Jeffrey Saltzman's Blog

Enhancing Organizational Performance

Posts Tagged ‘Communications

The Problem with Experts

with one comment

Say you had a group of 100 people who put themselves forth as experts in estimating the number of gumballs in jars. Divide that group of 100 into 2 groups of 50, and asked each person within the two groups to estimate the number of gumballs in a jar. With one group of 50 treat their estimates individually, 50 individual estimates of how many gumballs are in the jar. With the second group take the 50 estimates and average them together, so you have only 1 estimate. All together you now have 51 estimates of the number of gumballs. Out of these 51 estimates, which will be closer to the actual number of gumballs, the 1 averaged estimate or one of the 50 individual estimates? The answer is that most often one of the 50 individual estimates will be closest and the average estimate will often consistently be the second, third or fourth best estimate. Close but no cigar.  So now we look at the person who made the best individual estimate and crown that person “the” expert in gumball estimation. If we now run this experiment over and over, what you would find is that you are crowning a different “expert” each and every time. So there is no real expert, only an element of chance that causes one of the 50 to be crowned as a gumball estimation expert in that round of the experiment.

Estimating the number of gumballs in a jar is a complex problem. If you approached it methodically you would have to estimate the total volume of the jar and the total volume of each gumball. You would have to take into consideration the way the gumballs are placed in the jar. Are they tightly packed to the brim? Or is there airspace in the jar because of how they are sitting? If they are slightly irregularly shaped that will change the number of gumballs that can fit vs. if they are perfectly round. Estimating these kinds of variables visually, with our eyes, is not something humans are particularly suited for. Now we are smart enough that we can devise means that can determine precisely the number of gumballs in the jar, but visual inspection with our eyes, often from a distance, is not the way to go. Yet because of our inherent biases as humans (e.g. 95% of us are certain they are in the top 50% of drivers, 25% of us are certain they are in the top 1% in terms of leadership skill, and of course at Lake Woebegone all the children are above average), there are those among us who are pretty sure they can estimate the number of gumballs in the jars using that visual inspection approach.

Now, back to our one-time gumball estimation expert. What we tend to do is take the winner of one of our estimation rounds and put that person on TV as a talking head and ask that person their view points on various gumball estimation problems. Will the economy go up or down? Will Iran agree to a negotiated nuclear settlement? Which stocks should I pick to make the most money next year or will the bond market lose or make money? What will happen to inflation? Does that recent scandal eliminate any chance of electoral victory? What is the underlying cause of social unrest? What causes a person join a protest or engage in civil disobedience? We will be greeted as liberators or as oppressors when we march into Baghdad?

The underlying problem with those who answer these kind of questions, is that they attempt to identify a single or a small handful of underlying causes, (and assign them weights) based on their expertise, to complex problems. They may be using various assessments or may often be using measurement instruments, (remember the visual inspection for gumballs) that are simply not up to the task. And because of human limitations, they get past these short-comings by using rules-of-thumb or heuristics to take a question, that has a multitude of complex issues and boil it down to a simple answer. Answers that are more likely to be wrong than right.

For instance, the number of variables of what causes a Baltimore to erupt are immense and they are related to each other in extremely complex ways. The variables that affect human behavior are intricate and defy simple explanation. It is beyond rocket science. That is not to say that we should not work to understand and remedy issues. But the errand to put simple labels on socially complex issues is a fool’s errand, can result in gross mischaracterization and is easily debunked by other “experts” those who can point to other simple labels that they develop.

Now there are true experts out there. I will be the first one to run to a doctor or emergency room if I break a leg or have a heart attack. I will use a civil engineer to design and a qualified construction company to build my new bridge. I listen to climatologists about what is happening to our planet and attempt action. I listen to food experts when, based on the scientific method, it is known that GMOs have no harmful effects (every piece of food you eat has already been genetically modified from its original state). And I will have my children vaccinated against all the harmful diseases that used to be the scourge of our society.

There are huge differences between those using the scientific method to determine cause and effect, to improve the lives of people everywhere on this planet and so-called “gumball experts”. But part of the reason we have some of the issues we face as a society is because we don’t always distinguish between the two.

© 2015 by Jeffrey M. Saltzman. All rights reserved.

Written by Jeffrey M. Saltzman

May 3, 2015 at 7:56 am

50 Shades of Organizational Love

leave a comment »

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.

