Navigating human complexity

Navigating complexity requires a mix of systems-thinking and human-centered thinking. There are a lot of different types of complexities – human, organizational, systemic. This is going to be a series exploring some different approaches to recognizing, getting comfortable with, and understanding complexity.

Navigating complexity among people and relationships

In their book Switch, Dan and Chip Heath dedicate a section of the book to the concept that when you’re facing what looks like a people problem, it’s often actually an environment or situation problem. A simple example of what this means is illustrated in an excerpt from their book: “When some guy cuts you off in traffic, you probably think, instinctively: What a jerk. (Or perhaps your inner voice is more vulgar.) What you almost certainly don’t think to yourself is, Gosh, I wonder what’s wrong that he is in such a hurry. It’s not hard to see why we don’t think that – it seems kind of naive, as if we’re making an excuse for a bad person. But think about your own behavior. Think of a time when you were driving so crazily that others would have been justified to curse you. Was your crazy driving on that day a manifestation of your true character (i.e., you’re a jerk at the core)? Or was it sparked by the situation you were in?”

When people do a bad job, lack motivation, even do bad things, we often attribute it to their character. It’s easier that way than to take the time and make the effort to try to distill the different factors that might be contributing to their actions. Navigating complexity often rears its head when you find yourself up against challenges with people, and like the excerpt shows, our knee jerk reaction is generally one of the following –they’re ignorant, they’re an idiot, or they’re evil.  But that’s too simple. People are complex, and we are all trying to navigate equally complex systems. And this doesn’t need to be just one individual person, it could be a group, or a community. The same can be said when thinking about behavior change or movement building.

So how do we shift our thinking from going to an immediate assumption of badness when we encounter people who in one way or another, aren’t living up to our expectations? You can start by practicing one part curiosity and one part human-centeredness.

Curiosity is the antidote to judgment. Taking a position of genuine curiosity necessitates the openness needed to properly excavate the situation and get to the heart of the matter. By approaching someone as a puzzle instead of thinking you already know the answer, you allow them to hold your hand as they walk your through their complexities. This is the best safeguard against incorrect assumptions. When you catch yourself assuming, or thinking you know the reason for something, ask a question instead. It’s rare to have real, straight forward conversations with people, and often they are scared to be up front, especially when it comes to their challenges. So if you take the initiative, and commit to having open, honest, curious conversations, and ask questions, what seems complex on the outside, can be decoded for you.

This aligns very much with taking a human-centered approach, where you put the person at the center and create the intervention around and for them. This isn’t about making excuses for someone, it’s about understanding why, because then, you might be able to do something productive about it. In management, for instance, it could be that they intrinsically lack motivation, or it could be that they weren’t set up for success. And if they weren’t set up for success, you have the ability to do something about it.

So next time you’re faced with a person or a group that you can’t seem to wrap your head around, instead of writing them off, realize that between human complexity, and the complex world we live in, take the time to understand, before you make your decision.

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