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Unsupported by Evidence

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I was recently on a panel at a local meeting in NYC of Industrial Organizational Psychologists and after much discussion I made a statement. I said that as a field we have almost completely and utterly failed at bridging the gap between the science and research that we do, the evidence-based and experimental knowledge that we gain and those who are out there in the world writing about people at work or organizations in the lay press, or those in organizations, making day-to-day decisions about them which affect both the organizations and the people within them. After all most of the information about people at work is just “common sense” isn’t it? And I am a person and I work, so I guess that makes me an expert.

Unfortunately, much of that “common sense” is not supported by the facts and in some cases the facts support the opposite conclusion or the common sense is generated by those who have an agenda in which facts are simply inconvenient. Here are some of the more common statements that I keep running across that either have no basis in reality, are the opposite of the actual evidence, rest on very shaky expansions or extrapolations of a small kernel of observation, or are based on a small handful of people or organizations at one tail or the other of a distribution, but ignore the vast majority of those in the “fat part” or middle of the distribution.

  • Statement: People will find jobs once their unemployment checks run out, a social safety net is an incentive not to work.

o   Reality: The vast majority of people want to positively contribute to society, as it makes them feel valued. People want to feel valued, it is a universal. The data show that people would rather be overworked than underworked and the desire to work and contribute is not diminished in societies with strong social safety nets. Can you find people who fit the above statement? Sure, but not the vast majority.

  • Statement: The various generations want and expect different things from the work environment.

o   Reality: There is simply no evidence to support the notion that different generations want different things from work. Rather the differences often cited are driven by life stage and economic opportunity. In other words, give a person a mortgage and kids in college and job security becomes more important to them. A person right out of college with no responsibilities or financial obligations will act similarly regardless of which generation they come from. Because life stages take a rather long time to get though they give the appearance of being generationally driven.

  • Statement: People join companies and leave managers.

  Reality: Are there “bad” managers out there that have driven people out of an organization? Absolutely. But the majority of people join an organization and then leave when they don’t see a promising future for themselves within the organization. Sometimes that feeling is caused by a bad manager, and sometimes by the simply reality of a mismatch between a person’s career expectations and what the organization can offer. And sometimes it is simply a person’s life situation. The next time you are with a large group of people ask for a show of hands of how many of them left their last job because of a bad boss.

  • Statement: A good interviewer can determine if a person is a “fit” for an organization.

  Reality: We have known for a very long time that interviewers can actually diminish the ability to predict whether someone will succeed in an organization. An interviewer makes judgments that are often not based on job relevant characteristics.

  • Statement: Lie detector tests can determine if someone is lying and can be useful in making hiring decisions.

o   Reality: The evidence that lie detectors actually work and can determine if someone is lying is not there. And it is absolutely for certain that people with low affects can lie to lie detectors and get away with it. Lie detectors work on the notion that someone telling a lie will become more stressed and emotional and someone telling the truth will remain calm. The reality is that someone, even an innocent person, hooked to a lie detector and being asked about crimes will become stressed. (Generating false positives.) You might as well tie the person to a log and throw them in a river. If they float they are guilty and should be executed. If they sink and drown they are innocent, but unfortunately still dead.

  • Statement: Money doesn’t motivate people on the job.

o   Reality: Money is a great motivator (ask those on Wall Street). Money tends to show up on statistically generated lists of drivers of job satisfaction when people perceive themselves are being paid unfairly. When they perceive themselves as being paid fairly for the work they do, it tends to diminish in importance. People who claim money is not a motivator often seem to be people whose job it is to keep employments costs down.

  • Statement: It is good to regularly reorganization a company. It keeps people sharp; it keeps them on their toes.

  Reality: Organizations that regularly reorganize are consistently having people learning the ropes of new positions. In several studies it has been shown that better performance is achieved by people who have been in positions for longer periods of time then by people who are switched from job to job.

  • Statement: In business downturns, laying-off people is the best course of action.

o   Reality: If you can’t afford to pay people you need to get your costs down or you cease to exist. However, there is a good deal of evidence that shows that organizations that resist layoffs in down-cycles outperform as the economy recovers.