The 36:

  1. Given the choice of anyone in the world, whom would you want as a dinner guest?
  2. Would you like to be famous? In what way?
  3. Before making a telephone call, do you ever rehearse what you are going to say? Why?
  4. What would constitute a “perfect” day for you?
  5. When did you last sing to yourself? To someone else?
  6. 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?
  7. Do you have a secret hunch about how you will die?
  8. Name three things you and your partner appear to have in common.
  9. For what in your life do you feel most grateful?
  10. If you could change anything about the way you were raised, what would it be?
  11. Take 4 minutes and tell your partner your life story in as much detail as possible
  12. If you could wake up tomorrow having gained any one quality or ability, what would it be?
  13. If a crystal ball could tell you the truth about yourself, your life, the future, or anything else, what would you want to know?
  14. Is there something that you’ve dreamed of doing for a long time? Why haven’t you done it?
  15. What is the greatest accomplishment of your life?
  16. What do you value most in a friendship?
  17. What is your most treasured memory?
  18. What is your most terrible memory?
  19. If you knew that in one year you would die suddenly, would you change anything about the way you are now living? Why?
  20. What does friendship mean to you?
  21. What roles do love and affection play in your life?
  22. Alternate sharing something you consider a positive characteristic of your partner. Share a total of 5 items.
  23. How close and warm is your family? Do you feel your childhood was happier than most other people’s?
  24. How do you feel about your relationship with your mother?
  25. Make 3 true “we” statements each. For instance ‘We are both in this room feeling …”
  26. Complete this sentence:  “I wish I had someone  with whom I could share …”
  27. If you were going to become a close friend with your partner, please share what would be important for him or her to know.
  28. 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.
  29. Share with your partner an embarrassing moment in your life.
  30. When did you last cry in front of another person? By yourself?
  31. Tell your partner something that you like about them already.
  32. What, if anything, is too serious to be joked about?
  33. 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?
  34. 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?
  35. Of all the people in your family, whose death would you find most disturbing? Why?
  36. 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:

  1. Given the choice of anyone in this organization, whom would you want as a dinner guest?
  2. Would you like to be known as a mover and shaker in this organization? Someone who can really make things happen?
  3. Before making a telephone call to a co-worker, do you ever rehearse what you are going to say? Why?
  4. What would constitute a “perfect” workday for you?
  5. Do you sing to yourself at work? Even if someone else can hear?
  6. 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?
  7. Do you have a secret hunch about how you will leave the organization?
  8. Name three things you and three things which the organization values that are in common.
  9. For what in your work life or career do you feel most grateful?
  10. If you could change anything about the way you work, what would it be?
  11. Take 4 minutes and tell your career story in as much detail as possible.
  12. 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?
  13. If a crystal ball could tell you the truth about how you are perceived at work, what would you want to know?
  14. Is there something that you’ve dreamed of doing work or career-wise for a long time? Why haven’t you done it?
  15. What has been the greatest accomplishment of work life so far?
  16. What do you value most in a working relationship with co-workers?
  17. What is your most treasured work memory?
  18. What is your most terrible work memory?
  19. If you knew that in one year you would retire, would you change anything about the way you are working now? Why?
  20. What does having a good working relationship with fellow employees mean to you?
  21. What role does work and career play in your life? Is it central to how you define yourself?
  22. Share something you consider a positive characteristic of your work organization. Share a total of 5 items.
  23. 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?
  24. How do you feel about your relationship with your boss/subordinate?
  25. Make 3 true “we” statements each. For instance ‘We are both in this room feeling …”
  26. Complete this sentence:  “I wish I had someone  at work with whom I could share …”
  27. 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.
  28. 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.
  29. Share with your co-workers an embarrassing moment in your life.
  30. When did you last cry at work? By yourself?
  31. Tell your boss/subordinate something that you like about them already.
  32. What, if anything, is too serious to be joked about?
  33. 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?
  34. 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?
  35. Of all the people in your organization, whose death would you find most disturbing? Why?
  36. 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….

Written by Jeffrey M. Saltzman

February 15, 2015 at 10:48 am

The Language of Business

with one comment

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, 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.

Written by Jeffrey M. Saltzman

December 24, 2014 at 4:48 pm


with one comment

“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:

Written by Jeffrey M. Saltzman

November 12, 2013 at 9:30 am

O Robot

leave a comment »

[tweetmeme source=”jeffreysaltzman”]

0. A robot may not harm humanity, or, by inaction, allow humanity to come to harm.

  1. A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.
  2. A robot must obey any orders given to it by human beings, except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.
  3. A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Law.

