become part of the “we”, part of the in crowd, part of the Inner Ring. This is even more so when the “we” has characteristics of exclusivity or generally what are perceived as desirable traits.

CS Lewis in a Memorial Lecture at King’s College, University of London, in 1944 warns of the dangers of creating an Inner Ring, a subgroup of those on the inside, vs. those on the outside. For he said that there are those who will do anything, commit any crime, engage in any activity in order to get inside the Inner Ring, if membership in that ring is attractive enough.  He urged the students to resist the temptation of the Inner Ring.

“The quest of the Inner Ring will break your hearts unless you break it. But if you break it, a surprising result will follow. If in your working hours you make the work your end, you will presently find yourself all unawares inside the only circle in your profession that really matters. You will be one of the sound craftsmen, and other sound craftsmen will know it.”

Interestingly, CS Lewis challenged Sigmund Freud’s dogma that the sex drive is the strongest drive that humans have and suggested that the desire to be part of the “in” group the Inner Ring is stronger. All sorts of organizations including governmental and political, societies, including secret ones, religious groups, schools, for-profit, military, etc. have used this fundamental human characteristic to their advantage and at times to take advantage of their fellow humans. In Syria’s case the gassing of civilians enhances the cohesiveness of those in power and in the military. Some may reject that path and defect, but the vast majority won’t.

Breaking down long-standing barriers of what is acceptable vs. unacceptable behaviors will also, through the process of cognitive dissonance, cause those who conducted the atrocities to create justifications as to why those behaviors are now acceptable.

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

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