  • Statement: Women are more risk adverse than men, so if a job requires risk taking women are not a good fit.

o   Reality: It is pretty easy to find women who are more risk tolerant than many men. This is bias pure and simple and based on stereotypes.

Many of these statements are what Paul Krugman, the Nobel winning economist and NY Times columnist calls “Zombie Ideas”. Zombie ideas are statements that should have been killed by the evidence but refuse to die. From my perspective the field of Industrial Organizational Psychology, which is often concerned about publishing in scientific journals, (not that there is anything wrong with that), has a lot more work to do in getting our knowledge out into the mainstream and accepted.

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

Visit OV: www.orgvitality.com

Written by Jeffrey M. Saltzman

June 13, 2014 at 6:53 am

Once Again, “Into the Myths”

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There is a story of a CEO who in the middle of a company meeting keeled over. He was rushed to the hospital, but despite their best efforts they were unable to revive him. Many employees turned out for the funeral, and as speeches describing the CEO’s management style were given before heading off to the cemetery, the employees were all appropriately sad. As they were wheeling the coffin out of the funeral home, it accidently bumped very hard into the door frame, giving it quite a jar. All of a sudden there was moaning coming from the coffin. The coffin was opened and low and behold the CEO had revived! He recovered and continued running the company, staying true to his style, despite what was clearly a life altering event. After 5 more years he once again keeled over. The employees again dutifully showed up at the same funeral home and listened once again to speeches regarding this CEO’s management style. As the service concluded, and the coffin was being maneuvered towards that fateful doorway of the funeral home, all the gathered employees called out in unison, “careful this time!”

Everyone has various traits which could be described as strengths or shortcomings. Some of them are known to us and some are hidden, despite, perhaps, being quite obvious to others. And some of these traits have their origins in how we have evolved as a species and how our psychology developed. Our tendency to see intelligent intent where there may be none is one such trait. And our ability to form up into groups, to better accomplish tasks which we would have difficulty accomplishing alone, and to see short-comings or differences in “others”, who are not part of our “select” group, is another such trait.

Some of these human traits, such as the tendency to see differences across generations of workers, have manifested themselves into modern management practices, partly due to much publicity and pop psychology. The differences that are often pointed to as generational differences, in actuality tend to be driven by “life stage” differences, confounded by the issue of economic opportunity, an environmental variable, being considered a “fundamental” difference. Bottom line, the belief that there exist generational differences in what workers want out of the work environment is a myth that holds no water.

From an economic perspective, western society is wealthier today, in general, than it has ever been and that wealth translates into differing opportunity. People may behave differently not because their fundamental underlying psychology has changed, but because of economic opportunity differences.

People for instance are less concerned about job security when there are plenty of jobs available and are more concerned about it in times of recession. People are also more concerned about job security when they have a mortgage and kids – a life stage and not a generational difference. Only because economic cycles can take years to work through do these tendencies appear to be related to generational differences, but that is a veneer. Economic opportunity can come and go fairly rapidly and people of all different generations will quickly adapt to those differences, modifying what is important for them at that moment in time and life cycle stage.

Take safety as another example. While there is a normal distribution for the amount of risk people are willing to assume, many people who work in unsafe conditions do so not because they are unconcerned about their personal safety, but because those risky tasks are the only opportunities that are available to them. I remember quite well the “sewage swimmers” of Jakarta. These are people who swim through the open sewer system to perform maintenance and to keep the “waters” flowing, removing blockages. Now, others may rationalize that these sewer swimmers don’t mind their task, but I can guarantee you that they are no different than you or I, and undertake these very risky activities because they, 1. may not completely understand the risks they take, and 2. need to provide for their families. Underneath it all, so to speak, they are the same as we all are.

The same hold true for a willingness to work in sweat-shop like conditions with long hours for little pay and other working conditions that would be less acceptable to “westerners”. You can often hear about how people in a certain country are more tolerant of corruption or other unsavory business practices. The evidence suggests that they may expect more corruption or unsavory practices, but if given a real choice they would be no more tolerant of it than you or I. Society and organizations become at risk when these less savory practices become the de-facto norm. Changing the norm is the challenge, but it can be done.

