Archive for the ‘Perception’ Category
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.
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”?
Did you ever notice how perfectly the morning sunlight streams through the kitchen window? Or how the positioning of the house allows for gorgeous winter water views? Or how the crackling fireplace creates such a perfect atmosphere in the family room? An owner who has spent years living in a house typically knows each and every one of its strengths and views them as something special or exceptional. They put added value on the house due to those characteristics. (They also know the house’s short-comings but often overlook them). Each person sees this added value in their own house. After all, if it weren’t special or exceptional, what would it say about me for living there? (Cognitive dissonance). As I continue to invest my time and resources in improving my house, from my perspective, my beliefs and values about my house simply become stronger (Sunk Costs). And with limited house owning experience some assume that it just couldn’t get much better than their own house (WYSIATI – what you see or experience is all there is). If and when they go to sell the house they put that perceived exceptionalism into the price tag and then wonder why the house does not sell. They wonder why others don’t perceive the exceptionalism that they do, why others don’t value the things they themselves value (see Organizational Rainbows Cast no Shadows). They are baffled and when they have to lower their price (the value they perceive in the house), they can get angry. Real estate agents serve a useful purpose as a buffer between a buyer who does not perceive the same exceptionalism and the seller who wants to say, “Why don’t you understand”?
The house example above is both real and metaphor. These principles cause people to see exceptionalism in many of their activities, beliefs and convictions. They do not simply apply to what you own, but also to actions you take, where you work, the religion you belong to, the college or university you attended, the person you married, the country you live in and political system by which you are governed. But before I am accused of painting with too broad of a brush, it is quite clear that there are plenty of times where people can break out of this pattern, discard or change their own values and see the value, or be convinced of the value that others are seeing in an object, belief system, governance structure, investment etc. Just look at how attractive gold is to most people. Gold in and of itself has limited value, you can’t eat it, drink it, breath it. It does not impart health or wisdom to those who hold it or wear it. Its value comes from the combination of its rarity and desirability, a desirability that shows up as a commonly held value. The same could be said of other objects of limited day-to-day usefulness, but that generally are seen as being of high value – artwork, antique cars and other rare objects are often tagged with the phrase exceptional, and we are attracted to things that are rare as it makes us feel special to be in possession of them.
Describing how humans fall under the spell of exceptionalism as a construct is not meant to imply that there is no right or wrong, moral or amoral, good or evil, that there are only points of view. The notion that there are only points of view is a cop out for there certainly are social structures and social norms, governance systems and other conventions that humans apply to other humans that are abhorrent. Systems that keep some in poverty with a lack of opportunity, that subjugate or do not create equality are systems that need to change. Understanding the psychology that makes it more difficult to change them can help enable the needed change.
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
Alright, alright. I did not read the book or watch the movie and actually have no intention to do so. Sorry.
But, what I was drawn to this Valentine weekend was a research paper that is once again in the news. “The experimental generation of interpersonal closeness: A procedure and some preliminary findings” (Aron, A. et. al., 1997, Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, Vol. 23, No. 4, 363-377). In this remarkable work the authors conduct an experiment where couples, screened by a preliminary questionnaire for compatibility, but who previously did not know each other, ask 36 increasingly personal questions over a 45 minute period and then stare into each other’s eye for 4 minutes. The current popularity of the piece is due to an essay written by Mandy Len Catron, “To Fall in Love with Anyone Do This” . Eight million readers viewed her piece, some tried the questions out for themselves, and the resultant stories of ensuing marriages are noteworthy. The 36 questions are nothing all that unusual, just a set of questions that create a mutual sense of increasing intimacy and vulnerability between the two people answering them to each other.
- Given the choice of anyone in the world, whom would you want as a dinner guest?
- Would you like to be famous? In what way?
- Before making a telephone call, do you ever rehearse what you are going to say? Why?
- What would constitute a “perfect” day for you?
- When did you last sing to yourself? To someone else?
- If you were able to live to the age of 90 and retain either the mind or body of a 30-year-old for the last 60 years of your life, which would you want?
- Do you have a secret hunch about how you will die?
- Name three things you and your partner appear to have in common.
- For what in your life do you feel most grateful?
- If you could change anything about the way you were raised, what would it be?
- Take 4 minutes and tell your partner your life story in as much detail as possible
- If you could wake up tomorrow having gained any one quality or ability, what would it be?
- If a crystal ball could tell you the truth about yourself, your life, the future, or anything else, what would you want to know?
