Cognitive ergonomics and interaction
The importance of cognitive ergonomics in expert work will increase in the future
Diversity, complexity and interdependencies challenge the way we are accustomed to picturing expert work. Expert work is more and more about joint problem solving, searching for new creative solutions and work that is done interactively. However, standardised processes, competencies and operational efficiency are still often emphasised in expert work and in developing it.
As the lifespan of already learned things and competencies becomes shorter and diversity increases, experts have to adopt a continuous process that emphasises learning to learn and mental flexibility and receptivity, along with, on the other hand, challenging your own basic assumptions. The importance of cognitive ergonomics and quality of interaction become highlighted. Cognitive ergonomics is often associated with altered work processes and environments brought about by the adoption of new technologies. In a broader sense, it also refers to the employee’s mental abilities, elasticity of the mind, openness, psychological flexibility, learning and unlearning. In the future, psychological flexibility, learning to learn, elasticity of the mind, social interaction and emotional skills, and empathy skills will be essential expert competencies. The real question is how we adapt our work processes, environments and skills to new challenges so that they support the well-being and productivity of employees.
It has been established that psychological flexibility is directly connected to workload management and work performance. Research by Bond and Bunce (2003 and 2006) shows that increased psychological flexibility has many positive effects, not only on well-being but also on work performance and learning new things at work. Flexibility is a skill that can be trained. It means knowing your own mental models and being able to adapt and change them purposefully. Our way of seeing the world defines what we are able to perceive and develop. The better understanding you have of your own mind, the smoother relations you are able to build in the work community.
Clients’ problems are solved through human interaction. In their book, Aivot Työssä, Minna Huotilainen and Katri Saarikivi discuss various studies that reveal how feelings affect the fluency of collaboration and interaction. The findings of those studies demonstrate how exposure to others’ feelings influences the behaviour and performance of the whole group.
The quality of interaction is highlighted as an important predictor of problem-solving ability.
Problem-solving ability and collective intelligence were the highest in teams where everyone had an equal right to express their opinion and the team members had good empathy skills.
Feelings affect our decision-making and tell us if things are going in the right direction. They signal our current state of being to others through bodily expression. Feelings are also highly contagious. Sometimes we do not realise what feelings and energy we bring with us to the team, affecting its atmosphere and work performance. Understanding the effects of feelings helps us build better functioning work communities and improves the quality of interaction.
A positive outlook and atmosphere open the mind to new possibilities, whereas stress makes us resort to old and safe options. In a famous study by Google, the most important predictor of team success was psychological safety. Psychological safety gave people the courage to present unfinished thoughts and make mistakes, and gave them a feeling that they could talk about personal matters as well. In many ways, our brain is still that of a hunter-gatherer. Recognising threats and reacting to them swiftly is the key to success.
Fight or flight is still a typical response to both physical and psychological threats. In this state, your focus and decision-making perspective become narrower, you are not able to come up with fresh ideas, and your cooperation and empathy skills are weakened. If there are factors in the workplace that constantly trigger a fight or flight response in employees, you should try to determine what is causing this feeling of threat and how it could be reduced. Such factors could be, for example, constant criticism, assessment or authoritarian leadership style, or your own learned interpretation and reaction models.
Therefore, it would be useful to discuss within the work community: How do we understand work and efficiency? How does our organisation support intelligent work and cognitive ergonomics of work?
About Jaana Kilpimaa
Senior Advisor, Azets. Jaana has more than 15 years of experience in change and reform projects. Jaana’s areas of expertise include also leadership development on both organisational and individual levels.