Defined by Events

As human beings, we are defined by specific events in our lives.  If you ask someone about their childhood, school years, or almost any life period, events are what are described first.  We might recall a special birthday, family vacation, time spent with a friend, sporting event, or even a reoccurring pastime shared with our family.  Conversely, sometimes it is a negative event that overshadows the rest and characterizes a period in our life.  Positive or negative, these events serve as anchors in life and for better or worse block out some of the other memories that are associated with that same period of time.

Several years ago I was working in an organization that wanted to modernize its human resource operation.  As I interviewed people, most indicated that one person could account for the last 3o years of history.  At the end of my second day, I met with the “historian” of HR.  She described her years with the organization in an incredibly fascinating way with humorous stories of the different personalities and strange events.  As she spoke, I was fascinated by the details that she could remember and how each detailed related to a set of events that changed the department.  It was like listening to someone describe their life history based on o the major milestones that make up a full life.

How does this mental tendency that is present in all of us impact the workplace?

  • Research has shown that most of us form first impressions in less than 5 seconds and create a predisposition to a person in a matter of minutes.  It is really hard to overcome that initial feeling someone has once it takes root.
  • Customers usually value a product or corporation by its least favorable interaction.  Another way of putting this is that you are defined by your worst day.  I have worked with numerous community groups that defined all levels of government by their worst experience with the Department of Motor Vehicles.  Similarly, I have conducted focus groups regarding satisfaction with human resources services.  In numerous organizations, employees define the quality of service with their least favorable interaction with the human resources function.
  • Big events like downsizing, furloughs, wage cuts, reorganizations, and other large changes stay with the psyche of an organization for long periods of time.  Think how many times an employee describes the history of the organization by these events instead of positive actions taken by the firm.

As a human capital professional, how do you work within this mental tendency?

  • We must advertise the positive on a regular basis.  Employees will define their work experience by events and we need to make sure that the nature inclination to remember the negative is offset with positive events.
  • Our internal customers will judge us by their worst interaction and it may be outside of our control.  In the cases where we have to give the correct, yet unpopular answers, it is critical that we educate customers to why there was only one option.

You might have heard that a person remembers only the good things or even that a person is prone to remembering the bad.

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