The Human Factor

At a recent conference on disability management I heard a true story that got me thinking about managers’ fear of dealing with the human element at work.

The story, told by a vibrant gentleman in his fifties, concerned his role as the medical director for a division of General Electric in the mid-eighties. He was called in to investigate the evening shift at a plant that, with only fifty hourly employees, had logged fifty-two lost time accidents the previous year. Despite the medical director’s recommendations, the supervisor refused to implement shift rotations or to allow modified work even when a physican’s note specified it. As he demanded that employees either put in a full shift of work or go home, employees went home at the drop of a hat if they felt the least discomfort.

A few months later a new supervisor, Bill, took over. Bill agreed that it was critical to address the issue, but rather than authorizing the implementation himself, he gathered the employees on his shift together to discuss the problems with injuries and to ask what they thought needed to happen. Not only did the employees decide of their own accord to implement shift rotation and modified work, but those staff who had easier jobs and more seniority actually volunteered to let those with injuries take their jobs for parts of each shift.

But Bill didn’t stop there. Every evening, he went around to each injured worker to ask how he or she was. He spent many minutes of his valuable time listening attentively to their pains and difficulties. After listening patiently he would look at the employee and genuinely thank them for coming in and contributing to the team.  Within a few weeks the evening shift “shifted” and went three consecutive years without even one lost time accident. The employees were so loyal to Bill that even when the medical director told people to go home they would refuse saying, “I can’t. Bill needs me.”

Despite three years running the shift no lost time accidents, the least absenteeism and the highest productivity in the company, the other supervisors rated Bill as being the worst supervisor. Why? Because he was letting the workers tell him what they could and could not do.

While his approach may have run counter to conventional ‘command and control” management wisdom in the eighties, research has long since built the bottom line business case for the “Bill” approach. Yet even though leaders hear and read about this research constantly, very few of them apply it. Why, with an approach so simple, so effective, so inexpensive to implement, and so impactful on the bottom line, is it still so seldom seen in action?
The first line of defense is that it simply takes too long. Certainly in the short-term, Bill’s approach did take more of his time than a command and control approach might have. However when one looks at the big picture, his time investment paid huge dividends in productivity and bottom line profit. The old adage “you don’t have time not to” has never been more true.

The reality may be simply that managers are still functioning with an industrial-age mentality despite working in an information-age economy. This mentality claims that businesses succeed to the degree they can eliminate, or at the very least control, the human element by replacing it with machines, systems, and supervision in order to turn out consistent, predictable results. In today’s marketplace, however, where change is constant and the market is flooded with predictable products, organizations that thrive are the ones that are able to capitalize on the human element to provide extraordinary products and service, rather than eliminate it.

To do this, leaders must step outside their comfort zone of the science and systems and into the much scarier “gray” zone of the human spirit and the inexact art of communication. They must face their fears that in allowing people to talk about their aches, pains and other challenges, they will be enabling them to stay stuck in victim mode. Instead they must learn to trust that, by truly listening to and appreciating each individual, they become a catalyst for their employees to see and call forth the best in themselves. In short, managers must stop viewing people as the weakest link in the business value creation chain, and really start to believe that they are not only the strongest one, but the very foundation of business success.

This sentiment is not new. As early as the 1800’s, Unilever founder William Hesketh Lever gave this sage advice, “If we leave the human factor out of our business calculations, we shall lose every time.” While learning to deal with the human factor is a bit messy at first, once you learn the ropes, it not only increases your chances of winning, it makes the game a whole lot more fun for everyone.

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