People are People©, we are all more the same than different (I exclude psychopathology) and while we spend an enormous amount of time searching for our differences, another evolutionary trait, we would be better served by understanding our similarities.

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

Visit OV: www.orgvitality.com

Written by Jeffrey M. Saltzman

January 14, 2013 at 9:43 am

Work Factoids

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I was leafing through an issue of an astronomy magazine I happened across. One story in the front of the magazine was about the most common elements around us. Hydrogen of course was number one and right behind it was helium. The author of the article branched off into some interesting facts, which he stated he uses to spur children’s interest in astronomy and a few of which surprised and delighted me (I am nothing more  than a large child after all). For instance, the most common element you breathe when you take a breath is nitrogen, an inert gas which doesn’t do much for you and which most people with a high school education will get right. The second most common element you breathe in is oxygen, which again would be on most people’s list, but the third is argon which if I had known (at some point I likely did), I had forgotten. Some other factoids he let loose with included that half of our moon is made up of oxygen and it has very little hydrogen, the most common element in the universe elsewhere. H2O, water, is most dense at 40 degrees (the reason why ice floats), exists mostly in the areas of the universe we have studied as either a solid or gas and very rarely as a liquid due to the limited range of temperatures and pressures at which it will take the form of a liquid. Anyway you get the idea, interesting tidbits that you think you should know, likely did at some point, but have filed away and forgotten.

It did make me stop for a second and think if there was a similar list I could put together about people’s behavior in organizations. Facts that perhaps we knew, filed away and forgotten or interesting pieces of information about what people want from an organization or how organizations behave that are less well known.  Anyway I thought I would see how hard it would be to put together a list and see how controversial it would be. Here are 10 of my favorites:

