Humans and their Organizations: A Psychological Design Perspective

We can think of organizations as part of systems or ecologies, but what does it mean to make them fit for humans? Today, we look at the psychology and design of organizations for humans.

An organization is much more than a group of people working together; it’s a system. The whole — the organization — is more than just the sum of its parts (people, policies, practices, resources etc.). When we treat it as a collection of parts, what we assume is a linear input-output model that is predictable and who’s value is limited to that relationship. When we treat it as a system, what we find is that an organization is a living enterprise that evolves as an organic ecology.

That view of a living enterprise might be more accurate, but it doesn’t make for simple management. It’s among the many reasons why organizations often seek to impose command-and-control management models on systems that aren’t designed for them. It provides an illusion of control. That might be comforting to some, but it’s still wrong-headed.

The implications of this is that we fail to design organizations and manage them as complex systems. Furthermore, this failure ignores fundamentals of human psychology.

Outside of pay and direct working conditions (e.g., hours, task requirements, and locations), the rest of what shapes an individual’s attachment to, performance within, and experience of an organization are multi-fold. To understand this a little more, let’s look at eight factors that shape the psychology of an organization. To do this, I’m using the metaphor of the samurai. (All of these will be articulated in future posts).

The Eight Psychological Samurai

Sumurai are warriors. Samurai belongs to a noble class of warriors with much less to do with war and more with service. Just like the samurai, there are psychological concepts that serve leaders in organizations.

Margaret Wheatley, who’s written extensively on the concept of the Warrior of the Spirit, remarks that warriorship is a means to organize ourselves (individually and collectively) to serve a higher purpose. At its most noble, this is what great organizations cultivate in their people when they bring purpose and strategy together to achieve common, worthwhile goals.

These psychological concepts can help anyone, especially leaders, understand what glues their organizations together. These same psychological samurai apply to non-profits, for-profit companies, governments, and education organizations.

These eight psychological samurai are:

  1. Purpose
  2. Social
  3. Identity
  4. Influence
  5. Space
  6. Freedom
  7. Development
  8. Accomplishment

These warriors will serve, sustain, grow, and protect an organization. Without them, an organization is vulnerable from within and outside. People don’t organize, stay, or remain loyal to an organization not designed for humans. Organizations set up for rigid systems that aren’t in line with how living systems operate will create problems for workers, leaders, and the boards and other stakeholders that support them

Designing for Humans in Living Systems

I’ve written about how we often fail to design for humans, their history, energy, or curiosity. We also treat our organizations as static objects — as if we’re creating a product like a coffee mug — rather than a living system.

An approach to design based on living systems brings together the best of what we know about adaptive strategydesign-driven evaluationsystems dynamics (in practice), complexity science, behavioural psychology and creativity. It’s a response to the challenges before us and the opportunity to generate inspiration when it’s lacking in so many areas of social life.

Cameron Norman, Censemaking

When I first wrote this I neglected to add behavioural psychology — it seemed to go without saying. Yet, the truth is that it needs saying. We don’t design for how people function in the world that often. Let’s take a look at the list of psychological samurai and illustrate how design comes into expressing all of those. (I’ll be exploring all of these in more detail in future posts).

Purpose is designed into an organization through strategic design and aligning people’s values with strategies (plans, resources, energy, and commitment) to express those values through work. It’s not just espousing some mission statement, sloganeering, or creating a marketing plan.

Our social connections represent one of the core sources for worker support, innovation, and the ability to scale up operations efficiently. When we nurture these by design, we create layers of support for ideas, people, and the organizational mission.

Much has been written on the role of aesthetics in the way work is designed and the spaces we work in. When people are attracted to the space they inhabit, they feel better and do better work. When work is deemed beautiful, they perform better and achieve more.

These are just three examples. None of these things happen by accident; they happen by design. Practically, this means being intentional about what you/we want from an organization. It means knowing and clarifying our purpose — and being willing to revisit this over time. It also means that we invest time, care, and attention in our everyday operations, planning, and resourcing to supporting our people and the systems they inhabit.

This does not need to overwhelm an organization, however it is also true that this isn’t simple. It is worthwhile. It does require what Meg Wheatley calls: steadfastness.

How is this manifest in specific actions? In future posts I’ll go through each of the eight psychological samurai and illustrate what designing for each of them looks like.

In the meantime, sharper your sword. It’s time to be steadfast.

If you’re looking to create a healthier, vibrant, high-performance organization that’s more robust and more samurai than shallow, let’s grab a coffee and talk how I can help you.

Image Credits: Getty and Michael DeMarco on Unsplash

Scroll to Top