Isaac Asimov’s 3 Laws of Robotics with the additional Zeroth Law

I just finished reading a science fiction book by one of my favorite writers, Greg Bear. Hull Zero Three is about a massive ship that is sent to colonize another planet in our galaxy, that colonization being the last best hope for mankind’s survival after having systematically exploited and destroyed the Earth. That makes it a fairly typical story as these things go, but when one of the colonists wakes early to find the ship badly damaged, he determines, over the course of the novel, that a civil war had occurred on the ship while he “slept”. Most of those who were to colonize the new planet were kept unaware of the methods and goals that the designers of the ship were willing to employ to assure mankind’s survival and when those goals and methods were uncovered dissention in the ranks ensued. The civil war, internal to the ship, was fought over differing visions of what the ultimate goals of the ship should be and how they should be accomplished.

So here you have a senior group, the designers/managers of the mission, who felt it was necessary to keep overall organizational goals and methods secret from those who were to carry out the mission, the “real” goals being on a “need to know basis” in order to assure success of the mission.  Sounds like fiction doesn’t it? Who could believe that senior managers of an organization would not be clear to others within the organization regarding ultimate organizational goals and methodologies? Hidden agendas, ulterior motives, political manipulations, or simply poor communications are the makings of a good story, unless of course that story unfolds in the real world in your company or organization.

The pursuit of efficiency and the corresponding breakdown of work into its subcomponents, with each subcomponent being performed by an expert in that task was one reason that people lost sight of the bigger picture, what the organization stood for, its goals and how it was going to go about accomplishing those goals. Craftsmanship can be lost when an individual’s tasks are performed in isolation of the other tasks required for ultimate organizational functioning. It then can become very easy to perform blindly, overlooking or literally not seeing ineffective or perhaps even distasteful, illegal or immoral practices occurring elsewhere within the organization. A sales group who has no idea what operations can actually deliver upon, marketing being similarly divorced from an organization’s actual capabilities are not rare occurrences. Overall operational quality can go by the wayside if the view I have of my job is to simply put bolt A into slot B and my perception is that quality will be delivered by the quality control department, or that others will be the ones to worry about things that are beyond my own task. Conversely, those in operations/engineering/service delivery may be oblivious to the need to manufacture or provide what will actually sell or to stay closely in tune with what customers want. What you begin to develop is O Robot, the organization acting in a robotic-like fashion to develop, market, sell and deliver its products and or services, with each simplistic robot/employee doing the individual element for which it was organizationally programmed or because of interest, skill, or willingness to expend effort, programs itself.

But I feel like I might be doing robots a disservice. Isaac Asimov’s fictionalized robots were much more advanced than those notions and behaved according to the laws of robotics stated above. And large advances are being made in the real world to make robots behave in a more human-like fashion. According to a paper in the journal Interaction Studies (2007) among the traits a robot will need to exhibit to be viewed as more human-like are:

  • Acting with autonomy
  • Containing intrinsic value  – being valued for simply being, not only for what it can do
  • Being held morally accountability for its actions
  • Engaging in reciprocal relationships – adjusting its expectations and desires as it interacts with others
  • Demonstrating creativity
  • Imitating other’s behaviors normatively– because of a desire to fit in socially
  • Distinguishing or identifying actions that break social conventions.

It might be considered a step up if humans operated consistently or valued others according to a similar list of what we expect from our future robots to make them seem more human.

In the 1970s, there was for a time the notion of job enrichment. It was all the rage. Organizations, it was felt, had gone too far in breaking down jobs into elemental components, and in order to achieve happier, more satisfied or engaged workers, what was necessary was to enrich their jobs to make them less robot-like. Workers therefore were given more of a “whole” piece of work to do. You don’t hear much about job enrichment today, do you? It was not carried out very well in the majority of cases and in some cases workers whose jobs were enriched were not happier, but went on strike for higher wages and/or benefits, since more was being expected of them. This occurred not because enriching jobs was wrong, but because of fundamentally poor management practices or poor implementation of the job enrichment schema. In some cases workers were given new skills and responsibilities, but were in many ways still treated and compensated as unskilled labor, destroying any sense of fairness or equity they may have had.

