Monday, January 5, 2009

Guest Blogger 1.0

I asked an Industrial and Organizational Psychologist what would he do differently if he had his own country.

He is a senior academic at the Rotterdam School of Management; Erasmus University. He teaches classes and in-company programs in Human Resources and Organizational Behavior. While his academic work experience includes teaching students in his native United States, the majority of his teaching has been in Europe focusing on the needs and interests of an international audience. Previously, he also taught at Instituto de Empresa in Madrid, Spain.

In addition, he is involved in facilitation and teaching within organizations as an independent consultant with a focus on the areas of Human Resources, leadership, and organizational culture and values.

Previously, he was a Human Resource consultant at Towers Perrin, one of the world’s largest global management consulting firms, in Atlanta, Georgia, USA. As a consultant, he worked closely with organizations handling a variety of project types including: performance management, multi-source assessment systems, competency-based training systems, frameworks for attracting, selecting and retaining talent, and staffing during mergers and acquisitions.

He received his Ph.D. and Master’s degrees in Industrial and Organizational Psychology from Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta, Georgia, USA. He did his undergraduate work at Texas A&M University in College Station, Texas, USA. So without further adieu:

If I had my own country… The first thing that came to mind was some set of policy decisions that would straighten out the plethora of problems in the world today. But, I immediately realized that I am not informed enough to be able to consider such actions and their consequences.

For example, living here in Holland, there are a few unique policies (or social experiments, depending on who you speak to) that the Dutch are known for. The two best known are probably the legalization of prostitution and the decriminalization of soft drugs combined with the blind eye approach of the law to the selling of soft drugs in coffee shops. Two of the main drivers behind the legalization of prostitution and drugs were to reduce the criminal element (read “organized crime”) in these operations and to be able to tax them (from here on I am going to write “legalization of drugs” for readability purposes. Drugs are not actually legal in Holland. Instead, they just officially ignore the possession of up to five grams of marijuana for personal use. However, this toleration means that drugs are, from a practical point, legal and that is easier to write). Many people inside and (especially) outside of Holland have heralded these two policies (especially the latter) as enlightened and progressive government approaches to timeless social issues. However, recently cracks have been appearing in these experiments.

For example, there is evidence of an increasing amount of criminal element and mafia activities in both the prostitution and drug activities. An article from in December 2008 writes about the notorious Red Light District in Amsterdam, “The council has already shut down or bought out the owners of around 25% of the brothel windows because of their alleged criminal connections. The plan stems from a major enquiry into crime in the city’s red light district which was published in 1998. The report warned the area was largely under the control of organized crime.” This is more than just the prostitution windows, “the plans include halving the number of prostitution windows, closing cannabis cafes and cracking down on companies which operate as a front for money laundering.” And this is not just limited to Amsterdam’s Red Light District. Another article in October of 2008 says that the town of Alkmaar, 19 miles north of Amsterdam, is closing 92 red light district windows operated by one company because its owner is thought to have criminal connections.”

From a tourism point of view, the drug policy is often seen as very positive because about 25% of tourists to Holland visit the coffee shops to smoke hash and these tourists are much less likely to cause trouble than the tourists that get drunk. However, even this up-side of the policy has its down-side as reported in the Dutch newspaper NRC in October 288, “The towns of Roosendaal and Bergen op Zoom on the Dutch-Belgian border are to close down all the cafes which sell marijuana because of the problems being caused by drug tourists. Every week 25,500 French and Belgian nationals flock to the towns to buy marijuana from their eight so-called coffee shops. The influx of tourists is causing traffic congestion, petty crime and street dealing, and all efforts to reduce the nuisance have failed.” Wikipedia reports Roosendaal and Bergen op Zoom to have populations of 66,660 and 65,691, respectively. Another report says that police officers in the southern city of Maastricht deal with triple the amount of crime as their colleagues in the similarly sized metropolitan area of The Hague. Most of the crime in Maastricht is drug-related, and the number of drug-related murders each year is increasing, according to police officials.

Ironically, the nationwide law forbidding smoking in public buildings including restaurants and bars that was introduced this summer is a ban on tobacco products. Therefore, it is still legal to smoke straight hash in a coffee shop but if someone wants to cut the strength of the hash by adding tobacco to it then the person has to smoke it in special rooms isolated for smoking. That is, you are freer to smoke straight hash then cutting it with tobacco.

OK, enough about prostitution and drugs. My main point was that I am not sure about a specific policy that I would implement if I had my own country. Implementing specific policies is very complicated stuff and I just wanted to illustrate this by introducing the current debates regarding the oft-sighted progressive policies of Holland.

So, what would I do in my own country? Well, I would seriously consider introducing a national measure of my country’s health and welfare. Specifically, the country of Bhutan measures their Gross National Happiness (GNH). According to the Washington Times (Dec, 2008), in the 1970s, their king shifted the focus of development from productivity to human well-being in four areas: sustainable economic development, preservation and promotion of cultural values, conservation of the environment and good governance. Now, I do not want to get into discussions about the human rights track record of Bhutan. However, I seriously like the idea of not only measuring a nation’s success in economic terms. It is well known that “what you measure is what you get.” That is, when something becomes measurable and is reported, then people start to take it seriously. If you want higher sales in your organization then start measuring sales and reporting them. If you want better customer service, then measure it.

I am not naïve. I do not think that this would be easy (e.g., defining and measuring “happiness” or well-being) nor would it be 100% accurate. But, you can just look at the recent financial crisis to see that 100% accuracy and understanding are not prerequisites for something being incredibly powerful. Moreover, there are many researchers that are already studying “happiness” (or often measured as “subjective well-being”) on the individual and national levels. For example, as reported in the BBC special called “The Happiness Formula”, over recent years the:

"standard of living has increased dramatically and happiness has increased not at all, and in some cases has diminished slightly," said Professor Daniel Kahneman of the University of Princeton. "There is a lot of evidence that being richer... isn't making us happier" The research suggests that richer countries do tend to be happier than poor ones, but once you have a home, food and clothes, then extra money does not seem to make people much happier. It seems that that level is after average incomes in a country top about £10,000 [$14,500] a year. Scientists think they know the reason why we do not feel happier despite all the extra money and material things we can buy.

First, it is thought we adapt to pleasure. We go for things which give us short bursts of pleasure whether it is a chocolate bar or buying a new car. But it quickly wears off. Secondly, it is thought that we tend to see our life as judged against other people. We compare our lot against others. Richer people do get happier when they compare themselves against poorer people, but poorer people are less happy if they compare up.

The good news is that we can choose how much and who we compare ourselves with and about what, and researchers suggest we adapt less quickly to more meaningful things such as friendship and life goals.”

So, if getting richer and richer as an individual and/or as a country does not lead to more happiness, then why does economic growth seem to overshadow all other measures of success? That is what I would challenge in my country if I had one. I would try to create a “rich country” in economic terms (e.g., homes, food, clothing and some extra money for everyone) but I would also measure and strive to find ways to be “rich” in non-economic terms. Difficult? Of course. Worth it? I cannot imagine anything more important.

Bill Collins

January 4, 2009

Yes he's my brother, and his next contribution will be "My Country, The Lighter Side of Life" Guest Blog 1.1

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