Think Leadership Ideas

People Are Not Machines

Time to crank up production? Get this place running like a well-oiled machine?

The machine continues to be the dominant metaphor of the workplace – meaning we tend to relate to our working world as if it was a machine. We have plenty of experiences each day that reinforce this perception of life-as-machine: We step on the gas pedal and our cars move faster. We push a button and documents get efficiently copied – maybe even on both sides, collated, and stapled.

I continue to be approached by executives looking for that metaphorical lever, pedal, dial, or button that will motivate people, get them to change, or increase morale. It’s the wrong thing to be looking for because it’s the wrong metaphor.

Let’s start by acknowledging that people aren’t machines. We know this because:

• People have their own intentions, goals, will, and purpose that drive thinking and behavior;

• People have an unlimited range of possible thinking and behavior responses;

• The range of thinking and behavior responses people have can continuously increase through learning.

It is true that most of a person’s thinking and behavior is on “auto-pilot”. According to some experts, 95% of what we do occurs outside of our awareness. And perhaps these automatic responses are what fool us into thinking people can be operated and adjusted like machines.

So what are the implications of this information for leaders who rely on human thinking, knowledge, and behavior to create value in their organization?

• Performance will always be less than optimal unless the organizational goals are aligned with individual goals. Create opportunities to assess, discuss, and align organizational and personal goals. This is valuable at any time, but is especially relevant when bringing people on board.

• There is always a creative tension between structure and freedom. Structure is absolutely needed to focus people’s range of behavior and direct those items that are on “auto-pilot”. That being said, management cannot be fully reduced to a codified set of rules. I know of no organization that would flourish if everyone simply did what was in their job description. Figuring out the best structure that fits your people and organization is an important undertaking.

• Competency in human relationships – call it soft-skills, emotional intelligence, likeability, or people sense – is a fundamental ingredient to bringing out talent. As it’s been demonstrated, with the right experiences, people can continuously improve relationship skills. This too is an important investment.

• The context in which people work matters, and matters significantly. Many organizations undervalue the impact of company culture and environment, even though these factors are huge drivers of that 95% of behavior and thinking that occurs on auto-pilot. Attention to creating environments and cultivating a company culture that is congruent with company objectives can have far-reaching results.

Cultivate is the word to emphasize. When it comes to people, think cultivate like a garden, not operate like a machine. There are no magic levers or buttons when aligning personal and organizational goals, establishing the right structure, increasing interpersonal competencies, and attending to the organization’s culture. But all these activities can have tremendous influence on the level of performance your people give to the organization. Cultivate goals, structure, skill, and culture with care, and watch the value from the people in your organization grow.

by Tom Stevens (c)2007
Tom Stevens helps individuals and organizations create brilliant futures and make a difference. To contact him, visit

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