Stop speaking about human factors in project management

Speaking about ‘the human factor’ and ‘the human element’ in projects is no longer helpful.  The term is far too amorphous.  It’s been a useful fig leaf and it’s coming off in the wash.

I’m not blaming anyone.  There’s nothing to be ashamed of.

Stop for a moment.  Can you imagine asking an engineer to build a bridge without the laws of physics or linguist to translate without grammar?  Yet we ask project managers to deliver without a clear understanding of why people behave as they do.

Advances in neuroscience have given us an underpinning model that makes sense of the numerous strands of good leadership, people and change management practice.  We no longer need a phrase like human factors to cover for a lack of coherence.


The human factor fig leaf is falling off

Look at the 2018 ICCPM Roundtable Research Report (1)

We asked about building high performance project teams and found a recurring theme of brutal cultures and mental health issues…

It goes on to say:

“There’s often a battle rhythm characterized by cognitive overload, decision fatigue, day in day out conflict and excessive stress.  This results in poor mental health or even PTSD like symptoms …Unfortunately, leaders in these sorts of projects keep pushing and pushing – to the detriment of their own mental health and that of their teams, as well as productivity”

This happens even though the project leader’s responsibilities include monitoring staff wellbeing!

The report contrasts what many project leaders do when under pressure:

baton down the hatches, crack the whip and crank up the stress to get things done

with what the Roundtable participants say is needed when complex projects really get tough:

When we’re overloaded and stressed, rather than becoming more transactional and process driven, we need to slow down.


Slow down?  Yes, it’s counterintuitive – until you understand how the human brain works.  I’ll give you four brain essentials and explain why.


Brain Essentials

If you’re like me, the first will strike you as obvious – yet it may never have occurred to you before.

    1. Your brain’s number one function is to ensure your survival.

We’re very familiar with the notion of the fight and flight response.  We know that when we’re under extreme pressure or exposed to some kind of threat, our fight and flight response kicks in. But we only really know it in relation to physical threat.  If a car comes swerving towards us, we expect our fight and flight response to kick in.  We know we go into autopilot- we do what’s needed in order to survive.

    1. Your brain is also wired to look for social threat.

In my experience, that’s a new idea for most of us.  We don’t really talk about social threat. Whereas we do talk about physical threats – just think of our health and safety legislation.

    1. Your brain does not distinguish between physical and social threat.

I invite you to savor this for a moment.  The brain does not distinguish between physical and social threat.

    1. There are five domains of social threat, Status, Certainty, Autonomy, Relatedness and Fairness (2)


A reduction in any one of them can activate our fight/flight response, and this response can set off a series of interactions which increase complexity and impacts productivity.


Social threat and the dynamics of stress

Whilst the human brain loves certainty, complex projects are steeped in uncertainty, and the stakes are extremely high.

Picture this, you get bad news from a stakeholder.  They want to change something related to your project. Everything that seemed certain has suddenly become uncertain.  Your sharp intake of breath indicates you’ve been triggered.  Suddenly you’re anxious.

My book, Project Delivery Uncertainty and Neuroscience  talks about the part of your brain which is very rational and very logical, the Thinking brain. Any of these social threats can to some extent, or even a great extent, take your Thinking brain offline.

It doesn’t have to be rational.  There doesn’t even have to be a real threat out there.

We’re constantly scanning what’s going on around us.  We make sense of things by relating them to previous experiences which may have been threatening.  We make connections below the level of consciousness, and these dictate our responses.


The dynamics of brutal cultures

Leaders of major projects are under constant stress most of the time.  Their brains are wired to be looking out for things they need to avoid. In other words, their Thinking brains are not fully online.  And we know when our Thinking brains are not fully online we see things less clearly.  If we can’t really see what’s going on, we start making assumptions about what is actually happening.  We’re wired for survival.

The fight/ flight reflex says it all.  If we’re not going to run away, we may well start fighting.  Of course, this increases stress levels – it sets up a project stress cycle and makes a brutal culture far more brutal.

The way out of a project stress cycle, is to name it and interrupt the dynamics.  And this brings me back to the underpinning model.  We need to drop the human factor fig leaf.  Replace it with recognition that self-awareness, informed by an understanding of how the human brain works, is the KEY project management skill.


Replace human factors  with  self-awareness

Project managers need sufficient self-awareness to ask themselves at any time: ‘what is going on for me right now?’

What is going on for me, means working out ‘how you are feeling about this’.  (I use the feeling word, which doesn’t feature in many business conversations, because answering this question helps to bring our Thinking brains online.)

Once you know how you’re feeling, you can consider how other people might be feeling.  You can then move on to consider what do you have to do to bring:

  • your Thinking brain online? and
  • their Thinking brains online?

Our Thinking brains have to be online for us to collaborate well, get high performance, be creative and learn.

Brutal whip-cracking cultures constantly evoke a fight and flight response. Nobody feels good or thinks clearly.  Instead, the sub-optimal decisions and difficult social dynamics fuel complexity and performance suffers.

As I said, it’s time to stop using the human factor fig leaf and start talking about what we need to do to bring our Thinking brains online.



1. International Centre for Complex Project Management, 2018 Project Leadership – the game-changer in large scale, complex projects   Roundtable Research Report

2. Rock, D (2009) Managing with the Brain in Mind   Strategy +Business, Autumn 2009, Issue 56


A version of this post appeared in the International Centre for Complex Project Management CONNECT magazine in February 2021

Image by Anne Nygard on Unsplash