- Is there something that you’ve dreamed of doing for a long time? Why haven’t you done it?
- What is the greatest accomplishment of your life?
- What do you value most in a friendship?
- What is your most treasured memory?
- What is your most terrible memory?
- If you knew that in one year you would die suddenly, would you change anything about the way you are now living? Why?
- What does friendship mean to you?
- What roles do love and affection play in your life?
- Alternate sharing something you consider a positive characteristic of your partner. Share a total of 5 items.
- How close and warm is your family? Do you feel your childhood was happier than most other people’s?
- How do you feel about your relationship with your mother?
- Make 3 true “we” statements each. For instance ‘We are both in this room feeling …”
- Complete this sentence: “I wish I had someone with whom I could share …”
- If you were going to become a close friend with your partner, please share what would be important for him or her to know.
- Tell your partner what you like about them; be very honest this time saying things that you might not say to someone you’ve just met.
- Share with your partner an embarrassing moment in your life.
- When did you last cry in front of another person? By yourself?
- Tell your partner something that you like about them already.
- What, if anything, is too serious to be joked about?
- If you were to die this evening with no opportunity to communicate with anyone, what would you most regret not having told someone? Why haven’t you told them yet?
- Your house, containing everything you own, catches fire. After saving your loved ones and pets, you have time to safely make a final dash to save any one item. What would it be? Why?
- Of all the people in your family, whose death would you find most disturbing? Why?
- Share a personal problem and ask your partner’s advice on how he or she might handle it. Also, ask your partner to reflect back to you how you seem to be feeling about the problem you have chosen.
Given my work, I could not help but wonder if it would be possible to create a sense of “love” between an organization and those who reside within it. Now of course lots of people feel pride at working at various places or being part of all sorts of organizations. That pride being generated by a combination of what the organization is accomplishing and your own personal contribution or connection to the organization, a concept that I have written about extensively elsewhere. But what if you pressed it further, can people actually “love” an organization?
The word “fan” as in a fan of a sports team, music band, etc. comes from the word “fanatic” and suggests something that is perhaps beyond pride. That may give some inkling that people can go beyond pride and feel something more for “things” that are more esoteric, such as organizations. But love? Even if you take the approach that love is nothing more than a bunch of chemicals interacting within the brain, can you duplicate those interactions and direct the emotional outcome to something like an organization?
There are organizations out there that aspire to have managers spend a significant amount of time on personnel issues. And I know of at least one organization where the aspiration is that a manager should spend about 40% of their working time interacting with their people or dealing with personnel type issues, as opposed to things like budgeting or doing the work themselves. Of course that is aspirational and most organizations come nowhere near that number. But the idea is that the role of a manager is to assist others to get their work done.
So in the spirit of increasing intimacy, of course in a manner suitable for a work environment, what would be the outcome of a manager or a group of co-workers over a period of time asking questions about the hopes, dreams, aspirations, fears, etc. of their employees/co-workers? And sharing some of their own hopes, dreams aspirations and fears? What if the person was the CEO asking the questions of their direct reports and then unveiling a bit of themselves? Of if it was a manager asking the questions of a shop floor worker? Or a senior manager reaching down into the organization to better understand the workforce? Too much to ask? Would it increase workforce happiness?
Here is a reworking of the 36 for the work environment.
The Organization/Work 36:
- Given the choice of anyone in this organization, whom would you want as a dinner guest?
- Would you like to be known as a mover and shaker in this organization? Someone who can really make things happen?
- Before making a telephone call to a co-worker, do you ever rehearse what you are going to say? Why?
- What would constitute a “perfect” workday for you?
- Do you sing to yourself at work? Even if someone else can hear?
- If you were able to work to the age of 90 and retain either the mind or energy of a 30-year-old for the last 60 years of your career, which would you want?
- Do you have a secret hunch about how you will leave the organization?
- Name three things you and three things which the organization values that are in common.
- For what in your work life or career do you feel most grateful?
- If you could change anything about the way you work, what would it be?
- Take 4 minutes and tell your career story in as much detail as possible.
- If you could wake up tomorrow having gained any one quality or ability that would help you do your job better, what would it be?
- If a crystal ball could tell you the truth about how you are perceived at work, what would you want to know?
- Is there something that you’ve dreamed of doing work or career-wise for a long time? Why haven’t you done it?
- What has been the greatest accomplishment of work life so far?
- What do you value most in a working relationship with co-workers?
- What is your most treasured work memory?
- What is your most terrible work memory?
