It’s not a people problem

clock parts

It’s a situation problem. Well, most of the time. I have had quite some talks with (often) managers that said had a people problem. They talked about that specific guy or girl who is not performing, is nagging or in any other way not behaving to the liking of that manager. “Martijn, what should we do with him?” is the question I then get. And more times that I would like to admit I would “help” out by trying to change that person’s behavior. And most times that would not work, not in a sustainable way anyway.

Here are the two main reasons why that did not work:

  • The situation often drives people’s behavior. They are incentivized to behave a certain way. The system which they are a part of rewards their behavior. That reward can be something they win or something they avert to lose.
  • Change is hard. People that are learning new skills, new behaviors and new routines are exhausting themselves.

With this in mind, you can look for more fruitful directions than trying to change this one person. Try these:

  • Create Causal Loop Diagrams to find out what the dynamics in the systems are. Model actions, policies, incentives and their effects to the system. Organizations are complex, as are humans. There probably is not just one way to fix your problem, so experiment with solutions.
  • Create an ABC table of behavior to find out triggers and consequences of this behavior.
  • Don’t intervene too soon, and when you do, give it time. Results of an intervention often lag and take time to manifest.

So, don’t get tempted to label something a people problem before looking at the situation.


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