  1. Much of the differences that are talked about between people of various generations, genders, ethnicities etc. and what they want from the work environment is a myth. People, of any generation, age, ethnicity, nationality, gender, etc. fundamentally want the same things out of the work environment. There are larger differences to be found within any demographic category than across demographic categories (e.g. larger differences in the expression of an attribute (risk tolerance for instance) can be found within the male population than looking at the gap between the average male vs. the average female tolerance for risk.
  2. If you are not measuring it, you can’t manage it. While measurement is good in the right circumstances there are plenty of things we manage quite well without measurement. (Thank you very much!) When is the last time you took out a ruler and measured the length of your hair before getting it cut? (Excepting those who are growing their hair to a specific length for donation purposes). How often to you rate your hunger, plotting your findings on a chart before deciding to raid the refrigerator? How many people gather the opinions of professional sniffers, measuring their reactions, before deciding on whether to bathe?
  3. Everyone in an organization is biased. Bias is built into our humanness. It arose as a way to help us process information efficiently. We develop heuristics or rules-of-thumb to speed our decision-making. Some people are not very good at developing rules-of-thumb and then these people have a tendency to apply inaccurate rules inappropriately. People using inaccurate rules inappropriately may judge a person by superficial characteristics and not the essence of their character. This is one source of bigotry, but this tendency also helps to give rise to superstition. For example, let’s suppose one day a baseball player takes a piece of rope, ties a knot in the two ends of the rope and places it over his head as a necklace. Perhaps he used up the soap that was on the rope, but being a saver could not bring himself to discard the rope itself. That day as he is wearing his soap-on-a-rope, sans soap, he hits a home run and feels really good. The other players wanting to know his secret to success notice the rope and determine that this soap-on-a-rope, sans soap, enhanced his performance. The next day there is a run on soap-on-a-rope at the local drug store and all the players take long showers, using up the soap so they can wear the rope. A few of them have an outstanding performance that day and attribute it to the rope. Those who did not have a good day think that the rope simply has not had enough time to work yet and so wear it another day giving the rope another chance to work its magic. Word gets around. The next thing you know every player wants to wear a rope which is now selling for $125 or more instead of the $1.99 that soap-on-a-rope normally goes for. A tendency to categorize, in this case, what leads to good hitting performance, can lead to superstition.
  4. Perhaps due to an optimistic tendency, people tend to be poor judges of their own abilities. Ninety-five percent of us think we are in the top twenty-five percent in driving ability. Twenty-five percent of us think we are in the top one percent on leadership ability. This applies even in street gangs where on average forty percent of the members think that one day they will be running the gang. In general, there is a tendency to overestimate one’s ability. Evolutionarily, if you did not overestimate your ability, your chances of success, you might have given up on the next day’s hunt even before you started.
  5. The least informed among us are often the ones who are most sure of their positions. And when confronted with facts that clearly contradict their position, the tendency among these people is to dig in and proselytize others to join with them in their ill-informed point of view. After all, the thinking may go, if a lot of people believe in and have the same point of view that I have it can’t really be wrong can it? Or if we are all wrong together does that make us right?
  6. People tend to put intelligent intent behind what are somewhat random or spontaneous events. Again evolutionarily, if you are at the watering hole drinking your fill and the wind rustles the leaves next to you, you are better off assuming that it might be a tiger so that you can live to drink another day. If you assume it is the wind and it turns out to be a tiger, the situation has the potential to just ruin your morning. The same thing holds true in organizations with people assuming that someone higher up has a master plan and knows how everything will work out. They are just keeping it close to the vest. This is especially true during reorganizations, mergers and acquisitions and other organizational changes.
  7. Wishful or what is termed magical thinking is often seen in people and hence organizations. Again the perception is that some higher power or some magical bullet (e.g. the latest management fad) will take care of problems, will resolve issues. Recent research has been looking into the origins of superstitions and belief in magical powers. For a very long time we have known that people have superstitious beliefs, that certain illogical behaviors are thought to lead to desired outcomes. And other work clearly shows that these superstitious behaviors are not limited to human beings. It appears though that the brain may be hardwired for a tendency towards superstitious behavior. “The appetite for such beliefs appears to be rooted in the circuitry of the brain, and for good reason. The sense of having special powers buoys people in threatening situations, and helps soothe everyday fears and ward off mental distress. In excess it can lead to compulsive or delusional behavior.”
  8. Organizations don’t really exist. Maytag never came to your house to repair your washer; it was the Maytag repair person. Organizations are nothing more than an amalgamation of their people. Yet, people will hide behind the organization as a power or a decision-maker, using the “organization” to obfuscate whom within the organization actually made the decision to do what. And yet somehow the organization can do things that no one individual within the organization can bring themselves to do. The “organization” can lay off 25% of the workforce for instance, even if you were to interview every single manager and they insisted that they would not. Yes, people hide behind the “mysterious” organization as an all-knowing entity.
  9. Even the best of us, in certain circumstances, are capable of doing horrible things. The experiments that have been done on this prove it out beyond question.
  10. Even the worst of us, in certain circumstances, are capable of reforming their behavior.

This list can go on and on, was fun to generate, and I hope you feel free to add to the list, but please no superstitious beliefs or inappropriate heuristics.

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

Visit www.orgvitality.com

People at Work, or is it Life?

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The notion that people join organizations and leave bosses tends to be an overly simplistic depiction of the complexities of why people join and leave organizations. After years and years of research and literally hundreds of articles and books published on the topic there is no mystery regarding what people around the world want out of a job experience or a career. And while you can spend your time searching and highlighting the minutia that indicates differences, perhaps driven by your research design, the bottom line is that people at work, humans, are more the same than we are different, and I don’t care if we are talking about generational differences, gender, ethnicity or perceived geographic differences. And while there are as many ways to state it as there are researchers to describe it, the fundamental underlying characteristics of what people want include:

  • A clear and compelling message or reason regarding what the organization is about, why it exists, what it stands for, what it hopes to accomplish and knowledge of how each individual person within it can support it in a meaningful fashion. In other words, give me a compelling reason for belonging; make it desirable for me to join up.
  • Performance enablement – providing individuals within the organization what’s needed to accomplish their tasks in a way which creates pride. Align those tasks to the compelling message. In other words, make me feel like what I do is important in the organization’s mission.  Additionally important to enablement is:
    • Working for a management team that is effective, trustworthy, ethical (warning: people’s definition of ethics is dependent on their role in the organization), makes individuals feel valued and accepted, and puts sensible business processes in place, positioning the organization well within its markets and industry, whatever those may be.
  • Create a sense of future – give me compelling reasons to stick around such as:
    • Fair and respectful treatment – the equity equation – you get out what you consider to be fair for what you put in, covering pay, benefits, recognition, rewards and advancement as well as being treated in a respectful and dignified fashion
    • The ability to stay current in your skills and to develop new skills.

These characteristics which can create a motivated workforce within organizations are nothing new and are not limited to private sector, or for-profit kinds of organizations, they apply to NGOs, not-for-profits, educational, governmental institutions, religious organizations, just about any kind of organization you can name, because they apply universally to what we as humans want, not just from the work experience but out of any organizational relationships in which we engage.

In some organizations members actually pay for the privilege of membership, but the equity equation – you get out of the organization, what you consider to be a fair return on your investment, is still an overriding factor. If I join a private golf course, I will pay for the privilege of playing golf on their links. The sense of enjoyment and satisfaction I get from that experience is what keeps the equity equation in balance during that transaction, and makes paying the organization for the privilege of joining rather than being paid by the organization a fair arrangement. And for instance, if I work at a store, selling goods, I would expect what I perceive to be fair compensation for my labors. If that store is a place where I volunteer my time because it happens to be a charity were the money raised helps the homeless, I may not get paid in monetary terms, but I may find myself just as pleased with the equity equations, just as rewarded, by my increased sense of personal contribution to helping solve the homelessness issue. The equity equations must stay in balance during the individual/organizational transaction regardless of the kind of organization.

There are those who in interpreting this finding transform it to pay is not a significant contributor to satisfaction at work. They are wrong. Pay is a very significant contributor until the equity equations are in balance. Once I achieve balance in the equity equations, a perceived fairness in the organizational transaction in which I am engaging, pay can drop in importance and other things can take on more importance. When the equity equations are not in balance, pay as a mechanism of achieving balance is indeed very important. And rather than the rote regurgitation of key driver lists of what causes what in employee attitudes, looking at an attitudinal characteristic along the continuum of its possible expression, rather than at a single discrete level would more properly illustrate its importance in driving employee attitudes and in achieving a proper organizational culture.

Sometimes extreme situations act as a magnifying glass, making it easier to illustrate what we know about people at work. One example occurred during and immediately following the World Trade Center disaster. One organization located near ground zero, was in the middle of an employee survey when the planes hit. They completed the survey afterwards and that created a situation with a pre-9/11 and post-9/11 comparison for workers at that location. Some workers were told to go home, for they had no place to work, not a single one though lost a day’s pay or benefits, but they were not involved in getting the organization back up and running. This group was sitting at home as events within the company unfolded feeling somewhat helpless. A second group was told, please come to this location and help get the company back up and running. The first group in the pre/post comparison showed a significant decline in attitudes, while the second group showed a marked increase over their pre-9/11 attitudes. In other words, being involved in and contributing to efforts that made the individual feel valued and important to the success of the organization gave the attitudes of that population a big boost.

What about the terrorist who drove those planes into the towers. Certainly those subhuman animals must be driven by different factors than you or I? Might they be driven by human needs as well? Consider this, “…researchers now agree that most terrorists are not pathological in any traditional sense…” (American Psychologist, November 2009). John Horgan, Ph.D., International Center for the Study of Terrorism at Penn State, found that those who are more open to recruitment as terrorists:

  • Believe that joining a movement offers social and psychological rewards such as adventure, camaraderie, and a heightened sense of identity
  • Feed the need to take action rather than just talking about the problem
  • Feel angry, alienated or disenfranchised
  • Believe that their current political involvement does not give them the power to effect real change
  • Identify with the perceived victims of the social injustice they are fighting
  • Believe that engaging in violence against the state is not immoral
  • Have family or friends sympathetic to the cause.