An organization’s ethics is a broad and somewhat nebulous definition, but can generally be stated as the values to which the organization subscribes. How it behaves from a legal perspective is only one piece of the ethics equation. Over the years I have found that each organizational member’s view of ethics can be quite varied and is very dependent on where within the organization that member sits. The definition of ethical behavior by a blue collar worker is indeed different than the definition of ethics by management and ethical definitions will differ between professionals and administrative assistants or supervisors etc. And there are often differences in understanding or saliency of communication as different groups think about what is ethical to them. Forgive me, Isaac Asimov, for taking liberties with your Laws of Robotics, but given the way some organization attempt to operate in a robot-like fashion, I could not help but adapt the Robotic Laws into Organizational Laws that might just form a basic foundation for big-picture ethical behavior in organizations.

Organizational Laws

  1. An organization may not harm the Earth, or, by inaction, allow the Earth to come to harm.
  2. An organization may not harm humanity, or, by inaction, allow humanity to come to harm.
  3. An organization may not harm a constituent (e.g. employee, customer, citizen, supplier, member), or through inaction allow a constituent to come to harm.
  4. An organization must follow societal laws and regulations except where such laws and regulation would conflict with the First, Second  or Third Law.
  5. An organization must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the other Laws.

One has to wonder that if these relatively simplistic Organizational Laws were widely followed would we be better off today in terms of our environment and society? Or are these notions too simplistic? How do rewards and punishment fit into the organizational role? What is the role of the organization if it decides to punish one member for harming another? And what is the role of rewarding members differentially based on merit? Etc. Possibly too simplistic, but I have to say I am intrigued by the overall framework. Thoughts?

© 2011 by Jeffrey M. Saltzman. All rights reserved.

Visit OV:

Under the Manure Pile

leave a comment »

DO YOU REMEMBER HOW WE USED TO TALK ABOUT cancer? People were afraid to mention it out loud, as though by saying the word and recognizing its existence that somehow that would give it credence, or power allowing it to more fully enter our lives. I remember being with others and talking about an ill relative, and if what that person had was cancer, 1) you would likely not get a clear answer about that was wrong, or 2) if you got an answer the person providing it would whisper the word. “What is wrong with Uncle Joe?” “He has cancer” would be the reply, with the word cancer being supplied in barely audible tones. You almost never got any specifics, describing prostate cancer, or pancreatic cancer, or bowel cancer, and the reason was not TMI, as the term is often applied today, rather the reason was ignorance and fear. (For those of you of an older generation TMI means too much information, I checked with my daughter.)

People were and many still are terrified of cancer and perhaps rightfully so. At the time a diagnosis of cancer was almost an automatic death sentence, and while today there are still many forms of cancer that are often fatal, there is a great deal more that can be done to provide treatment and hope, possibly a cure or at least remission. The ignorance and fear surrounding cancer at the time did no one any good and it may have caused many deaths. By not openly dealing with the issues, and encouraging people to get examinations and screening many cancers went undiagnosed until they were in advanced stages. For instance, even today some will hesitate to talk about a colonoscopy, as though having a doctor shove a tube up your rear to check for cancer is inappropriate or embarrassing. I got news for you, if all I have to do to save my life is allow a doctor to shove a tube up my rear, …well where can I get in line?  

Ignorance and fear still surround us and this pattern of not dealing with uncomfortable or what is deemed as socially unacceptable topics shows up in the public discourse, in private conversations, not to mention in our workplaces and in other organizations to which we belong.

Don’t ask. Don’t Tell. The policy of discharging gays from the military if they disclose that they are gay immediately springs to mind, as though by not asking about it, and encouraging gays not to discuss it, to live a lie, that somehow they are not really there and the topic can simply be avoided. There have been gays in the military ever since there was a military, and this anachronistic policy changes nothing, only trying to hide what statistically has to have been true.

Each year in the Super Bowl there is a competition to see who can come up with the most attention grabbing advertising. Beer ads are plentiful, as are ads showing very attractive, scantily clad women, others show animals that try to steal your heart. This year an ad was deemed as pushing the envelope just too far. Two men were to be seen eating potato chips out of a bowl and when their hands touch they recognize how much they mean to each other. The ad was for a homosexual on-line dating service. CBS declined to run the ad that they felt stepped over the line (I have to wonder which line). Perhaps they don’t want people having to admit that homosexual men might be drawn to watch the most macho of sports – would that make the sport less attractive to heterosexuals? Or perhaps if the viewing audience sees that two men are attracted to each other that they run the risk of destroying family values of those watching the show, as though touting the benefits of beer drinking or how little clothing women should wear to make themselves attractive would not. Certainly seems a bit hypocritical to me.