- If you knew that in one year you would retire, would you change anything about the way you are working now? Why?
- What does having a good working relationship with fellow employees mean to you?
- What role does work and career play in your life? Is it central to how you define yourself?
- Share something you consider a positive characteristic of your work organization. Share a total of 5 items.
- How close and warm are the relationships among that staff at your organization? Do you feel your organization is filled with happier people than most other’s?
- How do you feel about your relationship with your boss/subordinate?
- Make 3 true “we” statements each. For instance ‘We are both in this room feeling …”
- Complete this sentence: “I wish I had someone at work with whom I could share …”
- If you were going to become a close friend with a co-worker, please share what would be important for him or her to know.
- Tell your boss/subordinate what you like about them; be very honest this time saying things that you might not say to someone you’ve just met.
- Share with your co-workers an embarrassing moment in your life.
- When did you last cry at work? By yourself?
- Tell your boss/subordinate something that you like about them already.
- What, if anything, is too serious to be joked about?
- If you were to die this evening with no opportunity to communicate with anyone, what would you most regret not having told your co-workers? Why haven’t you told them yet?
- Your office building/plant catches fire. After saving all your co-workers, you have time to safely make a final dash to save any one item. What would it be? Why?
- Of all the people in your organization, whose death would you find most disturbing? Why?
- Share a personal problem and ask your boss/subordinate/co-worker’s advice on how he or she might handle it. Also, ask your boss/subordinate/co-worker to reflect back to you how you seem to be feeling about the problem you have chosen.
Just a thought….
One hobby I have (which I have to admit I have not had much time to engage in recently) is browsing through New York book stores looking for books with old Jewish folk tales or stories of Jewish life from the “old country”. While these old folk tales may seem out of place or out of time in our modern world, I find that sometimes they have enduring kernels of wisdom. I occasionally take these old folk tales and translate them into modern organizational terms which I can use in my day-to-day work.
For instance, there is an old folktale that begins with two travelers, strangers, walking down a long dusty road. As they walked, one of the strangers asked the other “What say you, shall I carry you or shall you carry me?” The second traveler ignored the statement for he was not about to carry the other.
Later on the traveler asked a second question as they passed a field of barley, “Has this barley been eaten or not?” Once again the second traveler ignored the first for it was obvious for all to see that the barley was still growing in the field.
Then they passed a funeral procession and the one stranger said to the other “What do you think, is the person in the coffin alive or dead?” The second traveler could no longer contain himself and asked the first why he was asking such ridiculous questions.
The first one said, “When I asked if I should carry you or if you should carry me, what I meant was shall I tell you a story or shall you tell me one to make this long journey easier for us.”
“When I asked about the barley, what I meant was has the growing barley already been sold to a buyer, for if it has already been sold, it is as though it is already eaten for the farmer and his family cannot eat it themselves.”
“And when I asked about the person in the coffin, being alive or dead, what I meant was, do you think the person had descendants, for if they had descendants who will carry on their legacy it is as though they are alive. But if they passed away with no one to remember them and carry on their work they are truly dead.”
Communications between two people, between groups of people, or between organizations who do not know each other well is often very difficult and can be subject to vast misunderstandings, even when they are speaking the same language. And with those misunderstandings sometimes comes suspicion and fear. It is as though the two groups who are communicating, whether they be black and white, Jew or Arab, Israeli or Palestinian, police vs. those being policed, are actually having two completely different conversations with neither group able to translate what the other is saying or have an understanding of their actions.
Even when the communication is clear there can be issues of saliency, the importance given to the words used in the communication between the two parties which causes misunderstandings and what can be interpreted as behavioral anomalies.
One story, that is not quite a folk tale but illustrates the point regarding saliency, is about a method that Jews used to obtain passports to escape the horrors of WWII. Some families, who could not get legitimate documents struggled to obtain fake passports in their attempts to flee. One such story takes place in Poland in the late 1930’s and describes how documents were forged by studying old passports from different countries. Their style and format were then copied, creating new fake passports for those trying to escape.
One day a man, who was part of the Jewish underground, set out to collect old passports through whatever method he could. He was extremely successful and by the end of the day he had collected a large number.
On the way back from his activities he was stopped by the Polish police, was asked for his papers, and then confronted when they discovered the large number of passports he was carrying.
He was sure that they would take him to the police station, torture and then kill him as they tried to learn about the activities of the underground organization collecting the passports.
