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Systems Drive Behavior
Complex Systems and Unintended Consequences on Individual Behavior
I recently watched the Netflix documentary Take Care of Maya which is a heart wrenching story of the Kowalski family’s battle with authorities in Florida for custody of their ailing daughter after being accused of child abuse. Child Abuse Pediatrician Dr. Sally Smith is made out to be the villain in the story and without knowing anything more about Dr. Smith, it made me question was this doctor and other healthcare workers really as uncaring and manipulative as it appears or were the systems that surrounded them really to blame? I am not naive enough to think that there aren’t people who are motivated by self advancement, power, greed, etc. and are often willing to cross many lines to get what they want. However, I also fundamentally believe that the systems and incentives that surround people often drive behavior that seems in contrast with their personal nature. In this case with Maya Kowalski, did Dr. Smith get into medicine to exert power over people and break up families or did she study hard and attend medical school to help people? I suspect it was the latter and that the systems that the hospital and State of Florida put in place that drove her behavior.
One perspective that people use to understand everything from physics to human behavior is a deterministic approach where everything can be broken into sub-components. This is a very classic approach to problem solving, breaking the problem into smaller problems until they are simple to solve. This reductionist approach works really well for many applications such as when one wants to know about multiple entities, these can be studied one at a time and the acquired knowledge can then be aggregated for an understanding of the whole. This is the foundation of Newtonian physics and the position that forms the foundation for much of the research in science, including psychology. This implies that the interaction of domains such as cognition and emotion can be studied individually then together by introducing single factors at a time. Eventually determining which factor from say cognition has the largest impact on emotions or vice versa. A competing view, put forward by the biologist Ludwig von Bertalanffy in the 1940’s is known as systems theory. This was a reaction against reductionism and attempting to revive the unity of science. According to the Cambridge Dictionary of Philosophy this approach, “emphasized that real systems are open to, and interact with, their environments, and that they can acquire qualitatively new properties through emergence, resulting in continual evolution. Rather than reducing an entity (e.g. the human body) to the properties of its parts or elements (e.g. organs or cells), systems theory focuses on the arrangement of and relations between the parts which connect them into a whole (cf. holism).” In human behavior, a holistic approach was derived from Kurt Goldstein's organism theory in biology, resulting in gestalt psychology that is often contrasted with mechanistic and reductionist perspectives in psychology.
If we define a system as “a set of principles or procedures according to which something is done”, our businesses are composed of people, processes (systems), and technology (more systems). From a reductionist view we might approach a concept such as productivity from a single factor perspective. We might ask, “what factor most impacts a particular person or role’s productivity?” For call centers, we could look at how many tabs or mouse clicks each task required to accomplish. We could analyze the prioritization queue to ensure we were processing tasks in the most ideal order. I think this approach can get us pretty far but ultimately there is a limit and usually that’s when we start blaming the people. If we can’t identify another single factor for improving cycle time or throughput then it must be a personnel issue, right? In engineering, if we’ve optimized the deployment process and standardized the development process, shouldn’t we be able to compare one team to another to see which one is performing better? I’d argue absolutely not.
Our businesses are not simple machines but rather incredibly complex systems, composed of many sub-systems. A system is said to be complex if the components interact in multiple ways leading to nonlinearity, randomness, collective dynamics, hierarchy, and emergence. Our businesses fit this description in many ways including nonlinearity of output. For example, incremental changes in compensation can increase or decrease offer acceptance rates for candidates in a nonlinear fashion, where every additional 1% of compensation does not increase or decrease acceptance rates by a full 1%. Collective dynamics is another interesting phenomenon. An example of this in nature is when a school of fish transitions between a variety of swimming and swirling patterns in order to successfully evade predators. In businesses we see collective dynamics in the development or iteration of a company culture. For example, if most individuals in a company value work-life balance and systems are put in place to reinforce this concern, it can lead to a culture that prioritizes and respects this balance. Because our businesses can be contemplated as complex, nested systems, this drives employee behavior in often, less than obvious ways. Another way of phrasing this would be that the systems we put in place as they interact, often have unintended consequences.
A classic example of unintended consequences of systems is a mandate for strong passwords, to protect sensitive data. However, because the new passwords are too difficult to remember or the procedures too cumbersome, users find ways to circumvent the mechanisms, such as writing passwords on sticky notes on the monitor. The idea of unintended consequences dates back at least to John Locke who discussed the unintended consequences of interest rate regulation in his letter to Sir John Somers, Member of Parliament. Despite being wrong about the impact of a lower inflow of gold into Britain, Locke was correct about unintended consequences. Barbra Streisand found out about such consequences when she attempted to suppress photographs of her cliff-top residence in Malibu, California and as a result she has an eponymous law to remind us all of this effect.
When I see employees behaving in a way that seems outside of their nature or in a manner incongruous with stated values and principles, I try not to think, “what is wrong with the person?” Instead, I try to think, what is “wrong with the systems that are in place causing the person to behave this way?”
The Netflix documentary "Take Care of Maya" challenges us to reevaluate the deterministic approach of understanding human behavior in the context of professional conduct, inviting us to apply systems theory instead. By exploring the story of Dr. Sally Smith, it underscores the influence of systemic structures on individual actions. This highlights the importance of not reducing complex issues to a single variable, whether that be in healthcare, our businesses, or human psychology. Analyzing our businesses as complex systems rather than simplistic machines allows us to better comprehend the role of collective dynamics, emergence, and nonlinearity in influencing the conduct of individuals.
Furthermore, the notion of unintended consequences encourages us to question if the systems we establish unknowingly encourage the very behavior we are trying to mitigate. The unintended effects of these systems could indeed act as catalysts for actions that seemingly oppose an individual's nature or stated values. Therefore, it becomes necessary for us to constantly scrutinize and reevaluate the systems we put in place, and not hastily attribute behavioral anomalies to personal flaws. In this light, systems theory becomes an essential tool in the constant quest for better understanding and managing human behavior in professional settings and beyond.