Jeffrey Saltzman's Blog

Enhancing Organizational Performance

Posts Tagged ‘motivation

Unsupported by Evidence

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

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

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

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

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

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

  • Statement: People join companies and leave managers.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Written by Jeffrey M. Saltzman

June 13, 2014 at 6:53 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

Zombie Engagement or Motivating the Undead

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It seems like you can’t turn on the TV or look at the movie section in the newspaper these days without seeing some reference to zombies. Zombies used to be the stuff of late night horror or the once a year Halloween movie marathon. But it seems pretty clear that zombies have gone mainstream, appearing not only in horror flicks but in television series and even kid shows.

On the university campus, one professor of political science, Niall Michelsen, has incorporated the topic into his classroom instruction and has co-authored a paper titled “Teaching World Politics with Zombies”. Daniel Drezner has written Theories of International Politics and Zombies. In both cases the authors/professors are exploring how the world might react to an actual invasion of zombies. One theory they explore is whether capitalists would be able to exploit the cheap labor that zombies, the undead might provide. Another explores whether stronger countries would sit and watch while zombies ate their way through the weaker ones or if some central organizing effort to control zombies would emerge.

With the growing popularity of zombies and hence the growing population of zombies in society, it was only a matter of time until inevitable personnel issues surrounding zombies, such as motivating or engaging zombies needed to be addressed along with a whole host of others issues. I thought I would get the research ball moving with some thoughts on the topic.

Some of the immediate issues personnel departments are struggling with concerning the rights of the undead include:

  • Do zombies have collective bargaining rights? They seem to be very good at organizing gatherings and may have an edge in negotiations. I mean how many of us really want to sit across the table from a zombie and look them in the eye, even if it is still in its socket?
  • If you are a union member in the living state and then become a zombie do you retain your membership? Can you be legislated into a second class status when you are undead? Are you still responsible for dues? If not, as suggested by the professors, organizations might forgo the living and hire the undead as cheap labor or union busters.
  • Does last in, first out apply during zombie layoffs?
  • Do zombies get severance? An arm or a leg?
  • If you turn into a zombie do you lose your citizenship?
  • If so, can you then get a green card?
  • If your kid turns into a zombie before you do, is your kid an anchor zombie, able to sponsor you for inclusion into zombiehood?
  • Can the undead be elected to political office, be appointed as a CEO, or do they simply need to eat their way to the top?
  • Given how easy it appears to be to kill or injure a zombie, (all you apparently have to do is bash them with a baseball bat), what are the regulations surrounding health care coverage for zombies? Is being a zombie considered a pre-existing condition?
  • And critically, how do you motivate or engage the undead to increase their value as an integral part of the workforce?

There has been much speculation that zombies are somehow different, that they don’t want what you or I want from the work environment or that somehow their relationship with their supervisors are “strained”. Some say that zombies are impatient, unwilling to pay their dues in order to succeed in the organization. Others imply that zombies are not as concerned about job security or being developed for future opportunity, wanting only to unlive in the here and now. Other spurious and suspicious claims have arisen against zombies including that they have strong body odor, that they have socialist, communist or perhaps fascist tendencies, others claim that they are not from “here” and that they are so unlike “us” that they even pray to a different god. Some say that zombies are lazy, willing to move along only at a slow shuffle, or that they are solely concerned about money, presumably because they resist being paid with scraps. Speculation has been rampant that zombies need a strong leader to exist in an orderly fashion and that they are not ready for a democratic oriented society. Meanwhile the reported cases of harassment against zombies have skyrocketed. These are grave issues.

Cutting through all this noise, fear, and paranoia will not be easy for researchers intent on furthering the science behind how to motivate and engage zombies, but with good experimental design much can be achieved and some deeply buried findings may emerge.

Let me suggest a simple framework for carrying out this work. The fundamental underlying notion that I propose is that zombies are people too, being driven by the same desires that any other person has regarding the world or work. I am not talking about what zombies like to do in their off-hours, or what their social norms and eating habits might be, I am talking about what zombies want from their labors and how they expect to be treated in the world-of-work and that by-and-large it is the same thing that anyone of any generation, gender, ethnicity, religion, geographic location or sexual orientation wants, because it is what people want. If we want to spend our time searching for the minutest differences (such as whether you are dead or alive) they can be found, but our similarities greatly outweigh our differences.

When unrest occurs among zombies it is often driven by a deep-seated sense of lack of respectful or dignified treatment (just look at the clothes they are often made to wear) and that the playing field between the living and undead is not even. Beyond this, it is clear that the undead want to go through their existence with a sense of equitable treatment, that given their efforts they are being fairly rewarded and with a sense of achievement, an innate sense of accomplishment arising from their labors.

I often use what I call the MPF© model during organizational transformations and I am convinced that it would work as well during undead transformations. “M” stands for message, “P” stands for Performance and “F” stands for future.

“M” – first off zombies will want a clear understanding of the purpose of the organization, what does it stand for and importantly how they fit in. What will they be doing in their day-to-day job that will help the organization achieve its goals? If the line from the zombie’s job to the organization’s goals cannot be directly drawn, the organization needs to go back and keep drawing it until the message is crystal clear. Zombies want to know how they fit in and how that fit contributes to what the organization is trying to accomplish.

Second is “P” for performance. Examine the message you have delivered to your zombies and then ask yourself if you enabling them or hindering them in delivering on that message. If the message given out by leadership is that the organization will be customer centric, are your processes and procedures, those things that the zombie must live with supportive of that notion or do they fly in the face of it? Many times zombies are frustrated and act out aggressively, because they are asked to do inhuman or impossible tasks given the resources available to them. They are told one thing and then not given the tools needed to deliver on it. Make sure you are enable performance in-line with your messaging.

Third is “F” or Future. Zombies have their eye (figuratively if not literally) on the future, just like the rest of us. They want to know that if they deliver on the goals they now share with the organization that good things will happen. Things like job security, opportunity for development and to get ahead, the ability to provide for their family etc. The evidence on zombie engagement is absolutely clear, people can work through current hardships and difficulties if they have a sense of a purposeful and meaningful future for themselves – not a smoke and mirrors future of continuing unfulfilled promises, but a real one.

People will get on primitive sailing ships and travel to new unknown lands, they will stand alone, unblinking, in front of a tank, they will challenge despotic rulers who won’t hesitate to cut them down, they will give up and then give up some more, allowing themselves to be treated horrifically and suffering deprivation, all for the sake of creating a better life down the road for themselves, their children, and to create a Future that they can believe in and can see. And with my last breath let me say that you should make sure that the zombies who work for you can see that future and then you need to deliver on it. Come by again sometime soon, I’ll keep an eye out for you.

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

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