The Power of Thought

Human behaviour is not mechanical. Organisations need to remember human thought shapes the response to efforts to shape behaviour. As we move into the agile small team environment of the future of work, the importance of an environment that fosters effective thinking increases.

Mechanistic Behaviour

Our mechanical model of management designed for large scale replication of activity with consistency assumes that human behaviour is another unit of the system.  Rewards and incentives, performance management, process work are all part of the toolkit of managing human behaviour to consistent outcome in this system. We have so ingrained this mechanical model of human behaviour our first reaction to disappointments in behaviour are to tweak the system with new incentives, threats, processes and policies.

However, the original intent of this approach was to rely on averages to deliver consistency of human behaviour.  Scaled up to large groups our mechanical management systems delivered consistent outcomes in the form of an average level of performance. Individual performances would vary but the average would meet the needs of the organisation. We were not eliminating variation. We were expecting variation in individual performance based on talents and mindsets. We were relying on it to deliver a consistent outcome.

The failure of this model to work on an individual is only a failure of manager’s faulty expectations. As the world of work moves closer to small agile teams working independently and collaboratively, our capacity to rely on averages becomes even more vulnerable to volatility. Increasingly, we become more dependent on capabilities, an individual’s thought and the influence of group culture on an individual’s thoughts. We can hire for or train capabilities but there are many factors that play into an individual’s thoughts.

The Power of Thought

One of the most powerful examples of the influence of thought comes from a horrifying situation of powerlessness and vulnerability. Victor Frankl’s Man’s Search For Meaning is an account of his experience in a concentration camp in the Holocaust. The book describes how Frankl realised that to survive the experience he needed to recognise that his response to the daily horrors was driven by both his thoughts and his experiences. He could not control the experiences but he had the power to shape his inner life. This insight described as Stimulus + Thought = Response is where mechanical efforts to manage individual human behaviour breakdown.  Individual’s retain the ability to think and their thoughts are influenced by their whole life, not just the incentives and pressures of work.

Organisational culture also plays a significant role on performance because it has the capacity to influence individual’s thoughts.  Culture is the expectation of future behaviours and interactions in the organisation.  Culture is a series of thoughts employees have about how things get done and how things should be done. Those thoughts can foster performance or they hold it back. For example, in unsafe, highly controlling or mechanical management environments, the array of extrinsic motivations can dampen an employees intrinsic motivations to do a good job, to help others or to fulfil a personal purpose. The thought that “I must follow the rules no matter what” is rarely conducive to effective collaborations or interactions.  The complexity of circumstances creates rule anxiety rather than initiative.

Organisations that want to be effective in the agile small team environment of the future of work will need to create environments and cultures that are conducive to individual performances.  Rather than seeking to control responses with an array of stimuli, they need to build cultures that foster the effective patterns of thinking that help employees to out perform in complexity.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s