The man thought about how troubled his family would be if they never saw him again without any explanation. But, it was near the end of the day and the police told the man to go home and then come to the station in the morning for questioning. The man was terrified. The police knew who he was and if he stayed home and did not show up the next day or if he tried to flee that night, they would simply go to his house and kill his family.
If he showed up the next day at the police station he was certain they would torture him to obtain information and then kill him anyway. He did not know what to do. After much deliberation and consultations with his family and Rabbi, he went to the police station the next morning and approached the policeman who had stopped him.
The policeman asked him what he wanted and appeared not to remember the previous day’s incident. The man indicated that he had been stopped and a packet of passports had been taken from him and he was here to collect it. The policeman handed the man the packet of passports and told him to be on his way.
Saliency is a psychological concept which deals with how central an event, object, fact or perception is to you or another person. The amount of saliency an event or communication has is a combination of emotional, motivational and cognitive factors.
To the man with the passports in the story, being stopped by the police was extremely central to his very existence, for it was quite literally life or death. To the policeman, the man was one of hundreds of people that he had stopped and questioned that day.
The man who was stopped and questioned described the incident as a miracle, that his life and those of his family were spared. And from his perspective it certainly was, but what was the underlying mechanism of human perception that allowed that miracle to occur? Saliency. To the policeman the incident was not nearly as salient, not nearly as memorable as it was to the passport procurer.
I have to admit something to you. Not being all that concerned about fashion, I buy irregular jeans. I grew up wearing jeans (one pair to wear while the other pair was being washed) and even today I am most comfortable pulling on a pair. I like to wear jeans. But I don’t like what jeans cost these days. So I go to a manufacturer’s outlet mall near me and I buy irregular blue jeans.
As I pull each pair off the shelf and examine them I am usually hard pressed to determine why they are called irregular. I look for the obvious, for instance, does it have 3 legs? (Well I could always use a spare, in case I get a hole in one knee). And I usually just can’t find anything wrong with them.
When I wear them, at least at first, I wonder if what is not obvious to me, the irregularities, are likely very obvious to those around me. I am sure I can hear people pointing at me and laughing as I walk by. But maybe it is not the pair of jeans that brings on the laughter.
But the reality is no one is looking at my jeans, let alone looking for the defect in my irregulars. I just think they are, at least for a moment, because the issue is more salient to me, until I forget about it.
When a manager makes an off-hand comment to a worker about that worker’s performance or future, what may be perceived by the manager as a minor topic or issue, just above the threshold of consciousness, may be perceived quite differently by the employee.
To the employee that comment might be indicative of whether or not they have a future with the organization, central to their very existence, while the manager might not even remember the comment the next day.
How many cases of miscommunication in the workplace, in politics, in negotiations, or in our everyday lives, are derived from a comment that has very different levels of saliency to the various people who might be listening to it? Managers may use what they perceive as throw away lines, about “future opportunities” or “earnings potential” not really thinking about just how closely the employee is listening or just how salient those message might be to the listener.
And now another aspect of communication that can impact decision-making has been shown to be whether the language you are speaking is your native tongue (Costa et.al., Your Morals Depend on Language, 2014).
A very common problem used to illustrate ethics as it relates to decision-making, is to ask a listener to imagine themselves on a bridge over-looking a trolley car track. There is a trolley car heading down the track that will shortly run into and kill five people, unless a heavy object is placed in its path. What can you do?
There is a very heavy man standing next to you. You are asked to consider pushing the heavy man onto the tracks to save the lives of five people. Sacrifice the one to save the five? Would you do it? Not surprising to those of you whose native tongue is English, is that the vast majority of you would not push the heavy man in front of the trolley. That is reactionary thinking, or in the words of Daniel Kahneman, System 1 thinking.
But if the person you are asking is listening in English, and English is not their native tongue, you get a very different answer. Many would say that they would sacrifice the one to save the five. They need to apply some extra effort, which slows down their thinking and allows System 2 decision-making to kick in, which is not reactionary and allows people to consider more slowly, “is it worth sacrificing one to save five?”
Now take the scenario of having a group of managers in a global corporation sitting around making decisions about the operations of a company. The conversation is happening in English, but about half of the participants are not native English speakers. The two groups sitting around the table, the native vs. non-native English speakers may be coming to different conclusions, due to different decision-making systems that are kicking in as they consider organizational choices.
Language and the ability to use it properly is a critical aspect of good business performance. Yet as you dig into the use of language in business, whether it be definitional issues, saliency, or if you are speaking in your native tongue, the challenges of effective language use in today’s large, complex, global corporations are immense.