Talia Jane’s recent posting, along with all of the commentary in response, reinforces how amazing and complicated people really are.  We all have stories and we are all misunderstood.  And many of us have pitch-perfect insight into the hearts and minds of others – or so we think.

The truth is that few among us have deep expertise in knowing others’ feelings and experiences.  Most of us are actually very easily fooled by the weakness of our presumed expertise.  Decades of research in psychology shows that almost everyone is subject to all kinds of errors and biases in explaining behavior – that of others, and that of ourselves.

For example, we tend to overestimate the degree to which others’ actions reflect their true, internal dispositions, and we are quick to dismiss the possibility that outside forces cause people to do the things they do.  Yet, when it comes to explaining our own (bad) behaviors, it is usually chalked up to forces beyond our control and not reflecting our true, inner self.  And how many of us gladly take the credit for positive outcomes that were really nothing more than good luck?

As her employer, it should make you wonder if you’ve failed to understand something important about those you employ and on whom you depend to run your business.  Is it possible that you don’t really understand and know the people who work for you?  And can your poor understanding be hurting your business?  The answer to both questions is almost surely, yes.

We use research to inform many of our business decisions.  What will be the consumer demand for our product?  Research will tell you.  What is the best material for our product?  Research will tell you.  How durable or reliable will the product be?  Research will tell you.  What do our employees really feel and think about working here? Research will tell you.

That’s right.  We can understand a lot about the people who work for us – and those who might want to work for us – by doing research.  By using the methods of social and behavioral science, we can gain a faithful and unbiased understanding of the hearts and minds of people.  What makes them happy and productive?  What makes them stay, and what makes them leave?  How can we best attract the top talent to our company?  Research will tell you.

Questionnaires, surveys, and quick “pulse checks” are among the methods commonly used to assess employee attitudes, opinions, and perceptions.  These methods provide a nice demographic snapshot of the workforce, but they tend to trade depth for breadth (a mile wide but only an inch deep).  To really understand people, you need to consider the full social and cultural context of their lives – at work and at home.  You need to let them express themselves in their own words, on their own turf, and in safe environments.

When marketing researchers want to test consumer acceptance of products, they conduct focus groups.  When anthropologists want to understand social interaction and culture, they spend time with the group and record what they see.  When employers are considering who to hire, they conduct personal interviews.

These are the methods of social science.  When the goal is to dig deeper, to understand just how amazing and complicated people really are, and how work interacts with the broader social and personal contexts of employee’s lives, research will tell you.

Steve Breckler is the Research Director for exaqueo, a workforce consultancy that helps organizations build their cultures, employer brands and talent strategies. Contact exaqueo to learn more about our employer brand innovation, workforce research, and recruiting strategy offerings.

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