All of this can be roughly compared to Ahmadinejad, when he says there are no gays in Iran, for whatever reason his twisted mind deems that necessary. Do we really want to be comparable to his logic that if we don’t admit a thing it is not true? That is like agreeing with him that Iran is pursuing nuclear capability for peaceful purposes only. Only if you define peaceful purposes as being able to intimidate or destroy your neighboring countries so you can do whatever you so choose peacefully, without anyone opposing you.           

Within organizations, sometimes those uncomfortable topics are financially related, with organizations viewing poor financial performance as something to be hidden, playing “hide the weenie” with employees, customers and investors. Perhaps thinking to buy a little more time, and allowing the financial issue to just work itself out. Product defects can be inappropriately handled as well by a failure to disclose or discuss. All you have to do is contrast Toyota’s handling its stuck accelerator issues with how Johnson & Johnson handled their Tylenol troubles. Other times the issue may deal with an individual manager who while having a lousy track record on the people side, may have a track record on the financial side of making the numbers, so let’s not deal with the people issues, regardless of the impact on individual’s lives. Transparency in organizational functioning, especially given today’s flows of information is one critical component of organizational success.

There is an old story coming out of Spain, at the time of the inquisition, of a physician, who prior to leaving on a several week trip to see an ill patient, brings his newlywed bride out behind the barn.  Standing by the manure pile, she asks him not to go on the dangerous trip, for what would become of her if he was killed on the perilous journey. When he indicated that as a doctor he must go, she asks that she accompany him, so as not to separate themselves from each other for such an extended period of time. He indicates that the trip is just too dangerous and in order to demonstrate his love for her he shows her what is under the manure pile.

At the time, rarely did one count on institutions to provide any kind of personal or financial protection. Banks for the common person did not exist and the FDIC was not even a glimmer in someone’s eye. The safest place, thought this physician, for his family’s fortune was buried under the manure pile, a place where no one would look. In my head this story could have taken two distinct paths. One path was that as soon as the physician had left on his journey, a band of marauders, or perhaps those from the inquisition would come upon the house and upon seeing the lone female would ransack the place. Finding no treasure they would ask themselves where the most unlikely place that someone would hide their treasure, and it would not take too long before some said “I know, let’s look under the manure pile, for the physician would have thought that no one would look there”. Another possible ending was that the physician would return safely and the couple could continue to leave their fortune buried under the manure pile safe and sound. Of course keeping your treasure buried under the manure pile doesn’t really do you much good does it?

Institutions, organizations, or people that simply keep their treasures buried under the manure pile never get to utilize those treasures to benefit their own organizations, lives or the lives of others. The gay translator in the military who is discharged, does not get to translate the message that could save hundreds perhaps thousands of lives. They gay soldier who leads a contingent that secures a neighborhood or saves his platoon from an ambush is simply not there. The gay football fan or player cannot enjoy life as openly as you or I do. Customers are left wondering about the safety of their automobiles and whether they should take the family out visiting friends, as they ponder the honesty and openness of the manufacturer and whether the problem will truly be fixed. Employees are sent a message that only the financial performance of the organization matters, and if their life is a living hell because of a supervisor, well that is just not that important to the organization’s senior management. They should bury their concerns if they really cared and are loyal to the organization. Is it any wonder why employee loyalty withers?  

Human nature makes it expedient to sometimes bury the uncomfortable, those things that some of us might find difficult to discuss or acknowledge and by not being forthright we sometimes buy a little time in not dealing with painful or personally embarrassing issues. But a question that consistently returns is what is lost by keeping your treasures buried under the manure pile?     

© 2010 by Jeffrey M. Saltzman. All rights reserved.

A Comedy of Communications

leave a comment »

There was a woman who accompanied her husband to the doctor. The doctor after running a number of tests and spending hours examining her husband called her into his office for a private conversation. “You husband is quite ill and is dying”, he said. “However, if you follow these instructions very carefully over the next year there is a chance that he will live and make a complete recovery”.  The woman asked the doctor what she had to do. He began, “He no longer will be able to take the garbage out, cut the lawn or wash dishes, he needs to be greeted each morning with a hot breakfast waiting for him at the table, the kids need to be smiling and cheerful to him in the morning, when he gets home from work you should greet him at the door with his favorite beverage and slippers, he needs to eat a home cooked meal for dinner every night, after dinner he will need to relax in front of the TV, his feet up without any interruptions, fresh linens should be on the bed each evening, and he will need a back message every night. After leaving the doctor’s office the man turned to his wife and asked, “What did the doctor say to you?” She replied, “He said you were going to die”.

