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What I learned about humans by building robots and how it can help create a better workplace

Until you have built a robot, it may be hard to appreciate just how capable, adaptable, resilient, intelligent, and dexterous humans are. Many of our human capabilities are taken for granted because they’re natural to us.

What I learned about humans by building robots and how it can help create a better workplace
[Blue Planet Studio / Adobe Stock]

For decades, Hollywood has made robots and humans out to be close cousins. In addition to being tireless, methodical, and precise, robots have been presented as self-aware beings that think, reason, feel, and even love. These human-like robots may become heroes or villains that enslave or exterminate us. Think Westworld or Ex Machina. Rest assured that it’s all lies. Humans aren’t robots, and robots aren’t human.

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HUMAN BRAINS ARE WIRED DIFFERENTLY

Until you have built a robot, it may be hard to appreciate just how capable, adaptable, resilient, intelligent, and dexterous humans are. Many of our human capabilities are taken for granted because they’re natural to us. Something as simple as picking up a cup of coffee without spilling is beyond most robots, yet humans do it daily without a second thought.

The human brain, however, cannot be programmed the same way robots can. Humans often tire quickly of doing the same thing over and over. It helps to understand that the human brain, which evolved over millions of years, has two major modes of operation:

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  1. I don’t feel safe because something is going to attack me, which causes stress, anxiety, panic, and a tendency toward fight or flight.
  2. I do feel safe which allows for deeper thinking, creativity, higher productivity, fun, and caring for others.

The modern work environment has barely existed for a century, yet our brains are still running that millions-of-years-old software. Most humans today aren’t worried about getting eaten by a saber-tooth tiger, but we do worry about what a co-worker is saying about us or if we are going to pass a performance review. That anxiety creates the same physiological responses as if a saber-tooth tiger was lurking in the bush about to eat us.

The problem with this modern anxiety is that we can’t escape it. Because these threats are more abstract, they can linger with us 24/7 while the tiger-fear-induced stress goes away when the threat is gone. This constant stress can wreak havoc on our health, happiness, and productivity. So, how can we prevent this?

THE IMPORTANCE OF BUILDING A TRUST NETWORK

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One of the most effective ways to help people feel safe is through sincere praise, as research has shown that people need over five times more positive feedback than constructive feedback for higher performance. Building a great company requires a great team of dedicated humans who need constructive feedback to learn and grow and achieve their potential.

But this ratio of positive to critical feedback presents a problem. Positive feedback seems hard to come by because we tend to take the good for granted and focus on the negative. Instead, start showing gratitude to those around you for the good work they do. Then, when constructive feedback is required, it can be a positive learning experience rather than a toxic, stress-inducing, new-job-search type of situation.

Positive feedback should be presented publicly as often as possible and critical feedback should only be given in private with the sincere desire to help the person. There is never an appropriate time to give critical feedback to someone in front of their peers. That can create a toxic environment, and people may start watching their backs instead of doing amazing work.

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It’s also important to remember that positive feedback shouldn’t be a strictly top-down process. Praise needs to be given and received in all directions. Feedback from peer to peer and manager to manager can be far more helpful and effective than the obligatory feedback from a manager.

Building those relationships based on positive feedback and non-stressful, fun work events can be a huge benefit. Workers can be more efficient when they have solid, natural, enjoyable working relationships than if everything is kept coldly professional, which doesn’t feel safe. In fact, it can make it feel like another saber-tooth-tiger situation.

If you haven’t invested in creating a safe work environment and a network of trust, when a problem rears its head, it may be easier to disintegrate instead of rallying. The bottom line is that for someone to be happy and achieve great things, they should feel safe, valued, appreciated for their contributions, and cared about as a person.

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HUMANS NEED TO EMBRACE CONFLICT

When things go poorly, workplaces can easily feel like a battlefield. Even when giving and receiving plenty of positive feedback, there will be challenges. By understanding our own needs and triggers, we can have a chance to manage issues effectively.

A flight instinct (running away from a threat) doesn’t serve leaders well for dealing with modern work problems. If we ignore or hide from the problem, we can create an unsafe work environment. Humans need to “steer into the pain” to find resolutions. This generally means some sort of conflict, which is an important part of a high-performance team. If someone says or does something that negatively affects you or your team, it is important to not bottle it up but to care enough about yourself and the other parties involved to suffer short-term discomfort to achieve long-term safety.

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One way to bring these concepts into focus is to discuss our value-to-drama ratio—how much value we create for our coworkers compared to the drama we bring them. Since we are humans, our drama level will always be somewhere above zero. But when not kept in check, the team’s ability to do good work can be quickly damaged, often beyond repair.

This is one area where we should be more like robots that are mostly drama-free (excluding the Hollywood robots, of course). In all seriousness, if we spend time reflecting on how much value we bring to our work versus the amount of drama we create, we have a chance of self-correcting. If we learn to do that, we can watch our careers soar.

So, what is the main difference between humans and robots? Humans matter. If we forget that, we might as well let robots rise up and overthrow us.

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Daniel Theobald is Founder and Chief Innovation Officer of Vecna Robotics, the leader in flexible material handling automation solutions.

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