SUMMARY: One of the most well-worn and repeated themes in every generation – often in different language to make it more popular and up-to-date – is the tension between the human factor and the job to be done. We have to do something or should do something (performance) but we don’t want to or believe we can’t do it (human factor). There are no easy solutions to resolving this tension, but this brief article will suggest ways in which we can recognize and try to deal with it in a constructive way.
What is the human factor?
It would ridiculous to attempt to answer this question in a few lines. I have a 360 page text nestling in my bookcase which summarizes the work of 36 psychologists working in six different fields of the subject. But there are a few fundamentals which, in the hurly burly of living our lives or getting the job done would probably be acknowledged by all students of the human factor in the work context.
- There is a process of PERCEPTION – interpreting a situation according to our recognition of the situation, our feelings and attitudes associated with what we see, our past experience and memories, and the way our brains process information through our sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems and the limbic system – all well below the surface, mostly unconscious and happening in ourselves as well as those we observe.
- An INTERNAL and unconscious response takes place in all of us – in those we observe and in ourselves the observers. It is a complex dialogue between our perceptions and internal brain responses. In a matter of a few split seconds this magnificent instrument we call a brain is not only influencing our perceptions, but is in ongoing conversation with our perceptions and interpretations, influencing these perceptions and, in turn, being influenced by them.
- An EXTERNAL response is what we see on the outside – what we and others say, do and write. If we ignore the internal and unseen responses of others and ourselves we are unlikely to make an objective assessment of behaviour and take the appropriate action.
All of us – leaders, managers, teachers and parents – tend to see the external behaviour of ourselves and others, which is probably only about 5% of total behaviour – only the tip of the iceberg. It is rather like the three blind men, one feeling the tail of the elephant and perceiving a rope; another feeling the trunk and perceiving a snake; and a third feeling the leg and perceiving a tree trunk. All three missed perceiving the elephant. We all have blind spots about ourselves and others. In my conversation with a tennis champion the other day, she was adamant that 80% of success in winning a match was in the mind and the player’s attitude. Tennis, rugby, cricket and soccer coaches spend a lot of time getting this less obvious below-the- surface PERCEPTION and INTERNAL behaviour right in their players. Can managers and leaders afford to do less? We guess, we make assumptions, we are governed by our prejudices and the labels we attach to others. We are driven to “save time” and just get the job done when, mostly, quality time spent looking below the tip of the iceberg would prevent repeating past mistakes and thereby save time. It would be so much easier if humans were efficient robots or machines!! I was talking to the chairperson of a management committee in a large non-profit organization the other day when he said, “If people here can’t learn to manage they shouldn’t be here. It’s not our job to worry about them getting it right. They must get it right themselves”. Yes, this is true. But as he was saying this I was very aware how this same person filtered out all ideas and suggestions which didn’t fit his view of the way the job should be done, leading to a major blockage in upward communication. Yet he was a thoroughly likeable and intelligent person. Even though I gently confronted him, he stressed he was always open to ideas and suggestions – unaware that this was true provided they fitted his perspectives and didn’t threaten him!
This human factor below the waterline – this 95% of our behaviour – is being increasingly addressed through training in emotional intelligence, learning to read non-verbal behaviour, dealing with defensiveness and threat, and handling conflict. Joint Problem Solving programmes spend considerable time in helping leaders to look below the surface at themselves and in others. Even if we penetrate only 10% more of these perceptions and internal responses in ourselves and others, we would be more effective in getting the human factor to match the performance factor.
A tool to explore the iceberg below the waterline – job re-design
In these updates, we often end up with some kind of check list which can be used to help us towards a better match between the human factor and the job to be done. The inserted check list has been used in organizations where ‘redesigning jobs for better motivation and performance’ is considered a priority. It is only a tool, but has been successfully used to help managers get a better reading of the ‘human factor’ and how they may bridge the gap between what people expect and what the job offers. Clearly, there will seldom be a perfect match, but the inserted check list can help managers and leaders to start this journey towards ‘perceiving’ the human factor more clearly below the tip of the iceberg, then exploring practical ways to bridge the gap between the person and the job.
A suggested Plan for involving others – stage 5 of the JPS cycle – could be:
- Approach a particular person who may be a good candidate for applying this tool and invite them to discuss it since “we are testing ways of matching people more effectively to their jobs”. There is a risk in doing this, in that the person may see this is a ‘trick’ to catch them out and expose their weaknesses. Every situation is different and we have to assess the Readiness of the other person to participate and make the appropriate adjustments to our approach.
- Once they have understood the check list and the terms within it, invite them to complete it from their perspective NOT from the organization’s perspective. There are no right or wrong answers.
- Check the extent to which they are willing to do this and how they would feel about discussing the gaps, explaining that there is no guarantee that all the gaps can be bridged within the practical constraints of the organization’s resources.
- If they are willing and understand what is required, give them time to complete the questionnaire, then meet with them to identify and tackle the negative gaps (where B is less that A) making good use of a Joint Problem Solving approach.