Because I’ve made a career out of using science to study the workplace, people often say to me, “Oh, you’d have a field day at my company.”
I often take the opportunity, if the person is willing, to then dig a little deeper by asking about the root causes of their workplace issues. The responses vary, of course. Sometimes it turns into a conversation about personality conflicts. Sometimes it’s about (lack of) leadership. Or about stress and lack of role clarity.
Debugging is a fact of life for software engineers. They have to identify the root causes of the errors in their code. Only then can they begin to remove the errors. The popularization of the term debugging traces back to the 1940's when a female computer scientist, Admiral “Amazing” Grace Harper, found a moth stuck in her computer.
We need to do the same with workplace problems. We have to identify the “moths.”
Easier said than done, I know. How can you find the moths if you don’t even know where to look for them?
Let’s take a huge step back.
Okay, great. In order to debug workplace problems, you first need to know what kinds of problems might exist. Then, you can begin to get closer to the root causes.
If you’ve ever taken an intro course in any subject, it may have been referred to as a survey course. It’s a course that’s designed to give you a broad, bird’s eye survey of a discipline. When creating this course, the instructor likely split it into modules, each module covering a separate category of knowledge within the discipline.
We need to take the same bird’s eye view when looking at the workplace. Intro courses in I/O Psychology, Organizational Behavior, or related fields can be valuable investments in your professional development for many reasons but here’s an overlooked one: They can provide you with a template for debugging your own workplace.
How? Here are some of the broad topics that are often covered:
- Recruitment & Hiring
- Employee Evaluation
- Training & Development
- Attitudes & Behaviors (e.g., satisfaction, engagement, deviance, altruism)
- Workplace Stress
- Affect & Emotion
- Teams & Teamwork
Use the above list as a guide to debugging people problems at work.
Maybe the problems are within your selection system — is it really designed to differentiate the mediocre from the superstars? Or maybe workers aren’t optimally engaged due to lack of proper motivation and connection with their teams. Or, perhaps everyone — including leaders — are so stressed out they can’t think straight.
So, power forth and find those moths. They may be lurking in areas you didn’t think to look.
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