Treat people like machines and they’ll work like crappy machines. Treat them like people and they’ll do their best

May 1, 2014 by Joshua
in Leadership

Years ago computers were people. That is, before we built digital computers to compute for us, businesses and projects needing long computations would hire people to compute for them. They called those people computers.

During World War II, the Manhattan Project to build the first atomic bomb had lots of hard calculations. The scientists would simplify them to simple but numerous and arduous basic calculations of addition, subtraction, and so on, which they’d give to teams of computers—often women since men were fighting.

As you might expect, they made mistakes, being human, after all. Scientists had to estimate errors based on the calculations’ complexity.

The project’s war-based secrecy kept the computers from knowing what they were working on. Imagine such a job: adding and multiplying over and over, with no meaning attached to it beyond knowing that it was secret. Dull, repetitive, meaningless work will lead to people making mistakes, working slowly, and so on because we aren’t machines.

One way to create meaning

The famous (among scientists) physicist Richard Feynman managed these human computers. Bound by wartime secrecy, he couldn’t tell them why they were working. For a long time he tried to get his managers to allow him to tell them what they were working on besides boring computations.

I understand Feynman got special permission to tell them at least something about what they were working on. Imagine your work changing from boring computations to the frontier of helping defeat Hitler and the Axis powers, to imagine you’re working to end the war earlier and bringing your community members home!

The results: people worked harder and harder and made fewer mistakes

Once their work had meaning, they worked harder, longer, and made fewer mistakes.

You aren’t working on a project with potentially millions of lives in the balance, but your work still matters to someone. The less the people you lead know it, the more their minds will look elsewhere. The more they do, the more they’ll focus on your task.

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