The human factor

I often come across HR people and managers of all levels complaining about how difficult it is to motivate a team. That even the best team tend to lose motivation quickly and resort to underperformance and general ‘whatever’ attitude, if not consistently controlled.

The point I’d like to make is not that there are multiple examples to the opposite (think Google), but more about general philosophy behind expectations of excellent performance.

And that is: expectations of top performance in 9-5 work schedule a flawed by default.

Firstly, according to various studies, human brain can only concentrate for a short period of time, and this is not 8 hours. We can only attentively listen for 12-18 minutes, and effectively work for 25-35 minutes, and pay attention to one subject for just more than one hour. So, we are not programmed to build budget forecast for 8 hours albeit the short breaks.

Secondly, truly intrinsically motivated and passionate performance is otherwise called ‘the flow’. This is a state of being where our focus is narrowed to the specific task we feel skillful, deeply engaged, emotionally driven and almost intoxicated in following the goal. It seems that HR would love you to switch on the flow at 9 am every morning on a weekdays, and perhaps occasionally at 9 pm for a different timezone call. The flow, amazing as it is, simply cannot be willfully imposed on oneself, or expected to happen at request. Just like falling in love, it’s chemistry and chance, not a switch to turn on.

Next point, none of us is talented and interested in just one thing. The best lawyers and accountant just as well may enjoy event planning, cleaning, gardening, competitive sports and facilitating. Yet most of the companies tend to stick to the industrial age human resourcing: they define a role, and then find someone who’d do it, automatically ignoring any other role or skill this person may have. The thinking comes from production planning, where human beings are considered to be spare parts performing a requested function. Trouble is – we are not spare parts. A human being cannot possibly be so one sided and plain.

Finally, often surprising to the management, we have lives. We have lives which do not fit in the morning-evening and weekend schedules. We have recollections, encounters, troubles, leaking taps and coming holidays, noisy neighbours and engagement propositions, cake sales and bills, parents and children, friends birthdays, tree surgeons and and an itchy label on the shirt. Lives that we cannot unrelate for 8 hours a day. Lives we actually work for, think about, care about, obsess about and laugh about.


So this is what happens. Management puts together a job description to a specific role with specific functions to perform, and they mark it as 100%. They then face inevitable disappointment in finding their human resources being human and only performing to 60% of it, and get annoyed with having to pay 100%. But the problem is not underperformance the problem is an expectation of robotic functioning from someone who’s not a robot.

So what does a minimally emotionally intelligent worker do? They fake it. They fake passion, engagement and sparkle in the eye, they fake busyness and hard effort. I don’t think anyone quantified it, but I dare to say the resource, time and effort spent on faking robotic performance is huge. And that is genuine energy taken away from a job and invested in pleasing the superiors with acceptable behaviour.

Is there a way out? I’m sure there is, at least I’m trying to build one in my own business. The first question I ask when I hire: ‘here’s the whole company and our goals. What tasks out of all of it interest you?’. And then I build a role around a human, not deflate a human to a role. Second question I ask: ‘how much comfortably would you like to work’. And then I plan work load and hires around it.

Granted, my company is small, and I don’t know whether the system would scale. I dream about a ‘task dispatcher’ system which would post tasks for grabs amongst dozens of trained people who pick them up at their time and will, very much like Uber. I dream about a compensation system to be based on commitment, reliability and contribution to the business, rather than hours of work. I realise it may be idealistic. I realise there are people who want secure pay and no responsibility. I realise there are roles and situations where someone may be required to work beyond the comfort zone.

What I strongly believe, however, is that the absence of an easy solution does not validate an outdated and faulty system.  I may not know how to make it right, but I know where it’s wrong. So I’ll keep experimenting.

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