Jeffrey Saltzman's Blog

Enhancing Organizational Performance

Posts Tagged ‘Myths

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


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“ish” seems to be gaining in popularity. At least it appears that way to me when I occasionally hear my high schooler chatting with her friends. Cool, groovy, far-out, rad, are out and “ish” seems to be in, along with “literally”. Not that ish is new.  “ish” has, in the distant past of parental youth, meant “approximately”. “When would you like dinner?” “Seven-ish”, has been around for a long time. But “ish” is now being attached to all sorts of words to mean “sort of” or is even being used as a standalone word. “Did you get your homework done?” “Yes-ish”.  “How did today go at school?” “ish.” If I respond with “Do you literally mean ish?” I am the recipient of the rolling eyeball “you are so out of touch” look. “ish”, one is left wondering exactly what that means, though the basic gist is certainly there.

In science and organizational decision-making we try to be as “un-ish” as we possibly can be. We want to manage, make decisions, prove our point, develop our facts by relying on incontrovertible proof, on evidence that the course of action we select or the points we are trying to prove simply cannot be denied. Except that is not how humans often draw conclusions. In one study that a friend of mine did he tracked, among HR professionals, the proportion of their “best outcome” decisions vs. their “worst outcome” decisions and each contained a “leap-of-faith”. Meaning that even after all the facts were assembled, all the evidence in, a leap-of-faith was required to make a decision. Mostly because it is impossible to have complete knowledge, so in the absence of omniscience, a leap-of-faith is needed to get the job done, or you would forever be analyzing and never taking action.

In research, one study builds on another. A follow-up study may contradict the original, but over a period of time, slowly the preponderance of evidence builds, pointing the way to the best course of action, or uncovering a “truth” by which the world operates. This process can take time. Remember for decades cigarette makers denied that smoking cigarettes caused any health issues and they commissioned their own studies to prove that point. This last week CVS, a major drug store chain, announced that it would stop selling cigarettes and the only analysis to be found was whether the approximately 2 billion dollars in lost business would be made-up by a positive shift in CVS’s reputation. No one, at least in the news reports I saw, refuted the science anymore that cigarettes are bad for your health.

Making sense of the world though is quite different from understanding the world, and when people’s understanding is incomplete or based on a shaky foundation, their interpretations of what is going on can go astray. The Greeks for instance knew and it made perfect sense to them that when there was thunder and lightning that it was caused by Zeus, the king of their gods. Knowing what we now know, it may be difficult to understand how the ancient Greeks really felt about that. But it was not some cute little story that they used at bed time for the children, while the adults winked at each other. This is what they truly believed, that when it thundered Zeus was speaking. To them this interpretation of the world made sense, for it explained events as they experienced them, even though from our perspective they did not understand the way the world really worked. Today we talk about these Greek beliefs as mythology. One can’t help but wonder which of today’s beliefs will be thought of as mythology a thousand or so years from now.

Each human develops their own mythology of the way the world works and on April 22nd I am going to be conducting a complimentary webinar on “People at Work – Myths vs. Realities”. Feel free to register and join me for what is hopefully going to be an interesting-ish conversation.

Also on February 18th, Scott Brooks and I will be conducting a complimentary webinar on “Why Employee Engagement is not Strategic” and we both would love to see you there.

Written by Jeffrey M. Saltzman

February 9, 2014 at 11:50 am

Nonexistent Differences

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There is an old story from Eastern Europe about a ruler who gathers his advisors around him. A discussion ensued about a dramatic rise in madness among those in the population who consumed grain from the recent harvest. In the manner of many politicians or those with vested interests, the advisors told the ruler that they must put aside enough grain from pervious harvest so that they could preserve their own sanity while those around them went mad. The ruler objected, and using logic possible only among those with the inbred genes of hereditary rulers, stated that since they could not put aside enough grain for everyone, that they too must eat the fungus infected grain, for if everyone else was mad, acting similarly, those others will think us mad if we are different. We must be as mad as everyone else, acting like everyone else, believing in what they believe in order to be considered normal and blend in, to consolidate and not lose our positions of power.

Normal. It is very relative and time specific. Tattoos were once what happened to drunken sailors, piercings were limited to the earlobes of women, listening to rock and roll was going to send you to hell, voyeurism was a mental illness and not promoted on prime-time TV, books were printed on paper and much earlier reading those newfangled books called novels was viewed as immersing oneself in dangerous fantasy worlds, and each and every younger generation has been an enigma to the previous. The only thing certain about what is normal is that it is a moving target and subject to change over time. Trying to hold back the floodgates of change is and should be an exercise in futility. Ideologues, those who support a specific ideology frozen in some past moment, yearning to go back to the way things were are not only tilting at windmills, but are often at the root of much violent, disruptive and nonproductive behavior. However, what one person views as a positive shift in the value set that describes normal, another will view as negative. What is certain is that humanity is not a monolithic entity in our values and beliefs, and whatever “system” is put into place that governs us must be one that allows for those differences to enhance the mosaic of what constitutes humanity.

Are organizations any different? Do myths of what is normal exist within companies? There is a technique I like to use when analyzing an organization’s data. For want of a better name we call it a 9-box. The 9-box takes two questions from an organizational assessment and lays out the all possible responses to each, one along the x-axis and one along the y forming a 3×3 matrix. The 9 cells that are then created contain those responses from people who responded one of 9 different ways to the 2 questions. They could have been favorable on both questions, in which case they would be in the upper left box, they could have been negative on both questions, in which case they would be in the lower right hand box. All the other possible combinations are filled in (Favorable:Neutral, Neutral:Neutral, Negative:Neutral, etc.). Once the matrix has been completed we examine the outcome measure of interest for each cell. How, for instance, do the Favorable:Favorable people fare on turnover or measures of quality, customer satisfaction etc. We contrast that positive cell against the other cells within the matrix.  And then it gets interesting.

We examine the demographic characteristic of the employees within the Positive:Positive cell and compare it against those in the other cells. In every single case where I have done this analysis organizational beliefs are exploded and shown to be myths. For instance it may be thought that the most positive employees within the organization would be the managers and the least positive would be the production workers. But when you examine the demographic breakdowns you typically find very similar percentages of employee types in each of the cells. It is not simply that employees are of different types that accounts for perceptual differences and performance differences within organizations, rather it is how each employee as an individual views their treatment, and that is independent of position and most of the common demographics tracked within organizations.

You see there is a bit of a conundrum at work. While we are free to have different beliefs and values we are all still human and each of us have most of the same hopes and desires as any of our fellow humans. We may all have different fingerprints, but we all have fingerprints. Those issues that arise within organizations that create the new normal, the current conditions in which everyone must function, affect all within the organization and whether they view their own situation in a positive or negative light is driven by a myriad of factors that impinge on them in their organizational existence. Some of those factors are driven by the competence, tone and actions created at the top of the organization, others are more career and personally oriented, others depend on perceptions of how the organization is positioned competitively. In sum, the perceptions of both the organization’s future and one’s personal future matter in determining the attitude and performance of employees of all types.

One thing is certain. You can’t get maximal performance out of all of the employees of an organization by hanging onto myths and false beliefs that emphasize non-existent differences while at the same time ignoring those issues that actually matter.

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

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You Neanderthal…What a Relief!

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Myths, misinformation and disinformation are all around us. Being able to sort through and correctly determine which “facts” are mistaken and which real would be a very useful ability. Some are better at it than others, or at least believe they are, but even those who believe they are pretty good at living an evidence-based life cannot possibly have enough knowledge or time to correctly sort through all of it.

Many day-to-day decisions including personal, business, political and sociological ones are based on erroneous yet generally accepted information and beliefs, bias and bigotry on the part of the decision maker, political expediency, or purposely deceptive bits of available/provided information. Other decisions are made in blissful ignorance of the facts, flawed analyses due to information overload or willful disregard of evidence.

Much of this behavior and decision-making skill, or lack thereof, occurs simply because we are all human, with all the limitations that are implied by being imperfect creatures. One saving grace is that many decisions we make do not have a clearly right or wrong answer but multiple pathways to multiply acceptable, if not optimal outcomes. Decision-making is an imperfect art but luckily many imperfect decisions may lead to imperfect but somewhat acceptable outcomes. Sometimes that is true, but there are times when imperfect decisions have tremendously negative impacts.

I have been going to the same dentist now for 22 years. I visited her just a few weeks ago for a cleaning and checkup and as it turned out to replace a filling she had done from 1991 that had deteriorated. Not the filling itself, she had to tell me, the filling itself was fine. It was the tooth around the filling that had deteriorated.

She is a really great dentist, and she makes exquisite jewelry as a hobby. (She once offered to put a row of diamonds across my front teeth. I declined the offer as it just did not fit my public persona). She takes great pride in her work, as she should, and in some respects I feel like I am borrowing the fillings that she puts into my mouth. They are her fine works of art that she is willing to loan me, as long as I agree to take care of them. And if I don’t, I run the risk of her looking for me and ripping all of them out. Now there is a motivator to get you to floss.

I had to tell my dentist on the last visit when we figured out how long that filling had been in, that when I first started as a patient of hers, I was young and healthy, I was in good shape. I said to her, “I used to be young. Look what you have done to me, the longer I see you the worse the situation. My hair has turned gray, my body has deteriorated, I have gained weight and I have aged.” Well of course she took great umbrage at that, but agreed that there might be something to it, since when I started as a patient of hers she was young as well. So something about our patient/dentist relationship has aged both of us. And you know what? The same affliction, with some variation, occurs to every patient who has seen their dentist for a long period of time. Maybe it is something in the mouthwash or is it my constantly complaining about the dull rusty needles she uses for injecting and numbing out my teeth and gums. Anyway, she offers to distribute some of my books to her other patients who are in the business world and who might be able to make use of my services, so we have a pretty good relationship.

Is this data-based decision-making? Correlation is causation, right? Absurd, right? I could point out decision after decision that if you stripped it down to its essence would be based on similar logic, claiming to be data-based, without identifying the real root cause of the issues. If I believed that logic, I might then change dentists, looking for one who would not cause me to age over the years.

In “50 Great Myths of Popular Psychology” Steven Lynn and co-authors document some commonly held beliefs that have been “debunked by lots of high-quality research” (Wiley- Blackwell 2010). The list includes:

  • Humans use just ten percent of their brains – 59% of college graduates got that wrong. We actually use all of our brains, the cynic in me says that some just don’t use it very well
  • Criminal profiling helps solves crimes – a 2007 meta-analysis which cuts across a quantity of published studies, showed that professional profilers fared just about the same as laypeople in describing a criminal’s characteristics (so much for fictional TV shows as sources of information)
  • Stress causes ulcers – it is actually a bacteria, but when an ulcer is present the stress may make it worse
  • You can’t change highly heritable traits – environment does in fact play an important role on how inherited traits can be expressed
  • Only deeply depressed people commit suicide – 13-41% of those who commit suicide would meet the criteria for major depression, not exactly an overwhelming majority. Substance abuse, social phobia, gender identity disorder and borderline personality disorder accounts for many suicides. Generally anyone who expresses pervasive helplessness might be at risk.

I used to be depressed (not suicidal) about Neanderthals and by extension about us humans. If you recall, Homo Sapiens Neanderthalensis appeared on the scene in Europe, Western Asia and the Middle East about 130,000 years ago and about 30,000 years ago they vanished. Much speculation has gone on regarding what had happened to them. Were they genetically less fit than Homo Sapiens Sapiens (us) and hence just died out over time? Were they competing for the same resources as Homo Sapiens Sapiens albeit less successfully? Did we as a species war with the Neanderthals and kill them off, killing off our closest relatives, another form of intelligent life? Unfortunately that last scenario seemed all too likely given our history and I have always felt somewhat depressed about the notion that Homo Sapiens Sapiens may have killed off the Neanderthals, even though I was not directly responsible.

Strong evidence-based science has stepped into the speculative breach and now there is good news. A research study that examined the DNA of Neanderthals and Homo Sapiens found a 1-4% overlap indicating that either there was some interbreeding between the two sub-species over a long period of time, or that there was substantial interbreeding occurring over a fairly short duration. So while there may have been conflict between Neanderthals and Homo Sapiens (speculation which archeological evidence does not support, but is supportive of the notion that they lived side by side), there is now evidence that there was mating going on.

We did not necessarily kill them off; we may have simply bred with them incorporating their gene pool into our own. I am so relieved, as I was carrying around this species level guilt associated with being responsible for their extinction. So now if you call someone a bone-head it is indeed legitimate, but you would likely have to apply that label to yourself as well. (Neanderthals are noted for having cranium sizes roughly equal to our own, about 6 feet tall, but were likely much stronger than us, being heavily built with robust bone structures).

Archeologists indicated little surprise at the results since they have described skeletons from Europe that contained characteristics of both Homo Sapiens Sapiens and Homo Sapiens Neanderthalensis, which they took as a sign of interbreeding. Solid scientific research across multiple disciplines, using multiple methodologies arriving at similar conclusions lend greater credence to the conclusion and hence better decisions.

More and more gets written each day about the use of data in decision-making. I am a big supporter of fact-based or evidence-based decisions, and all of my work strives to take an evidence or data-based approach to decision-making. But just because you are using data doesn’t negate the need for appropriate data collection design, analysis and interpretation. It can be just as easy to come to an erroneous data-based decision based on flawed methodology, design, analysis or interpretation.

Many techniques exist that can be used to help ensure better data-based or evidence-based decisions. Look for some suggestions coming here in the near future.

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

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