People: your greatest but most complicated business decision

Apr 25, 2017

Dr Robert Kinsel Smith

by Dr. Bob Smith

I was generally not a nervous child, but recalling one particular memory still causes my muscles to tense and makes me to think the worst is about to happen: the times my mother would use a pressure cooker. Whether I intuitively knew it or had been taught by my scientist father, I was anxiously aware that high levels of pressure could cause a normally sturdy pot to explode like a lethal bomb. And by the time you realized it was unsafe, it was too late – the contraption would have blown up!

Fortunately, my mother never had a defective pressure cooker. The companies that made them knew the properties of their materials under all kinds of conditions. Before engineers ever decided which metals to use, they tested different alloys to see how each would act under extreme pressures. The manufacturers understood that a pot good for boiling water may fail when exposed to high pressure and heat, so they did extensive testing to ensure the materials were safe.

As with pressure cookers, so too, it is with people.

In social situations, I often hear people comment about a known rascal whom they just met saying, "He's so nice!" Most of the time I keep my remarks to myself, but my mind always races to the same thoughts, "Of course he was nice! You weren't negotiating fees with him. You weren't disagreeing with him. You don't work for him and did something he thought was wrong." When we categorize people ("He's nice," "He's a jerk," "He's an extrovert"), that definition ends up serving as a filter in our brains. This filter causes us to remember certain things and forget or deny other things about a person. So when we think someone is nice, we ignore or rationalize situations that don't fit the definition. For example, we often see a citizen being interviewed on the nightly news asserting that she just can't believe that her neighbor committed a horrible crime. Her words usually are, "He couldn't have done that, he was always such a pleasant neighbor." The filter we internally create often causes us to let down our guard and trust people with things that are valuable to us.

This is why I am against using static, non-dynamic tools when working with people. Using a tool that defines an infinite and dynamic person into static and very limited categories leads its users to think about people in static, non-dynamic ways. Even though the tool might be accurate in defining the person under normal conditions, to encourage businesspeople to think about employees and colleagues this way is like an engineer telling a manufacturer to make a pressure cooker about of aluminum foil! It can be dangerous and naively simplistic.

Thus, is it any wonder that executives who have people problems in the workplace don't believe training is worth the investment? Too often human resource specialists rely on static tools to describe and assess people; psychologists and attorneys continue to focus on the singular guilt of an individual to assign responsibility for problems (see the books The Lucifer Effect and Discover Your Blind Spots for thorough descriptions of how individuals behave differently in various contexts). When we use a oversimplified approach to develop our understanding about people, we'll always be left with knowledge that does not hold up under intense pressure.

Many of these problems can be avoided.

Our starting point must be an accurate understanding about people. People are more difficult to understand than finance, game theory, or the law.

We have to abandon the commonly used, elementary methods (as nuclear scientists must abandon arithmetic and learn quantum mechanics and calculus) if we are going to improve our effectiveness in hiring, training, promoting, motivating, and developing people and building teams.

To maximize our effectiveness with people, we must avoid thinking in ways that categorize individuals based solely on their everyday behavior. We must include an approach that incorporates the ways different conditions affect people at different times. And ultimately we must remember that the souls of individuals are infinite. Feelings can cause people to act in ways that are totally unpredictable and explainable.

When we think about people this way, we will know them more accurately and we will better understand how we affect them by what we do and don’t do, which helps us be more effective in all phases of life.

Dr. Bob Smith is Chairman of Clear Direction, Inc and the senior adviser for ZERORISK HR. Dr. Smith is known for his proprietary development methods and materials that are based on the science of axiology, a science discovered by Nobel nominee, Dr. Robert S. Hartman. Dr. Smith founded the Academy of Value Sciences, a public foundation for the advancement and application of formal value sciences.

ZERORISK helps organizations build great cultures by identifying, developing, and retaining top talent. The ZERORISK Hiring System blends a revolutionary behavioral science with state-of-the-art technology to reduce unwanted turnover and improve employee performance. For more information contact us at (800) 827-5991.

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