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Systems Thinking

Don’t blame me. The ‘system’ wrote this

in Editor Pick/Work Psychology by

My friend was holding a can of soft drink and as he checked his watch he poured the drink on his foot. A person in my line of work—Human Factors—would call this ‘human error’.

How would we interpret the situation if, instead of laughing, I simply rolled my eyes and lost respect for my friend?

What if they ruined their shoes?

What if it left a puddle on the ground that led to someone slipping over?

What if after slipping over the person cracked their head and died?

What if that unfortunate person was also holding the cure for cancer and now this silly act of tomfoolery had led to the unnecessary suffering and death of people all over the planet?

But let’s say my friend knew they were going to pour the drink on their foot. It might be for a laugh and to get a reaction—to play the clown. This would no longer be an error but a form of intentional behaviour. That is, there is some additional calculation of the brain that determines the behaviour is a worthy idea.

So now, instead of being a catastrophic event caused by a harmless error, my friend is culpable. That few seconds of planning and intent is everything.

The cause of the event can be found in the deep, complex recesses of my friend’s brain. Somewhere in there neurons fired in unison and sent signals to my friend’s wrist to twist and pour the drink. Somewhere in this brain there is something to blame and assign fault.

Alternatively, the blame is elsewhere. It could be attributed to the broader system. My friend may have been trying to impress me with their sense of humour. So, he was under peer influence.

The soft drink can manufacturers could be blamed as they designed the can. They also failed to display a warning message that these kinds of events could occur.

The surface on the footpath may be to be partly to blame. Surely, it shouldn’t become slippery from a small amount of liquid.

Local councils may have under-invested in the quality of footpaths due to a broader systemic issue related to funding.

The funding was the result of an economic downturn and, yep, we were willing to tolerate the possibility of soft drink-related deaths so we could save a few dollars.

Perhaps even the broader culture is to blame. After all, we live in the age of YouTube videos and Facebook where individuals love to play the fool to get some much-needed applause from their peers.

Of course, if we play out a genuine scenario where an error—as harmless as it can be—led to true catastrophic events, the same basic logic is often applied after the event. What plays out time and time again is the extent to which a person caused a problem and how much of this was caused by the ‘system’.

I feel deeply uncomfortable with blaming individuals even when they choose to do silly things. This is because I sometimes do silly things myself. Likewise, I feel deeply uncomfortable with blaming the ‘system’ as it leads to a whole host of other implications.

Importantly, blaming behaviour on the ‘system of influences’ suggests that we must also accept that success, bravery, creativity and acts of kindness are the result of the system. Nevertheless, we often seek to praise and reward individuals when they demonstrate these positive attributes but can quickly revert to blaming the system when they display poor behaviour.

Is the system causing these things or not? I’m not sure we can have our cake and eat it too.

The heart of my discomfort is probably related to the concept of free will. When we seek to blame individuals for their mistakes and punish them, we must also assume that they have the free will to choose this action.

When we blame the system, and argue a complex series of events over time culminated in the event, making the individual a passive participant in the transaction of soft drink homicide, we imply that the individual does not have free will.

Systems thinking might be seen as a cover for deterministic thinking.

Deep down we want to blame people because the idea that we don’t have a choice in the matter is also alarming. If I do not have choice, then what am I? And can I celebrate my successes? Who’s typing this blog anyway? The system?

And if people generally feel more comfortable blaming others then this is ultimately a product of the system too. So, we have a deterministic system that basically advocates free will. Is your head spinning with this pop-philosophy?

There is, of course, a softer conclusion to draw. We might argue that individuals have choice but are heavily influenced by their past and immediate surroundings. Somewhere in my friend’s brain, the system has contaminated their intentions but those neurons still have the capacity to side-step the infection and come up with an alternative.

The individual, according to this view, triumphs over the system. But, then again, how did the brain achieve this? Aren’t those neurons ultimately a product of the person’s genes, development and experiences? That is, all elements of the system anyway?

So, when I see someone actively trying to force blame on individuals, I believe we are no better at understanding individuals—perhaps much less so—than we were thousands of years ago when ancient philosophers debated free will and determinism.

Deep down, they are reconciling their discomfort with determinism like the time Aristotle pretended to spill wine on his foot to get a good laugh…


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?

One thing to motivate employees…

in Work Psychology by


My old man told me his boss reckoned he needed only one thing to motivate employees: a four by two (a timber club). Fortunately, an intriguing theory suggests that we can achieve this without the four by two.

According to this theory, developed by Dr Simon Moss, all you have to do is give people a sense of purpose and meaning.

Called the Model of Sustained Strivings (MOSS – get it), this theory explains that all the positive changes we want to see in employees–such as increased motivation, open and creative thinking, improved decision-making, self-awareness and resilience–occur naturally when our jobs and lives are meaningful.

But how do you actually give someone meaning?

It’s more like four things you need to do…

Dr Moss suggests it might not actually be as simple as doing one thing. Instead, it is as simple as doing four things.

First, you need to create a stable and predictable workplace, providing a sense of control. Humans are instinctively cautious, closed-off, and unimaginative when their immediate environment is unpredictable. Think of how creative you would get if you were wondering around the jungle with a tiger lurking in the undergrowth!

In the workplace, creating clear, unambiguous expectations goes a long way to creating a stable workplace, for example when we clarify policies, procedures and rules.

The second determinant of meaning is working in a supportive and cooperative environment. Think about the last time you worked with people who didn’t really help you or possibly even undermined your efforts. When you are not supported, you tend to work just to survive not to improve.

We are also in this mindset when our workplace keeps changing and the future is uncertain. The third determinant of meaning implies that we want to have some continuity and consistency to know that what we are working on today will be valued in the future, otherwise it feels like a meaningless exercise.

Lastly, being allowed to be different and unique is essential to demonstrate our capability. This determinant of meaning boosts our self-esteem and motivates us to keep trying to improve.

Ok, so now you have the four things required to motivate and improve? Presumably, all you have to do is implement programs to address these four areas?

Unfortunately, according to Dr Moss, the research shows us that each determinant can directly contradict the other. So, capability impedes cooperation. Cooperation impedes consistency, and so on.

For example, while you are promoting ‘one culture’ and a unified team, you may also be undermining a person’s need to stand out and be different. Similarly, you tend to learn more and develop your unique capabilities in different, therefore uncertain, workplaces but these workplaces also make us feel insecure and undermine meaning.

Ok, maybe six things you need to do…

Fortunately, you can resolve these issues. All you have to do is six things (are you seeing a pattern here?).

How might you might reconcile the need for certainty and need to develop in novel and uncertain environments? Dr Moss suggests that when people feel stressed learning in novel environments, they could learn to associate these feelings with excitement in recognition of the opportunity to develop. By doing so, you can boost your capability and perceive the change as a challenge rather than something to fear.

To resolve the contradiction between feeling unique and unifying your teams, you could rotate the responsibilities of leaders. That is, you promote leadership on some tasks, allowing people to learn and develop but ensure they are subordinates on other tasks, to help encourage trust and cooperation.

But, to get all these things to work, you need to just do these 28 things…

Just kidding.

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