This blog post is excerpted from Chapter 1 of Transforming IT Culture.
Our industrial past is still with us. It enabled us to perfect the use of networks, processes and computers but left us blind to the human infrastructure. The management beliefs and practices that caused this blindness have flowed from one generation of leaders to the next, forming an unbroken chain of inheritance back to Frederick Taylor and our industrial past. We involuntarily embrace the operational, organizational, and administrative norms that emanate from a time where the focus was unfeeling machines, assembly lines, production processes and controls and where the sensations and emotions of the workers were inconsequential to the bottom line. This culturally transmitted blindness causes a condition where our knowledge workers and the social systems that bind them together are invisible, because we have been taught not to see them.
The source of this blindness is not just work but our educational system as well. All the way through school, we were taught to think but not to feel. People often say, “I think I feel” instead of “I feel.” Consequently, no one has learned to feel, understand, and productively use their emotions, let alone see them in others. It is an enormous blind spot because emotion is critical to both personal and professional success, especially if you become a leader, at which point social intelligence is a crucial tool. No one can flourish without fully understanding themselves and their impact on others. Although we live and work in a world driven by emotion, most people are left to discover it on their own.
Moreover, humans also have limited conscious capacity. The world of early humans was a very dangerous place, so we are wired to focus on a few critical things. Think about how an easily distracted mind would have made humans a much easier prey. This concentrated focus is clearly a survival skill.
As a result, most people today can concentrate on something if you tell them to. A famous psychological study called the Invisible Gorilla shows the strength of this phenomenon. In this experiment, a group of observers are asked to carefully watch a three-and-a-half-minute movie and count how many times a basketball is passed between a group of players. During the short film a large man in a gorilla suit walks right across the screen, stops, waves, and then exits the scene. You would think no one could miss him, but half the observers do. Why? They are doing what humans do very well: focusing on precisely what they have been asked to focus on.
Corporate America is mostly blind to the human factors of productivity. In today’s world of work, it is the equivalent of the waving gorilla. It is very large and consequential, but few see it in front of us.
Unfortunately, the behavioral and psychological aspects of social collaboration clash with the insensitive nature of today’s leadership style. Knowledge work is incompatible with the inhumane practices of the industrial era, causing low returns on human capital and high levels of disengagement. The world of work has changed, but our practices have not. It is time to rehumanize work and apply one hundred years of research in the sciences at long last.
People count. They always have.