And in recent work done to “deprogram” terrorists, one fruitful avenue seems to be in getting the terrorist to recognize that the promises initially made upon joining up were false promises, such the glorious lifestyle, or to demonstrate that the leaders of the terrorist organizations actually held values differing from those they espoused in order to get them to join in the first place. In other words pointing out the violations to the expectations of what people were looking for when they first joined the organization.

One issue that comes up fairly often as a contributing factor of turnover in organizations is that newly hired workers come to the realization that the job that they are performing is not as advertised by the recruiters, or as promised by the hiring managers. A technique that has been found to reduce turnover is to give people a realistic job preview, truthfully telling people exactly what they are going to be doing, and truthfully telling people what it is like to work in the organization which they are considering joining. So, as it turns out, one method that is used to help deprogram terrorists is one that seems to naturally occur in some organizations as a driver of turnover, pointing out or coming to the realization that there is an incongruity between promises made at the beginning of the relationship to the actual facts on the ground. Getting terrorists to leave terror organizations shares some similarity to the reasons why employees may leave organizations on their own.

Maybe as we work and work and write and write to describe what people want out of work we should take a step back and first describe what is it exactly that people want out of life. And rather than separating work and life into an artificial duality of work-life and personal-life, our time would be better spent on life integration.

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

Visit OV: www.orgvitality.com

Generational Differences at Work

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“They poison the mind and corrupt the morals of the young, who waste their time sitting on sofas immersed in dangerous fantasy worlds”.

What is this statement decrying? At first glance you might assume video games but it was written in the 1700’s and was aimed at a new medium that was springing up at the time, a medium that the older generation was lamenting was going to be the ruin of the younger generation, that medium was novels.  Today of course we would be thrilled if the younger generation became immersed in novels and got hooked on reading, it would be considered a virtue.

Whether it is novels, motion pictures, cars with rumble seats, rock and roll, hip hop, tattoos, green and orange hair or body piercing the older generation has looked at the younger generation and has always seen peril in the different fads or standards that get adopted. One has to wonder if it has more to do with the younger generation expressing their individuality and freedom to make their own choices or with the older generation wondering why the kids can’t find value in the same virtues that they did. It is a story that gets repeated with every generation and it is likely a bit of both.

The differing behaviors that the various generations adopt have the potential to set up interesting situations within the work environment. One generation may expect that certain behaviors be deemed acceptable or even necessary within the working environment, behavior that another generation might find unacceptable or unrealistic. One has to be very careful though not to paint with a broad brush and to characterize a generation in a certain way without regard to individual differences. After all generations are made up of individuals who are free to express their thoughts and behaviors as they desire. You are likely to find more variation of expression and behavior within one generation than you are across generations. General statements about what one generation is looking for over another are often nothing more than marketing contrivances. But you will also find an interesting thing when you scratch a bit below the surface of some of the more obvious characteristics expressed as generational differences and that is great similarity, especially when it comes to the world of work.

The current school year is just about finishing up and the next generation of kids is out there now searching for employment, for many of them their first real job. What new attitudes will they bring with them into the workplace and how will they affect their ability to personally succeed and interact successfully with the previous generations that came before them? Ron Zemke along with his co-authors captured in a book called “Generations at Work”, a listing of water cooler conversations of what one generation at work might be saying about another. Here are some examples of the statements he captured:

  • They have no work ethic. They are just a bunch of slackers.
  • So I told my boss, “If you are looking for loyalty, buy a dog”.
  • A hiring bonus! Wet behind the ears and he wants a hiring bonus! At his age I was grateful to have a job!
  • I have a new rule. I will not attend meetings that start after 5pm. I have a life.
  • He asks me, “Do you have an e-mail address?” I felt like telling him “Since you were in diapers buddy!”
  • If I hear “We tried that in ’87’ one more time, I’ll hurl in his wrinkly old face”.

These statements give rise to the idea that there are vast differences between generations in the work place. One has to wonder that since every older generation seems to see peril in the behaviors and attitudes of every younger generation whether that “vision of peril” is in fact wired into who we are as a species. Does it help our survival as a species for each younger generation to rebel in its own fashion and to try new things? Does that behavior increase our adaptability as a species, allowing the younger generation to deal with new unexpected situations that might arise? Does it demarcate or set up conditions to prepare the younger generation and instill the ability to separate from their parents, to live independently? While some of us may consider our kids to be some new form of human as we gaze into their rooms and review their behavior, they are just as human as you and I when we were their age and are today. And as humans they carry the same psychological make up that you and I do. So where do these differences come from?

Common statements that you hear today indicate that this “younger” generation cares less about job security and expects promotions faster than previous ones, among other differing expectations. Why might this younger generation care less about job security? It is a question I have asked groups that I speak to numerous times. I usually get a variety of answers, but then I probe. Did we evolve somehow into another form of human from the previous generation that cared greatly about job security to this generation that cares not? Did our psychological make-up somehow change? What caused this generation to care less?

Let’s examine what employment conditions were like when this younger generation grew up.  In general this new generation who has recently or is entering the workplace now grew up during a period of remarkably low unemployment. Take New York the state where I graduated from high school and college as an example. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) the historical high for unemployment in New York was 10.5% in 1976, the year I was a junior in high school. The historical low was 4% in 1988 and today (March 2008) it is 4.8%. I can clearly remember a professor in one of my college classes telling me to go to graduate school since there were no jobs currently available. And I can remember when I was hiring employees in the late 80’s to the late 90’s, when there were more jobs available then there were people to fill them.

If there were 2-3 job opportunities for each person looking for a new job might there be less concern about job security on the part of the worker? Might long-term loyalty be less important to them? I believe that the differing attitudes observed regarding unemployment between the various generations are largely due to economic opportunity difference available to them. Further I believe that should this younger generation experience economic conditions similar to “my” generation that job security would be just as important to them as it was to me. Our generational differences were driven in large part by economic opportunity differences, and some other differences experienced in the environment in which we were raised. Given the same environmental conditions each generation will make the same choices, we are after all, each of us human.

When you take an outcome measure of pride in, satisfaction or engagement with the workplace and examine the drivers of those measures for generational differences, while you will find some differences you will also find much greater similarity. (Drivers are areas of importance that move in tandem with an outcome measure. As the driver moves in the positive direction the outcome, say pride, moves in the positive direction as well. Strong drivers are those that most closely match the movements of the outcome variable).  And I believe that the differences you do find can be explained as environmental variables, things that occur at some times and not others due to changes in the environment in which people live rather than due to differences in who people fundamentally are. You will find differences in the absolute scores regarding how positively one aspect of the workplace is viewed or not, but you will find much fewer differences in the drivers, especially those drivers that are fundamental.

Fundamental drivers are those things that while they may be expressed differently in the day-to-day are constant underneath. For instance, I would defy you to find any worker on this planet, from any generation, that did not want to be treated with respect and dignity as work. Whether they perceive themselves as in fact being treated with respect and dignity (the absolute score) and what they would have to experience to say they are being treated with respect and dignity will vary, but the desired end state, the state that will create a positively perceived environment for the employee, being treated with respect and dignity does not change. The organizational goal should be to create the conditions that allow each worker to feel that they are being treated with respect and dignity. The range of conditions needed to allow that to occur in the environment may differ, but not the desired end state.  Other fundamental drivers include things like sense of fairness and equity (that for the effort expended there is a commensurate reward), a sense of accomplishment (that what they are doing is meaningful), a sense of trust in the organization (the organization and its management do what they say), a sense of future (that there are compelling reasons to stick around), a sense of effectiveness (that the organizations provides what is needed to get the job done), and a sense of vision (that the work of the organization itself is important and the workers role in accomplishing that is clear).

Yes, we are all humans and with that comes both sameness between and among us and a uniqueness which allows for our differences, both individual and generational to emerge.

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

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Written by Jeffrey M. Saltzman

November 13, 2009 at 8:04 am

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