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Enhancing Organizational Performance

Posts Tagged ‘Happiness

50 Shades of Organizational Love

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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

What Makes an Employee Happy?

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“Don’t cry because it’s over, smile because it happened.”
Dr. Seuss

There has been much attention paid to happiness lately. It is a hot topic. Economists have been talking about the role of government in producing happiness and how it could be used to measure the success of an economy. Measures of happiness have been discussed as a supplement to the traditional measure of GDP or even to replace it. The Organization for Economic Cooperative Development (OECD) has a formal program to measure happiness across their member countries and at their conferences there are presentations on the importance of and how to measure “Gross National Happiness”. The United Nations has a Commission on Happiness which commissioned Columbia University’s Earth Institute to create the first World Happiness Report.

Our knowledge of what makes people happy has radically changed over the last 20 years. Positive Psychology has played an important role in the rise of happiness as a measure and one finding is that a significant portion of how happy people report they are has been linked to genetics. There are some people who are simply more inclined, through genetics, to be happier. One question that arises revolves around what can people do, if anything, to influence the natural level of happiness they are born with? Is it all genetics or can the environment or certain behaviors influence your base level of happiness?

From a business performance perspective, do happier employees result in happier customers? Is there a linkage? Do happier employees result in higher levels of organizational performance? And before organizations run off and start looking to hire only genetically happy workers, the latest research findings imply that the happiness gene can be impacted by environmental conditions. Happiness is not a specific set point or a specific degree as determined by your genes, rather it appears to be a range and your environment and your behaviors will determine where you will live within that range. Some people have a naturally higher range and others will have a lower range. A person with a higher natural range who is doing all the wrong things can have a lower happiness score than a person with a lower natural range but are doing all the right things. The interplay between nature and nurture (and other environmental factors – such as drug usage) is both more subtle and more complicated than has been previously thought.

Happiness can be thought of as a formula, as difficult as that may be for some people. Happiness equals your biological set point/range (S), plus the external conditions you are living under (C), plus the voluntary activities you undertake to improve your happiness (V).

Happiness = S + C + V

As I mentioned “S” in the above formula represents your biological pre-disposition and is a range of potential happiness you are capable of experiencing. The level you are experiencing can change day-to-day. For instance, if your son or daughter just got into the college they always dreamed of attending your happiness score will rise (as will your pride in your child), but when you get the first tuition bill your happiness score may plummet (as will your bank account balance). Yet you operate within your genetically determined happiness range.

“C” represents external conditions that matter for your happiness. These fall into 2 main groupings, those you can’t change such as race, age and gender (or at least things you can’t easily change) and those you can change such as marital status, where you live or your income level (sometimes also not so easily changed).

“V” represents thing you choose to or don’t choose to do. These are voluntary activities that can change where you fall in your happiness range. These things can include exercise, education and learning new skills, volunteering your time, charity work, meditation, playing a musical instrument or even taking a vacation. Total immersion in a task that gives pleasure is one sure way to increase the “V” component of happiness.

Things in the above formula can get a bit tricky as we are dealing with complex humans after all. In order to maximize the “happiness effect” of both “C” and “V” you need insure that you do not become adapted to or too used to the activity. If, for instance, you are always on vacation, then taking a vacation loses some of its specialness and the impact on your happiness can diminish over time as you spend more and more time on vacation. Playing a musical instrument may be a real pleasure in your life until you are forced to practice for hours at a time. This pattern of adaptation is why wealthy people tend not to be as happy as you would think. They become acclimatized to being wealthy and it loses much of its impact. But don’t get me wrong it is a lot easier to be happy when you have money than when you don’t have any. And if I had to be unhappy, I would rather be unhappy and wealthy than unhappy and poor. The point is not to look at a level of wealth as a never ending source of happiness. That won’t happen.

Physical pleasures which are voluntary and intermittent, such as eating rich food or having sex (people report the highest levels of happiness immediately after having sex) follow the same pattern. If you become satiated with an activity, but continue with that activity, the ability of that activity to impact your happiness will diminish. And at the extreme level continuing with an activity, perhaps eating ice cream well past the point of satiation, can create a state of disgust, lowering your happiness level.

Within the world of work, happiness can be increased by giving people more control over their work and working conditions. For instance, having an IT department dictating exactly which laptop a worker gets, based on their level or position in the workforce is one sure way to reduce happiness overall. Giving workers a menu of acceptable choices and then giving them control to choose the best choice for their own situation is a very simple example of how to improve happiness. The same holds true if you can give workers more control over their work schedule or locations. In general when people feel that they do not have control over their lives, including aspects of their work situation their happiness will diminish.

One experiment which demonstrated the impact that control over your living situation can have occurred in a nursing home. Residents were given control over relatively simple aspects of the lives within the nursing home (e.g. which art work would be hung on the walls). Nurses reported that residents who were given more control over their living conditions had higher levels of happiness, as rated by the nurses. But beyond happiness these resident also had fewer deaths within their ranks than a control group. So happiness levels that someone was experiencing had a physical affect.

Combine this with the finding that people are more positive about many things when they sense positive movement on an issue, movement having even more of an impact than absolute levels, and you begin to get a sense of what makes an employee and people in general happy. For instance in one ongoing study of employee positiveness, the most positive employees did not come from countries with the highest levels of economic performance or GDP, but rather from those countries with the most rapidly improving GDP levels. In other words things were perceived as getting better for people economically.

A special mention needs to be made about task immersion, a state called “flow” by Mihaly Csikszentmihaly one of the founders, along with Martin Seligman, of Positive Psychology. When someone is in the flow, they are totally immersed in a task that is appropriately matched to their skills. They give examples such as painting, writing, photography, singing and dancing. I could add examples such as solving work related problems, building a house, writing a program, fixing a machine, etc. When a worker is in the flow, happiness will be greatly increased. These are the pleasures a worker experiences in simply doing a good job at work and when the work is matched to the appropriate worker. And as mentioned above however, if the work is past the point of satiation the happiness that the work can bring decreases until the activity can disgust the worker.

There are many ways to impact an employee’s happiness. Among them pay, benefits, job security, recognition, advancement opportunity, respectful treatment, working for an organization that is viewed as having effective leadership all have roles to play. The relatively recent research on happiness implies that increased levels of happiness can also be achieved when a worker is accomplishing something (something they feel is important), learning something (new skills to prepare them for the future), or improving something, moving the outcome in a positive direction (a product, a process or themselves). Happiness is positively impacted by giving people as much control over their environment as possible by making them feel in control of their lives.  Happiness is also generally positively impacted if people can help others, building and strengthening social connections.

There is still much to be learned about happiness, especially in the area of its impact on organizational goal attainment and customer satisfaction, but it does seem clear that well-run organizations can benefit from doing some relatively simple things that can increase employee happiness.

© 2012 by Jeffrey M. Saltzman. All rights reserved.

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Written by Jeffrey M. Saltzman

November 20, 2012 at 8:25 pm

Searching for Eudaimonia

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Have human ethical standards been fundamentally the same over the millennia?

“What would Zeus do?” Given the ethical abuses that we constantly read about in the news and now about the news, I have been thinking quite a bit about ethics and whether changing ethical standards have an impact on our societies and organizations. As you consider the relative constancy of ethical standards over time there are only two possibilities. One is that human ethical standards are constant and the behaviors that we witness which implies differing ethics over time are really an expression of changing standards, driven by societal levels of economic well-being, sophistication or technology as humans search for what the ancient Greeks felt was a major driver of human behavior, called eudaimonia or happiness.  Or second, the possibility those fundamental ethical standards do indeed shift over time.

I would argue that at any moment of time, were you to objectively measure the level of ethical behavior shown by every individual person on the planet, that you would find a normal distribution of ethical behavior, with some behaving with the highest level of ethics (by my standards of course), others would be considered on the edge and still others would be behaving in quite an unethical manner. Further, I would argue that the distribution would be broad enough that you would find more variation in ethical behavior among people within any period of time than you would find across time periods. Those people who operate significantly below the mean or the norm, we call abnormal or criminal and attempt to stop their behavior. Now if we have a normal distribution that means that ½ of the human population is below the mean, so obviously we don’t lock away ½ of the human race, but what we do is to determine heuristically where to draw the cut score. At some point, maybe one standard deviation below the mean or perhaps two, we say that the behavior is sufficiently abnormal to be considered criminal and lock those people away or send them for treatment.

Historically, the Romans had the Coliseum in Rome and 200 other similar venues elsewhere, whose contests resulted in the deaths of millions of animals and the slaughter of uncounted numbers of people. Most of us today would find the killing of people for sport abhorrent, most but not all. But today we do have sporting events held in venues similar to a coliseum aimed at like outcomes, producing a winner and loser and entertaining the masses (or more cynically, providing an outlet for aggression not aimed at the powers that be). On the face of it they seem quite different, for instance after a baseball game rarely do you see the losing team impaled on stakes or fed to the lions. But underneath it all, are the two events playing to fundamentally the same principles in the human psyche, the need for competition, for a winner and loser to emerge, and the need to root for one’s “champion”? Is the popularity of some TV shows really due to nothing more than their nature as virtual Roman Coliseums, allowing us to peer into how people perform under stressful circumstance? Are some news shows that allow us to track crime investigations or court trials similar to the struggle for survival that the Romans so enjoyed viewing? (The normal distribution argument would imply that some Romans enjoyed the blood sport while others tolerated it and others still were perhaps appalled by it. Similarly today some are glued to their sets watching championship wrestling or reality TV shows, while others are not.)

There are layers upon layers to think through as this point is considered. Certainly ethical theories and the corresponding theories of justice have changed and have evolved over time, but the question I am posing is more fundamental. “Have humans changed?” Has our fundamental psychology changed over the last few thousand years causing our ethical standards to shift? Or are we still the same humans, psychologically, that strode the earth during Golden age of Greece, the epochs of the Pharaohs, the rise and fall of the Roman Empire, the age of Confucius or of the Buddha, or when the 10 Commandments first appeared?

I have to admit to some pre-determined bias, for when I look at the so-called “generational” differences that are supposed to exist among worker attitudes, regardless of what you read in the lay press, I can find no evidence in the data to support the notion that what the various generations want out of the world of work is different on a fundamental level. The differences that do exist are primarily driven by differing economic opportunity, life stage and technology rather than differences in human psychology. For instance you would be very hard pressed to find a worker who did not want to be treated with respect and dignity, have a sense of accomplishment or a sense of fairness of treatment and equity of any generation in any area of the world. And the workers today around the world who accept working conditions that you and I would find unacceptable do so out of economic necessity and for no other reason.

You may consider some ancient practices barbaric, but they were no worse than what people perpetrated on their fellows a mere 70 years ago during WWII. And today things are little better, with an estimated 12.5 million humans living in slavery with 2.5 million of those being bought and sold like cattle (Dahan 2011). Yet we could also point to progress that has been made in the USA over the last few decades with the abandonment of laws that created second class citizen status for many of our fellow humans, and the passage of  laws giving equal rights to others.

Yet positively, sports like baseball can also have a helpful effect in bringing together people who can find common cause in their efforts, including those that go beyond the sport itself. In tsunami ravaged sections of Japan, baseball is providing an aura of normalcy at some schools allowing people to see beyond the day-to-day devastation they are dealing with (New York Times 7/10/11). So I want to be careful and not paint with too broad a brush in my statements about various activities.

Here is a statement for which I have no evidence, since I did not measure the attitude nor have I been able to find any organization or person who did, but never-the-less I would argue is accurate: “Slaves were never in favor of slavery”.  Those who got the short end of the stick due to the unethical behavior of others were never pleased with their lot and why should they be? Humans have had an uncanny knack, an ability to take advantage of other humans for as long as we have been walking this planet. At the same time others give unselfishly of themselves to benefit the broader society of which they are part.

I recently got back from a trip to Costa Rica (go if you ever have an opportunity), and during the trip we stayed for a few days in a town of about 1500 people called Tortuguero. We went to this location which is accessible only by boat or plane, to see the Green Sea Turtle lay its eggs, during the start of the annual mating season. You need to have a permit to go onto the beach where the turtles aggregate and a registered guide needs to take you to make sure no damage is done to the turtles or their nests. Our guide happened to be a fellow named Fernando, who went by Don. It was truly an honor to spend a few days with him and to learn from him about the wild life and plants in the area. Don and I had several conversations over the course of a few days about how the town of Tortuguero is structured socially and politically. Tortuguero’s original residents were escaped slaves from Caribbean islands and from a slaving ship that had sunk. They chose to make a life, however hard, rather than return to slavery, they were searching for eudaimonia. Remember, “Slaves were never in favor of slavery”.

Interestingly, Tortuguero has no local government. There is a provincial police station manned by federal police, but there is no mayor, no elected officials, no one in authority to get things done. Over the last few years though cement walkways have begun to replace dirt paths in town, a major recycling facility has been built, in line with the theme of Tortuguero being an eco-vacation location and importantly creating jobs for residents, potable running water has been supplied to each house and other improvements have been made.

How do these things get done? Don indicated that a group of about 7 citizens who simply want to make things better get together regularly and figure out how to accomplish them. I asked if they were elected, but he said they were volunteers. My feeling is that they were volunteers that the other residents of the town greatly respected and willingly followed their lead in decision making, making life better for all. These volunteers in my opinion are operating with a great deal of ethical integrity attempting to improve life for all 1500 residents of the town (they are also likely acting with self-interest). And if anyone is listening, according to Don, what the town really needs next is a bank. A bank would give the residents a place to safely put their money, it would provide small businesses a place to borrow for startup costs, and it would make the town feel more substantial. Don indicated that a bank would give residents more confidence in the future of the town, with all of the corresponding benefits and is sorely needed.

No matter how much we may wish it, ethical issues and challenges, among business leaders, politicians, and others are not going to go away any time soon. Humans are not about to achieve some kind of breakthrough in our evolutionary pathway that will fundamentally change our behavior. But there are a large number of people, and I want to positively think, an increasingly larger number of people who are willing to do the right thing, not giving into the fears of our baser emotions in order to make life better for all as we each find our own personal form of eudaimonia.


Dahan, Y., Lerner, H., Milman-Sivan, F.,  2011, Global Justice, Labor Standards and Responsibility, Theoretical Inquiries in Law, Vol. 12, 117-142.

Hursthouse, R, “Virtue Ethics”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Winter 2010 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.),

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


Written by Jeffrey M. Saltzman

July 13, 2011 at 11:28 am

…and the Pursuit of Happiness

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“CPR kit available upon request”, were the neatly lettered words in black ink on the somewhat smallish framed white sign near the front door of a Manhattan restaurant where I was having a business lunch. The wording of the sign caused me break into a grin – specifically the words “upon request”. A picture formed in my mind of me clutching my chest, and as I sank to the floor losing consciousness with no assistance being provided, the hostess stationed by the front door explains to the other patrons waiting in line, “if only he had requested the CPR kit before he lost consciousness, oh well…table for 2?” I began to think “you know there are some things in life you really shouldn’t have to ask for – things that should be…inalienable”. Others have felt the same way.

The next day there was a cartoon in the paper that showed a flight attendant giving the standard speech at the start of a flight. She indicated that should a sudden decompression occur that an oxygen mask would fall from the ceiling and for an additional $15 you could have it activated. I wonder if that could be paid in advance or whether you should wait to see if you really needed it and then you could just pass the money to the flight attendant to have it turned on. Correct change appreciated to expedite things. What makes the cartoon funny though, at least to me, is the notion that you have to pay extra for what you would think would be something that you shouldn’t have to ask for, namely supplemental oxygen should one find oneself unexpectedly on a plane with oxygen in short supply. Don’t you just hate it when that happens? (The cartoon was poking fun at a US airline that now charges $15 extra to bring a bag along on your vacation or business trip. Who in their right mind would bring a bag packed with clothes or other essentials on a vacation or a business trip? So given the unusual nature of people traveling with a suitcase I can see the justification for charging extra for a piece of luggage instead of building the cost into the ticket itself.)

Thomas Jefferson in writing the United States Declaration of Independence listed “Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness” as among the inalienable rights of mankind – supposedly things you shouldn’t have to ask for, things that are guaranteed and can not be taken away. (It says nothing about CPR kits or airline luggage however, but perhaps he did not fly much). This phrase has shown up in a number of Supreme Court cases aimed at defining just what is covered by that broad statement. For instance, Chief Justice Earl Warren wrote in a 1967 ruling that helped to define the Pursuit of Happiness, “The freedom to marry has long been recognized as one of the vital personal rights essential to the orderly pursuit of happiness by free men.” That judicial rendering was given to protect the rights of people from differing races to intermarry, and that same logic is beginning to be applied to people desiring same sex marriages, given their inalienable right to “the Pursuit of Happiness”.

There are many other documents that carve out other inalienable rights such as “no one ought to harm another in his life, health, liberty, or possessions” (John Locke). In the “Rights of Man”, Thomas Paine wrote in 1791 regarding the equality of all men and their right to liberty. He stated that these rights should not be codified or put into legislation because that would imply that these rights are privileges that could be granted by legislation but then also taken away by legislation.  Early Islamic law held much the same view point (and may have influenced Paine) with fundamental rights of man existing that no ruler could put aside covering social, cultural, political, economic and civic rights. The concepts also included room for an independent judiciary that was not to discriminate against those appearing before it on the basis of “religion, race, color, kinship or prejudice”. These were inalienable rights with all that implied.

Alienable rights though are rights that are given either legislatively or through the grace of someone in power and can easily be taken away. Do employees have any inalienable rights? What about customers? In order to make a stab at answering those questions I would like to propose several concepts.

The first concept is that the difference between inalienable and alienable rights is a by-product of the times in which we live. We choose to make certain rights inalienable. The inalienable rights we enjoy in the USA in the 21st century look nothing like the inalienable rights enjoyed by some living in other parts of the world or by those from different time periods. Inalienable rights if they were truly inalienable would be universally recognized by mankind rather than rights that needed to be secured, sometimes through the use of force. “Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness”, are those really inalienable rights, or are they rights that those living at this moment in time have decided to call inalienable? They are certainly noble and it makes you feel good to say that all mankind has certain inalienable rights, but I would suggest that we are a product and inalienable rights are a product of our times. Certainly there have been times, including right now, where Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness are not a given for a significant portion of the world’s population, as much as we might think that they should be. Inalienable rights are a product of paradigm, precedent and principle, but sometimes, as with the Declaration of Independence, people are able to stand up and say it is time to change the paradigm.

The second concept is the notion that Darwin’s principles of evolution can be applied to organizations as well as to living organisms. When organizations express variation, employees and customers have the ability to select the most appropriate organizations for them, the ones they want to work for, or be customers of, and the most robust organizations, the fittest (those that attract employees and customers for the long-term) will be the ones to survive. Other organizations, with their desire to survive as well, will copy the ideas and strategies of those organizations that they believe are being successful and hence those ideas, practices and procedures will be passed along to other organizations not through heredity but by the spread of ideas – some would call them memes. Organizations have the right to deliver products and services as they see fit and customers have the right to utilize or not to utilize that organizations products and/or services.

Those of us living in the USA at this moment in time have the tremendous good fortune of living in the wealthiest, most successful country that has ever existed on the face of this planet. You could easily make the argument that no one living in the USA should be hungry, should be living on the street, or should be denied access to medical care. That food, shelter and medical care are inalienable rights. After all are we so barbaric that we would step over homeless, hungry people sleeping on the street, likely in need of medical attention, as though they were somehow less than human? I have and it is very likely that a large number of those reading this probably have as well. It makes us uncomfortable and we are wary of the potential danger to ourselves so we hesitate to reach out to those in need. How much better would you feel if you had a mechanism to help those you see living on the street? But for those living on the street is it an inalienable right that they should expect that help?  Let’s explore one topic, heath care a little more closely for a possible answer.

Heath care which some purchase through their employer as a shared expense employee benefit does not have a lengthy history. It was only very recently that this expense became shared and not borne solely by the employer. But it was also not that much longer ago that it did not exist at all. Prior to WWII heath care was a rare commodity and became prevalent only as a way for employers to compete for hard to find employees. They provided health care insurance in order to increase the likelihood of their survival. During World War II, wage and price controls prevented employers from using wages to compete for scarce labor. Under the 1942 Stabilization Act, Congress limited the wage increases that could be offered by firms, but permitted the adoption of employee insurance plans. In this way, health benefit packages offered one means of securing workers… Under the 1954 Internal Revenue Code (IRC), employer contributions to employee health plans were exempt from employee taxable income. As a result of this tax-advantaged form of compensation, the demand for health insurance further increased throughout the 1950s.” (Thomasson, Melissa. “Health Insurance in the United States”.  April 2003).

So employer provided heath care insurance, with the expense borne solely by the employer really only existed from the mid-1940s to the 1990s as by and large most organizations now require employees to share the cost. But does that mean that medical care is not an inalienable right?

Broadly speaking the inalienable rights of employees consists of those things that either the organization must offer to remain viable (to attract employees), or things that our society deems as basic to whom we are as a society. If society deems that universal health coverage is an inalienable right and that notion is broadly accepted then that is what it becomes. Other rights that could be deemed as inalienable might include employment at will, a two-way street, benefiting both the employer and the employee, the ability to actually work at your trade (another Supreme Court definition of “the Pursuit of Happiness) and not be restrained in your trade, but broadly it would seem that the one truly inalienable right that employees have is the right to choose whether they will stay with their current employer or not. However, these rights however you want to characterize them are inalienable only when people are willing to vote with their feet and stand up for them, to create a paradigm that says they are in fact inalienable. When employees and customers exercise their options by utilizing or being employed by organizations of their choice then they are creating the inalienable rights – those things that become part of the fabric of how business gets conducted because organizations will behave in such as fashion that maximizes their survival potential.  

Organizations will sometimes conduct themselves in such a manner that leads the casual observer to question their viability. I was at LaGuardia about to board a flight when the woman in front of me, who was returning home, was asked to put her bag into the metal frame to see if it would fit and be allowed on the plane. She did, it didn’t and she was told she would have to gate check her bag. When she told the gate agent that she was allowed to bring the bag on the plane on the way to LaGuardia from Minneapolis the response she was given was that they cared less about those things in Minneapolis than in NYC. She was predictably upset. Does she have an inalienable right to expect consistency in standards applied within one airline from airport to airport? Only if she and all those affected by arbitrarily applied rules demand it. She needs to vote with her feet and fly another airline on her next trip. In a non-perfect world however we do not have completely free choice as sometimes our options can be limited.

With respect to safety, I would think that customers would have the reasonable expectation that certain practices and procedures to ensure their safety would be followed when they engage with organizations in activities that carry with it a certain amount of risk, such as flying in an airplane. But I don’t think that rises to the level of inalienable rights. Airlines will practice safe procedures either because they need to, in order to comply with legislation and be allowed to keep flying, or because if they get a reputation as an unsafe airline, no one is going to use them. Restaurants will operate with cleanliness for the same reasons, legislative necessity or reputation and on and on.

There are some things in life you shouldn’t have to ask for, but they come about not because we have naturally given inalienable rights simply because we are human but because we choose to live our lives in such as fashion and to conduct ourselves towards others that these rights can be inferred. And while these rights may change over the ages and depending on which political system you live within, one thing does seem certain, that each of us alone and as a group will determine the inalienable rights generally acknowledged to exist.  But I still would prefer not having to specifically ask for the CPR kit prior to passing out.

Personal aside: At this time, in this place I would argue, and I think our society’s standards would argue that access to medical care in whatever form that takes is in fact an inalienable right and that there should be no employee out there – in fact no person in the USA without access to care. But the reason for that is not that it has to be. The reason for that, is that given what we are now capable of as a country, as a society, it is not only right that it should be, but that it is in our own best interests to ensure that the people who live within our borders have access to health care.

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

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Written by Jeffrey M. Saltzman

November 9, 2009 at 8:07 am


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My 7 year old daughter, Audrey, asked me to play the game of Life with her the other day. I said sure and she proceeded to set up the board. Not being much of a board game fan, I had to ask what the objective of the game of Life was. She said it was to get to retirement with the most amount of money. I couldn’t help myself and had to wonder is that the objective of life – to get to retirement and if you have the most amount of money you win? Is that what it is all about? Is that how we should be measuring our lives, our happiness? Seems rather shallow, or does it?

One measure of economic prosperity for a country that has traditionally been tracked is called the Gross Domestic Product (GDP), defined as the total value of the goods and services produced within a country during the course of a year. There are some economists who apparently feel that this approach is somewhat lacking and have put forward the idea that a new index should be developed. Some are calling this new index a GWB or General Well Being index. This work is described in a cover story of The Economist (December 23rd-January5th) titled “Happiness (and how to measure it)”. The concept is that traditional measures of simple economic performance are not measuring all that is important when it comes to a country’s economic performance but that the happiness of it citizen’s (and by extension, employees working in organizations) counts as well.

The idea they are espousing, I believe, is that money (at least money alone) does not buy happiness – now where have I heard that before – oh yeah, generally from people with money. The article actually lists a survey item that has been asked of the American public every year or so since 1972 as a measure of happiness. “Taken all together, how would you say things are these days – would you say you are very happy, pretty happy or not too happy”? The article describes the “upstart science” of Happiness, mixing psychology and economics.

Will Industrial Organizational Psychologists now be inundated with demands from CEOs to measure “Happiness” within their organizations as defined within The Economist, because it has been linked to business outcomes? While I am a big proponent of different sciences combining their efforts to move along our total understanding of how things work, I think this effort might be misguided, at least regarding their approach to the concept. The article talks about some of the initial findings of this work, some of them very obvious and some needing further explanatory work. One of the findings was, “the rich are happier than the poor” – what was that about money can’t buy happiness? But one finding that they need more explanation upon is that “affluent countries have not gotten much happier as they have gotten richer”. Hummm…. wonder why?

Let’s look briefly at CEO compensation for a possible answer. There has been ongoing debate about CEO compensation, especially within the USA, about the pay levels given out to the CEOs of major corporations – mostly that they are exorbitant but some saying that they are worth the money.  One finding that appeared in the October 16th 2006 edition of The Wall Street Journal stated that CEO pay levels had “soared to 369 times that of the average worker” and how could anybody possibly be worth that much? I don’t want to get into the debate as to whether companies should be paying their CEOs as much as they do, it is clearly a sellers market at the moment with respect to CEO pay and will remain so until boards don’t feel like they need to purchase insurance policies, called “CEO pay”, to make sure they can keep what they perceive to be the best CEOs and hence reduce risk to the organization. What I am much more interested in is the ratio – 369x that of the average worker. This ratio has increased dramatically in recent years and what I want to compare it to is the level of satisfaction towards pay experienced by CEOs and by the average worker. Is the level of satisfaction towards pay among CEO’s 369 times that of the average worker? And has the rapidly increasing ratio resulted in rapidly increasing satisfaction ratio equivalent to the absolute amount?

The answer of course is no. CEOs are not 369x more satisfied with their pay than average workers. Why not?  It is because of several factors. One, in general, CEOs believe they are worth the money. They have to. If they felt they were not worth it, they would feel like they are doing something wrong by taking all that money, hence one way to resolve that dissonance is to say to yourself, “they are paying me that, so I must be worth it”. Second they don’t look at the “average” worker within their company as their pay comparator they look at other CEOs and think well, this is what the market pays for a good CEO.

Humans have been able to justify in their heads all sorts of behavior under all different kinds of conditions, horrible and otherwise, justifying compensation levels in comparison is a relatively minor thing. So why doesn’t a country’s happiness quotient go up in tandem with its affluence? It does not because it is very easy to justify to themselves that they are worth it and deserve the increase in affluence and because their comparators change, they will no longer compare themselves to the impoverished nation next door and say “look how lucky we are”, they will compare themselves to a more wealthy nation and say “how come we don’t have what they have”? And remember People are People, we all basically want the same things.

Another finding that the researchers don’t understand has to do with workload. They can’t seem to get their arms around the finding that those who work less are not happier, and that elderly people who stop working earlier than their peers tend to die younger.  On the first point I have conducted investigations that clearly show that the most “satisfied” within the organization are those that feel that they have “about the right amount” of work to do, followed by those who report being overwork. The least “satisfied” in the organization are those that feel that they have “too little” to do. They feel that their work is not valued by the organization (or at least by individuals within the organization) and that they are being sidelined (and sometimes they are right), in addition to feeling devalued at work this can lead to tremendous stress in people’s personal lives, causing negative emotions. With respect to workers who retire early, there may be some confounds at play, for instance do those who retire earlier have health problems that caused them to retire in the first place, or does the lose of being busy and feeling valued by the organization cause stress related illnesses to appear?

Where will the measure of Organizational Happiness go? It used to be the kiss of death to be thought of as doing “happiness” surveys. Will The Economist article begin a process of rehabilitation of “happiness”? In Britain, the Conservative Party is already suggesting that it be used in replace of GDP. Research conducted at Carnegie Mellon, Science News (December 16, 2006), has shown that “frequent basking in positive emotions”  – being happy – defends against colds. Sheldon Cohen of Carnegie Mellon states that “we need to take more seriously that possibility that a positive emotional style is a major player in disease risk”. So will organizations now find benefits in having “happy” employees? Oh yeah …what about scharmerei? That is when someone brings with them a zeal or extravagant enthusiasm for a cause, a person or an organization – they are happy to be there.

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

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Written by Jeffrey M. Saltzman

October 23, 2009 at 10:37 am

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