Skip to content

Feeling It: What Happens When Companies Ignore Human Factors of Production

Thought Leader
By Adam Nelson, Flywheel

I often think about how closely our world now resembles Star Trek. Warp drive and teleportation aren’t real yet, but most of the small-scale technologies imagined by the show (touch screens, cell phones, lasers cutters, voice interfaces, autonomous vehicles, etc.) are in regular use in our society. The “future” is either here, or it’s tantalizingly close.

Yet the closer we get, the more we discover that the tools we need to build this future aren’t mechanical, they’re human. The human relations challenges many companies are facing demonstrate the cognitive dissonance of technology development: people and machines work very, very differently.

As our economy continues to shift from manufacturing and towards technology and services, our understanding of what work looks like must also shift. The stereotypical image of “work” as monotonous industrial drudgery, reinforced by rigid hierarchies, needs to disappear.

The power of an individual worker to create a meaningful impact on their company’s products has never been greater, and this capacity for innovation need to be properly supported by the organization. Human-driven work requires workers to solve novel problems through the combination of their ideas, choices, and actions, and it’s essential to recognize that the factors of production that enable human-driven work are profoundly different from those of a generation ago.

“When work products are created by people’s brains, not just their bodies, how people feel about their work is inseparable from their ability to perform. Ignoring this, puts billions of dollars at risk. ”

When work products are created by people’s brains, not just their bodies, how people feel about their work is inseparable from their ability to perform. Ignoring this puts billions of dollars at risk. Unfortunately, since the traditional industrial model excludes any consideration of how people feel, the emotional quality of work is uncharted territory for many people.

Recognizing, respecting and working to positively affect the emotional landscape of your workplace is not froo-froo lovey-dovey team-buildy crap; it’s a deeply pragmatic approach to understanding what really motivates human beings to work hard to create something of value.

There are lots of models for human motivation, but Ron Friedman’s “The Best Place to Work” highlights three major things people want from their work: autonomy, the ability to make meaningful choices; competence, the ability to demonstrate skillful performance; and relatedness, the feeling of connection to others. Each of these factors has a profound emotional resonance, and together they shape an employee’s willingness not just to participate in work, but to actively contribute to the benefit of their company.

So how can your company begin to create an emotionally resonant, motivating and fulfilling workplace? Here are three ways to get started:

Ask your employees how they feel about their work and their workplace.

Surveys are useful tools to begin this conversation, but nothing can replace direct one-on-one conversations to capture the nuance of how people actually feel. These conversations can be very difficult, but they’re worth it.

Look beyond individual performance.

Most people want to do good work. When performance is lacking, it’s essential to identify whether the root cause is the deficiency of an individual employee or a problematic workflow that is disabling their ability to produce good work.

Increase your expectations for mistakes.

Some mistakes signal apathy or incompetence; others signal creative experimentation. It’s essential to make that distinction and to enable employees to make the mistakes that will help them become better at their jobs. Increasing and managing your expectations for mistakes creates more choices (autonomy), learning through trial and error (competence) and opportunities for greater understanding and forgiveness (relatedness).

Listen to Adam Nelson on TechVibe Radio

Adam Nelson is the founder and principal of Flywheel, which helps companies develop scalable and sustainable human processes at the intersection of operations and culture.