Jeffrey Saltzman's Blog

Enhancing Organizational Performance

Posts Tagged ‘Human Behavior

Why Do People Join Organizations?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

© 2015 by Jeffrey M. Saltzman. All rights reserved

Written by Jeffrey M. Saltzman

March 26, 2015 at 6:13 pm

Signs of Intelligence

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I have to wonder, we have spent a good deal of effort in trying to locate intelligent life elsewhere in our neighborhood, the Milky Way Galaxy. If we assume that intelligent life elsewhere is inquisitive, how likely is it that they also went looking, found us and simply moved on?    

I have been reading up on current events, the latest news about what is going on in the world and I find that my assumptions that humans represent intelligent life are seriously challenged. We seem to represent nothing more than socially challenged, power-hungry, biased, bigoted, fear-oriented monkeys, preying on those who are weaker or more vulnerable, and intent on destroying the very world which gave birth to us. And that is on a good day.

To make it worse there are many who play off of our short-comings as a species to advance their own dubious agendas or personal gratifications, anything for advantage, personal pleasure or power. I went through a period, for a while, where I felt that many of the issues that the world faced were due to a lack of empathy of one group for what another was facing. I was wrong.

There is evil in this world. Evil is not simply a point of view that compares unfavorably to your own. Evil is not simply due to a challenging upbringing, or social and economic disadvantages that one group forces on another. Evil can only be described as an inherent pathology buried in our genetic code. Evil that pits one group against another for personal or tribal gain. It is easy to see how over time legends of “supernatural” evil emerged, but there is nothing “supernatural” about it, it is just us.

I know I am being harsh and I don’t mean to be. There are many good hearted, kind people in this world who help out their fellows without looking for personal gain. But what are we forced to give our attention to and on what does the media tend to focus? The negative extreme of the distribution. The evil that does exist takes the majority of our time, effort and resources to keep it in check. There is some research that points out that humans as a species are “self-domesticating”. That over the long run those who are more collaborative and behave in a more socially desirable fashion have a breeding advantage. Over time those characteristics are becoming more and more dominant and the distribution shifts. But we would seem to have a ways to go before we eliminate evil, if we, without evolving beyond our humanness, ever will.

If we shift our gaze beyond an examination of the negative end of the distribution, perhaps what we will notice is that most of the distribution laying before us is more positive in nature. That most people do not give in or have it inherent within themselves to give way to their baser natures. Existing beyond the extreme negative end of the distribution lies the overwhelming vast majority of us.

Positivism. Most people are good and want to do good things during their time in this world. The care about each other and building a better future, if not for themselves then for their children. They tend to be pragmatic for they know that hardened, intransient positions are an eventual dead-end for everyone. And they are willing to work collaboratively with their fellow humans to achieve improvements.

Is it possible to work collaboratively with all towards a better future? My sense of pragmatism tells me no, with some there is just no point. But I am willing to give it my all to find those who are willing to work for a better future for all of humanity.

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

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Written by Jeffrey M. Saltzman

September 1, 2014 at 9:26 pm

The Ultimate Price

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Suppose you worked in a company that had 20,000 employees and was overall very successful, but had a dirty little secret, one that was widely shared by most of those in its employ. Those who worked in marketing, accounting, sales, human resources, treasury, logistics, engineering and most of the other departments were well treated. They were often described as being well paid. They were treated respectfully and had generous benefits. They enjoyed development opportunities, so that they could stay sharp and employable in their various professions. The company had never experienced a layoff and people felt secure in their jobs. In general people liked what they did and they liked their immediate supervisors. It was a very collegial atmosphere and after work people would often get together and visit socially. What was the dirty little secret?

Deep in the bowels of this organization’s headquarters there was one worker who did a job that was critical, more than critical, it was essential to this organization’s manufacturing process. Without this one person doing this critical job, this organization’s product could not be produced and the organization would cease to exist. It would have to shut its doors and layoff its entire staff. To say that this one person’s job was mission critical was an understatement. Unfortunately, this one job had a nasty side effect. After working at this task for 6 months the worker would perish. You see this job was 100% guaranteed to be lethal. Being on this job was a death sentence, no ifs, ands or buts. And no one could prevent, reengineer, modify or otherwise change this task from its ultimate lethal consequence. Every six months the one person who worked at this task died so that the rest of the organization, the 20,000 others could flourish. Now, also suppose that workers were hired from the outside for this job and were not told about the ultimate price that they would have to pay after working on the job after six months. They worked in ignorance, happy, well paid, until exactly on the six-month mark they would drop over dead.

How would you feel about working at that company? Would you? Supposed now that instead of one person dying every six months to ensure happiness for 20,000, it was 5, no make it 500, no let’s make it 5000. Supposed every six months, regular as clockwork, 5000 people had to die to ensure the success of the organization, so that 20,000 others could lead their lives in a secure fashion. Would you work at this organization? Would you let someone else pay that price for your security? What if it ensured the security of 20,000? Do you feel any differently about the death of one, so that 20,000 could be secure vs. the death of 5000, so that 20,000 can be secure? Should you? If you happen to be the “one” hired into this position you are just as dead after six-months as if you were “one of the 5000”. Is your one life any less valuable than the lives of 5000? Your shortened life was as meaningful and as full of happiness as anyone else’s until you took the job. What if the person toiling at this lethal task was an informed volunteer? Someone who knew the price that was to be paid, but for the sake of the 20,000 decided to pay the ultimate price. Does being a volunteer, someone willing to die at a task, so that others can live pleasant lives change anything?

Suppose instead of the total organization being 20,000 it was 20,000,000. Yes, 20,000,000 people could live happy harmonious lives, if only one-person performed a task that every six months led to their death. How would you feel about being associated with that organization now? Is one life too much to ask for the happiness of 20,000,000?
Now suppose instead of six-months carrying the death penalty for this task it was 5 years, no, let’s make it 10 years, no, let’s make that 25 years. Now, to-the-day, after 25 years on the job, each and every worker who performed this job would drop over dead. Does that make you feel any different about working for this organization?

What variables matter when it comes to paying a price as an individual so that society as a whole can benefit?

Let’s twist this just a little bit more. Suppose instead of the consequence of death being the price paid, it was that the workers on this mission critical task simply had to toil away at an assembly line sixteen hours a day, six days a week for a salary that barely allowed them to put food on the table. Instead of a quick death, after six-months, it was a very slow death, allowing them to toil away for their entire lives, barely able to stay alive at starvation wages, never able to get ahead or exit the harsh realities of their low pay world. The idea being that this group of workers being paid as little as they were allowed the organization to stay competitive globally, allowing the larger organization to flourish and all the other people within it to live happy lives. Does that change the picture? Does that make it any better?

Now, suppose you were the leader of this organization. You have the ability to decide where to locate jobs, how much to pay your workers, how to compete in the marketplace, what conditions you were going to allow some in your employ to suffer in order for the others to flourish. What would you do?

Written by Jeffrey M. Saltzman

July 16, 2012 at 6:55 am

First, Do No Harm

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The notion of “first, do no harm” arises from the world of medicine. While that exact phraseology is not part of the Hippocratic Oath the intent is certainly there.  From the original oath, “I will prescribe regimens for the good of my patients according to my ability and my judgment and never do harm to anyone.”  Late in the 1800’s medical professors began to use the phrase in writings and in their lectures to students. The notion was further refined to have health care providers “consider the possible harm that any intervention might do…and recognition that human acts with good intentions may have unwanted consequences.”

As an example of good intentions having unintended consequences, it has been reported that Libyan rebels who where supported first by the United States air bombing campaign, and then NATO, overran weapons depots of the Kaddafi government, selling the mustard and nerve gas shells they obtained from those depots to the terrorist organizations Hezbollah and Hamas, through Iranian channels and funding.  As the materiel was being transported through Sudan’s well known arms smuggling routes on its way to the Gaza Strip, the individuals responsible for the arms transfer mysteriously had their car hit by  a missile.  The good intentions of supporting the overthrow of a dictator, resulting in the unintended consequences of putting extremely lethal mustard and nerve gas into the hands of those who would not hesitate to use them on civilian population centers. Protecting civilian population centers as an ethical standard seems to apply to the Libyan rebels only when those population centers are theirs.

First, do no harm, and its implication of perfect knowledge, when taken to the extreme of unintended cause and effect has the potential of resulting in greater harm through paralysis and inaction. What are the longer term consequences, if for instance I was running a company that had expenses that were greater than income, and I chose to do nothing about it? I freeze because the consequences of the potential actions (e.g. forcing early retirements, layoffs, freezing or reducing salaries, forced part-time, cutting benefits, eliminating expenses) will result in harm to a subset of individuals, the harm however, will be greater in terms of the number of people affected when the company subsequently fails.

What if a rapidly spreading disease kills 50% of those afflicted, and I choose not to distribute a vaccine that will save the lives of 50 out of 100 afflicted people, but will result in the deaths due to allergic reactions of 5% who otherwise might survive, am I guilty of greater or lesser harm? By distributing the vaccine I can save a substantial number of lives, but by acting I will knowingly kill people, but not as many as would otherwise perish. Most choices are not easy and often have unintended consequences. But what about when people act, not taking the unintended into account at all?

Contrasting the role of behavioral expectations in the roles of medicine vs. business, Jonathan Baron of the University of Pennsylvania writes, “the positive obligations that stem from ethical codes are almost always contingent on voluntary promises and agreements. Likewise in business, almost all positive obligations arise from contracts, even if the contracts are only implicit.” His point of view would conclude that the obligations that arise from an ethical moral code are voluntary, while those that arise from business are legislated through a contract. Therefore, using this logic, obligations that arise in business cannot be assumed to be executed in an ethical manner unless they are contractual and/or by extension regulatory.

The number of and types of scandals that have been evident in American business recently seems to support this notion. In the Forbes Corporate Scandal Sheet they actually state that “ we’ll follow accounting imbroglios only–avoiding insider-trading allegations like those plaguing ImClone, since chronicling every corporate transgression would be impractical–and our timeline starts with the Enron debacle.” It then goes on to list scandals that hit 21 major companies from 2002 alone. It is easy to be cynical about ethics in corporate America when you could pick up the Wall Street Journal from virtually any day and read about some ethical scandal or another.

What are the obligations of those working for or supporting organizations that are involved in unethical or immoral practices? Should workers follow some sort of code of conduct, an oath to uphold business ethics that they take upon being hired by a company? And maybe once a year they renew their vows? Should workers be able to point to an outside moral code of conduct when an organizational leader asks them to do something that crosses the line? How could a company object?

In one study Dan Ariely, MIT professor and author of Predictably Irrational found lower levels of cheating on a test when the participants were reminded of a moral code just prior to the test.  Organizations cannot actually be unethical or immoral, only people can. People are the only ones who can behave ethically or unethically and it is people who direct organizations. That is why organizations are very rarely charged with a crime, but people within organizations can be. Organizations tend to be charged only when the illegal behavior has been systematized across the institution.

The challenge will be in the definition of ethics itself. And with some of the miscommunication/varying definitions that stem from incongruous meanings of the term ethics, depending on where you sit in the organization. For a typical worker, ethics often revolves around relationships, trust, being true to your  word. If the management of an organization changes the workers benefits, work schedules, overtime requirements, staffing or workloads, the management runs the risk of being seen as in violation of voluntary promises and agreements which can be deemed as unethical. Meanwhile those in management can look at those same changes and deem them as lawful and not in violation of any contract and therefore see no ethical issue. Managements see ethics as  related more to following the legal letter of the law and based on this standard of ethics, if there is a legal way to break a contract that would be ethical  ehavior, as would be a legal way to reduce headcount etc.  Ethics is a word that holds somewhat different definitions depending on whom you are asking to define it.

But if we as a nation can derive a universal standard of business conduct, say the 15 Commandments of Business Ethics, no lets shorten it to 10 (thank you Mel Brooks), and have every worker (management as well as non-management) subscribe to those standards we may make a positive impact on what we  view as ethical behavior.


Ariely, D. (2009) Our Buggy Moral Code, TED Talks,

Baron, J. (1996). Do no harm. In D.M.. Messick & A.E. Tenbrunsel, Codes of conduct: Behavioral research into business ethics. pp.  197-213. New York: Russell Sage Foundation.

Debka, (04/07/2011) Special operations team hit top Iranian-Hamas arms smugglers in Sudan,, The Corporate Scandal Sheet, (08/06/2002)

Hippocratic Oath (4/17/2011)

Jolton, J. & Saltzman, J. 2008, Preventative Maintenance: How Industrial/Organizational Psychologists Can Build and Maintain  an Ethical Culture, SIOP annual convention.

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

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Contextual Decisions

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How things get presented is just as important as to what is being presented. People in marketing and sales have known that for a long time. Others of us have to be constantly reminded. I keep hoping that people will find my content interesting for the content’s sake and not because I have a gratuitous graphic or have surrounded the material with slick marketing. (I have nothing against graphics that add clarity). And while marketing and packaging can certainly make the product more attractive, sometimes the buyers find out that the only thing that was actually there was the marketing and packaging. But regardless, the context of how things get presented can drastically alter how they are perceived and decisions based on that perception. In all aspects of our lives how a situation is presented can dramatically impact choices made, pushing people in one direction or another, perhaps sometimes taking actions that they normally would not consider.

Many businesses are working to increase internal efficiencies and improving business processes as a survival technique during this recession. They the data I have collected suggests that they are tending to shy away from offering potentially lucrative new products and services in favor of increasing internal efficiencies and cost cutting. On the other hand, some may shy away from offering new products and services for good reason. For instance, new juxtapositions of unusual product pairings or unexpected service associations can be humorous, can give one pause, and sometimes can be alarming or even revolting.  But in the spirit of helping organizations squeeze a bit more cash out of their operations, I have come up with some business expansion opportunities that perhaps with a little bit of marketing and packaging may just take off.

First imagine you were driving around in a car, reading the signs appearing in the front of storefronts and other buildings.

  • You pass by a funeral home with a sign out front, “Now Serving Lunch and Dinner, Early Bird Special – No Reservations Required”. Umm…Yummy.
  • You then come across a nuclear power plant that has decided to go into healing baths business and has opened a water immersion spa on its grounds. Right next to the cooling towers. Appealing right? (If you look at this one historically there is an interesting story about “healthy” radioactive waters).
  • You spy in front of a road repair and paving company not a Russian, but a sign saying, “Now seeing dental patients, get your cavities filled, no waiting”. Yes I would imagine that there would be no waiting.
  • Your stomach turns at the banner fluttering over the toy manufacturing company, “Try out our new line of caskets”.
  • And your queasiness continues as you come across a deep water oil drilling company who has opened a fish wholesaler operation at the docks with the sign, “Cheap fish to the trade, come by and sample our deep fried fish and chips”.

Other signs make you stop and think about the larger picture. For instance, there is a sign that I always enjoy reading that is part of the artwork in a restaurant I frequent. The drawing is of an old city scene with various signs hanging in front of old stores. One sign on a lower level store front says “Lawyer 5¢ an Hour”. Above that sign is another, pointing to a second floor office and that sign says “Honest Lawyer 10¢ an Hour”. I think the assumption is that you get what you pay for.

It has been shown in the laboratory that how problems, issues or options are presented can dramatically alter the reactions that people have, how they perceive it and the choices they will make. For instance, Kahneman and Tversky developed the Asian disease problem to study how people make decisions. Say a choice had to be made between two different approaches to fight a life-threatening disease. One approach helps fewer people, but has a 100% cure rate, and the other helps a greater number of people, but has a significant mortality rate even among those helped.

When the choice has to be made between the two approaches and the choice is described in terms of how many people would be saved by each approach, the program that helps fewer people is preferred by decision-makers. When the decision is described in terms of how many lives would be lost decision-makers tend to choose the program that helps more people, even though a significant portion of those helped will die regardless. This is the case when the two approaches are matched in terms of how many people in total actually survive the illness, meaning the same number of people are either saved or die regardless of the approach. So attractiveness of these decisions is contextual, meaning how decisions get considered and made is dependent on the how the situation is presented.

Now suppose that we apply that principle to business decisions in organizations, say layoffs. Our example organization of 1500 people, 150 in management (10% of the workforce), 1350 non-management (90% of the workforce) is feeling pain, business is down, the recession is taking its toll. Customers are delaying or cancelling orders. Management is presented two options on how to cut staff that no longer has work to do.

Option one lays out a course of action which is to cut back 20% across all occupation levels. The resultant organization has 1200 employees, 120 managers (10% of the workforce) and 1080 non-mangers (90% of the workforce).

Option two is to cut the rank and file by 22% leaving management untouched. The resultant organization has 1200 employees, 150 in management (12.5% of the workforce) and 1050 in non-management (87.5% of the workforce).

In both options the same total number of people are employed and the same number will lose will lose their jobs. If someone wanted to potentially influence the course of action taken how might they go about it?  Research suggests that the options will seem more attractive when presented from the standpoint of how many people will remain employed, and less attractive if discussed in terms of the number of those to be laid off. If option one was discussed in terms of the number of jobs saved and option two discussed in terms of number of jobs lost you can make option one appear more attractive than option 2 and vice versa. Is it possible that business decisions are influenced by the context in which they are presented? Now this example casts a rather simplistic light on how a serious discussion like laying off workers should unfold, but the point is how the argument is made will affect the attractiveness of the approaches and options described. Knowing this and being aware of how arguments can influence you by the way they are presented can help you make better decisions.

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

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Written by Jeffrey M. Saltzman

July 16, 2010 at 10:48 am

Don’t See What You Like? Come on in.

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The advertisement, sitting in the front window, visible to all passersby was attempting to lure potential customers into the store. “Don’t see what you like?” “Come on in.” Makes you scratch your head a bit, until you find out that the store was an optometrist shop. Context. Context can take some information or behavior that might seem very odd to you and by giving it some perspective have it make perfect sense.

There is a parasite, a protozoan, which lives in the stomach of rats. At a certain point in its life cycle, it will cause the rat to become less wary of cats and to become attracted to cat smells. The infected rats search out cat smells and when found the cats tend to oblige and eat the rat. What could drive the parasite to induce this fatal behavior in its host? The parasite can only reproduce in the stomach of cats.

It has been shown that children infected with Malaria are more attractive to healthy mosquitoes. Why? The malaria-causing protozoan, Plasmodium falciparum which spends part of its life cycle in mosquitoes and part of its life cycle in humans, does not leave its reproduction, and hence the spread of malaria, completely up to chance. Once it has infected its human host it somehow (exact mechanism still unknown, but smell seems to be a possibility), makes its human host more attractive to mosquitoes so it can complete its lifecycle and reproduce.

There is an old joke where two mothers are talking. One mother says to the other, “My son”, says the mother proudly, “has two Ph.D.’s, one in psychology and one in economics.” “You must be very proud of him,” says the second mother. “Yes I am,” replies the first. “He can’t get a job, but at least he knows why.” Context.   

Seemingly strange and odd behaviors abound all around us. We would be remiss to think that these behaviors occur only outside of the working environment. We interpret co-workers behaviors each and every day and yet we often have very little context to base those interpretations upon. We, as humans, have a tendency to jump to conclusions and to quickly categorize what we observe as a way to reduce the amount of information processing we need to do. This has both beneficial effects, we don’t get paralyzed with analysis, and negative effects, we may be jumping to inappropriate conclusions based on our lack of context. Next time, as an experiment, before you quickly categorize what you observe try to place additional context around it and see if you draw the same conclusions.

I was driving home the other day and in a neighboring town I passed a stately funeral home that was located right next door, so close they were almost touching, to a self-storage facility. No, couldn’t be….

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

Written by Jeffrey M. Saltzman

February 3, 2010 at 9:53 am

Searching for a Gang in Nebraska

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I was in Las Vegas for a business meeting that finished on a Friday afternoon and needed to be in Lincoln, Nebraska for a Monday morning meeting.  Instead of heading all the way back to NY for an abbreviated weekend, I decided to spend the weekend in Lincoln. I was up early Sunday morning, and after reading a story in the New York Times about a reporter who went looking for gang members in Salisbury, North Carolina, and ended up getting arrested himself, I decided to head out and look for gang members in Nebraska.

I made myself a peanut butter sandwich to take with me for lunch, not being sure about the food that would be available to me in jail. I stopped at the front desk and told the clerk that I was researching information about gang activity in Nebraska and could she tell me where to find the nearest gang members I could talk to. She tilted her head at me and her jaw dropped a bit, clearly she was not going to spill the beans. These gangs must have had her so terrified that she wouldn’t talk to me about where to find them. I took off on my own in search of Nebraska’s gangs.

I wanted to learn more about the attributes of gang membership. Why do people join these organizations, what makes membership attractive, what do members get out of the organization and what do they put into it and importantly how can we get people out of gangs and into productive endeavors?

From my hotel, I turned right onto 70th Street and headed to the north side of town. Along the way I passed a VA medical center which looked like it had quite a crowd, perhaps a gang gathering place. Upon investigation the cars belonged to members of the medical staff, no gangs here. I then passed a large YMCA, which has a reputation as a gathering place, perhaps I could find gang members there, but as it was early Sunday morning its parking lots were empty. I continued on my way and then spotted two very large windmills, a logical meeting place on a rise as gang members would be able to spot trouble coming from a long way off. By the time I got there though the gangs had likely seen me coming and had melted away. I turned around, winding my way through town and headed south on Route 2, the Nebraska Highway, towards a town called Nebraska City, population 7,228, as it has been rumored to be troubled by gangs. About half way there I came across a burnt out pickup truck on the side of the road. Based on my experiences in the Bronx this definitely looked gang related, things were looking up.

Youth gangs and criminal gangs are an ongoing and terrible problem, not just in the USA but world-wide. We need to look carefully at the motivators of gang membership and do what we can to disrupt the cycle, the reasons that people, especially the young join gangs. A good number of gifted young adults have their potential lost to a life of entrapment in gang membership – a lifelong dead-end.  Interestingly, one of the attractors of gang membership is that the gang provides attributes and an environment that the person otherwise can not get. Some of the attributes are strikingly similar to what other kinds of organizations strive for. In other words people are once again similar and are looking for certain attributes in their lives and if they can’t get it from one source they will get it elsewhere, from where it is available. The National Gang Crime Research Center, in a massive study on gang behavior including data from North Dakota, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Massachusetts, New Jersey, North Carolina, Florida, Georgia, Tennessee, Mississippi, Texas, Louisiana, California, Ohio, Illinois, Indiana, and Iowa found these characteristics (an abbreviated and slightly edited list) of gangs and gang member in those areas:

  • Members were more likely to have close friends within the gang.
  • Over half utilize special codes (somewhat like acronyms).
  • Two thirds have written rules and procedures regarding behavior.
  • Four-fifths report leadership has long term tenure.
  • Half have taken action to create financial gain for their gang.
  • Half report regular weekly meetings in their gang.
  • A common reason they joined was to make money.
  • Another reason was to seek protection and security.
  • About half were recruited, and half applied to join the gang.
  • Many said they would quit given the right circumstances.
  • Most of the gangs have female members.
  • About half of the gangs have female members in a leadership capacity, but in a more supportive or middle-management role.
  • About two-thirds felt that the gang has kept its promises to them.
  • A third report they have never met the top leader.
  • A new twist on unrealistic expectations: Two-fifths felt they would someday be the top leader.
  • About half agreed that they feel protected and loved by their gang.
  • Most report wearing special articles of clothing or clothing of certain colors.

The list produces a somewhat eerie feeling, as it could be a list of any organization’s attributes and why people tend to join or leave them.

I got to Nebraska City and found a cabin on the side of the road dating back to the mid 1800’s. An historical placard indicated that it had been a stop on the Underground Railroad, a place were slaves fleeing for their freedom found welcoming refuge. The sign next to it indicated that John Browne, the abolitionist, had been there about a half a dozen times.  It lifted my spirits as clearly this was a spot where people were used to secret signals and hidden gatherings. I was on my way to finding gang members.

I continued onward into Nebraska City and followed the signs to Lied Lodge and Convention Center and Arbor Farm, an organization devoted to planting trees. Upon parking and entering their building, I was struck by how beautiful it was. The building was graceful and well designed with soaring ceilings, massive stone fireplaces surrounded by massive tree-trunk sized supporting beams holding up wood beamed ceilings. Large leather overstuffed couches and chairs filled a reception area and a piano player was stroking the keys of a grand piano in the corner. I sank into one of the chairs to listen for a while to the soothing music. This was nice. I looked up and saw a sign draped high over the reception desk saying “sign up, become a member”. A gang of tree lovers, I could definitely get into this! I immediately went over to the desk and began to ask questions about the requirements to join this group. I then went for a walk through the trails munching on my peanut butter sandwich, as I had yet to see a police officer during my searching.

On my way back to Lincoln, I pulled into Eagle, Nebraska population 1,105. I passed a dirt track raceway where people gather to see races, I suspect gang members among them. In town I saw a older guy standing on the corner next to the post office, cane in hand. I flashed him the secret hand signal indicating that I wanted to talk to him about his gang. He gave me a blank stare. Boy the gangs here are tough, not willing to recognize the secret signal for having a conversation.

In general, people want to belong, they want to feel they are part of something and it is very compelling when that something makes them feel valued, makes them feel that are doing something special, it can make them feel proud. One reason that gangs have been so hard to break up is because many times gang members feel like they have no alternatives, they are driven into the gang by a sense of helplessness with their life as it existed. The gang, however awful, provides an alternative. The same parallels could be drawn for many terrorist organizations as well.

In Philadelphia the Chief of Police is calling for 10,000 men to help police patrol the city to reduce the crime wave that is drowning that city, presumably a portion gang related. However, while it is a start, it is generally recognized that putting people on the street will not solve the issue completely.  “Amid the weed-strewn lots and boarded-up buildings of North Philadelphia, one of the city’s toughest neighborhoods, the six men who gathered to talk, drink and play cards say the young people who pull guns and deal drugs need jobs, recreation centers, after-school programs and, most of all, parents who care for them.” (New York Times, September 29, 2007).

On Monday morning, I headed to my business meeting. It was just a gang of us getting together to do some sales planning – of course I can’t tell you what we discussed, it was a confidential, secret meeting.

“Bloom where you are planted”

Anonymous sign at the edge of a corn field on Route 34

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

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Written by Jeffrey M. Saltzman

January 16, 2010 at 6:51 am

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