Communication errors are common enough in of our lives that they have become part of the vocabulary of comedy. Was her reply because she only heard the parts she wanted to hear from the doctor? Or was it due to a conscious decision regarding how open and honest communications with her husband would be; only relaying part of the message? Was she trying to hide the truth because she found it unpleasant or simply trying to control the message? Or was it just as in the game telephone, as a message gets repeated it becomes more and more garbled? The option which makes this humorous is that she was intentionally misleading or miscommunicating to her husband.

Two good friends, Ralph and Fred, were out in the woods hunting for deer. After a long day of tramping through the woods they came to a steep hill. As they climbed the steep hill Ralph grasped his chest and falls over collapsing into unconsciousness. Fred was frantic, not knowing what to do. Finally he pulls out his cell phone and calls 911. He talks to the operator. “We are in the middle of the woods, out hunting and Ralph grasped his chest and collapsed. I think he is dead. I don’t know what to do.” The emergency operator assures Fred, “Relax, I can help you, just do as I say. The first thing we have to do is make sure he is really dead.” “Ok”, says Fred and he put the phone down. After a few minutes the operator hears the noise of a gunshot over the phone. Fred gets back on the line, “Now what?”           

Part of the reason these old jokes are funny is because they involve a common occurrence that we can all relate to and have experienced, miscommunication. They simply take it to an extreme which induces us to smile, if not laugh out loud. The first joke is funny because we perceive the message as being intentionally garbled by the wife so as to relay only the portion of the information of her choosing, the portion that she perceives as best serving her own interests. It also plays off the natural tensions that exist in any kind of relationship. The second joke is funny because it involves the misinterpretation of commonly used phrases or words. We can relate, but hope that we would never make the same error as it is only funny when it happens to someone else. There are also jokes that point out how communications can shape opinion without overt communications, affecting our subconsciousness. Sometimes what is funny in them is very subtle. Here is one that while politically incorrect drives home the point. 

Two beggars were sitting on the sidewalk in Ireland. One is holding a large Cross and the other a Star of David. Both are holding out hats to collect contributions. As people walk by, they ignore the guy holding the Star of David but drop money in the other guy’s hat. Soon one hat is nearly full while the other is empty. A priest watches and then approaches the men. Trying to be helpful, he turns to the guy with the Star of David and says, “Don’t you realize that this is a Christian nation? You will never get any contributions in this country holding a Star of David.” The guy holding the Star of David turns to the guy holding the Cross and says, “Moishe, look who is trying to teach us marketing.”  

The joke is funny when you realize that the beggars, who you did not automatically relate to each other, are both Jewish as Moishe is a common name among Jews of a certain generation, and that they have set up the contrast of charity options on purpose. Second, the implication is that if only one beggar had been sitting there with a Cross, the money offered by passersby would have been less. The contrast between the two is what led to the greater financial gain. This is the same contrast that is commonly used by those trying to convince us to take one course of action over another. For instance, a restaurant will put more expensive options on the menu, so that it can sell more of the moderately priced ones and not solely the lowest priced items, intentionally trying to shape our decision making. Third, the helpful priest is funny because he missed what to the beggars was an obvious strategy to maximize their success, gentle fun is being poked. While perhaps unintentional, this joke is perfectly laying out some important concepts of human decision making and how subtle communications can be.

These jokes were not created in a lab full of graduate students studying underlying human behaviors, but by comedians who intuitively knew how aspects of the human condition work. We can learn a lot by simply paying attention to what is going on around us and how society commonly expresses itself through its communications, even when or perhaps especially so, when those communications are jokes. 

There was an examination of comedy that aired on PBS recently. It looked at the forms that comedy took during different economic periods. During economic down-cycles comedy tended towards the nonsensical, making people feel good while overlooking the severity of the situation. Abbott and Costello’s nonsensical routine of “Who’s on First?” became popular during the first great depression. It made people laugh while not reminding them of the troubles of the day. During healthy economic times, poking fun at leaders, political and otherwise, was deemed as more acceptable, and funny, partly as a way of ensuring that they did not get too full of themselves.  And during wars, comedy tends to be outwardly focused, poking fun at the outside world and peddling softly any issues at home. Comedy is, as are many other aspects of our lives simply a reflection of the times and pressures in which we live.

Written by Jeffrey M. Saltzman

October 20, 2009 at 10:06 am

%d bloggers like this: