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Thursday, May 26, 2005

Lying to Customers: Can a Lie be True?

Business consultant George Torok talks about a phone call - one of many similar ones - during his first days as a new entrepreneur. It's a story that must be very familiar to many business people and consumers alike, and if you're lucky enough never to have been bothered by this kind of thing in real life, chances are you come across the technique every time you logon to the Internet.

Somebody asked for him by his company name and told him he'd won a prize. Actually, two prizes, and what's more, he could choose them from a long list that included a personal computer, a trip to Club Med, a diamond pendant, a video camera and an "entertainment centre" (in plain language, a TV) that he could readily dispose of for a cool $8,000 in cash.

Well, what more could any guy want, but of course, Mr Torok was astute enough to politely enquire if there was anything he was expected to do in return for such extreme generosity. Not very much, he was told, just to purchase a little bit of advertising. And needless to add, our star salesperson was far less articulate in explaining the nature and benefits of the product she was selling than she had been in describing the wonderful features of the generous prizes.

Is there anything unethical about this kind of marketing practice? Technically speaking, maybe not: did the canvasser actually say that there were no strings attached when she first offered the prizes? At any rate, the "victim" in such situations gets off relatively lightly, since the deception lasts, at most, a few minutes!

But, of course, a person can be misled in all sorts of ingenious ways - ways that allow the perpetrator to plead that technically his hands have remained clean. And often the consequences are more serious and longer lasting.

Sometimes, one can mislead or deceive by simply remaining silent. In one of my articles on our site I wrote about a young entrepreneur who managed to swing a lucrative business deal while giving the other side the impression that she was representing her former employer. "They never directly asked me," she confessed, "so I let them believe what they wanted to believe."

In a very interesting - but to my way of thinking, disturbing - article on Fortune Small Business, Seth Godin, long regarded as a seminal thinker on the philosophy of modern marketing, relates another revealing incident involving the use of the silent technique. This one has a particularly ironic aspect.

In the 1980's a few enterprising opportunists bought some name-brand stereo speakers and packed them into a truck. They parked the truck behind a dorm at Harvard and started whispering, "Psst...Hey! You wanna buy some speakers?" Passersby assumed that the speakers were stolen, and therefore this had to be a great bargain. The stock was sold out in no time. Little did the students realize that they were paying the same price that they would pay at the local store, but of course, these back-street entrepreneurs didn't have to pay a dime in advertising, rent or the like...







Well, if you never thought appearing to be dishonest can be to your advantage, you have to think again!

But seriously...yes we are talking about something serious here. Godin's central thesis is that if you want to attract customers in an increasingly competitive world, you have to be prepared to tell lies, as long as your lies are essentially the truth.

An incredible feat of verbal gymnastics? Well, marketers are performing such feats every single day, he says. What the guys who sold the speakers did is essentially no different from the people who sell an obstensibly more sophisticated version of a gadget for $100 when the model that sells for $10 performs its function just as well. But since people believe that the more expensive version does a better job, so it does. And that's the truth!

Fine. If that's what makes the wheels of commerce turn round, OK. But it worries me all the same.

What do you think?

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Sunday, May 22, 2005

Self-Esteem: Too Much As Bad As Too Little?

An intriguing new trend seems to be taking root in the world of education, at least in the United States. Just could be that the winds of change will turn out, after all, to be in the best interests of the constituency they are designed to benefit - the mass of students in the wider educational system today, who are our main hope for a better tomorrow.

On the other hand, is this simply a case of political correctness gone crazy?

The ink that American teachers are using has now become very problematic, apparently, or to be more specific, red ink. Red, of course, is the traditional color that teachers have long used to correct answers and offer suggestions. But now, according to reports, the color has become so symbolic of negativity that some educators will not touch it. And parents, too, feel that red writing is far too "stressful."

One teacher explained that the disillusionment with red is part of a broader shift in grading. The emphasis is changing from "Here's what you need to improve on" to "Here's what you've done right."

Placing the emphasis on what a child does right is certainly a worthy objective. The best educators, and parents, know that there's nothing like well-directed praise to spur a children to greater achievement (although indiscriminate praise can sometimes do more harm than good.) But current politically correct thinking takes this one step further and dictates that helping people "feel good about themselves" is more important than helping them to achieve excellence.
The upshot of this is that many teachers apparently feel that the focus of their efforts should be towards ensuring that their pupils feel satisfied with their output, rather than prodding them to produce better work. And that's where the problem lies.

The self-esteem movement has been gathering momentum in recent years. Few will deny that the cultivation of a healthy self-image is a crucial developmental goal. Success or failure in attaining it could have far-reaching implications both during a child's school career and in later life. But in a recent book that must have certainly created big waves in many an educational circle, authors Christina Hoff Sommers and Sally Satel propose that an overabundance of self-esteem can be more dangerous than helpful.

"Unmerited self-esteem is known to be associated with antisocial behavior - even criminality, Sommers and Satel wrote in One Nation Under Therapy: How the Helping Culture is Eroding Self-Reliance. In an interview to discuss their book, the authors opined that "the concept is too poorly understood to be an appropriate classroom objective. High-school dropouts, burglars, car thieves, shoplifters, even murderers, are just as likely to have high self-esteem as the winners of the Congressional Medal of Honor or Rhodes Scholars." A strong statement indeed.

Coming back to the saga of the red ink, apparently pen manufacturers are confirming that purple is becoming the new color of choice for many teachers. On of them explained the reason: "My generation was brought up on right or wrong with no in between, and red was always in your face. It's abrasive to me. Purple is just a little more gentle."

"Right or wrong with no in between.....was that a bad thing? Personally, I hardly think so. Indeed that may be the crux of the whole matter.

You see, once you start chipping away at the concept of personal responsibility for your actions and for what you become in life, when "don't worry, be happy!" is the call of the hour - then it's only a matter of time before short-term self-gratification takes over from long-term striving to reach one's full potential.

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Thursday, May 12, 2005

Shame and Guilt: A World of Difference

Jill and Sharon (not their real names) worked on the same projects in close proximity to each other in a relatively small office. Their work was very pressured with one tight deadline to meet after another. Small wonder that the two of them were continually treading on each others toes and from time to time, the very palpable tension between them would boil over into heated arguments.

One day they had such a fierce confrontation that if they hadn't been the mature adults that they were, it might very easily have become physical.

The next day, Jill didn't report for duty. Neither was she at work on the following day - nor the one after that. When her boss and her fellow workers made enquiries, they discovered that for some time she had been suffering, on and off, from a serious illness that she had hidden from everyone.

When Sharon learned of this, she almost went out of her mind. The last spat between the two of them kept replaying itself in her head. Maybe she was responsible for the sudden deterioration in her co-worker's health? Even assuming that the disease had been afflicting Jill for a long time already, perhaps Sharon's biting sarcasm and the force of her anger had weakened Jill further and made the condition worse?

It took many soothing words, a great deal of patience and hours of gentle explanation on the part of Sharon's sympathetic but firm husband to get her eventually to snap out of her alternating hysteria and depression. He repeated over and over again that while the unkind words both Sharon and her colleague had hurled at each other were certainly not to be condoned, it was unreasonable and illogical to accept blame for Jill's deteriorating health.

Most importantly, explained Sharon's husband, the overpowering feeling of guilt that was driving her to distraction every moment of the day was preventing her from functioning properly and was serving no one's interests - not hers and certainly not Jill's.

Two month's ago I posted a piece I called Shame Should Be a Badge of Honor, which somehow hit a raw nerve for many and attracted a lot of interest. I decried the lack of healthy shame in today's society, a lack which leads to people committing dishonest, indecent, immoral and unethical acts under the public gaze in broad daylight without as much as batting an eyelid.

In it's purest form, shame is a positive, healthy phenomenon. It is rooted in the desire for self-improvement and involves working with the intellect. It's all about personal responsibility, and is an elevating experience that provides an impetus for growth and promotes human dignity. It ultimately leads to enhanced interpersonal relationships.

Irrational Guilt, on the other hand - in the sense that I'm talking about here - is not about self-control, but rather the reverse. It's a debilitating and even crippling experience that erodes self-esteem and has no positive outcome. It's not about the intellect. It's about the heart ruling the head in the most negative sense.

In the end, rather than bringing people closer to their fellows, it creates barriers between them. This is surely a point of crucial significance.

In practice, how do we ensure that positive shame will never degenerate into irrational guilt? Sometimes it's far from easy, as we see from Sharon's unfortunate episode. In extreme cases, professional help may be required, especially when recurring guilt feelings are precipitated by one or more traumatic incidents in a person's past life.

Generally speaking, though, there's one yardstick that's useful in many different situations in determining whether a certain feeling, state of mind, or attitude is positive and constructive or unhealthy and destructive. What we have to look at ourselves in the mirror and ask ourselves the following question:

"Honestly, what's motivating me? Is it my ego or am I motivated by a sincere interest in the the party I'm involved with or in the people around me?"

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Wednesday, May 11, 2005

Motivating Employees: What Do They Really Want?

Some years, ago, I retold an interesting workplace story as related in a book by Barbara Garson.

A clerk in a large insurance company happened to spot a glaring discrepancy in a form she was typing. In a certain store owner's policy, two figures had been transposed through a simple error. The result was the store was insured for $165 000 against vandalism but only for $5 000 against fire. The clerk's first instinct was to reach for the phone to inform her supervisor of the error, for the sake of the unfortunate store owner.

"But wait a minute," she then thought to herself. "I'm not supposed to read these forms. I'm just supposed to check one column against another...If they're gonna give me a robot's job to do, I'm gonna do it like a robot."

Revealing, isn't it? The president of a large industrial corporation summed up the problem well when he confessed in a radio interview: "Most companies assume you should check your brains every morning at the factory door."

What's also interesting is that in the end, the insurance clerk - against her better judgment, so to speak - did apparently inform her supervisor about the error. Garson believes this highlights one undeniable fact: "For most people, it's hard and uncomfortable to do a bad job."

That's undeniably true, but when people opt for putting their best foot forward in today's workplaces, they often find that not a few obstacles are thrown in their path. And when executives and managers set out to give their employees the self-respect they badly need and deserve and some feeling of job satisfaction, these do-gooders at the top sometimes find that the whole area is full of minefields. Further, when companies decide to reward their workers for exceptional performance, the impact is often far from what they intended.

So what's going wrong? David Sirota, co-author of The enthusiastic Employee: How Companies Profit By Giving Workers What They Want sheds a lot of light on the subject in a special interview with Knowledge@Wharton. According to Sirota, asking how to motivate employees is a silly question. The real question is: "How do you keep management from destroying motivation?"

He points out that people coming to a new job are quite enthusiastic, but morale, or enthusiasm, declines precipitously after five or six months. And in case you should interject that natural honeymoons always come to an end in any event, we find that in 10% of companies the honeymoon does indeed continue throughout a worker's career. So if organizations that are able to sustain enthusiasm do exist, why can't the rest follow suit?

The crux of the matter is, of course, that it's pretty hard to be wildly enthusiastic about a company that's not enthusiastic about you. Not even to mention if it couldn't care a darn about you.

Sirota is quick to counter his colleagues in the human resources industry who claim that direct financial remuneration is not in itself all that relevant nowadays. Baloney!" is Sirota's response..."If I feel underpaid and if I feel that the company is nickeling and diming me, or wants to pay as little as possible, there is not much else an organization can do to boost my morale."

But having said that, he stresses that there's another side to the equity, or sense of being treated fairly, that every employee seeks. Simply put, workers wanted to be treated respectfully, not as children or criminals.

Admittedly, a very small part of every workforce - Sirota estimates about 5% is "allergic" to work. Then you have a very small minority who not only shirk but actually make trouble. "But the bulk of the problem is not hostility. It's that people have become indifferent." But in any event, asks Sirota, who to employers have to generalize from the troublemakers to the rest of the workforce? "The mistake we make is that we feel we have to be consistent, that we have to make the same rules for everybody, so companies are consistent in treating everybody as a child or criminal."

And that, he emphasizes, is very, very destructive.

On a higher level, but not all that much, is the style of management Sirota calls "transactional", where workers are like ciphers. The attitude at the top is: "We paid you, now we are even. We don't owe you anything." The highest and most desirable level is the "partnership organization where the "because I paid you, we are now even" doesn't enter into the picture. "It's more like a relationship between mature adults -- not children or enemies, but allies. "

And what more could any employee - or any employer - wish for?

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