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Human Factors

Um, so what exactly is Human Factors? A Space Odyessy

in Work Psychology by

There’s a moment in the film 2001: A Space Odyssey where our distant, ape-like, evolutionary ancestor spontaneously comprehends how a large bone can be used for violence.

Shortly after this moment he clubs an animal over the head and provides dinner for his furry pals. The weapon is then used as leverage to conquer a small, rival society to obtain access to a water hole.Depending on your background, you will probably view this scene in a few ways.

A risk expert may view the ape-man lowering his risk of starvation and exposing himself to a valuable survival opportunity. A project planner may consider this a perfect example of strategy, planning and execution, overcoming the exposed, unorganised society.

Social psychologists would be interested in the social dynamics of the groups bonding and uniting to promote their own survival. Useability experts might be more interested in the bone being used as a tool. The end-user finds it useful in achieving what they want to achieve.

Culture change individuals might be more interested in the shared values and attitudes of the ape-people, as well as the environmental influences that are promoting this change in group dynamics.

What would a Human Factors person think?

Human Factors looks at how all of these factors—risk, social dynamics, tools, planning, and so on—dynamically interact to influence outcomes.

The ape-man is being influenced by his culture and society and his basic need for survival. The tool and his social group assist him in achieving this goal.

The bone isn’t a tool unless it is used. The tool isn’t used if there is no drive for survival. The tool isn’t perceived as useful if the ape-man can’t comprehend its functionality and so on.

In the same way that reading this blog you don’t read the individual words or letters.

You don’t read the final paragraph and lose the meaning of what you read at the beginning. You also read my message in light of context provided from a movie released in 1968 and you assume that I am a person with a particular motive or message to deliver.

In short, somehow all the parts come together to deliver a message. Or to use an old cliché, ‘The whole is greater than the sum of its parts.’

But maybe my message isn’t clear. Have I planned it appropriately? Have I underestimated the risk of you failing to comprehend it? Perhaps the message isn’t a useable one. It’s too long or boring.

Perhaps it needs some Human Factors?


Aesthetics is more than just window dressing (except when you’re working on windows)

in Work Psychology by


Steve Jobs knew instinctively that consumers would want to select their own typefaces or fonts. People don’t just want to read and deliver content. They also want it to look good too.

Since the early days of the Apple Macs, we now have more and more options on how to format and improve the attractiveness of our documents and presentations.Finally there’s research that validates all that tinkering around with fonts, borders, styles, layouts, headers, footers and clip art.


This research shows that working on these aesthetics—that is, the beauty and attractiveness of things—is one of the easiest ways to lower resistance to new ideas.To understand why this is let’s look at one of the main reasons why people resist change: well-ingrained behaviours, beliefs and values.

When the change appears to challenge who we are and what we believe, we react and can dismiss the ideas even if they sensible.

What appears to lower this resistance is getting people to actively think or talk about their personal values or what seems to interest them—called self-affirmation. Self-affirmation appears to anchor and solidify our sense of self so that we don’t feel as threatened when a change is proposed.

A universal value relates to aesthetics. In general, we all value beauty and attractiveness, even if it’s just on an unconscious level. So, by exposing individuals to something which is more aesthetic is a way of reaffirming one of their core values.

For example, in one study individuals were shown a university guidebook which described and showed the campus. One group of participants were exposed to an aesthetically pleasing campus. Another group looked at a campus with a focus on functionality and efficiency.


Aesthetically pleasing


Not aesthetically pleasing

After reviewing the guidebook, participants were presented with options that were either advocated by the researcher or not.Participants exposed to the aesthetically pleasing campus were more inclined to endorse the advocated option. In other words, they were more easily influenced after viewing the aesthetically pleasing material.

In a related study, the researchers found that being shown these aesthetically pleasing products led to increased openness. Participants stated they were more likely engage in certain behaviours like attending a service of a religion they did not practise.

So, spending that little bit of extra time working on the look and feel of a solution isn’t just for your own satisfaction. It could actually make the the difference in persuading someone to your cause.

Don’€™t worry about swimming with the sharks. Worry about those jellyfish

in Work Psychology by


The enemy approached. Facing insurmountable numbers, the Japanese deployed the razor net and sliced through them like paper. But the enemy’s numbers merely increased exponentially.

No, this isn’t some strange tale from World War 2. This recent event occurred when a small army of Japanese fishing boats tried desperately to plough through the ever increasing number of jellyfish decimating entire ecosystems of sea life.

What the Japanese didn’t anticipate was that attacking jellyfish only triggers an evolutionary mechanism which causes them to breed even more rapidly.

Each day, we make decisions that are no different from the frustrated Japanese fisherman. We confront our problems head on with force, deploying countermeasures and controls to prevent them recurring. Yet, the same problems seem to persevere and sometimes they generate other issues as well.

What we are often doing is targeting the symptoms not the cause.

Take the jellyfish conundrum. Pollution and overdevelopment along coastlines provide a rich and fertile environment for these great survivors to breed. We then overfish most of their natural predators and wipe out the rest with further pollution.

The jellyfish are now in a position to devour whole ecosystems.

In our workplaces the ecosystem is becoming more complex with people complaining about endless red tape and new roles being created to manage the chaos. A common way to address this perceived lack of order is to increase focus on compliance. You know the drill. Increase accountability, oversight, performance monitoring, procedures etc.

Unfortunately, like jellyfish, employees are resistant and adaptive. Their non-compliance triggers greater scrutiny and monitoring. And when you’re looking for problems, you tend to find them. The deviations from rules, therefore, appear to escalate even more. More controls are put in place which need monitoring and attention.

Meanwhile, because management are paying such close attention to every nuance of operations, the employees lose ownership of their tasks and activities. They become disengaged because they can’t genuinely get behind all these management obligations.

Managers introduce programs to improve employee engagement and reduce turnover, fuelling more complexity, roles, and approaches to measure and monitor employee performance. We’ve created a thriving ecosystem of complexity.

At the heart of fixing these issues is an approach called ‘systems thinking’. This approach allows us to map the real issues of the organisation and treat it like the ecosystem it is.

Lack of uniformity and inconsistent operations, for example, may not be really the problem. The systems map may reveal that the leaders haven’t set a clear and inspiring vision. Maybe they’ve been spending too much time deploying the razor net?

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