The Moral Molecule

Neuroscience and economic behavior

People or Process?

Designing for performance

“Our people make us special.” We’ve all heard this many times, and it’s a sentiment that pushes organizations to concentrate on bringing in the right kind of talent. But is it true? Maybe instead we should focus on creating the right kinds of processes and structures to get the most out of whomever we hire.

I call this the “people vs. process conundrum,” and it impacts every organization.

Recently, I interviewed several dozen workers at a large manufacturing company that has a decentralized structure in which employees are empowered to decide how to do their jobs. I asked them about the people vs. process conundrum. The majority thought hiring the right people was, in fact, the key. But this company also offers extensive feedback throughout its workspaces, via computer monitors, in which individual and team goals are made public and reaching goals is praised.

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Peter Drucker (borrowing from Marshall McLuhan) wrote that “neither technology or people determines the other, but each shapes the other.” My own view is similar—that success stems from having the right people and the right processes in place.

Some companies, including the manufacturer I visited, have actually worked hard to improve the process by which they bring in people—in effect combining the two sides of the coin. The key is crowdsourcing.

With this approach, a large number of employees over the course of weeks interview various candidates, giving those who will be working with a new hire a say in how well he or she seems to fit in. Usually, a consensus opinion on suitability is reached. Such a process provides buy-in among colleagues and may lead to more rapid integration of new team members.

This isn’t just theory. My research on the brain has shown that crowdsourcing management decisions is an effective way to stimulate production of the neurochemical oxytocin, which helps build trust among team members. Trust, in turn, increases social interactions and enhances productivity.

So, take a cue from the crowdsourcing of hiring and think about people and processes evolving together, one reinforcing the other.

Paul J. Zak is a neuroeconomist at Claremont Graduate University in Claremont, CA.  His book The Moral Molecule will be published in 2012.

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